An anti-war vigil outside Parliament House in Canberra, May 1968. [NAA:A1200, L71054]
Australian public opinion about the war in Vietnam moved through several stages over the decade-long involvement. In the beginning a largely disinterested public paid little attention to a war that involved very few Australian soldiers, especially as they were members of the regular Army engaged in a training role. At the same time, most Australians were wary of communism’s spread through Asia and when Australia’s commitment to Vietnam increased to a regular Army battalion in 1965 there was little negative reaction.
News that Australia would contribute a task force to the war in 1966, and that this expansion would mean front line service for national servicemen, sparked a rise in the number of anti-war groups. Some were opposed more to conscription than to the war itself. In 1967, when the deployment of an extra battalion to Vietnam was announced, public opposition to the war increased. An opinion poll revealed that 46% of the electorate disapproved of the decision, 17% were undecided. Only 37% were in favour, marking the first time that opponents of the commitment outnumbered supporters. In the period before this, opposition to the war, as the ALP had learnt to its cost in 1966, was not a vote winner. Despite the 1967 opinion poll results, it took until 1969 before it was electorally popular to oppose the war. In August that year an opinion poll found, for the first time, that a majority of Australians favoured a withdrawal from Vietnam.
‘STOP WORK TO STOP WORLD WAR GAMBLE’ [From the Riley and Ephemera Collection Vietnam War. 1970-1975’, poster collection] By May 1972, the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam was complete. Just a few troops remained in the Australian Embassy guard. This poster advertising a demonstration in the Melbourne Treasury Gardens on Friday 19 May 1972 targets President Nixon and the US Government and their continuing role in the war.
But public opinion and public protest played a relatively small role in policy decisions about Vietnam. Australia’s withdrawal from the war was already underway in the early 1970s when widespread protests, known as moratorium marches, took place in the country’s major cities. All through the war Australia followed America’s lead (often with regional concerns at the forefront of government thinking) and once the United States decided to leave Vietnam, Australia was left with no choice but to follow suit.
Twenty years after the North Vietnamese victory, in April 1995, an opinion poll marking the thirtieth anniversary of Prime Minister Menzies’ commitment of a battalion to Vietnam and the twentieth anniversary of Saigon’s fall found that 55% of Australians thought that it was wrong to have sent troops to Vietnam and 30% considered it the right thing to have done.