Australian media and the Vietnam War: Great Debates
Our Great Debates series is designed to help teachers investigate how wars and conflicts have affected Australians. This classroom resource presents the motion that the Australian media influenced the general public's perceptions of the Vietnam War. Students can use the background information and source material to explore the topic and debate the motion from either the affirmative or negative point of view.
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The affirmative case
The Cold War began after the Second World War. America and its allies were suspicious of Russia and China and their communist way of life. There was a belief that people lost their rights and freedoms in communist societies. The Australian government was concerned about the increasing communist influence in Vietnam. That concern was related to the 'Domino Theory'. The theory suggested that communism was going to spread through South East Asia. One by one the countries in the region would 'fall' to communiAlliessm. People believed that Australia's national security could be threatened in that case. The Australian government responded to the theory by joining American military forces in Vietnam.
The 'Domino Theory' was not just important to the Australian government. People in Australia were becoming aware of it as well. Australian citizens began to think about how communism might affect them if it came to Australia. There were concerns about how personal rights and freedoms might be lost if Australia became a communist country. The Australian government in the early 1960s was aware of those concerns. There was an advantage in using the fears of the Australian public for political gain. Joining the Americans in Vietnam would be easier if many Australians were concerned about the spread of communism. The media could reinforce the anxiety Australians might have felt about the communist threat in Vietnam.
Media representations of the Viet Cong reinforced public concerns about communism. Media coverage increased peoples fear of the Viet Cong. Many Australians didn't know anything about them. That lack of knowledge was important to the Australian government. Many Australians saw the war in Vietnam as a way to meet the threat of the Viet Cong. They thought that communism needed to be stopped from taking over South East Asian countries.
Australian media organisations reported on the fierce fighting in Vietnam. The Australian governments policies benefited from the media coverage. Australians saw the gains and losses of the Australian troops via newspapers and television. The losses kept some Australians in fear of the 'Domino Theory'. That fear would increase as the war progressed. The outcome seemed uncertain.
A 3-minute excerpt from a 5-minute Australian Labor Party (ALP) television commercial for the 1966 federal election.
The commercial was made so that the ALP could present its policy on the Vietnam War.
'On the other hand Labor Party policy as expounded by Mr Arthur Calwell, Leader of the Opposition, provided no acceptable alternative, initiatives taken by the small but active group of Communists, by an important and vocal section of dissenting intellectuals, by pacifists, clergy and others with moral objections to the Governments policy, resulted in public demonstrations, teach-ins and collective letters to the Prime Minister. These disturbed the consciences of many ordinary citizens without succeeding in changing their attitude to one fundamental fact, that is, that the United States is Australia's friend and ally and that her continuing presence in South East Asia is believed to be of vital importance to the security of Australia.'
An excerpt from an article in The Canberra Times, Tuesday 4 October 1966.
'Often described as "the gateway to South-East Asia," Vietnams strategic position in the struggle between Communism and democracy is even more critical to-day. Saigon, the capital of Vietnam, is only a few hours flight from such important free world bases as Manila, Singapore and Darwin.
Long regarded as the bulwark against further Communist expansion, Vietnam constitutes the main geographic and military obstacle to Communist designs in South-East Asia.'
Excerpt from an article in The Canberra Times, Saturday 21 October 1961. The article was published before Australia became involved in the conflict developing in Vietnam. The report is still relevant to how the media stoked fear of communism in South East Asia. That fear carried into public support for Australia's eventual involvement in the war in Vietnam.
A segment from the Australian Federal Parliament debate in 1965 about Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Robert Menzies can be heard speaking. He talks about the increasing 'pace of the positive action by the communist north. He also refers to the risks Australia faced 'in this part of the world'. His reference to risk supported the idea that Australia had something to fear if it didn't support America in fighting the communist forces.
'I SUBSCRIBE TO THE DOMINO THEORY
"I subscribe to the 'domino theory', a theory sometimes rejected by academic theorists, because I believe it to be obvious, in a world of 'real polities', that if the Vietnam war ends with some compromise which denies South Vietnam a real and protected independence, Laos and Cambodia, Thailand. Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia, will be vulnerable", Sir Robert said.'
An excerpt from an article in The Canberra Times, Thursday 6 November 1969. The ex-Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was referring to the theory that if South Vietnam fell to the communist Viet Cong forces, other countries nearby would be vulnerable to communism.
'Even Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, who is strongly critical of American policy, appears to support the "domino theory", for he said in June, 1965, "It appears to me a certainty that when South Vietnam has become Communist, and when Thailand … abandons your ('Western') camp to pass into the socialist camp, then Cambodia will become Communist in its turn".'
An excerpt from a letter to The Canberra Times, Tuesday 26 April 1966.
The negative case
In times of war people rely on the media for information. Today people can quickly get information online about war zones across the world. Media coverage of the war in Vietnam was limited to television, radio and print media. The feelings of Australians about the war were influenced by other sources of information. Television, radio and newspapers could only have so much effect on the Australian public.
The Second World War ended less than 20 years before Australia became involved in the war in Vietnam. Many Australians in the 1960s had served in the Second World War or Korean War. Their experiences were still fresh in their minds. The physical and mental wounds many had suffered were a part of those experiences. Their families and friends often knew of those. That knowledge of war could influence how people thought about the war in Vietnam.
