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Studies of conflict: World War II, Korea and Vietnam

Only 20 years after the end of World War I, Australia found itself at war again, but this time the conflict would come much closer to home.

In Europe and North Africa, Australians were involved in the conflict against German forces, but after 1941 they were also fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

The United States forces were heavily involved in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II under the command of General McArthur. They were based in Brisbane and it wasn’t uncommon to see American uniforms on Queensland streets.

For the first time, Australians were conscripted into active service. Although conscripted soldiers were not supposed to serve overseas, many of them fought in New Guinea, which was an Australian territory. New Guinea saw some of the toughest battles of the war, including the infamous Kokoda Track.

Women also played a more active role, both at home and overseas.

And Australia faced the possibility of being invaded by Japanese forces – Darwin was bombed several times and Japanese midget submarines attempted an attack on Sydney Harbour.

Australian nursing sister nursing patient in Vietnam

An Australian nursing sister and her patient, Vietnam. Australian War Memorial EKN/68/0122/VN.


In 1942 Japanese troops moved swiftly through South East Asia, occupying Vietnam, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). As they made their way overland through the Australian territory of New Guinea, Australian Reservists, conscripts and volunteer soldiers engaged them in conflict on the Kokoda Track. The speed at which South East Asian countries were conquered coined the notion of the ‘domino effect’, as countries fell in rapid succession just like dominos.

The domino effect shaped the thinking of Australian politicians, military strategists and diplomats in the decades following World War II. The threat of Chinese communism cascading through South East Asia influenced Australia’s decision to join the Korean and Vietnamese Wars.

Following World War II, Australia turned to the USA for protection against potential aggressors. Can you suggest reasons why this might be? Image 3 shows American sailors being welcomed in Brisbane in World War II. Do you know why? If not, try searching online using ‘Battle of the Coral Sea’. The US became a critical security partner for Australia. What obligations might this partnership bring with it? Try searching online using ‘ANZUS Pact’ for more information.


Image 4 features the British Prime Minister, the American President and the Soviet Premier in July 1945. The war in Europe was over and the political boundaries of Europe were up for negotiation. Russia, which lost 20 million citizens during the German invasion, led the fight against the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Russian emancipation, however, did not come without a price. Countries in which the ‘Red Army’ defeated occupying German forces had no choice but to join the communist Soviet bloc. The subsequent division between the Soviet Union in the east and the democratic ‘West’ (which included Western European countries and allies such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand) led to the Cold War.

What was the Cold War? What were some of its defining characteristics? What effects did the Cold War have on Australian society?

During the Potsdam conference, where Image 4 was taken, the US President Harry Truman told Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that the United States had recently detonated an atomic bomb in New Mexico. On 6 August the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, then another on Nagasaki on 9 August (Image 5).

What effects did the use of atomic weapons have on the ways in which countries sought to defend themselves?

How might countries without nuclear arsenals seek to protect themselves against potential aggressors?


The Cold War, the domino effect, and a burgeoning security relationship with the United States influenced Australia’s decisions to participate in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Although both wars involved Australian troops fighting communist forces, the circumstances surrounding the conflicts were different. The United Nations supported the involvement of international forces in the Korean War but not in the Vietnam conflict. Although the reasons countries go to war are never clear cut, North Korea’s incursion into South Korea on 25 June 1950 was regarded as hostile by the international community. The fact that North Korea had Soviet backing meant that the Korean peninsula became the front line of the Cold War. The origins of the Vietnam War are far more complicated, with international intervention in domestic affairs intensifying conflict between supporters and opponents of communism.

The pictures in the image gallery address several concepts, including the domino effect, Australia-US relations and the Cold War.

Choose one of these concepts and explain its role in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. How did the concept influence Australian society? Was there unanimous support for the Australian Government’s stance on the concept? Is it still current? What is the Australian Government’s position today?

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