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Protest, Homecoming and the Vietnam Legacy

 

New Zealand, like all Western participants in Vietnam, was deeply divided over the morality of being involved in the war. Protesters were active from 1967, and looked for any occasion to vent their anti-military feelings.

In terms of the RNZAF, this was reflected in 1970, when its new American-built McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighters arrived on the wharf at Auckland. Protesters used this opportunity to get as much anti-Vietnam War publicity as possible. As the brand new jets made their way down the adjoining streets, protesters chanted and waved placards, with some also trying to block progress. This was an indication of the general anti-war feeling at the time amongst part of New Zealand society.

For New Zealand servicemen returning home from South Vietnam, there was little welcome apart from their families, and almost no official recognition. They went back to their previous roles without any de-briefing or support, and there was little attempt to compile useful information about what they had learned during their overseas deployment.

The decision to participate, and later increase New Zealand’s military involvement in the Vietnam War was a political one, made by the government of the day. New Zealand military personnel who served in South Vietnam did so because it was their job, and they did what was required of them with professionalism and compassion.

The Vietnam War remained a divisive historical subject for many years, and only since the 1990s has there been a move to recognise the significance and legacy of New Zealand’s involvement. Parade 98 was a ‘homecoming’ event held in Wellington in 1998 that was organised by New Zealand’s Vietnam veterans. The following year, the Government established Veterans Affairs New Zealand as a single agency to look after veterans’ support. Later, official recognition was given to the health effects of veterans’ exposure to toxic substances, such as the defoliant Agent Orange. Following the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Crown and Vietnam veterans, the Government formally apologised for its treatment of Vietnam veterans and a welcome home event (whakanoa), known as ‘Tribute 08’, was held in Wellington in 2008.

In recent years and as part of the formal MOU process, books and oral history projects have recorded the experiences of veterans of the conflict. In 2015, the 50th Anniversary of New Zealand’s part in the war was officially commemorated.

Veterans’ support has also improved since the signing of the MOU. The War Pensions Act 1954 was reviewed and replaced by the Veterans’ Support Act 2014 which now provides for much better veterans’ support, especially in healthcare. That these modernisations extend to all veterans past, present and future, and to their families, is a real legacy of New Zealand’s involvement in what was commonly considered an unpopular war.

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