Some Australians in the 1960s had family members who had fought in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. There were also families that had loved ones who fought in the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. Communist guerrillas had fought British Commonwealth forces in that conflict. The fear of communism was perhaps reinforced by stories shared by Australians who had served with the British. Those stories were shared in private. They were not part of media coverage at the time. Australians carried the stories into the 1960s. That may have added to the distress people felt about the war in Vietnam.
More shared knowledge of the Vietnam War became available as Australian troops came home from the conflict. Others still in Vietnam wrote letters home. Those letters shared concerns about the war and how it might end. Service personnel might have written about friends wounded or killed in action. Australians gained knowledge of how the war was going. The media coverage couldn't influence all Australians following the war. Feelings of concern in the population continued despite formal media coverage. People remained anxious about how the war was going.
'On the other hand, the three Australian speakers were much concerned with possible Chinese threats, and the ill-starred domino theory; as a serious element of debate, this theory should once and for all be scrapped. It doesn't do justice to complex situations, and right and left alike waste too much time referring to it.'
An excerpt from an article in Woroni, the Australian National University Students Association newspaper, Thursday 16 March 1967.
'The people who actively support the war, do so out of an unfounded fear of invasion from China. This is the Domino Theory in action, and the people who profess to believe in it are not scared of losing their democratic right of free speech, but are more scared of losing their dubious material prosperity. There is little danger of Australia falling to China.'
An excerpt from an article in Tharunka, the University of New South Wales student newspaper, Wednesday 16 September 1970.
'In his attack on the Australian Government's policy concerning South East Asia, Ron Mann (Post-Courier, Jan 8) puts forward the domino theory, namely that a communist government in South Vietnam would be followed by communist regimes in other neighbouring countries, until the whole region would be a communist monolith controlled by China, menacing Australia and Papua New Guinea.
This theory, which even its originators in the U.S.A. have by now discarded, is contrary to the facts.'
An excerpt from a letter to the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, Tuesday 16 January 1973.
'To Stop Aggression
Ms Alison Darby dealt with the war in Vietnam and the fight against Communism. "What we have to consider in Australia" she said, "is whether we want to fight Communism or not. If we don't want to fight communists or communism, then, of course we can sit back and say conscription is not justified. Conscription can be justified only if we consider that we want to fight communism. If we want to preserve the liberties we have in Australia then we want to fight communism. The war in Vietnam is justified as a war to stop aggression."'
An excerpt from an article in Education, the journal of the NSW Public School Teachers Federation, Volume 4 No. 13, 27 July 1966.
Vol. 47 No. 13 (27 Jul 1966) (nla.gov.au)
'Save Our Sons! Political police of the Askin Government's New South Wales Special Branch roughly jostled mothers peacefully demonstrating at Sydney Central Station last week against conscription of 20-year-olds for overseas service.
The first Sydney call-up reported for service at Marrickville barracks last Wednesday and that night entrained for camp.
At both points the SOS (Save Our Sons) movement of Sydney mothers carried out a peaceful demonstration vigil, displaying banners opposing conscription for overseas service, with special reference to the Vietnam war.
The 20-year-olds were friendly to the demonstrators and in some cases expressed support.
Even a uniformed policeman expressed sympathy with the demonstration.
Daily Press interviews with Australian soldiers in Vietnam and also with new conscripts report that they rarely indicate support for the Government's policy of intervention.'
An excerpt from an article in the Tribune, Wednesday 7 July 1965.
The affirmative case
In April 1965 Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australian combat troops would be sent to Vietnam. Local media outlets seemed to support the idea. Opinion polls at the time showed most Australians agreed with the Prime Minister's decision.
As the war continued, an increasing number of Australians opposed our involvement in the war. The media sometimes described anti-war protestors as 'radical students' or communist 'agitators'. Opposition to the war was often about the human cost. The people of Vietnam would suffer and the Australians sent there to fight would suffer as well. The government understood that the media had the power to influence public opinion. They could use this to maintain support for ongoing participation in the conflict. Media coverage of protests could focus on the disruption caused by protesters. This could be used to argue that those opposing the war were not helping Australia's interests. The coverage could also take attention away from concerns about people being wounded or killed in Vietnam. Those concerns applied to Vietnamese people as well as Australian soldiers.
The National Service system also drew a lot of media attention. While at first it didn't attract much coverage, this increased as the number of conscripted soldiers being killed or wounded went up. The public were more aware of the cost of war and protests were held to call for the end of conscription. People were angry about young Australian men being forced to fight in Vietnam. Many citizens thought that conscription was unfair. The government was relying on conscription as a way to increase the number of men available to be sent to Vietnam. The media played an important role in the government management of public resistance to the conscription system.
The public's attitudes to the war changed as the conflict went on. General support for the war continued but the protest movements grew in strength. Anger about the conscription scheme spread across Australian society. The final five ballot draws were even broadcast on TV as the government tried to influence public opinion. Media outlets reported on the protests and tried to present both the government and protest sides of the story. A change in federal government in 1973 saw the last of Australia's troops in Vietnam come home. Media were still trying to control public perceptions as the war came to an end.
