The emergence of popular protest in Australia during the 1960s presented a fundamental challenge to government decisions and the way those decisions are made. By taking to the streets, people from various parts of the political spectrum challenged the policy positions of government and, in some cases, the very legitimacy and authority of the state itself.
As a teenage high school student, Tony Dalton witnessed the first induction of Vietnam War conscripts at Melbourne’s Swan Street Barracks in 1964. “It was a very small crowd down there demonstrating early in the morning as the first of those young men went in,” he recalls.
In December that year, the Menzies Liberal Government introduced selective National Service for 20-year-old men, something which the Hughes Labour Government had also tried to introduce during World War One. The first time round, the public narrowly voted against conscription in two referenda held in 1916 and 1917.
By the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, many people supported the Government, conscription and the country’s involvement in the war. This was largely because many people considered World War Two to be a fight for democracy and freedom.
Faced with the very real prospect of being drafted to fight, many young men began to question their attitude towards the war. For Dalton, that led to “thinking more broadly about issues of war and participation in war, relationships to government and the power of governments to wage war and conscript people.”
The position he arrived at was personal and unrelated to religion. “First of all, that the Vietnam War was a completely unjust war,” Dalton says. In hindsight, he took a much stronger, pacifist position than he would now. He thought “the answer to all war & was to simply not participate and encourage others not to participate and to think of ways that conflict could be resolved non- violently.”
During the late 1950s, armed struggle had broken out in South Vietnam between the western-backed government and local communist insurgents. The United States (US) responded to the guerrilla war by sending 10 000 military ‘advisors’ to support South Vietnam, but progressively became more deeply involved. By the mid-1960s, over half a million American troops were stationed in Vietnam.
Locally, the persuasive and popular Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who was elected in 1949 and held office for sixteen years, governed Australian. He wanted to achieve a better lifestyle for all Australians and was bitterly opposed to communism. So, in 1962, he promoted the ‘domino theory’ that if Vietnam fell to communism, then other countries in South East Asia would also fall, one by one, to communism.
Two years later, it became increasingly clear that the war would worsen and that Australia would need to send more troops to support the American and South Vietnamese armies.
Faced with a shortfall of willing participants, the government introduced a controversial form of conscription. A birthday ballot was conducted and dates were randomly selected. This method of conscription was considered highly undemocratic and would later be a key factor in the growing opposition as the war progressed.
Only Indigenous Australians, serving members of the permanent Military Forces and, prior to 1967, non-British migrants were exempt. Opposition to the Vietnam War was not accepted as a reason for exemption.
With this in mind, Dalton and only a handful of other people around the country began to describe themselves as conscientious non-compliers, a term that had been coined in a series of articles by Quaker newspaper, Peacemaker.
Conscientious non-complier was a much more radical position than conscientious objector, which was described as a person who obeyed the law by signing up for military service but then made a claim through the courts for exemption on the grounds that their consciences did not allow them to fight in the war.
“We took it a step further and said & the act itself is illegitimate,” says Dalton. “The act itself is something we can’t tolerate. [That is] the conscription of young men into this war, and others and myself were saying all wars & ”
For that reason, the only response was not only to excuse yourself but challenge the act and its very legitimacy, according to Dalton. He would not be part of the system, would not register, would not attend medicals and would not participate in future call-ups. “So it was & a stand in principle,” he says. “Declaring that principle and not seeking to hide or to in any way avoid the system. But, in fact, to challenge and confront the system.”
That position was considered quite radical at a time when most of the public were comfortable to back Menzies in his support of the United States. Even when Harold Holt replaced him in 1966, many approved of Holt’s declaration that Australia would go ‘all the way with LBJ’, the United States president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
But as the 1960s progressed, Australian involvement in Vietnam became increasingly controversial and opposition to the war grew. By 1968, a strong anti-Vietnam movement had developed as it became increasingly obvious that the war was going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to win.
A Gallup Poll in August 1969 showed that 55 per cent of people favoured bringing Australian troops home and 40 per cent favoured them staying. This was the first poll to show less than 50 per cent approval for the government’s policy, and all polls after August 1969 were to reveal a majority in favour of bringing the troops home.
