Australia in the 1960s

The Vietnam War

In 1961 and 1962, Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the government in South Vietnam, repeatedly requested security assistance from the USA and its allies. In 1962, prime minister Robert Menzies sent 30 Australian military advisers to Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese Army. In November 1964, the Commonwealth Parliament reintroduced compulsory military service (the National Service Scheme) for 20-year-old men.

By early 1965, due to South Vietnam's inability to resist communist insurgents from North Vietnam, the USA commenced a major escalation of the war. By the end of the year the USA had committed 200,000 troops to the conflict and had asked its allies to similarly commit troops. Later that year, prime minister Robert Menzies announced the decision to send a battalion of combat troops to Vietnam. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its leader Arthur Calwell were strongly opposed to Australia taking part in the war. In June, Menzies declared that Australia was at war in Vietnam.

Sir Robert Menzies retired in January 1966 and was succeeded as prime minister and Liberal Party leader by the former treasurer, Harold Holt. After winning the 1966 elections, Holt increased Australian troop numbers in Vietnam to 6,500 and sent conscripts there for the first time.

In 1966, the Battle of Long Tan ended with 18 Australian soldiers being killed, 24 wounded and 245 Vietcong killed. In 1967, Australian troops fighting in Vietnam increased to 8,300. In 1969, a gallup poll showed a change in attitude towards the war, with 55 per cent of voters surveyed in favour of Australian troops being withdrawn and 40 per cent wanting the troops to remain.

A snapshot of 1968

  • January
    • Senator John Gorton becomes prime minister after the disappearance of Harold Holt, presumed drowned off Portsea, Victoria.
    • The Tet Offensive is launched during the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese troops attempt to take significant South Vietnamese strongholds in the one offensive action.

  • February
    • The Draft Resistance Movement is formed. They declare that the group not only opposes conscription, but intends to destroy it.
    • WC Wentworth is appointed the first minister for Aboriginal Affairs, although he has no department under his control.

  • May
    • A mineral investment boom begins on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).
    • The Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi visits Australia.

  • December
    • The breathalyser test for drink-driving is introduced in NSW.


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