'Despite the apparently strong rejection of committing troops to Southeast Asia in the April 1962 Gallup Poll, the Australian government announced the decision to raise and deploy the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV), initially consisting of just 30 men, on 24 May 1962. Shortly after that announcement, in June 1962, a cross-section of 2000 men and women were interviewed following the Government's sending of 'token forces' (the AATTV) to Thailand and Vietnam to support American forces there. The interviewers asked "do you approve, or disapprove, sending those token forces to Thailand and Vietnam?" Of the sample, 61% approved, 27% disapproved and 12% were undecided. The 'approve' vote came from 65% of men and 57% of women. It also came from 70% of Liberal — Country Party (L-CP) voters and 56% of Australian Labor Party (ALP) voters.'
'HOBART, Thursday — Father Dennis Corrigan, acting chairman of the Tasmanian Moratorium committee, has been dismissed from priestly duties.
The archbishop wants it to be perfectly clear, however, that the Moratorium issue was not an isolated, central factor in his decision, although the time Father Corrigan was giving to this, to the neglect of other work for people in the parish which the archbishop considered of first importance did bring things to a head, and Father Corrigan's refusal to obey the archbishop by giving up the time-consuming chairmanship of the Moratorium committee did call forth suspension by the archbishop.' 'BRISBANE, Thursday — the Queensland Labor Party is almost certain to recast its attitude toward next Friday's Vietnam Moratorium.
This was indicated tonight in a statement from Melbourne by the ALP Queensland central executive secretary and Federal ALP president, Mr T. Burns.
Already the South Australian ALP has decided to dissociate itself from the Vietnam Moratorium.'
The Canberra Times, Friday 11 September 1970
'Sir Robert defended Australian and US involvement in Vietnam during another speech in a series of speeches at the University of Texas.
Sir Robert Menzies, former Prime Minister of Australia, said today "great changes are now being made in the military set-up in Vietnam — at least on our side", the Associated Press reported.
Sir Robert defended Australian and US involvement in Vietnam during another in a series of speeches at the University of Texas. Among his audience were former US President Mr Johnson and Mrs Johnson.'
The Canberra Times, Wednesday 26 November 1969
'Schools get booklet on Vietnam.
The Government has sent to high schools throughout Australia a booklet setting out the case for Australia's commitment to Vietnam.
The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, said it had been sent to headmasters at his suggestion.
The announcement brought a sharp reaction from Opposition members in the House of Representatives yesterday.'
The Canberra Times, Friday 3 December 1965
'A lot of the reporting of the war came in fact from America and agency reports. The Australian reporting of the war in terms of what came from Vietnam were mostly, often feature articles because they relied on American agency material, and I suppose what gave the dominance of the Canberra political voice to Australia's coverage of the war was that that was a particularly Australian part of the coverage, and that was the coverage that got Page 1. So although we had lots of, as I say, American material, it was the press gallery and the reporting of policy decisions etc. that really dominated the flavour I think of Australia's reporting of Vietnam.'
Dr Trish Payne, 'The Australian media and the Vietnam War', The Media Report, ABC Radio National, Thursday 16 August 2007
The Australian media and the Vietnam War — The Media Report — ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
'MELBOURNE GOES WILD FOR LBJ
"The biggest crowd I have seen" … this was President Lyndon Johnson's reaction to his tumultuous, whirlwind visit to Melbourne.'
From the archives of The Age, October 18 2019. First published in The Age, October 22, 1966.
The negative case
Australians in the 1960s lived in the pre-internet era. Their main media sources for news were newspapers, radio and television. The number of television stations was quite small compared to those available today. State and territory capital cities would have had four or five channels. Regional cities and towns would have had perhaps two or three channels. The government first sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. News about the war would have been available in the three main media sources. The government would have controlled some of the information from the war. Many Australians would not have known much about Vietnam and the war developing there. That situation would change as the war continued.
As Australia's role in the conflict increased, so did the amount of available information about the war. Australians began to hear more about the war outside of the main media sources. Men and women serving in the war were writing letters home. Phone calls were difficult, so some troops recorded messages on audio tapes. Other people such as celebrities and entertainers were visiting Vietnam and talking about what they saw and heard. Some magazines and newspapers from other countries were available in Australia. Those provided different information about the conflict. That information began to influence how Australians understood the war and Australia's role in it.
Small political groups in Australia shared information about the war in newsletters and bulletins. Communist and socialist political organisations received information about both sides of the war. This information influenced an increasing level of opposition to the war and Australia's involvement in it. More information was also available via Australians serving in Vietnam. Some of those service men and women were coming home on leave and most returned to Australia after their tours of duty. They were sharing their experiences with friends and family. That information took time to spread through the larger community but it became better known in the war's final years. Many Australians began reassessing their attitudes to the war. The main media outlets were presenting more balanced information about the war. They did this as more serving Australians were killed or wounded in action.
More information outside of the main media outlets began to influence the government's decisions about the war. Conscription had been introduced in the early stages of the war. Increasing public resistance to Australia's role in the war eventually saw conscription abolished in the early 1970s. Anti-war protests had become more frequent and larger after the government began withdrawing troops from Vietnam. Some parts of Australian society not known for protesting became involved. One example was a protest group formed by Australian mothers. The group was called 'SOS'. This stood for 'Save Our Sons'.
The federal government changed in 1973. The new government was faced with a public who were well-informed by a range of information sources. This was different to earlier in the war, when the main media sources controlled the information about the conflict. That media control had been weakened as the war progressed. Public opposition was a significant factor in Australia withdrawing from the war in Vietnam.
'The moratoriums were an indication of a broad collapse in public support for the war. They both revealed and fostered a new sense of unity among those opposed to Vietnam and conscription.'
