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Who brought the troops home?

Gough Whitlam? John Gorton? Or William McMahon?

Australian troops were committed to the Vietnam War by prime minister Robert Menzies (1949–66) and his successor Harold Holt (1966–67). Cabinet records held by the National Archives show that William McMahon had expressed concerns about the initial commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam in 1965. At the peak commitment, some 8000 Australian troops were stationed in Vietnam.

The withdrawal of combat troops began during John Gorton’s term as prime minister in 1968–71. As prime minister in 1971–72, William McMahon expedited the withdrawal, announcing on 18 August 1971 the return of the remainder of the Australian Task Force by December. The last battalion was home by Christmas 1971, and the Logistics Support Group left Vietnam in early March 1972. The withdrawal of Australian troops was in line with the withdrawal of US troops, but perhaps hastened by McMahon’s surprise at Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

Australian troops returned from Vietnam march through Brisbane, Queensland, 1970.

Australian troops returned from Vietnam march through Brisbane, Queensland, 1970.

NAA: A1500, K26969

After the withdrawal of Australia’s combat troops, a small Australian military presence remained. The Australian Army Assistance Group Vietnam (AAAGV), consisted principally of the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam (AATTV), but also engineers, medical and headquarters staff. By November 1972, the Training Team had completed its work and was waiting to come back to Australia.

By the time Gough Whitlam was sworn in as prime minister in December 1972, there were only about 100 Australian soldiers remaining in Vietnam. As he had promised before the election his government immediately recalled these advisers.

The last member of the AAAGV left Vietnam on 23 December 1972, with a platoon of Australian infantry troops remaining in Vietnam to guard the Australian Embassy in Saigon.

So the answer could well be William McMahon, who was prime minister when the last of Australia’s combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and a dissenting voice when the original decision to send the troops was made six years before.

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Did you know ...

While 'Prime Minister', 'Premier', and 'Chief Minister' all mean the same thing – the 'first' or 'chief' minister, who heads a government – in Australia they are used differently. Heads of government in the six states are Premiers, and only the head of the federal government is called 'Prime Minister'. In Australia's self-governing territories, each head of government is called the 'Chief Minister'.

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