Australia and the Vietnam War

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Moratoriums and Opposition - public dissent

An anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Victoria Square, Adelaide, 1971. [National Library of Australia pic-vn4268191]

An anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Victoria Square, Adelaide, 1971. [National Library of Australia pic-vn4268191]

In the early years of Australian involvement in Vietnam, opposition, even to the policy of sending conscripts to a war zone, was limited. The National Service Scheme did attract opponents as soon as it was introduced, but it was only when the government increased the size of Australia’s commitment to the war in Vietnam in May 1966, making the use of conscripts necessary, that significant public opposition arose.

National service’s early opponents included the Parliamentary Opposition, religious groups, trade unionists, academics, and young men affected by the scheme. From within this disparate anti-conscription movement groups began to form and organise, some becoming prominent and forming branches across Australia. Among them: Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC) formed in late 1964 and closely aligned to the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and Save Our Sons (SOS) founded in Sydney in 1965 shortly after the government announced an increase of troops to Vietnam.

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  • May 1968, a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra [NAA:A1200, L71054] The surveillance of protesters was very blatant. Nobody made any secret about it, back then before high tech took over. We used to have the Special Branch plods sitting at the back of every meeting hall that we were at and they would have their notebook and their camera and they’d be taking down the names of people who were there and what was said and car numbers outside and all the rest of it and they made no secret of it… [Joan Coxsedge, ‘Save our Sons’ movement, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 370 (Drawing on interview no 2564 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]
  • [‘In conscience do you object to military service because of the Vietnam War or for any other reason?’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Conscription. Anti. Undated.’ Poster collection]
  • [‘Recognise the Provisional Revolutionary Government...Honour the Paris Agreements. A lasting peace for Vietnam’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Vietnam War.1969’, poster collection]
  • [‘Brian Ross 2 Years Gaol’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Conscription. Anti. 1965-1969’, poster collection]
  • A protest at Parliament House in Canberra, 1970 [NAA A1200, L85635]

The Canberra demonstration was held two days before the main one around Australia and it was a very cold, wet, blustery day and we marched from Civic over to Parliament House… It was a feeling of marching along with people all of like mind, a sense that finally opinion was starting to flow our way… On the day itself one was gladdened by the sight of secretaries from departments, young secretaries from departments, public servants, some people from blue-collar sections of the community, all marching together. [Alan Gould, Vietnam protestor, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 379 (Drawing on interview no 2559 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]
  • ‘HOW MANY YEARS CAN SOME PEOPLE EXIST’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Vietnam War. Undated’, poster collection
  • ‘Free draft resistors, free Rob Martin’ Protesters listening to a prisoners speech outside Yatala Prison, SA. [PIC/4002/22 LOC 9081]
  • ‘STOP WORK TO STOP WORLD WAR GAMBLE’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection, ‘Vietnam War. 1970-1975’ poster collection]
  • This Vietnam moratorium logo badge was produced between 1965 and 1975  and is in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection in Sydney. [89/57 2-9 Badge. Image courtesy of Power House Museum.]
  • [‘2 years gaol for something he didn’t do’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Conscription. Anti. Undated’, poster collection]

At his first press conference after being sworn in by the Governor-General on 5 December 1972, the Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, advised that there would be no further call-up. Those who had received notices would not be obliged to act on them and had not further obligation under the National Service Act. 

The Prime Minister had also instructed the new Attorney-General, Senator Murphy, QC, ‘that all pending prosecutions are to be withdrawn. The Commonwealth Police have been asked to withhold execution of outstanding warrants and papers have been prepared for the Governor-General to remit the sentences, the remaining portion of all prison sentences, of those who are now in prison and also the remission of all outstanding fines.’  He advised that he had already signed the necessary papers and that they would be submitted to the Governor-General. [NAA …
  • An anti-Vietnam War metal pendant and chain produced in Australia between 1965 and 1975. The word 'MORATORIUM'. is engraved into the back of the pendant.  
 [92/107 Image courtesy of Power House Museum]
  • ‘Demonstrate April 18th Ken McClelland Teacher/Draft/Resister’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Conscription. Anti. 1972-1975’, poster collection

On 18 April 1972, Ken McClelland, a teacher at Hawkesdale High School in Victoria, was sentenced to serve 18 months in Pentridge Prison for failing to obey his National Service call up notice.
After the Labor Government came to power in December 1972, Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck, was instructed to sign papers remitting the sentences of seven jailed draft resisters, including Ken McClelland. Another was Bob Scates, who had been imprisoned for 14 months. They were released on 7 December 1972. [State Library of Victoria, MS12529 Box 3292/8]
  • This poster, carrying the moratorium symbol at bottom right, was one of many made to promote the moratorium marches.  The man who did not chose his career is clearly the glum looking soldier standing apart from those whose clothes indicate a range of civilian occupations.  In reality national servicemen were obliged to serve for two years, those who went to Vietnam and survived were discharged shortly after their tour and were, indeed, free to chose their own careers thereafter.  [Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla pic-an7753445]

The announcement gave the protest movement some momentum, but it built slowly as anti-war groups began working together and learning lessons from similar groups in the United States. By 1969 those who opposed the war had increased in number and become sufficiently well organised to coordinate Australia-wide mass protests, known as the moratorium marches of 1970–71. Involvement in anti-war activities politicised many previously disinterested Australians. Opposition to the war was a radicalising experience for some people such as the middle-class women, members of Save Our Sons, who were arrested during peaceful protests outside national service induction centres.

[‘WITHDRAW ALL FORCES NOW Moratorium June 30’ from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Vietnam War. Moratorium, NSW’ poster collection] [NAA:A1200, L71054]

Despite the eventual strength and widespread nature of the anti-war movement, its effectiveness in Australia is open to question. The Australian Government had followed the United States lead in Vietnam since the early 1960s and continued to do so until the last Australian troops were withdrawn in 1972. When the United States began removing its troops from Vietnam, Australia followed suit, irrespective of the well-attended protests of 1970 and 1971.

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View video of Interview 6 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585

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View video of Interview with Sabine Erika, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2529