It started as a trickle and became a flood. The first Australians to protest against the Vietnam war in the early sixties could not have imagined their tiny and isolated movement was laying the seeds of what was to eventually become the largest and greatest social movement in the annals of Australian protest. Vietnam was then a far-off obscure country most Australians had not even heard of. Even those activists engaged in ‘peace’ and anti-war activity were focused on issues – nuclear disarmament, French nuclear tests, foreign bases on Australian soil – seemingly without connection to the strange, confusing and violent events in Saigon.
The Vietnamese people had been fighting politically and militarily for almost twenty years to overcome their colonial oppressors and win liberty and national independence. This epic reality was obscured in Australian political debates. The early Australian anti-Vietnam war protestors were confronted with pervasive and deeply imbedded (and intrinsically racist) myths inherited from the politically conservative, anti-Communist atmosphere of the Cold War: ‘The Yellow Peril’ and the ‘Domino Theory’; the leading role of the United States as ‘World Policeman’ and last-ditch ANZUS protector of an Australia vulnerable to invasion by the Asian hordes. The protestors were confronted also by deliberately concocted lies – the lie that our Government had been invited to intervene by the South Vietnam Government; the lie of ‘Two Vietnams’; the lie of ‘Aggression from the North’.
Even as late as 1967, after Australia’s thunderous welcome to ‘LBJ’, and after Harold Holt’s Liberals had triumphed in a landslide at the polls in an election fought on the issue of Vietnam and conscription, opposition to the war was still a cause pursued by a minority. And yet barely three years later the continued persistent and committed effort of thousands of ordinary Australians – university students, trade unionists, office workers, housewives, high school students – had turned the country around. Almost 200,000 people marched in the magnificent nationwide Moratorium marches of May 8, 1970. The flooding of the streets on May 8 (and again in the two subsequent Moratoriums of September 1970 and June 1971) were high points but only possible because of the activism that had preceded them – in workplaces, on university campuses, in demonstrations and rallies, in leafleting campaigns. All the nonsense that had been accepted so meekly, readily and unthinkingly by the masses of Australians had first to be overcome.
In the very early years of resistance to Australia’s involvement it was the singularly heroic intellectual contribution of our greatest-ever peace campaigner Dr Jim Cairns, backed up by ‘adult’ peace organisations (CICD, WILPF, Save Our Sons), that eroded the myths and lies fostered by Johnson and Menzies. In the period after 1967 a growing youth radicalisation, sparked in part by the existential threat of conscription to nineteen-year-old males, and more generally by a rebellious ‘youth culture’, gave rise to a militant student cohort (‘the new left’) which assumed a leading role in the overall movement against the war. Left-wing student political clubs risked heavy legal penalties to financially support the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam whose admirable political program had been buried in mass media depictions of a featureless, evil “Viet Cong”. Conscientious objection to conscription undertaken by individual objectors – among whom were the inspirational Bill White, Simon Townsend, Dennis O’Donnell – soon developed into mass resistance to conscription as more and more young men and their many supporters challenged the legality and morality of the National Service Act that had sent hundreds of young Australian men to their futile deaths in the jungles of Vietnam. Also inspirational was the outstanding example set for the whole labour movement by the Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers Federation in refusing to carry and load war cargo destined for Vietnam. ‘Stop Work to Stop the War’ became a major theme as trade unionists in their thousands added their decisive weight to the snowballing movement. More and more people were morally affronted and angered by the barbarity regularly witnessed on their TV screens – the slaughter of innocent civilians, the napalm inflicted on hundreds of peasant villages, the genocidal bombing campaigns which dwarfed the tonnages dropped on Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. It was simply impossible after the exposure of the My Lai massacre committed by demoralised U.S troops, and after the killing of four peaceful student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, to believe that ‘our side’ was anything other than immoral, deluded, bathed in blood.
The diverse and widespread social movement that preceded and followed the Moratoriums was increasingly characterised by mass civil disobedience as hundreds, even thousands, decided in their individual consciences and through their collective humanity to defy Government attempts at repression, brave rampant police violence, and ultimately bring about the long-awaited electoral defeat of the conservative coalition in December 1972.
Celebratory anniversary commemorations of the 1970 Moratorium held in 1990 and 2000 revived fond memories, kept the flame burning. In May 2005 a public meeting at the Trades Hall marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1975 victory of the Vietnamese revolution. The looming fiftieth anniversary – May 8, 2020 – presented an opportunity for another meaningful event. On May 8, 2019, I attended a meeting at the Trades Hall in Melbourne where a representative gathering of Moratorium stalwarts from the seventies committed themselves to the organisation of a fiftieth anniversary celebration.
I proposed the newly-formed Moratorium committee should produce an historical timeline of the Australian anti-Vietnam war movement. When I volunteered to carry out my own proposal I scarcely imagined I would be still working on it eleven months later.
Preliminary investigations revealed by far the best source of detailed information about the Australian movement in opposition to the Vietnam war was the Australian communist press – the CPA newspapers Guardian and Tribune. The CPA had been steadily jettisoning its Stalinist past, haltingly seeking independence from Moscow, and developing new strategic directions. My own socialist political leanings pre-disposed me to focus on the CPA sources. I was to discover the reportage in Guardian and Tribune was immeasurably more trustworthy and accurate than the coverage in mainstream (‘capitalist’) newspapers. The Australian communist press benefited from the outstanding journalism of professional writers such as Malcolm Salmon and Alec Robertson, not to mention the timely and myth-breaking epistles of Wilfred Burchett. Guardian and Tribune excelled in reporting almost every significant and not-so-significant protest event – demonstrations, rallies, public meetings, press statements. Almost every week there was an exposure of Government lies and cover-up. It did not bother me that the Communist press was utterly partisan and biased, unashamedly and passionately in support of the ‘liberation forces’ in Vietnam. I knew it was not possible to be neutral or dispassionate about Australia’s involvement in the war.
I set out to cover the entire period from 1962, when the first small ‘Vietnam’ protests were held, through to the end of 1972, when the election of a Labor Government put the finishing touches to Australia’s official involvement. Starting work in June 2019, I took notes from every weekly issue of Guardian from January 1962 through to December 1966 when the paper folded, and every weekly issue of Tribune from January 1967 to December 1972. I aimed at producing two distinct timelines, a long version and a shorter condensed version. As I completed each year I would condense a year’s worth of notes from the long version – roughly 25,000 words – down to roughly 4000 words for the shorter condensed version.
The aims of the research, and of the timeline, were manifold. I hoped to document
- The extent, scope and characteristics of the Australian anti-war movement – it’s diversity, commitment, sacrifices, divisions, achievements.
- The forces in opposition to the anti-war movement.
- The links of the anti-war movement to other contemporary social movements – aborigines, anti-racism (anti-apartheid), women, ‘new left’, students, trade unions.
- The growth and key turning points in the development of the anti-war movement.
- The fundamentally participatory, democratic, and non-manipulative character of the anti-war movement.
The extended chronological timeline of over 150,000 words is quite possibly the most extensive and comprehensive data base of information about the Australian anti-Vietnam war movement in existence. The condensed version is offered below.
The timeline is dedicated to the memory of all – the named and the nameless – who contributed to ending Australia’s participation in the obscene imperialist war against the people of Indochina.
They were the heroes and they were right.
May 8, 2020
Download the full timeline here, or click through below for a year-by-year timeline (with pictures) of this momentous period.
A Timeline History of Australian Protest 1962-1972