The anti-War movement encouraged a general questioning of what was going on at the time because it struck at the heart of where Australia was in the world,” says Verity Burgmann, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Melbourne University. “If the great ally of the United States could be shown to be at fault, as a lot of young people vehemently came to believe that it was, then that encouraged a general questioning of Australian priorities and encouraged young people to think critically about a whole range of issues.
In opposition to the war in Indo-China, the Australian peace movement, active in opposing nuclear weapons in the late fifties and early sixties, revived.
“The anti-Vietnam War movement is really associated with the youth of the time,” Dr Burgmann explains. “In particular, the radical students. But it also needs to be acknowledged that there were also involved, people from a previous generation of protesters who had been active in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in contesting the arms race [and], particularly, were campaigning for nuclear disarmament.”
Partly inspired by the Vietnam protests, other movements also gained strength through the radicalised environment of the time.
The peace movement, historically, was concerned with human survival and, therefore, shared a common purpose with the green movement, according to Dr Burgmann. In particular, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), who was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, started the Green Bans movement in Sydney. The women’s movement also re- emerged in this radicalised climate, although they had other influences, such as the need for female labour.
Dalton, who was a conscientious non-complier from the early stages of the Vietnam War, recalls a change in thinking among those protesters as a broader cross-section of the public began to oppose the war.
“As that mass movement developed, there was [better] organisation amongst the conscientious non- compliers, as we described ourselves,” he explains. “There were others who say we’re going to support you. And there are more young men turning 20, who are increasingly confronted with the same issues, now operating in an environment where opposition to the war is becoming much more popular.”
In this context, the concept of draft resistance emerged. Draft resisters simply refused to register at all, which was initially punishable by fines or a few weeks in prison. Failure to report after getting a call-up notice attracted a two-year gaol sentence.
There were a whole series of accompanying actions that took place alongside that shift to draft resistance. People would liberate large quantities of forms, which had to be signed by 20-year-old men, and fill them in with bogus names. Several resisters also burned their draft cards in symbolic events.
Students from high schools and universities began to join the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the media began a push for an end to Australian involvement in the war. There were teach-ins, pamphlets, newsletters, books and the like. And it was at this point that the public started showing hostility to returning soldiers.
“One of the things that was really important,” Dalton says of the marches, “was the huge presence of secondary school students. There’s all these debates then in schools and amongst parents about [whether] secondary school students be taking time off school to go and sit down in Bourke Street and help stop the city for an afternoon?”
Personally, Dalton made a number of sacrifices in his public opposition to the war. He spent a number of months in safe houses and spent several days in gaol after refusing to attend a medical examination.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was also developing on a global scale. In October 1969, an American Peace Moratorium was held, and is believed to be the largest demonstration in United States history with an estimated 20 to 30 million people involved. Impressed by their success, the Australian anti-war movement held a conference to discuss the development of a similar event here.
Between May 1970 and June 1971, around 350 000 protesters staged three events. Marching alongside each other were an odd collection of women who had opposed the conscription of their sons, unions and members of the environmental movement.
Following the moratorium marches, the government announced that all Australian troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1971, which virtually spelt the end of the anti-war movement. Protesters then turned their attention back to conscription, as the Gorton Liberal Government maintained their commitment to conscription as they announced the withdrawal of troops.
The Whitlam Labor Government finally ended conscription after they were elected in December 1972. Australia’s military commitment in South Vietnam also ended, although controversy about the precise end date of the war continued.
There was a sense of achievement that all the actions they had undertaken over the eight-year period had contributed significantly to the debate, according to Dalton. “That, along with a lot of other people, we’d been able to shift opinion around this & very important issue.” Burgmann says the success of the anti-war movement in bringing conscription to an end was an important morale booster for radical movements generally, and other movements, such as the Green Bans, now believed that success was possible.
“The way that public opinion polls shifted from a position that favoured intervention in Vietnam to a position that was opposed to intervention in Vietnam, during the course of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, was testimony to the power of protest,” she says.
Not just to achieve direct goals but also to influence public opinion. So the old arguments about how, if you want people to agree with you, you’ve got to behave really nicely and moderately were shown to be completely false. That the more you put the issue on the public agenda by, to a large extent, making a nuisance of yourself, then it made people have to think. And it shifted the spectrum of public debate towards a more critical stance.
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- Vietnam War, 1961 - 1975