From the outset, official views in Wellington on the Vietnam conflict were shaped by general Cold War concerns and alliance considerations, alongside practical qualms about becoming directly involved. During the first Indo-China War, between the communist-dominated Viet Minh and France and its local allies from 1946 to 1954, New Zealand accepted the Anglo-American view that Vietnam was a crucial point on the front line against communist expansion in Asia. New Zealand also joined its major allies in recognising the French-sponsored Bao Dai regime in 1950, but remained dubious about the strength and legitimacy of indigenous non-communist forces there. Accordingly, it confined its military contribution to sending the French two shipments of surplus weapons and ammunition.
The outcome of this conflict, however, coincided with a significant shift in New Zealand's approach to regional security. Following the French withdrawal and the Geneva conference's 'temporary' division of Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, it became a founding member of SEATO, which was seen principally as a means of securing a joint Anglo-American commitment to maintaining regional stability. A New Zealand security commitment in the region, most clearly articulated in the strategy of forward defence in South-east Asia, was now accepted, though it did not bring closer involvement in Vietnam immediately.
The second Indo-China War began as a civil war, as the regime in South Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem was confronted from 1959 with an insurgency mounted by the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong), which was backed by the government of North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh. By late 1961, the Viet Cong were seriously threatening the southern government, to which American non-combatant military and economic assistance was increased. New Zealand resisted American pressure to make a contribution as well, partly because of doubts about the effectiveness of external intervention and fears of a wider war, possibly including China.
Pragmatism and parsimony were the hallmarks of Prime Minister K.J. Holyoake's general approach to foreign policy and defence matters, and on Vietnam issues he was always especially cautious. Unlike Australia, which sent a small team of military advisers in 1962, New Zealand confined its assistance initially to a civilian surgical team; during the ensuing twelve years this team would operate quietly but effectively at Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh province. Under continuing American pressure, the government agreed during 1963 to provide a small non-combatant military force, but the deteriorating political situation in Saigon led to delays. Not until June 1964 did twenty-five Army engineers arrive in South Vietnam. Based at Thu Dau Mot, the capital of Binh Duong province, they were engaged in reconstruction projects, such as road and bridge building, until July 1965.