May 1965 – This month last century

47 years ago  Keith Holyoake announced that New Zealand would send a combat unit to Vietnam to support the US-led coalition fighting there (24 May 1965).

The Right Hon. Keith J. Holyoake C.H. circa 1965, New Zealand. William Dargie (1912-2003). Gift of Sir Henry Kelliher, 1967. © Te Papa.

The Right Hon. Keith J. Holyoake C.H. circa 1965, New Zealand. William Dargie (1912-2003). Gift of Sir Henry Kelliher, 1967. © Te Papa.

This is a portrait of the National party Prime Minister Keith Holyoake who, at the end of May 1965, announced that a combat unit from New Zealand would be deployed to Vietnam. This was the 161st Battery RNZA, a four-gun field artillery battery. Originally comprising of around 120 men, the battery’s strength was increased to six guns in 1966.

Although medical staff and military engineers had already been posted to Vietnam, this represented New Zealand’s first military commitment to what would be the country’s longest and most controversial military engagement of the twentieth century.

Between 1964 and 1972, a total of 3,500 New Zealanders served in what amounted to  Vietnam’s civil war.

Yet it was the Cold War, and containing communism in South East Asia, that partly explained New Zealand’s presence there. The Prime Minister  had to balance this objective with the country’s existing and ongoing military commitment to the Malayan Emergency. The number of New Zealand combatants was kept to a minimum, while also meeting the expectations of the USA and Australia, New Zealand’s partners in the ANZUS defence treaty.

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

Protests escalated as Holyoake responded to increased pressure from the United State by expanding New Zealand’s military commitment in 1967. Photographer Ans Westra documented many of the street protests that demonstrated this growing opposition to the war, and New Zealand’s involvement in it, including the image shown above.

Read more about the broad diplomatic context of New Zealand and the Vietnam War on the exhibition website: Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa.

There are also further details about the war on NZHistory.net.nz and a related website dedicated to memories of New Zealand and the Vietnam War

Reference:

Roberto Rabel, ‘’Vietnam War’, in Ian MacGibbon, ed., The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, Oxford, 2000.

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