The conflict in Vietnam ended up engulfing neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. United States and South Vietnamese forces sought to block the flow of soldiers and equipment through these countries into South Vietnam, invading Cambodia and Laos in 1970. In 1975 communist forces prevailed in all three countries causing millions to try and flee the new regimes.

Cambodia sunk into the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule. Declaring 'Year Zero' and proclaiming an austere agrarian socialist revolution, the Khmer Rouge drove the population into the countryside, murdering anyone considered an intellectual, wiping out most of the Buddhist priesthood and ultimately provoking Vietnam into invading in 1979. Enormous refugee camps were set up along the Thai border as hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the country with tales of brutality and horror. The camps were overcrowded and sometimes violent and people lived in them for years waiting for resettlement.

Two million people sought to escape South Vietnam after the communist victory. Often taking to small, overcrowded boats they sailed into the South China Sea. Some made it as far as northern Australia, others spent years in refugee camps before finally being admitted to third countries. Many never made it that far, in unseaworthy vessels they succumbed to storms or drowned in calm seas when leaky boats sank beneath them. Pirates regularly attacked the slow, defenceless ships, raping the women, taking whatever valuables were on board and often murdering the refugees.

The exodus from Indochina had an impact on the countries in which the refugees eventually settled. Over ten years from 1976, 94,000 refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam settled in Australia. About 2,000 arrived by boat. Accepting tens of thousands of Asian refugees was a large leap for a country that not long before had upheld the White Australia Policy. Not since the migration of large numbers of Chinese during the nineteenth century goldrushes had there been a large influx of Asians into Australia. As a percentage of the population, Indochinese refugees were not a large group, but they were new and they were visible. Small areas of the country, such as Sydney's Cabramatta, were dramatically changed by their presence. About 155,000 Vietnamese-born Australians live in Australia today.

After the war Vietnam was a country in ruins; physical infrastructure on both sides of the North/South divide had been destroyed. From 1957, the year after elections meant to unify the country failed to take place, until 1972, when the South was left to continue the war without the support of foreign ground troops, some 3.5 million people died in Vietnam, 60,000 were American, 523 were Australian.

A nab with his hands clasped in a prayer position standing next to a male soldier.

Lt John Lucaci, 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit, with a Vietnamese monk, 1968 AWM P00602.011

Melbourne protests

In Australia support for the war waned as it went on. Many of those who opposed involvement in Vietnam joined the political left, contributing to the election of a Labor Government in 1972. The Vietnam era was a time of social upheaval in Australia, but other western countries, such as France, that had no involvement in this war in Vietnam also experienced rebellion and internal conflict. In Australia's case, the war galvanised the protest movement, giving disparate groups an organising principle. Those who sought social change across a range of issues unrelated to the war found common cause in opposing Vietnam and national service.

In the United States failure in Vietnam led to isolationism and a reluctance to become involved in overseas disputes. This was to some degree echoed in Australia. Even contributions to distant peacekeeping operations, in the Sinai for example, led to suggestions that Australia was becoming involved in another Vietnam. Vietnam has become a byword for military quagmire, used in regard to Iraq today, it is a shadow that hangs over military endeavour overseas. No one wants another Vietnam.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Aftermath, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 June 2024,
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