Overview of the war in Vietnam
New Zealand combat troops entered what would become their country's longest and most controversial war in July 1965. By the time New Zealand withdrew its combat troops in 1971, around 3500 had served there; 187 were wounded and 37 died. Two civilians serving with the surgical or Red Cross teams also lost their lives.
Sending the troops
In May 1965 Prime Minister Keith Holyoake announced that New Zealand would send a combat unit to join the United States-led coalition in South Vietnam. There were already New Zealanders serving in Vietnam: a 25-strong non-combatant engineer unit had been sent in 1964. The gunners of 161 Battery RNZA were the first New Zealand troops in action. On 16 July 1965 they fired their first shot into the infamous War Zone D, near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Their objective would be to assist the South Vietnamese government to defeat the Viet Cong, who, backed by the North Vietnamese government, aimed to bring it down and unify the country by force.
Cold War politics
The struggle in Vietnam was essentially a civil war. Even so, it was part of the Cold War, that conflict between the Soviet Union and its former wartime allies in the West that had dominated international politics since 1945.
New Zealand certainly saw the fighting in Cold War terms. It was firmly committed to the Western Allies' policy of containment of the Soviet Union and its proxies, but was reluctant to become involved in Vietnam. Officials and politicians in Wellington had doubts about the prospects of success in defending South Vietnam. With substantial forces stationed in Malaysia (in strife with Indonesia), New Zealand had few resources to spare for Vietnam without introducing conscription.
Holyoake's government feared that a failure to at least fly the flag with its major allies – the United States and Australia – would harm the ANZUS alliance. And it believed New Zealand's long-term security depended on this alliance. While making a small contribution available for Vietnam, New Zealand still preferred to concentrate on Malaysia.
New Zealand's commitment
Washington pressured New Zealand to expand its commitment. It finally sent two infantry companies (V and W Companies, RNZIR), an SAS detachment (4 Troop, NZSAS), and a tri-service medical team (1st New Zealand Services Medical Team). About 60 personnel were made available for service in 1st Australian Logistic Support Group, including the first of nine nurses who served in 1st Australian Field Hospital. The peak strength of V Force was 543 men and women. From 1966 New Zealand units were integrated within the 1st Australian Task Force, the gunners joining an Australian field regiment, the infantrymen forming part of an Anzac battalion and the SAS serving in an Australian SAS squadron. Most were based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province. A small number of RNZAF personnel also served as helicopter pilots or forward air controllers.
Alongside its military effort, New Zealand also tried to alleviate suffering among the civilian population caused by the war. A surgical team served at the provincial hospital in Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh province from 1963 to 1975. The New Zealand Red Cross also sent teams to South Vietnam to assist refugees between 1968 and 1975.
The American effort was run down after 1968. New Zealand also progressively withdrew its combat units – all were gone by the end of 1971. A training team (1st New Zealand Army Training Team) was deployed to undertake leadership courses for South Vietnamese territorial forces in 1971, and another (2nd New Zealand Army Training Team) followed early in 1972 to help train Cambodian troops. Both teams were withdrawn in December 1972.