The Vietnam War in New Zealand
The Vietnam War led to enormous political and public debate in New Zealand about its foreign policy and place in the world.
A strategic decision
New Zealand decided to send troops to Vietnam in 1965 because of Cold War concerns and alliance considerations. The potential adverse effect on the ANZUS alliance of not supporting the United States (and Australia) in Vietnam was key. It also upheld New Zealand's national interests of countering communism in South-East Asia.The government wanted to maintain solidarity with the United States, but was unsure about the likely outcome of external military intervention in Vietnam. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake decided to keep New Zealand involvement in Vietnam at the minimum level deemed necessary to meet allied expectations. New Zealand could not do much more - its meagre military resources were already stretched in Malaya and conscription was out of the question.
New Zealand's military involvement in Vietnam may have been modest, but debate about that was not. As the war went on, protest about New Zealand's role grew. An anti-Vietnam War movement challenged the whole philosophy underlying New Zealand's national security policies, and the benefits and consequences of its alliances.
New Zealand opponents of the war took their cue from anti-war movements elsewhere, especially in the United States. There was opposition on moral grounds, for reasons ranging from pacifist convictions to objections to the weapons being used or to the undemocratic character of the South Vietnamese government. Importantly, New Zealand anti-war activists wanted a more 'independent' foreign policy not submissive to that of the United States. Their self-consciously nationalistic critique challenged the most basic principles underpinning the country's post-war security policies.
The anti-war movement grew during the closing stages of the Vietnam War. 'Mobilisations' of the early 1970s saw thousands in major centres march in protest against the war. All New Zealand troops in Vietnam were volunteer regular personnel, so the protest movement did not have an anti-conscription edge, as in Australia or the United States. By the latter stages of the war, the anti-war movement merged with other major issues – women's rights, the anti-apartheid movement – and spawned what some have termed the 'Vietnam Generation'.
Impact of protest
The anti-war movement had little impact on government policy. But it caused the government to mount a detailed public defence of its stance on Vietnam. It stressed that it was keeping treaty obligations and upholding the principles of collective security so important to New Zealand since the Second World War. In the end, changing American policy, rather than protest activity, led the New Zealand government to begin its own phased withdrawal of troops.
The conflict and the anti-war movement ushered in a new era of debate about New Zealand's place in the world. There were calls for a more 'independent' foreign policy that was not submissive to the United States. New Zealand's stand on Vietnam showed major differences between the two major political parties, National and Labour. The former accepted the need for 'forward defence' and regional alliances, but Labour leaders wanted new thinking in foreign policy to allow New Zealand to follow a more independent course in world affairs.