Some excitement was generated in the Australian press around 15 August when it was reported that the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan would be commemorated by Australians at the site of the battle at a rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy Province. So it was – by a small and subdued group of ex-diggers with no medals, uniforms, ANZAC pomp nor post-ceremonial piss-up, nor even a brass band or bagpipes. Festive crowds of Australian tourists who wanted to go were not allowed. In fact the event may not have gone ahead at all but for some eleventh hour pleading by Prime Minister Turnbull to his opposite number in Hanoi.
Long Tan happened from 18 to 21 August 1966, when soldiers from Australia’s first Task Force at the new Australian base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province clashed with a much larger force of Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Eighteen Australians were killed, along with an uncounted but much larger number of Vietnamese. The Australians were supported by artillery and helicopters, and the battle was claimed as a victory by the Australians.
We can well imagine what the Vietnamese think about the clash, those who remember it. To the majority, the Vietnam War was a civil war, in which nationalistic Vietnamese were fighting to rid themselves of an unpopular and corrupt regime in the South propped up by the United States. The Geneva Agreement of 1954 specified that elections were to have been held throughout the country in 1956. Ho Chi Minh would certainly have won, and the country, temporarily divided at the 17th parallel following the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, would have been peacefully united under him. But the South Vietnamese regime under Ngo Dinh Diem refused to participate, the 17th parallel became a permanent border, and the war resumed. Millions of civilians and military were killed before Saigon fell to Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces at the end of April 1975.
The United States militarily and politically backed the South Vietnamese regime until widespread popular objection throughout America made further support for the South unsustainable. US forces largely withdrew in 1972, leaving the South to fight on alone.
Under Robert Menzies, Australia joined the United States in sending forces to South Vietnam from the early 1960s, first military advisers, then Australian battalions. These were first based with the Americans, then given a province of their own, Phuoc Tuy, to defend and pacify. Long Tan was the most costly engagement by Australian forces in that long war. The diggers involved conducted themselves with typical laconic professionalism. It helped that they had air cover and artillery support. But like all Australia’s efforts in the war, it was more a premium payment on an insurance policy for American assistance under the ANZUS Treaty than a genuine attempt to stop Communist ‘expansion’. Yes, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day in 1978, but only to stop the madman Pol Pot from continually invading Vietnam and torching Vietnam villages. Despite Thai rhetoric that the Vietnamese forces were only four hours tank drive from Bangkok, Vietnam never planned or desired the acquisition of more territory, much less sought it on behalf of the Communist leadership in Beijing or Moscow.
The civil nature of the Vietnam War and the fact that outside forces led by the United States were unwelcome did not stop ex diggers expecting the usual recognition for their gallantry, nor the ANZAC industry from demanding the same. As with all wars involving Australians, this one was overseas, and little thought was given to its rights or wrongs, to the outcome, or how much damage was being sustained in the host country. In pressing for a commemoration to be held where the battle took place shows a degree of insensitivity towards the host country by the RSL.
What is surprising is that, given the bitterness of the war and the enormous number of civilians killed by US forces and their allies, the Vietnamese Government in Hanoi permits Australian celebrations of Long Tan to take place at all. But in my experience, they are very pragmatic. Australia is a good trading partner and it is useful to keep Australians on side. Allowing them to celebrate a battle and a defeat of larger enemy forces on Vietnamese soil costs little, brings in tourists, and does not upset the burgeoning bilateral relationship, as their compromise with Malcolm Turnbull shows.
An earlier version of this article appears in www. honesthistory.net.au
Richard Broinowski was Australian Ambassador to Vietnam from 1983 to 1985.