Anti-conscription campaign

Suzanne Fairbanks

In 1962 Australia, in coalition with the United States of America and the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, went to war against the North Vietnamese communists led by Ho Chi Minh. In November 1964 the Australian parliament passed the Menzies government’s National Service Act, which required all young men to register for the army. The first conscripted national servicemen were called up in 1966.1 Barely 20 years since World War II had ended with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the midst of the cold war stand-off between the USA and its allies and the communist bloc, another generation of young Australian men went to war.

Conscription was conducted by a ballot process—the draft. All men were required to register on reaching 20 years of age, but only those whose birthdays were selected in a twice-yearly ballot would be compelled to serve two years in the army and five years in the army reserve. This was the generation entering Australian universities from the mid-1960s.

The Melbourne University Labor Club initially led student opposition to the war and its membership grew until it split in 1968 over the question of whether to be an activist or educative group. From this split new organisations emerged.2Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) established itself in a shared house in Palmerston Street in Carlton which became known as the Centre for Democratic Action. Members of the SDS, Harry Van Moorst and Michael Hamel-Green, explained their philosophy: traditional politics was morally unacceptable and should be replaced by participatory democracy. Collective, decentralised decision-making and direct, non-violent action such as theatre, street demonstrations and leafleting all aimed to empower participants in a new politics.3 In cooperation with the Melbourne University Draft Resisters Union and the Radical Action Movement, SDS urged students to refuse to register for the draft, and led them to declare Union House a place of safety for draft resisters who had gone ‘underground’, hiding from the police.

In the meantime, action in the broader Australian community against conscription and the war grew steadily throughout the 1960s. Established peace groups such as the Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament, trade unions, members of the Australian Labor Party, Christian peace groups such as PAX, the Federal Pacifist Council of Australia and women’s groups such as Save Our Sons began to demonstrate, publish and lobby. Many of these groups, including students from all three universities in Melbourne and some high schools, joined the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign, which was gathering force and planning demonstrations for some time between April and June 1970.

In March 1970, the organisers of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign were aware of the possibility that an invasion into North Vietnam was brewing and the use of tactical nuclear weapons was feared.4When American and South Vietnamese troops were ordered to cross the border from Vietnam into Cambodia at the end of April 1970 to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries, soldiers and arms, public opinion was galvanised. The first moratorium demonstration on 8 May 1970 brought an estimated 100,000 people into Bourke Street to protest against the war in Vietnam.

By late 1970 Australia had begun to wind down its military presence in Vietnam and it continued its troop withdrawals throughout 1971. The last Australian troops came home in December 1972. The newly elected Whitlam Labor government suspended the national service scheme in the same month.

References

  1. Australian War Memorial, Vietnam War 1962–75; Sue Langford, ‘Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964–72’, in Peter Edwards, A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965–1975, Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1997.
  2. Mick Armstrong, One, two three, what are we fighting for? The Australian student movement from its origins to the 1970s, Melbourne: Socialist Alternative, 2001.
  3. Richard Campbell, ‘The political faith healers’, The Bulletin, 25 January 1969, pp. 34–5. Copy held in reference no. 1991.0133, Brian Boyd Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  4. Minutes of the Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament, 10 March 1970. Reference no. 1975.0152, item 5/25, Campaign for International Co-operation and Disarmament Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.