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Launch of Vietnam War history (09 Sep 2010)

Speech by Minister Finlayson.

Tihe mauriora!

Tis life

Nau mai haere mai tatou


Ki tō tatou whare

To our house

I runga i te reo karanga o te wā

Hearken the call to gather

Ki te whakaputanga o enei korero mo

On the launch of this book

Te wāhi ki Aotearoa

About the role of New Zealand

i te Riri ki Whitināmu

in the Vietnam War


Acknowledgements to distinguished guests, including veterans of the military campaign and Red Cross and Surgical Team members, who  have come from as far north as Auckland, and south as far as Christchurch.  Every Anzac Day, New Zealanders gather – in ever greater numbers –and say again - as we have been saying for more than nine decades – “We will remember them.”  Ian McGibbon’s monumental work being launched here today -New Zealand’s Vietnam War: A History of combat, commitment and controversy – is part of that important act of rememberingThis is a huge book – not only in its size but in its scope.

It continues the long history government has of recording New Zealand’s war history – and will continue in the future when we come to tell the story of New Zealanders in more recent areas of conflict, such as Afghanistan.  It covers both the combat and civilian role.   About 3000 New Zealand service personnel served in South Vietnam between 1963 and 1975. Thirty seven of them were killed and 187 were wounded – and of course there were also the less visible scars for those who had been involved in a gruelling guerrilla war.   But there were also about 300 civilian New Zealanders who went to help the people of South Vietnam in a variety of ways.

The New Zealand surgical team worked for 13 years at Qui Nhon - and were evacuated just days before North Vietnamese soldiers entered the city.   It includes the Red Cross volunteers - one of whom was killed in an air crash caused by an enemy missile.   And it includes characters such as Sister Mary Laurence – who arrived in South Vietnam in 1969. She was a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker – and set up a workshop to employ refugees, many of whom had lost limbs or eyesight, to make furniture. At one point she was captured by the Vietcong – but she immediately returned to aid work on her release.

As well as the period of the war itself, Ian also covers the aftermath of Vietnam – culminating in the Crown’s apology to veterans two years ago.   The inclusive approach Ian has taken to this official history is reflected in his source material.  As well as combing through the material in the National Archives, the classified records held by the Defence Force – and sources from the United States and Australia – he also used soldiers’ diaries and letters – and oral histories.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage is still doing interviews for the Vietnam War Oral History project, which began at the request of veterans, as part of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Crown and veterans.  And we have the Vietnam War website - where people can contribute their stories, their photographs, and even audio and video. I imagine that Ian’s book will spark many more contributions to that website. 

This multi-dimensional approach is one of the strengths of the way the Ministry does its work nowadays.  There is the authoritative official history - but there is also the easily accessed website with an opportunity for input from those who want to contribute to the public memory.  This mix of books and the new digital media is evident in the six projects the Ministry is already working on for the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War.

One of those projects is Ian McGibbon’s new history of the New Zealanders on the Western Front – a book that will inevitably be a great deal more accessible for the 21st century audience than the official history published in 1922.  The Ministry does this type of work as part of its role in providing respected and trustworthy information about New Zealand’s culture and heritage.  This work is funded by government, and is undertaken by historians who bring their professional training, independence and impartiality to bear on the subject. 

The absence of those qualities accounts in large part for the widely recognised deficiencies in the official histories produced after the First World War.  Today’s History Group is the successor to the War History Branch established within the Department of Internal Affairs in 1945.  It was recognised that the official histories of New Zealand in the Second World War, unlike the First, should be produced at ‘arm’s length’ from the agencies involved, to ensure they were objective, fair and balanced accounts.  The independent judgment of the author was highly prized then, as it is today.  Ian’s book sits firmly within that tradition of post-1945 official war histories, and does not shirk from covering some of the tough issues in our history.

Ian – whose title at the Ministry is General Editor (War History) – has an impressive working knowledge of New Zealand’s involvement in the wars of the 20th century.  He has written books on both of the World Wars and the two-volume official history of the Korean War. He has edited both the OxfordCompanion to Military History and, with his colleague Gavin McLean, the Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War which came out last year. 

Ian combines a depth of detailed knowledge and an ability to take a broad overview – which makes him a tremendous resource on New Zealand’s military history.  He has dedicated his working life to New Zealand’s public history – being recognised for this by being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to historical research as far back as 1997.

It now gives me great pleasure to officially launch his latest contribution to New Zealand’s military history: New Zealand’s Vietnam War.              

Updated on 10th January 2017