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Cablegate: New Zealand Thanks Its Vietnam Vets, and Also

VZCZCXRO6039
PP RUEHHM RUEHNZ RUEHPB
DE RUEHWL #0183/01 1630357
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 110357Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5268
INFO RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 5188
RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI 0062
RUEHPB/AMEMBASSY PORT MORESBY 0736
RUEHSV/AMEMBASSY SUVA 0742
RUEHNZ/AMCONSUL AUCKLAND 1681
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY 0004
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 WELLINGTON 000183

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/ANP

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV NZ
SUBJECT: NEW ZEALAND THANKS ITS VIETNAM VETS, AND ALSO
APOLOGIZES

1. (U) Summary. The New Zealand government sponsored a
series of events called "Tribute 08" over the May 31-June 2
three-day weekend to honor and thank NZ veterans who served
and died in the Vietnam War, and to apologize to survivors
and their families for not recognizing their service until
now. The GNZ also acknowledged those who were exposed to
Agent Orange, and regretted earlier government decisions that
minimized the impact of chemical defoliants on Vietnam-era
servicemembers. The tribute included a veterans' honor
parade through downtown Wellington, a memorial service, a
concert, exhibitions, and an official ceremony with comments
by PM Helen Clark, Defense Minister Phil Goff, opposition
leader John Key, and the Ambassador. The tribute and the
government's actions were covered extensively by the NZ
media. Some viewed the tribute as political opportunism by
Clark and her struggling Labour Party and a small group of
veterans considered it too little, too late; it was
nevertheless largely well-received by veterans and
non-veterans alike. End Summary.

New Zealand Apologizes to Vietnam Vets
--------------------------------------

2. (U) The rumble could be heard long before the source
could be seen. A formation of six, olive-drab Vietnam-era
"Huey" helicopters roared low and slow over Wellington on a
peaceful Sunday afternoon, introducing many residents to the
sound of a war they've only read about, and igniting memories
for others who experienced it. This scene was one of many
organized by the NZ government to honor, thank, and apologize
to the 3,400 NZ veterans who served between June 1964 and
December 1972 in the Vietnam War, and to give them the
heroes' welcome that they never received. (Note: Although
the New Zealand governments in those years agreed to
contribute forces, all New Zealand service members who went
to Vietnam were volunteers. As a result, New Zealand
anti-war protesters were particularly harsh towards returnees
and family members because they had volunteered to
participate in an unpopular war. End Note.)

3. (U) The Tribute 08 events included a May 31 morning
parade of Vietnam veterans and their families through
Wellington's city center, complete with military marching
bands, and ended in a ceremony in the plaza fronting
Parliament. Notable were the applause from onlookers lining
the streets; the large framed photos carried by family
members honoring the 37 Kiwis who died in Vietnam; and the
American flags carried by one contingent comprised of US
Vietnam veterans living in NZ. In front of Parliament, a
group of 30 Maori in traditional dress chanted and danced a
Maori "Haka" to welcome and bless the assemblage, numbering
approximately 2,500. The ceremony included speeches by PM
Helen Clark, Minister of Defense Phil Goff, opposition leader
John Key, and others. Notably, Clark and Goff were prominent
anti-Vietnam War activists in their youth and cut their
political teeth in opposition to the war. Clark expressed
gratitude for the veterans' sacrifices and offered an apology
for past governments' denial of their exposure to, and their
suffering from the effects of, Agent Orange. This official
recognition of exposure to and injuries from Agent Orange
came after a five-year fact-finding process conducted by
Parliament and the government. Clark also paid tribute to
the 37 NZ veterans who died in the war and to the 187 who
were injured.

4. (U) Tribute events through the weekend also included a
memorial vigil within Parliament, a memorial service at the
National War Memorial, a commemoration celebration and
reunion, a tribute concert, and Vietnam War exhibitions.
Ambassador McCormick and DAO Captain Dawn Driesbach
participated in most of the events, including a kickoff
ceremony in the Wellington Civic Plaza where the Ambassador
read a statement from Senator John McCain saluting the
veterans and referring to the "sacred bond" shared by those
who fought in Vietnam. All events were covered extensively
by NZ print and television media.

5. (U) In interviews, one veteran stated that the
government's apology was "long overdue" and good to hear;
another complained that the tribute was "a little too late";
and a veteran's widow commented: "It is about time the

WELLINGTON 00000183 002 OF 002


government recognized what they did. They fought a war, went
to save the country, they deserve it. They were never
welcomed home or acknowledged, it was like a war that never
was." Some veterans complained that the New Zealand Returned
and Services Association chapters (RSA, the equivalent of the
Veterans Association chapters in the U.S.) treated Vietnam
vets poorly, even blocking their membership in some chapters.
The returned Vietnam veterans formed their own association,
the Ex-Vietnam Services Association (EVSA), which reunited in
December 2006 with the RSA under a Memorandum of
Understanding. The MOU was a catalyst that led to the
government's apology, the Tribute 08 festivities, and a
financial package to compensate veterans and their families
for their long-term health issues due to Agent Orange and
other chemical defoliants.

Apology to Vietnam
------------------

6. (U) Some anti-war activists had urged the government to
expand its apology to the people of Vietnam. However, Clark
did not go in that direction. One Cambodian immigrant to New
Zealand who now runs an NGO commented that an apology to
Vietnam could invite claims for compensation from the
Vietnamese government for millions of Vietnamese.
Journalists who were able to find ethnic Vietnamese for
reaction to the idea of a GNZ apology to the Vietnam
invariably received a negative reaction, as the Vietnamese
questioned had fled the communist regime that took power in
1975.

Comment: On Balance Well-received
---------------------------------

7. (SBU) Comment. For many NZ veterans and non-veterans,
the events of Tribute 08 and the government's actions were
positively and tearfully welcomed, but not without
recognizing a little irony and possible opportunism. Some
believe the government's apology was geared towards
bolstering the Labour Party's flagging poll numbers. These
same observers note that the Clark-initiated government
apologies in 2002 to Samoa for colonial mistreatment and to
Chinese immigrants exploited by New Zealanders in the 19th
Century were election related. While the 2002 apology was
likely politically motivated, the Tribute 08 apology and
activities date back to 2006 and planning began in earnest in
August 2007, well before Labour's current political woes.
Helen Clark has prided herself on her government's support
for its country's soldiers and recognition of New Zealand's
military contributions internationally. The apology to New
Zealand Vietnam veterans is a belated GNZ attempt to heal old
wounds that painfully divided New Zealand in the Vietnam War
era; financial complaints by its Vietnam veterans remain a
controversial subject and may never be fully resolved. End
Comment.
MCCORMICK

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