From the National Museum of Australia's Defining Moments series
'The early media coverage of the war was woefully inadequate. Melbourne's The Age and The Herald were the only newspapers to have full-time correspondents in South East Asia, based in Singapore. Much of the printed and televised information about war in Vietnam came via syndicated American sources, so that Australians tended to view the war from an American perspective. Bruce Grant at The Age was one of the few journalists who criticised Australian government policies.'
Kate Darian-Smith, War: Censorship and Propaganda
'Eighteen months — and a change of government later — Australia's Vietnam War was over. Alongside untold Vietnamese, some 521 Australians had died in conflict, including 202 national servicemen.
The end of Australia's war also saw the wrapping up of a novel and now largely forgotten organisation. The Ex-Services Human Rights Association of Australia was founded in October 1966 by former servicemen and women who "oppose militarism" and "believe that National Service […] should not involve conscription for foreign wars".'
The forgotten Australian veterans who opposed National Service and the Vietnam War (theconversation.com)
It was one of the few Australian hits of the '60s to directly address the issue of the Vietnam War, although it was not the first, as is sometimes claimed – that honour goes to The Masters Apprentices' Wars Or Hands Of Time – Paul Culnane
The affirmative case
Conscription is a way to increase the size of a nation's armed forces. When someone is conscripted, it is compulsory for them to serve in their country's armed forces. Australia had used conscription before the Vietnam War. The Australian government tried to introduce it during the First World War. The idea was rejected in two national public votes, also known as plebiscites. The Second World War saw some conscripted Australians sent to fight overseas. Australia also had a national service scheme between 1951 and 1959. It was stopped because it became too costly for the Australian Army to provide training and resources.
The National Service Act, introduced in 1964, gave the federal government the power to make military service compulsory for Australian men aged 20. The Act was changed in 1965 to allow these 20-year-old men to be sent overseas to fight. Conscription was introduced as the demand increased for soldiers to fight in countries such as Borneo and Vietnam. A ballot system was used. The system was based on the birthdays of eligible Australian men. Those men whose birthday dates were drawn in each round had to go into the Australian Army. Not all young men agreed with conscription. Some refused to go into the army. They were known as conscientious objectors. Some were arrested and appeared in court. Media reports about these men caused some people to think of them as unpatriotic. They were seen as avoiding their duty to their country.
At first people were not very concerned about Australian troops being sent to Vietnam. More conscripts were sent to Vietnam as the number of Australians serving there increased. They faced the same dangers as other soldiers. Media coverage tried to take attention away from those dangers. This worked to the Australian government's advantage. Maintaining conscription would be easier if the Australian public didn't know about the real situation in Vietnam.
The idea that the US and Australia would win the war was important for keeping conscription in place. The Australian public might not object to conscription if people thought the war was being won. The media had an important role related to that perception of the war. As in previous wars, reports of the fighting in Vietnam could be carefully managed to present the best situation. Media reports also supported the idea that conscripted soldiers were doing their duty for their country. There was a benefit for the government if the Australian public thought that way about the conscripted soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Reinforcing those thoughts was something that the media could do to aid the government's conscription program.
'Did our fathers feel they were fighting a clean war as they crossed the Kokoda Trail or suffered malaria and dysentery in Korea, Borneo, and Malaya? With the more mature men, boys in their teens fought, prepared to die, if necessary. Many were below the age of present-day conscription.
Now some of their counterparts are not prepared to take two years of compulsory training, then, if necessary, fight in Vietnam. Is it because their uncles and older brothers have already been killed in Vietnam? Because they don't realise the danger of letting Communist aggressors get too close?'
An extract from a letter to the Australian Women's Weekly, Wednesday 13 April 1966. The letter was signed '"Perplexed", Hunters Hill, NSW'.
'As it got closer and people began to talk about the next ballot and marbles being pulled out and you start to learn that our famous footballers were getting called up, Carl Ditterich for St Kilda and the cricketer, of course, Doug Walters, you start to become more aware of it and then you got, well, excited or anticipation.'
An extract from an interview with Patrick O'Hara. Patrick was conscripted to fight in Vietnam.
'One colonel at Eastern Command, echoing the feelings of others, said simply: "National Service is the best thing that's happened to the Army." Whatever manpower problems the call-up may or may not solve it has been an undoubted morale-booster at every level.'
'The Crash-Programme Army: The National Serviceman and his Duntroon'
An extract from an article in The Bulletin, Vol. 87 No. 4465 (25 September 1965)
Vol. 87 No. 4465 (25 Sep 1965) (nla.gov.au)
Standing in front of his platoon on parade, the commander of 12 Platoon, D (Delta) Company, 6th ... | Australian War Memorial (awm.gov.au)
'SYDNEY. Wednesday. —A convoy of buses took 500 20-year-old Sydney draftees to the national service training camps at Singleton and Kapooka today. The national servicemen included Test cricketer Doug Walters and Michael Darby, a pro-conscription demonstration leader and son of independent Liberal MLA, Mr Douglas Darby. Mr Allen Fairhall, the son of the Defence Minister was among 600 Newcastle draftees who went to the Singleton camp. The Minister for the Army, Mr Fraser, denied today that national service men would be allowed to decide whether or not they wanted to go to Vietnam.'
The Canberra Times, Thursday 21 April 1966.
'Officer Training in the Army for Bourke Boy
It was with great interest that we read a news despatch from the Army Officer Training Unit at Scheyville, N.S.W., relating to the selection of R. F. (Rex) Haw for Officer Training at that unit.
