12+ As a kid growing up in Perth, W.A., in the 1960s and ’70s, I didn’t learn about the Vietnam War from classroom history lessons. Vietnam and the broader Indochina War were on our radio and TV news every morning and evening, and in the front page headlines of our daily newspapers (though I can’t claim the precociousness of reading beyond the headlines).
From the news and adult conversation, I knew the main combatants were the Americans and Communist North Vietnamese. Australian soldiers also fought in Vietnam. We had national service in those days, with conscription based on a “birthday ballot“. Twenty-year-olds had to register for the ballot and if your birthdate popped up in the “lottery draw”, you served in the army for two years, with every chance of overseas deployment, to Vietnam.
As far as I know, no one in my family was “called up” or served in Vietnam – my dad and uncles were too old, and we kids were too young. But I did have a footy coach whose birthdate came up in the “lottery”. I recall an end-of-season speech by an older club official, who may have said something blokey along the lines of, “Keep your head down, son.” We boys may have laughed and cheered – all I remember for sure is my coach looked grim.
Gough Whitlam and Labor were elected to government in 1972 with a promise to end conscription and Australia’s engagement in the Vietnam War. I have a vivid memory of watching Whitlam’s victory speech on the TV news and feeling relief.
I was ten-years-old at the time, but I had already worked out when it would be my turn to register for national service. I was only a schoolboy, and Perth was a long way from the Indochina conflict zones, but with the radio and TV news and newspapers, the Vietnam War felt much closer to home.
The years rolled on, as did the Vietnam War, engulfing neighbouring countries, until 1975, when the Americans helicoptered a hasty evacuation of their embassy in Saigon, and the city fell to the North Vietnamese forces.
One of my chores as a thirteen-year-old was to tend to the wood heater for our evening hot water. I remember pulling apart a daily newspaper to light under the wood and seeing an editorial cartoon of an Asian farmer squatting in a bomb-cratered rice paddy field. His head was tilted towards the sky, free of American bombers and helicopters, and in a single thought bubble he observed, “So this is peace.”
However, we know the fall of Saigon did not bring peace to the South Vietnamese, who took to boats to escape retribution and oppression under the regime of the new, unified Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” arrived in Australia and many resettled in Perth. Under the Liberal Prime Ministership of Malcolm Fraser, we were a more welcoming nation in those days (though let’s be honest, there was still racism towards the “reffos”).
I grew up, left Perth, travelled and worked overseas, and read. My interest in the Vietnam War led me to build a small collection of books on the country and conflict. From Stanley Karnow's weighty 750-page Vietnam A History – The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War (1983) to Charles Fenn's slim Leaders of Modern Thought biography of Ho Chi Minh (1973). From actual and fictional accounts of reporters covering the Indochina War, like Christoper J Koch’s Highways to a War (1996), to the Vietnamese author, Bảo Ninh’s award-winning debut novel, The Sorrow of War (1991).
Through my reading, I learned how the Vietnam War had much earlier roots than the America versus Communists conflict. It stretched back to Vietnamese armed resistance to the Japanese invasion of WWII. I read how conflict escalated with the return of the French colonialists after WWII, who ignored nationalist demands. And how America and its allies, like Australia, ramped up the war to never before seen heights of destruction in Vietnam and neighbouring countries, with their anti-Communist crusade.
Stanley Karnow quotes Phạm Văn Đồng, unified Vietnam’s first Prime Minister, as saying: “Yes, we defeated the United States. But now we are plagued by problems. We do not have enough to eat. We are a poor, underdeveloped nation. Waging war is simple, but running a country is very difficult.”
The Vietnam War from my boyhood perspective was real and frightening. And yet I was safe growing up in faraway W.A., unlike the boys and girls of my age, bombed in the villages and jungles of Vietnam (and who can forget the photo of the girl burnt by napalm, running down the road, naked and crying?).
As an adult, I read and learned more about the war and the mistakes that were made, particularly on the American side. And yet I have friends whose families fled Vietnam in leaky boats. Commonsense tells me you don’t risk your family’s lives unless Communism proved to be more of a nightmare than a fairytale “utopia”.
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It’s a paradox this boy from Perth can only resolve by reading more about the Vietnam War, by learning from those with a closer connection to the country, its past and present, and perhaps by one day visiting Vietnam, as a middle-aged man.
© 2018 Robert Fairhead
NB: This piece is also published on the RobertFairhead.com blog.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.
His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.
Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.
His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.
Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.