Book launch - "NZ and the Vietnam War:Politics and Diplomacy" at the Grand Hall, Parliament

  • Helen Clark
Prime Minister

It’s now forty years since New Zealand first sent combat forces to the war in Vietnam. Over 3500 New Zealanders served in the Vietnam War; 37 lost their lives and nearly 200 were wounded. Others still suffer the after effects.

An earlier generation of political leaders made the decision to send the troops. Today’s political leaders, many of whom strongly opposed New Zealand’s involvement in the war, must now deal with the longer term fall out for those who served.

New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War aroused considerable public debate — as the war did around the world. The early 1970s saw mass protest on the streets as New Zealanders mobilised against the war; 35,000 people took part in one march in April 1971. Many of those opposed said the war was a civil war in which New Zealand should play no part. Many wanted New Zealand to chart its own, independent path in foreign policy, instead of following the decisions of others.

Why New Zealand sent troops to Vietnam, why people opposed that decision, and why the government of the day discounted criticism of its decision, are the key questions tackled in this book: New Zealand and the Vietnam War: Politics and Diplomacy, written by Dr Roberto Rabel from the University of Otago.

The Vietnam War was this country’s longest and most controversial military engagement of the last century. While the troop commitment was relatively small, New Zealand’s involvement in the war had a decisive and long-lasting impact on subsequent policy-making and debate about our foreign and defence policies. Roberto Rabel judges it to have been an ‘historically significant experience for the making of New Zealand foreign policy’.

The world of forty years ago is scarcely recognisable today. It was largely polarised by Cold War tensions between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. China was a sleeping giant.

In New Zealand government circles at the time, a strategy of “forward defence” in Asia was judged to be very important. South East Asia was seen as a series of dominoes, set to tumble as communism spread. In this view of the world, the dominoes could have tumbled all the way to New Zealand. Defence Minister Dean Eyre told Parliament in 1964 that if communism was allowed to spread, then it was “only a matter of time before New Zealand and Australia were directly threatened”.

New Zealand’s major allies of the time, the United States and Australia were committed to the war. For the government of Keith Holyoake, alliances were directly linked to national interests. Not supporting these allies would have been unthinkable to him, for that would have challenged the entire basis on which New Zealand’s post-war national security doctrine rested.

Thus Keith Holyoake’s government opted to take New Zealand into the war. It supported its allies by making the troop commitment, but it kept the commitment relatively small. Holyoake himself is said to have had doubts about the efficacy of any intervention at all. When asked about his position on the war in 1968, he responded ‘I’m certainly not a “hawk’, nor a “dove”, perhaps somewhere in between’ – hardly a ringing endorsement of his government’s involvement.

In some respects Vietnam was ‘the officials’ war’, and it can be inferred from this book that they may have been more hawkish than the politicians. The book is rich with detail about the views of diplomats and senior staff in the then Department of External Affairs — and I am pleased to see some from that era here today.

Over time, New Zealand’s involvement in the war came to be more unpopular throughout the country. This was the time of the Committees on Vietnam, and of the Peace, Power and Politics conference. While opposition to the war was slow to start, with apathy initially outweighing support or opposition, it eventually mobilised many New Zealanders from all walks of life.

Holyoake’s government was generally deaf to the arguments of protestors, but did pay close attention to evolving public opinion. Throughout the conflict, the government was obliged by its critics to mount an unprecedented public relations campaign in defence of its stance.

The longer term significance of the debate over New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam was that it broke the largely bipartisan consensus about foreign policy and defence issues.

It stimulated debate about the need for an independent foreign policy, where New Zealand made its own judgements rather than following those made by others.

In that sense, the debate over Vietnam, culminating in Norman Kirk’s government bringing the troops home from Vietnam, set the scene for New Zealand declaring itself nuclear free in the mid 1980s and declining to become involved in the war in Iraq in the early 21st century.

Roberto Rabel tells the complex story of New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War in a balanced and measured way. I recommend the book to all interested in the evolution of our nation’s foreign policy.

This book was commissioned by the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, which has now become the History Group in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and which I am proud to have responsibility for.

The New Zealand Government has long been proactive in commissioning and publishing war histories. Indeed this is the fourth we have launched this year, and there are more to come including a companion volume on the story of New Zealand’s combat forces in Vietnam.

It is important to me to encourage interest in our culture and heritage, and to know more about the people and events which have shaped our nation. This volume on Vietnam enhances our understanding of our history and our world. It enables us to see how the patterns of the past have shaped those of the present.

My thanks go to the publisher, Auckland University Press; to Martin Matthews and the team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, for their ongoing commitment to these historical projects; and to author Roberto Rabel. It now gives me great pleasure to launch New Zealand and the Vietnam War: Politics and Diplomacy.