It appears that of all persons, male, born in the year 1945, living west of Dubbo, Rex is the first to be selected to undergo Officer Training at Scheyville — the only unit of its kind in Australia. Out of 4,400 youths called up for National Service in the first six months of this year he is one of 160 selected for O.T.U. The odds against a Bourke boy being selected for Officer Training is said to be astronomical, so it is with pride that we pass this news on to Bourke folk.'
Western Herald (Bourke, NSW), Friday 29 October 1965.
The negative case
Australia and America became strong allies during the Second World War. Australian governments after the war looked to America for military support. Australia was ready to send troops to Vietnam not long after American troops were sent there. The families of Australian soldiers knew their loved ones might be sent to Vietnam to support the American troops.
As the war went on, the demand for more troops increased. That demand put pressure on Australia's ability to keep sending soldiers. The conscription system began to send more men to Vietnam. Australian men who were 20 years old and physically fit were selected for the National Service scheme. Being registered for conscription didn't automatically mean being called up or sent to Vietnam. But the scheme did see some Australian families suddenly faced with their loved ones being called up for duty. Some of those families had no history of military service. The relatives of the men conscripted into the army had differing feelings about the National Service scheme. Some thought it was the right thing to do. Others were opposed to compulsory service in the army.
Reports in the media described how fit young Australian men were going to Vietnam to do their duty. That sort of reporting was aimed at helping the Australian government to keep the conscription system running. It was easier for the government if more Australians saw conscription as the right response to our country's commitment to the war. The media would feature stories about a pop star and sportsmen being conscripted. These stories tried to present positive ideas about conscription to the Australian public.
Resistance to the National Service scheme increased as the war went on. Australian families were learning of loved ones who had been conscripted being wounded or killed in Vietnam. It didn't take much for friends and families to start sharing stories of tragedy from Vietnam. Those stories spread out through Australian society. That worked against the reporting from the media. Groups opposed to conscription attracted more and more support. Concerned parents and young people were sharing their resistance to conscription. Stories of famous Australians being conscripted became less important to the public. Resistance to conscription grew throughout Australian society. The media began reporting on men resisting being drafted into the army.
The National Service scheme came to an end in 1972. A new Australian government had seen that many more Australians were opposed to conscription. The media struggled against the increase in opposition. More Australians knew of the cost of the war through their social networks. Around 200 National Service soldiers had been killed by the time Australia withdrew from Vietnam. The families of those soldiers were sharing their grief in their communities. That was powerful communication when compared to the media.
'Logically, most of those who are convinced that only our participation in the war in Vietnam can save our democracy should now be offering themselves for battle instead of unselfishly forcing others to do it.'
An extract from a letter to The Bulletin, Vol. 88 No. 4495 (30 April 1966). The letter was signed "Miss A. C. DORAN, Armadale (Vic.)."
Vol. 88 No. 4495 (30 Apr 1966) (nla.gov.au)
Federal Opposition leader (1960 — 1967) Arthur Caldwell opposes the conscription scheme:
'Well you can be wrong but the government is deciding that we aren't able to decide; that we can't as twenty-year-olds, look at the situation, the world situation, the Vietnam situation, the general situation of this society or whatever it might be and they're saying that we're not good enough or we don't know enough. It's a matter of personal responsibility really.'
Extract from an ABC Radio interview in 1970 with Brian Ross. Mr Ross was the first Australian man to be sent to prison for refusing to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.
The first Vietnam War conscientious objector to be jailed — excerpt from interview with Brian Ross (naa.gov.au)
The affirmative case
Australia became involved in the Vietnam War in 1962. Many Australians knew little about Vietnam at that time. Overseas travel was very expensive. Australians who did go overseas often went via passenger ships rather than planes. Many of them went to Europe rather than Asia. Schools taught much less about countries like Vietnam than they do today. Australian troops sent to Vietnam were often travelling overseas for the first time. They were curious about what they would experience once they were there.
The Australian government used the public's lack of knowledge about Vietnam to its advantage. It could use the media to control how much people knew about the country and its people. Controlling that knowledge would help the government's involvement in the war. At first the government sent about 30 soldiers. Later a battalion of about 800 soldiers was deployed. Eventually an Australian task force was sent to Vietnam. That force would be several thousand soldiers. More troops going to Vietnam meant more Australians gaining direct experience of the war going on there.
As the war continued more troops were coming home from the fighting. Others still in Vietnam were communicating with their friends and families by letters or tape recordings. They were sharing their experiences of serving in Vietnam. Military censorship meant that they couldn't share all of their experiences. That censorship also worked to the Australian government's advantage. There was also some censoring of media reports about the fighting in Vietnam. Australian troops at the front were often not allowed to discuss military operations with reporters. Those reporters were not allowed to go to combat zones where Australian troops were on operations. Even so, they still reported on the conflict. Journalists such as Dorothy Drain and Tim Bowden provided coverage of the war. People in Australia were seeing more of American military operations on TV. This was because much of the film shown in Australia came from American media teams.
