By Shayla Smith
Australian citizens offered little opposition to their country’s early involvement in the Vietnam War. Opposition came from groups like Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC), founded in 1964, and Save our Sons (SOS), founded in 1965. Other early dissenters included: trade unionists, religious groups, and those affected by the National Service Act.
Public discontent towards the war mounted after the Menzies Government passed the National Service Act in November 1964. The legislation required all Australian men to register with the Department of Labour and National Service (DLNS) when they turned twenty years old. In May 1965, the Menzies Government amended The Defence Act of 1903 to include national service overseas. The following May, Australia expanded its Vietnam task force, prompting the need for conscripts in the war. Between 1964 and 1972, over 800,000 men registered with DLNS.
Influenced by the 1969 Moratorium in the United States, the Victorian Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament (CICD) founded the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign (VMC) in November 1969. The campaign responded to the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam and the defeat of the Australian Labor Party in the 1969 election. Labor Party Member of Parliament (MP), Dr. Jim Cairns, led the VMC, which was comprised of union, pacifist, and student groups.
VMC formed an interstate alliance with the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament, the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (SA), and the Queensland Peace Council for International Co-operation and Disarmament. The VMC aimed to withdraw Australian and foreign troops from Vietnam and repeal the National Service Act. Ken Mcleod, one of the VMC organizers, believed that success could only be attained if the campaign became “the biggest manifestation of anti-war feeling ever seen in this country.”
The first action of the VMC occurred on 8 and 9 May 1970. The 8 May march happened four days after the Kent State University shooting in the United States, eliciting fear in many Australian protesters. Liz Jackson, a protester, later recalled that she and her boyfriend planned to “dress smartly in the youthfully naive hope that this might lessen the conservative antipathy to anti Vietnam War protesters.” Students, public servants, unionists, children, and veterans participated in the VMC marches.
Over 200,000 Australians protested across the country and approximately 100,000 citizens participated in the Melbourne march. Nearly 1,000 police officers kept watch over the Melbourne protesters, but no arrests occurred. Jim Cairns delivered a speech at the Treasury Gardens and protesters marched through the streets displaying anti-war posters and chanting anti-Vietnam war slogans. Street plays also took place at various locations; for instance, La Mama Theatre performed in the Melbourne City Square in May. In opposition, pro war protesters from Adelaide threw burning Viet Cong flags into crowds of VMC marchers.
In some states, like Queensland, protest proved difficult because the government banned public demonstrations. In Sydney, more than 40,000 people demonstrated in front of Town Hall. Sit-down and sit-in demonstrations, in which people occupied the streets, occurred as part of the VMC. The initial marchers succeeded in gaining the attention of government officials and pro war supporters.
Donald Horne, a prominent pro war supporter, described the Sydney march as a “sight that many of those present expected to remember for the rest of their lives, a peaceful crowd of 25,000 sitting down in front of Sydney Town Hall.”
The other action of VMC occurred on 18 September 1970 and 1 June 1971. 50,000 people participated in the 18 September Melbourne march. The September Sydney march was smaller than the May march but ended with more repressive violence by the police, who arrested approximately 200 protesters.
In response to the violence, Jim Cairns stated, “there must be freedom to break the law, when we know the law is bad. We must have freedom to express opinion contrary to the ruling opinion.”
Many major cities closed during the June marches, such as Melbourne where 100,000 people protested, often flying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong flags; some protesters observed conflict between pro-Vietnam and anti-Vietnam marchers. Marches took place across Australia and some demonstrators clashed with police and broke through blockades. For example, in Adelaide, demonstrators marched through Rundle Street to protest police and 38 arrests occurred. Violent and graphic news coverage of the war fueled anti-conscription sentiment in Australia and helped make the moratorium rallies the largest protests in Australian history.
In August 1971, the Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon, officially announced he would lead a campaign to withdraw all troops from Vietnam. McMahon followed through, and between November 1970 and December 1971, battalions that completed their tours were not replaced; however, a small advisory force remained in Vietnam.
The Whitlam Government suspended The National Service Act in December 1972. Most troops returned to Australia by December 1972. In 1973, America signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam, and by 1965, the United States withdrew all its troops. Of the men registered with DLNS, 60,000 served in the army and over 15,000 served in Vietnam. The VMC achieved its goals of Australian withdrawal from the Vietnam War and suspension of conscription.
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Anon. ND. “Moratoriums and Opposition – public dissent.” Australia and the Vietnam War. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170221181038/http://vietnam-war.commemoration.gov.au/conscription/moratoriums-and-opposition.php).
Anon. ND. “Vietnamisation – pulling out.” Australia and the Vietnam War. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170221181051/http://vietnam-war.commemoration.gov.au/vietnamisation-pulling-out/index.php).
Anon. ND. “Thousands in moratorium campaign to oppose the Vietnam War.” ABC. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170221181102/http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2012/01/19/3411534.htm).
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Anon. ND. “The Third Phase: Mass Mobilisations & Moratoriums 1969-72.” Australian Living Peace Museum. Retrieved April 8, 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170408193147/http://livingpeacemuseum.org.au/ALPM/exhibits/show/vietnam-war-aus/vietnam-third-phase).
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The Global Nonviolent Action Database
This case study comes from The Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College, including the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. It was researched and written by Shayla Smith in 22/02/2017.
- Australian women protest conscription during Vietnam War [Save Our Sons (SOS)], 1965-1972
- Vietnam Moratorium Campaign: Australian citizens force end to participation in Vietnam War
- Brave Enough to say ‘No’: William White and the Fight against Military Conscription during the Vietnam War
- Draftmen Go Free: A History of the Anti-Conscription Movement in Australia
- Activism and Campaign History: Start Here