Vietnamisation – pulling out
The Tet offensive of February 1968 is regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong mounted a series of attacks on major centres throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong suffered enormous losses, it was a psychological and propaganda victory for them. Surprised at the Viet Cong’s ability to orchestrate such major attacks across the country, including an assault on the American embassy, many in the United States began to disbelieve assurances that the war was being won.
The fallout from Tet also led the United States President, Lyndon Johnson, to announce that he would not seek re-election. He was succeeded by Richard Nixon who won office in November 1968. In 1969 Nixon announced that the withdrawal of American troops was a priority. In a policy known as ‘Vietnamisation’ the number of United States combat troops was gradually reduced and their places were taken by soldiers in an expanded South Vietnamese army. But the United States continued to provide assistance by supplying weapons, further training for the South Vietnamese army, and naval and aerial support for South Vietnamese soldiers on operations.
Tet had had its effect. In May 1968, just 4 months later, peace talks attended by representatives of North and South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the United States, opened in Paris. Australia’s Government, having followed the United States lead in Vietnam, was now in the position of having to also enunciate a strategy for withdrawal. In April 1970 the Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, announced that the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (8RAR) would not be replaced when its tour of Vietnam ended in November. This followed a United States Government announcement that more than 180,000 Americans would be withdrawn and, more importantly, that a complete American withdrawal would follow.
Vietnamisation meant that the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) would double in size, necessitating additional military trainers and resulting in an expanded role for the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) whose numbers increased in the final phase of the war. However, the ARVN was ill-equipped and unable to match the North Vietnamese Army in the field. Early in 1971 Australia’s Joint Intelligence Organisation, reporting on the progress of Vietnamisation, described the ARVN as ‘uneven in quality’ and suffering from poor leadership. Australian military officials in Phuoc Tuy and Saigon reported that the local ARVN would meet significant difficulties once the Australian Task Force’s battalions left. To add to the gloomy outlook, few South Vietnamese had any confidence in their own government which was regarded as corrupt and incompetent.
The biggest mistake was the failure to go about a fair dinkum approach of boosting the South Vietnamese Army in the early stages, giving them a fair allocation of helicopters and artillery and the like, and above all else comprehensive training. Subsequently, after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and after President Nixon replaced President Johnson in early 1969, the catch-cry went up that ‘Vietnamisation would turn things around’ and a huge effort was attempted, finally, to boost the South Vietnamese Army. It was too little, too late.’
[Tim Fischer, 1 RAR in Vietnam: our war – our peace, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, pp. 128-129]
Australia’s last two battalions to serve in Vietnam, the 3rd and 4th Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR and 4RAR) arrived in 1971. In August that year the Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, announced that the remainder of the Task Force would be withdrawn at the end of 1971. 3RAR returned home in October 1971 followed in December by 4RAR and the Royal Australian Air force’s No. 9 Squadron. Some logistics personnel and the last of No. 35 Squadron’s Caribou aircraft left early in 1972.
Second Lieutenant Bill Denny, 86 Transport Platoon, RAASC, was with one of the last Australian units to leave Vietnam in February 1972.
We were going home… Walking through empty buildings, this seemed a special moment in time – doors banging in the wind and the base eerily deserted. Vietnamese workers were crying and distressed. I lied to them, reassuring them that we would be back ‘if the VC come’. As it turned out, the Viet Cong did come – four weeks later – but we were never going to go back. I never really got over the friends I lost in Vietnam, nor the desertion of those we had so comprehensively fought to support and protect. The last of us formed the final convoy and headed down to De Long Pier, then by landing craft out to HMAS Sydney.
[ Bill Denny, in Vietnam: our war – our peace, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 2006 pp 48-49 ]
In April Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces launched an offensive across the South. United States airpower, rather than the ARVN, stopped the North Vietnamese. A massive United States bombing campaign against the North followed in December 1972. In 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army again launched a major offensive against the South, the ARVN forces, this time without United States air support or supplies, were overwhelmed. South Vietnam descended into chaos as civilians fled and thousands of ARVN troops and officers deserted. RAAF personnel returned to Vietnam during these fraught days to help evacuate civilians and transport humanitarian supplies. They counted among their number the last Australian service personnel to leave Vietnam. The South capitulated in late April 1975, bringing the war in Vietnam to an end and ushering in an era of Communist rule.
My wife and I travelled by train from Hanoi to Hue some years ago and, awake early in the morning, I watched the countryside pass by. I was amazed at the number of war cemeteries increasing the closer we came to Hue; the size of them also increased. I have never yet been to France and Belgium to visit the war cemeteries there but my extensive reading and photos of that war seemed to me to be similar to those I saw in Vietnam.
The wastage of Vietnamese lives fought over the merely symbolic old palace of the emperors must have been enormous as presumably only the recoverable bodies were buried. Was Tet worth it? Sure but the “victory” came at unbelievable cost.