Towards the end of the war many more Australian troops were coming home on leave or at the end of their tour. They were sharing their experiences with their friends and families. This meant that more people were learning about the war and how the fighting was going. The government saw that more knowledge in the public could affect Australia's involvement. Opposition to the war was increasing. Even Australian pop stars were writing songs against the war. Censorship of Australian media coverage of the war was increased. Controlling the amount people knew about the war was important for the government. Part of that control was to balance the effect of soldiers sharing their experiences. The media played an important role as the government tried to maintain that balance. The media's influence of people's opinions about the war would help the government's policies and strategies.
'War censors get tough
New blanket censorship restrictions have been imposed on all correspondents reporting the activities of Australian armed forces in Vietnam.
In future no correspondent will be allowed access to the Australian forces in Vietnam unless he first gives a verbal guarantee that he will not report any conversation with any member of the Australian forces until he has cleared his story with an army public relations officer.
The new regulations have been introduced as a result of instructions from the Defence Department.
They follow recent attacks by Government backbenchers on the Australian press coverage of the war, and earlier approaches to newspaper editors and proprietors seeking a more "sympathetic" press account of the war.'
First published in The Age, October 1 1968
'The Vietnam War was "uncensored" in the sense that media people could move virtually anywhere they wanted and there was no outward censorship of stories, photographs, tapes or film. There were, of course, certain ground rules under which correspondents could not report on matters which might place operations in jeopardy.
It was a different story in Cambodia where outgoing stories had to be lodged with the censor's office. Correspondents soon learned to get around the censor, either by flying out to Bangkok with their stories, tapes and film or by having them carried out of the country by airline passengers.'
Don Hook, an Australian journalist who covered the Vietnam War, 1968–1970.
'Yes, it wasn't at first known who went, were actually in the Battle of Long Tan and it wasn't until the newspapers came out several days later that you actually became aware that your husband was in the centre of the action. As I say it's very hard for people to realise these days I suppose that how limited communications were back in the 60s without the, you know the news reports you get sort of so regularly on the television and you see the same thing over and over if you watch several news programs.
But that wasn't there and you had just news bulletins on the radio or had to wait until it was printed in the newspaper. And I think in most wars everything is quite heavily censored so you only get as much as the government wants you to know. So a lot of it was something that didn't hit you entirely. It wasn't until sort of later more fulsome reports came out of what the action was and what actually happened. You got sort of headlines and, but the detail wasn't there so you couldn't really, you could worry but you had nothing specific to worry about if you can understand. It was just a sort of an unknown quantity and you just had to hope like heck that everything was all right and in our case we were lucky but others weren't so lucky.'
Excerpt from an interview with Gillian Roberts. Her husband Adrian Roberts served in Vietnam and saw action in the Battle of Long Tan.
A clip from the documentary Action in Vietnam produced by the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit. The documentary was produced to provide an insight into the experiences of Australian soldiers in Vietnam. The clip has no dialogue or narration. It shows helicopters evacuating soldiers from the battlefield and returning to base.
The Australian Army sent official photographers to Vietnam. Their role was to take photographs that would build public support for the war. Their photographs were often meant to make the war seem familiar to the public.
This photograph shows Australian troops enjoying a concert in Nui Dat in 1967. Like other official army photographs, this one was intended to show the Australian public a positive side of the soldiers' experiences.
The negative case
About 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War. They served in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). For many, it was their first time overseas. It was often their first extended time away from their friends and families. Their involvement in the war gave them good and bad experiences. They could share those experiences with each other in Vietnam. Sharing them with family and friends back in Australia would have an effect on this country's involvement in the war.
Australians knew little of Vietnam when the government first sent 30 military advisors there in 1962. The Australian media reported on the advisors being sent. The public appeared to not show much interest in the news. Vietnam and the war there were not part of general knowledge. The friends and families of the 30 advisors would gain some knowledge of Vietnam and the war from the advisors. Any Australians looking for information about the war would have to rely on the media.
Thousands of Australians were serving in Vietnam by 1966. The Australian public's interest in the war had increased. Many more Australians had friends or family serving in the war. Some of those serving in Vietnam were experiencing the terror and excitement of combat. They shared their experiences with family and friends back in Australia. At first they could share a reasonable amount of information. As time went on the Australian government faced more opposition to the war. Soldiers sharing their experiences with people back home meant more and more Australians learned about the fighting, the wounded and those who lost their lives. Journalists from Australia and other countries were busy trying to cover as much of the fighting as possible. Their jobs were made difficult by pressure from the government and the Australian armed forces to present the best stories to the public.
Australian troops were in touch with family and friends as often as they could manage while they were in Vietnam. When they came home some shared their experiences. Large amounts of information about the war were available outside of the media. The government tried to control that information with official reports from Vietnam. The situation became more difficult for the government to manage. More experiences were shared and more Australians began to change their minds about the war. It would not be long before public opposition to the war was too much for the government to ignore.
'Last night was another disastrous night for 5 Battalion. Again another platoon walked into a mine field. I won't go into details but when it was all over, & the casualties evacuated by helicopter, only one man was left standing. There were 28 men in the platoon ... The mines were freshly laid, & they think they may have been old Australian mines. The V.C. often do this. They lift our mines & plant them somewhere else, in the path of our troops ... This all took place pretty close to the base, & we could hear the mines going off & one of the fellows reckoned he could hear screams every so often.'
Peter Groves, 105 Field Battery, Royal Australian Artillery (national serviceman), July 1969, letter to family.
Australian Army photographers captured the reality of the Vietnam War. The photograph above shows an Australian soldier in front of a burning Vietnamese house. The house has been deliberately burned down so that the Viet Cong couldn't use it. Images like this were sometimes withheld from publication by the army. Their subject matter would have made some of the Australian public uneasy about what the soldiers were experiencing.
