New Zealand’s new focus on the defence of South-East Asia was a major change of strategy and marked the second phase of its involvement in the Cold War. The immediate aim was to help stabilise the colonies of Malaya and Singapore, to allow Britain to hand over power to elected independent governments. New Zealand’s deployment on the Malayan peninsula helped defeat the communist guerrilla campaign (the ‘Emergency’) in 1960. It continued to engage in counter-insurgency measures until 1964. New Zealand forces stayed on in Singapore until 1989 as a sign of Western support for the region’s stability.
‘Forward Defence’ was the name given to the new strategy, aimed at keeping New Zealand secure by helping new nations like Malaysia and Singapore to emerge from the collapse of the colonial empires. Almost half of New Zealand’s small peacetime army was based continuously in those countries for 34 years, from 1955 to 1989.
In hindsight, with competent governments established, the support for Malaysia (as it became in 1963) and Singapore seemed to have been brilliantly successful – although only a bold optimist would have said so in the early 1960s. It was by no means clear that either elected government would survive. Insurgencies were growing elsewhere, in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. In 1959 the North Vietnamese government had backed an insurgency to reunify the whole of Vietnam under its rule. By 1961 it was seriously threatening the American-supported southern government.
Also in 1961 the communist East German government built a wall around West Berlin to stop its citizens leaving for the West. The figurative ‘iron curtain’ between Eastern and Western Europe was now materially expressed in a 112-kilometre concrete wall. It soon became an emblem of the Cold War .
With newly decolonised governments in South-East Asia struggling to establish themselves amid internal dissent, a popular concept known as the domino theory suggested that as one fell to communism others would follow, like toppling dominoes. The theory was much disputed but Chinese leader Mao Zedong was alleged to have subscribed to it, predicting in 1964 that Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia would fall, one after another.
Two cold wars
Following a split between the Chinese and Soviet governments in 1963–64 – China did not want to be beholden to the Soviet Union – there were effectively two cold wars: one with the Soviet Union, centred on Europe and nuclear weapons but worldwide, and the other with China, centred on East and South-East Asia. China supported North Vietnam’s unification attempt. The US, influenced by the domino theory, intervened militarily to buttress South Vietnam in 1965.
New Zealand, like Australia, welcomed the US intervention, hoping (though not confidently) that it would stabilise the northern end of South-East Asia as the Commonwealth effort had stabilised Malaysia. Urged by both the US and Australia, New Zealand agreed to provide an artillery unit of 120 men in 1965. The long (1959–1975) and tragic war ended in defeat for South Vietnam and the US, and triumph for the North Vietnamese forces. North Vietnam’s common border with China allowed plentiful supplies, and their cause raised the potent banner of national reunification. New Zealand’s small combat detachment was withdrawn at the end of 1971, along with almost all the remaining American forces.
A dove among hawks
New Zealand’s ANZUS commitments meant it felt obliged to make a military commitment to South Vietnam’s defence. The government, unconvinced of the chances of success, put off contributing until May 1965, when an artillery unit was sent. Further pressure from ANZUS allies led to the deployment of two infantry companies in 1966 and then small units of medical, navy and air-force personnel. In reference to this position, New Zealand was later described as ‘the most dovish of the hawks’.1
The US defeat had a surprising strategic outcome. Behind the wall of the decade-long American military effort, the rest of South-East Asia had undergone an unexpected change. The huge spending to support the war and the generous access for exports from Vietnam’s neighbours in American markets gave prosperity to the region’s economies and a new confidence to its governments. By the time Saigon (capital of South Vietnam) fell in 1975, the region to the south had been transformed. Its countries were politically stable and linked in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) group, which brought a sense of community and significant investment. China’s attitude had also shifted after re-establishing relations with the US, and the death of Mao in 1976; it ended all but verbal support for South-East Asian insurgencies.