United States and Australian forces in Vietnam sought victory against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army on the battlefield, but also through engagement with local people. Known by the term 'winning hearts and minds', this approach involved earning the support of the people upon whom the Viet Cong in particular depended for sustenance and shelter. However, popular support for the South Vietnamese Government, meant to be a rallying point for those opposed to communism, was very low. Few South Vietnamese gave their loyalty to a corrupt and incompetent regime whose military forces had proved unable to defend them. The task of winning hearts and minds was therefore a difficult one.
Civil action, involving medical and dental aid, construction work and agricultural assistance, was first conducted by a small team within the Australian task force and, by mid-1967, by a Civil Affairs Unit. In the early days in particular, while the task force base was still being established and the area around it cleared of both civilians and the Viet Cong whom the civilians were suspected of supporting, operations took precedence over civil assistance to the local population. Nevertheless, by late 1966 civic action was gaining a degree of momentum and some Australian units were formally identified with the Vietnamese villages in which they would undertake projects.
Early projects involved practical measures, such as the distribution of medical and dental aid. Vietnamese villagers were consulted about the type of projects that the people wanted and were assured that the Australians were there to help them. The fact that the task Force base was located in the middle of Phuoc Tuy Province also gave villagers a sense that the presence was, if not permanent, then at least long term thus lending a sense of security to the civic action projects.
While highlighting the fact that the Australian presence in Phuoc Tuy could be a positive for the province's inhabitants, credit for civic action was also intended to flow to the South Vietnamese Government. However, any kudos gained was invariably directed at those who carried out the work, Australian soldiers. While this may have earned the Australians a degree of goodwill, it did little to boost support for a government whose representatives were rarely seen and which contributed little to the welfare of its people.
The South Vietnamese Government did, however provide its own civic action activities, known as the Revolutionary Development programme, funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Under the programme, teams would assist villagers in public works while also ensuring that Viet Cong infrastructure was removed. Most of the Revolutionary Development programme's activities were carried out before the Australian civic action projects were fully developed and a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam who reported on its activities noted that the Revolutionary Development Teams were received with limited enthusiasm. Some programmes, however, were highly regarded, mostly those relating to infant care such as midwifery and baby and child-care.
By the latter years of the war some substantial projects were being carried out around Phuoc Tuy province. In 1969 renovations were carried out at Ba Ria Hospital and the following year the Civil Affairs Unit constructed a school in the village of Bau Pram. Work on improving other schools in the province went ahead throughout the life of the program. Windmills, made in Australia, were installed in villages and hamlets across Phuoc Tuy Province. Houses were built for South Vietnamese soldiers and their families, and agricultural projects were also carried out. Australia's 17th Construction Squadron also became involved in training Vietnamese apprentices and Australian civilian agencies also contributed to development in South Vietnam through the donation of cash and materials.
Civil action, based on good intentions and having resulted in the provision of some effective projects contributed to gaining the support of people in Phuoc Tuy Province. But these activities were also compromised by the reality of operations, misunderstanding of the local culture and people and their needs, and the crucial fact that the South Vietnamese Government was too deeply unpopular for programs of this type to ever result in it gaining widespread support. However dedicated to the task the Australians may have been, the obstacles to success during a bloody guerrilla war were ultimately too great to overcome and the withdrawal of Australian forces in 1972 meant the end of such projects.