'Firstly, we should never have been there. I firmly believe that. I think of the suffering that we inflicted on those people. One day, one night, you were always waiting for body counts, you know, that's the way things were and in the artillery we never really got any, that we had killed anyone, and one night we were told our gun, the one I was on, had killed 22 Viet Cong. Yes. Whoa. Then a couple of days later we found out they were all women. They were porters, carrying stuff.'
Excerpt from an interview with Patrick O'Hara. Patrick was called up for national service. He served as a gunner in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. His family was opposed to the war in Vietnam. They accepted his conscription into the army, but there were tensions in the family about him going to Vietnam.
'Dear Mother, Dad and Family, Well I would say by now you have heard that A Coy* suffered very severe casualties from 2 M16 mines. 2 killed < 23 wounded. A really upsetting tragedy. I'm okay. We were about 700 metres south of 3 PL*.'
* A Company
* 3 Platoon
Excerpt from a letter written by Temporary Corporal Colin Talbot Nicol to his parents during his service in Vietnam.
Letter from Colin Nicol to his parents | Australian War Memorial (awm.gov.au)
You're off to the Asian War
And we won't see you smile no more
No we won't see you smile no more
No more laughter in the air
No more laughter in the air
Feel the tension in the air
Where is love?'
Excerpt from the song 'Smiley', written by Johnny Young in 1969 and sung by Ronnie Burns. The song was written about Normie Rowe, an Australian pop star from the 1960s who was conscripted to fight in Vietnam. The song describes the possible effect of being conscripted and sent to the war. Normie Rowe was affected by his experiences of serving in Vietnam.
'Vietcong traps wound eleven
Eleven Australian soldiers have been wounded in action during operations in Phuoc Tuy Province, in South Vietnam. The soldiers, all members of the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, suffered shrapnel wounds from Vietcong booby traps.'
The Canberra Times, Monday 10 October 1966.
10 Oct 1966 — Vietcong traps wound eleven — Trove (nla.gov.au)
Glossary of terms
Allies: People who cooperate with other people. They can also be called supporters or associates. Countries can be allies of other countries.
Battalion: A military ground-force unit made up of three or more companies. A battalion can have from 550 to 1000 soldiers in it.
Censorship: The practice of censoring, which is to remove parts of a report or official document to protect sensitive information.
Communist: Someone who supports the political and economic way of organising society so that property is owned by a community rather than by individual citizens.
Communism: A way of organising society so that property is owned by a community rather than by individual citizens.
Conscientious objectors: People who refuse compulsory military service because of strongly held beliefs.
Guerrillas: Members of irregular armed forces that attack or harass regular armed forces.
Plebiscites: Direct votes by the people of a country or region in which they say whether they agree or disagree with particular policies.
Socialist: Relating to a way of organising society so that communities own land, factories and such.
Task force: A temporary group of military units under one commander, for carrying out a specific role or function.
Great Debates: Australian media and the Vietnam War is designed for teachers and their students studying the Senior Australian Curriculum: Modern History. The resource enables students to investigate how the Australian media presented the war in Vietnam and how that presentation may have influenced Australian public opinion of the war.
Students of Modern History studying Unit 4: The Modern World since 1945 have several topics from which to choose as part of their studies. The topics that relate to the Vietnam War include The Changing World Order, Engagement with Asia, Movements of People and The Search for Peace and Security. Providing students with content that relates to these topics and the Vietnam War assists in developing their knowledge and understanding of the modern world and the significance of Australia's involvement. This resource provides students with information relating to media representations of the Vietnam War and explores how those representations formed public opinion. The service and sacrifice of Australian service men and women in the war is set against information that speaks to media influence, conscription, protest movements and the personal experiences of those in Australia's defence forces.
Great Debates: Australian media and the Vietnam War adopts a debate format using theme-based sources to explore the statement 'That the Australian media controlled Australian public opinion of the Vietnam War'.
The activity employs an inquiry-based learning approach. Students are not given synthesised information; they are provided with sources to investigate the debate topic via a range of themes. The themes for the debate topic address the notions of media influence, fear, protest movements and the experiences of Australian service men and women in Vietnam and in Australia. Students examine the sources provided to evaluate the role the media had in the formation of Australian public opinion. The sources are designed to encourage students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the role of the media as they formulate their responses to the debate topic.
The resource uses formative assessment via peer-marking.
Using this resource
This education resource has been developed as a debate activity, however teachers can be flexible in the way they use it. The amount of time that this activity takes will vary e.g. it could be used over four to seven lessons of 45-minutes duration. It can involve the entire class working in small groups, or just eight students, who present the debate for the rest of the class. You may like to use the resource in conjunction with the other Great Debates. These are available on the Anzac Portal https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/
Further suggestions for using this resource in the classroom can be found below in the 'Advice to teachers' section.
Australian Curriculum links
This resource is aligned with the Senior Secondary Australian Curriculum: Modern History
- Unit 4: The Modern World since 1945
The Vietnam War had its genesis following the end of the Second World War. France had invaded the area in the 19th century and established what became known as French Indo-China. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the French returned and re-established their dominance. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese nationalist forces (the Viet Minh) in the north fought the French for Vietnamese independence. The French were more secure in the south of the country, with British support, but that did not last long. The Viet Minh defeated the French in the north and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam). They failed to control the south of the country, where the Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) was formed. The entire country was eventually divided into north and south at the 17th parallel of latitude, following a conference of world powers at Geneva in 1954.
