Australia and the Vietnam War

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Conscription

'Save Our Sons'

I believe conscription is unjust, immoral and a denial of human rights.’
Save Our Sons provided assistance to young men, such as Tony McFarland, seeking conscientious objector status and, therefore, exemption from national service. Those whose beliefs forbade them from engaging in any form of military service were entitled to an exemption after a formal and quite rigorous process of review that could ultimately involve an appeal to the High Court of Australia. Some suggested that the system was too subjective and inconsistent, made capricious by the personal views of magistrates. [National Archives of Australia A6122 1854, p. 59 of 191]

‘I believe conscription is unjust, immoral and a denial of human rights.’ Save Our Sons provided assistance to young men, such as Tony McFarland, seeking conscientious objector status and, therefore, exemption from national service. [National Archives of Australia A6122 1854, p. 59 of 191]

Save Our Sons (SOS) was established in 1965 in Sydney but soon other groups formed under the SOS banner across the country. Some men and young women became members, but for the most part SOS was comprised of women, mostly middle-class and middle-aged, whose sons were old enough to be subject to national service. The nature of SOS protests varied – some involved silent vigils in public places of commemoration such as Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance; at other times members handed out leaflets at Army barracks or railway stations from which national servicemen were travelling to begin their military service.

Members of SOS also prepared and circulated petitions, approached members of parliament and worked in conjunction with other anti-war groups to protest against national service and the war. Their protests were not always met with the same civility with which they were conducted. Some members of SOS were subject to abuse and insult. Called communists at a time when the term was replete with implications that the accused was somehow anti-Australian, some women were also sworn at and called ‘bad mothers’ and neglectful wives. One woman recalled the unpleasant experience of regular protests outside the Swan Street barracks in Melbourne while families farewelled their sons into military service. Unwelcome and subject to abuse, the SOS protesters persisted because they believed their cause was worth the opprobrium and verbal confrontation.

A Save Our Sons float on a Brisbane street during the 1967 May Day parade.  Although the Save Our Sons movement claimed not to be political, many opponents felt that it had radical left-wing and even communist sympathies. [Grahame Garner photographer, image provided courtesy of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.]

A Save Our Sons float on a Brisbane street during the 1967 May Day parade. Although the Save Our Sons movement claimed not to be political, many opponents felt that it had radical left-wing and even communist sympathies. [Grahame Garner photographer, image provided courtesy of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.]

Sometimes protest activities resulted in the arrest of SOS members. In April 1971 five SOS women were sentenced to 14 days in Fairlea Women’s Prison for handing out anti-conscription leaflets to men registering for national service. The charge was trespass. The case attracted considerable media attention and the women were released after 11 days.

Membership of SOS had another effect too. Many were becoming involved in political activities for the first time. Although they often came from Liberal voting suburbs, many women who joined SOS found that the issues of the war and national service moved them into the Labor camp. Others had always been there. For many who joined SOS the experience gave them the confidence and ability to publicly express their views for the first time. The women’s movement of the 1970s benefited from the politicisation of such people.


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SOS Flyer This Save Our Sons leaflet appealed to the love of parents for their children and sought to mobilise opinion against the use of conscripts in the war. [NAA A6122/45 1668, p.10 of 104]

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SOS Newsletter Save Our Sons produced a monthly newsletter during the Vietnam War. The contents of this January 1967 issue were typical of the publication. [NAA A6122 1854, pp. 93-95 of 191]

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SOS Background This document outlines SOS’s view on its background and aims. [NAA A6122 1668, p. 59 of 104]

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'Calling all parents' Save Our Sons provided assistance to young men, such as Tony McFarland, whose beliefs forbade them from engaging in military service. Exemptions could be granted after a rigorous process of review sometimes involving the High Court of Australia. Some suggested that the system was too subjective, made unfair and capricious by the personal views of individual magistrates. [NAA A6122 1668, p. 11 of 104]

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A poster issued by the Save Our Sons movement in 1970. [NAA, A6122, 2121, Vol 1, p. 68 of 172]