December 1972: This month last century

Thirty-nine years ago, the last New Zealand forces withdraw from Vietnam (22 December 1972)

New Zealand combat troops were in Vietnam from 1965 until 1972. This military support was underpinned by New Zealand’s defence obligations to the USA, an ANZUS treaty partner from 1951.

Fewer than 4000 New Zealanders were in Vietnam over this period of seven-and-a-half years. It was New Zealand’s longest war, yet the number of people involved in it was minimal compared to the two world wars.

Official political support remained consistent for the duration of the war, until the election of Norman Kirk’s Labour Government in 1972. Beyond political, diplomatic, and military circles, the war had increasingly generated heated public debate. One of the questions asked was: did the USA have the right to intervene in Vietnam, in what essentially was a civil war?

Protest flag, 1967, Wellington. Jeremy Lowe. Gift of Jeremy Lowe, 2007. Te Papa

Protest flag, 1967, Wellington. Jeremy Lowe. Gift of Jeremy Lowe, 2007. Te Papa

Like advocates of civil and human rights, opponents to the war were not afraid to make their views visible in public through demonstrations. The flag pictured above was made and used in a protest by Jeremy Lowe, a member of the Committee on Vietnam, in 1967. The image below shows anti-Vietnam War protesters, one of a number taken by photographer Ans Westra.

Anti Vietnam war demonstration, Early 1970s, Wellington. Ans Westra. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

Anti Vietnam war demonstration, Early 1970s, Wellington. Ans Westra. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa

However, historian Roberto Rabel notes:

‘the debate precipitated by the Vietnam War was not merely about a tragic conflict in a distant Asian country or the correctness about American policy, but brought to prominence competing visions of the role New Zealand should play in the world’. (Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, p. 564).

In the 1980s, a nuclear-free vision would pose a serious threat to New Zealand’s ally, the USA.

Badge, ’ANZUS’, 1980s, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Gift of Anne Else, 2004. Te Papa

Badge, ’ANZUS’, 1980s, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Gift of Anne Else, 2004. Te Papa

Find more details about the Vietnam War, including its details, on New Zealand History Online (nzhistory.net.nz).

Visit the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s website dedicated to the memory of New Zealand and the Vietnam War.

Read more about New Zealand’s late 20th century international relations and foreign policy, on the Slice of Heaven mini-site.

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