The French eventually left South Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem became president. Viet Minh nationalists continued to undermine the South Vietnam government. America perceived a communist threat to South Vietnam, fearing that a 'domino effect' might occur if South Vietnam fell to Communism, leaving neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaya open to communist occupation. Australia's role in the Cold War prompted the Australian government to see the developing conflict in Vietnam as a communist invasion of the south. This viewpoint would be a major influence upon Australia's involvement in the war.
In 1956 America sent substantial financial and military aid to South Vietnam, including 16,000 military advisers to train South Vietnamese troops. America needed support in its activities in Vietnam and was soon looking to its allies. Australia's presence in Vietnam began in 1962 with the deployment of a small group making up the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) sent the first Transport Flight in 1964.
On 29 April 1965 Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced to Parliament that Australian combat troops were to be sent to Vietnam. This marked a significant increase in Australia's military commitment to a war that was increasing in size and scope. The Australian defence force roles expanded to include the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the RAAF. As the conflict escalated, more Australian service men and women found themselves on their way to Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, the Australian troops didn't rely on massive firepower to draw the North Vietnamese into high-casualty confrontations. Australian operations relied upon counter-guerrilla techniques learned while fighting communist insurgents in the Malayan jungles in the 1950s. This method was the signature of Australian operations in the war.
At home, Australians generally approved of the government's commitment to the war. However, as the war continued, approval began to diminish as the public witnessed growing casualty numbers with seemingly little gain. Mixed messages emerged via the media and government outlets. Contentious issues such as conscription fuelled opposition to the war; an anti-war protest movement and moratoriums led to increasing calls for Australian troops to be brought home. A change in the federal government in 1973 was the catalyst for the end of conscription and the eventual withdrawal of all Australian forces from Vietnam.
By 1975, nearly 60,000 Australians had served in Vietnam. Of that number, more than 500 died during their service while over 3,000 were wounded or suffered illness as a result of their service. The last unit to leave was the first to arrive – the AATTV. In Australia, families mourned their dead and learned about the war from the experiences of their loved ones who had survived to come home.
Advice to teachers
- Use the background information as you see fit in relation to your students' preparation of the activity.
- Explain to your students that the sources in this activity are theme-based and are designed to assist them develop arguments for and against the main proposition.
- The two debate teams can be the minimum of four students per team or larger, depending upon assessment requirements and other factors.
- Supply the two teams with the 'for' or 'against' source folders. Ensure the students are aware of the source analysis worksheet attached to the source folders; discuss how the worksheet can be used as the teams prepare for the debate.
- Allocate time for your students to interrogate the sources and to extend their research. Provide an opportunity to discuss their research and how their understanding of the themes has developed.
- Allocate time to discuss the process of debating, with an emphasis on techniques for presenting compelling arguments for the affirmative and negative cases. Use the assessment rubrics as a method of framing debating technique. Information on debating techniques can be found at websites such as the Debaters Association of Victoria http://www.dav.com.au/index.php and the South Australian Debating Association http://www.sada.org.au/education/resources-and-guides/
- Provide your students with sufficient time to prepare their arguments and to discuss their team strategies.
- Stage the debate. You might want to record the debate. This will provide supplementary evidence students can use when assessing their individual and team performances.
- Follow up with the peer assessment process. Encourage students to provide critical analysis of the teams and to support their assessment comments with specific examples of their peers' performances.
- Finish with a discussion using the questions in the 'Debrief' section. Encourage students to write their own questions to analyse the debate topic.
These questions can be used to guide a class discussion:
- Why did Australia become involved in the Vietnam War?
- How did Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War evolve?
- What were the factors shaping Australian public opinion of the war?
- How did Australian public opinion change during the war?
- What prompted the eventual withdrawal of Australian service men and women from the war?
- What affect did Australia's role in the war have upon Australia's international relations in South-East Asia and beyond?
- Where does the war sit in Australia's legacy of military operations?
Encourage your students to create their own questions.
|Criteria / grade||A||B||C||D||E|
|Quality of argument||
||Proposes an argument that addresses the inquiry question and all of the elements of a successful argument||Proposes an argument that addresses the inquiry question and most of the criteria||Proposes an argument that addresses the inquiry question and is supported by an example||Proposes an argument but does not address the overarching inquiry question and/or lacks logical structure, supporting example, or clarity||Does not propose an argument|
|Quality of research||
||Goes beyond the provided sources and integrates own research in supporting their arguments||Makes use of multiple sources, includes statistical information and/or events to support arguments||Makes use of multiple sources||Makes use of only one source||Does not use source material or research information|
|Quality of teamwork||
||Arguments all connected under the 'Team Line'; arguments
|Arguments all connected under the 'Team Line'||Arguments are connected but the team lacks coherency overall||One or more arguments are not connected to the others||No collaboration evident; arguments are completely disconnected|
|Quality of presentation||
||Meets all the elements of quality presenting||Meets most elements of quality presenting||Meets multiple elements of quality presenting||Only meets one element of quality presenting||No evidence of making an effort in presentation|
|Criteria/ grade||Student 1
|Quality of argument||
|Quality of research||
|Quality of teamwork||
|Quality of presentation||
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