Why did Australian military involvement in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1973 arouse more opposition than our participation in any previous conflict?
Australians have been involved in many wars, but what distinguished our involvement in the Vietnam War was the level of opposition to it. Before discussing this opposition I will briefly describe, in broad general terms, our involvement in some of the previous wars and the level of opposition, if any.
The first involvement in any conflict was the Sudan War in 1885. While there was opposition to the way the NSW Government had agreed to send troops before debating it in the parliament, there was little opposition against the campaign itself. The reason for this lack of opposition was undoubtedly the popular affection in which the slain General Gordon was held, along with a desire to uphold British prestige.
While there was some initial opposition to the Boer War in its early stages, most of this evaporated after Black Week. British prestige was threatened, and the colonies came to the rescue of the mother country.
World War I also saw little opposition. Great Britain’s power and status as a major player on the world stage was under threat and Australians enthusiastically rallied to her side. While there was great debate over conscription and the huge loss of life, at no time did this translate itself into meaningful opposition to Australian involvement in the war. Australian imperialism and the ties to the mother country were still too strong.
World War II probably saw less opposition than any other war Australia has been involved in. This was primarily because Australia itself was under threat, with Japanese attacks on Darwin and Far North Queensland.
The Vietnam War, and Australia’s role in it, was profoundly different to previous wars we had fought in, involving different motivations for going to war and changing times and circumstances. The opposition to the war was initially muted and then grew rapidly, finally swelling to the huge numbers of demonstrators who participated in the moratorium marches, before dropping off. Several factors helped to bring this about, and it was a combination of these, rather than any single one, that led to this unprecedented scale of opposition. I will briefly outline the chronology of the conflict and the various groups involved in the protests, before discussing in some detail each of the main factors that led to this opposition. I will then conclude by showing how the sum of these factors created the unprecedented resistance.
Vietnam had been in the French sphere of influence since Saigon was captured in 1859. In 1954 the French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and withdrew from Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam was established in the north in October 1955 and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was formed in December 1960. The United States got progressively involved against the north on behalf of the south from 1961 onwards. The first Australian military aid forces arrived in South Vietnam in August 1962.
American involvement escalated rapidly in 1964 and 1965. In Australia, Prime Minister Menzies reintroduced national service on 10 November 1964. On 29 April 1965 Australia committed combat troops to the war. The Tet Offensive began on 30 January 1968 and the first American troop withdrawals commenced in June 1969. Australia followed suit with their last troops withdrawn in December 1971. The first and largest Australian moratorium was on 8 May 1970.
In analysing the opposition to the war it is important to take the chronology into account. Resistance was small in the beginning, grew to a peak with the first moratorium march and then declined as Australian troops were progressively withdrawn. Most of the time Australian opposition mirrored or followed American opposition. After all, it was an American led war that Australia was contributing to, and the major decisions as to its conduct would always emanate from there. In analysing the reasons for increasing opposition to the war it is very difficult to separate the anti-conscription and anti-war issues as they were so closely linked.
Resistance to the war took various forms and involved a wide variety of people and groups. According to Curthoys, there was little resistance to the war before 1964. The first protests were organised by the Eureka Youth League, the youth movement of the Communist Party of Australia in 1964. Existing peace groups and the Churches then became involved through the umbrella of the Australian Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, held in Sydney in October 1964. The reintroduction of conscription became a rallying point from November 1964, serving to heighten student awareness and opposition to the war, resulting in the establishment of the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC). In 1965 mothers became involved with the formation of the Save Our Sons organisation, after it was announced that conscripts could be sent to Vietnam. The left wing of the Labor Party also became involved, although the defeat of the Party in the November 1966 election resulted in a temporary policy retreat. By late 1966 prominent Australian intellectuals and writers were speaking out against the war, including Morris West. By 1969 many in the trade union movement opposed the war effort and by 1970 the level of opposition was such that some 200 000 people took part in the first moratorium. From this point onwards the level of opposition declined as troops began to be withdrawn. As Horne perceptively noted in describing the moratorium march, “the crowds sitting peacefully in the streets during the first moratorium represented the movement’s peak: it was one of those movements when an ever-widening swell of peaceful protest that would not frighten off the respectable seemed almost possible... But it wasn’t to be. The respectable people who that day wore their moratorium badges and were prepared to feel one with the marchers, although they were not yet ready to join them, would now never do so.”
The reasons for this opposition to the war were many and varied. Some were more important at certain times, during what was to become Australia’s longest war, and the myriad groups and individuals were opposed to the war for their own different reasons. Many Australians opposed the war because they did not see it as a war Australia should be involved in and they also objected to the United States waging war in Vietnam against the Vietnamese. Others considered it anathema to witness Australia assisting the most powerful country in the world in what seemed a civil war in one of the smallest and most impoverished. As United Nations Secretary General U Thant declared in 1967, the Vietnamese struggle was “not a war of communist aggression but a war of national independence.” Some Australians believed that as members of the United Nations, the American and Australian governments were pledged not to use force in the settlement of international disputes. Such intervention as occurred in Vietnam was therefore considered by them to be illegal.
Others opposed the war because they believed it to be a classical conflict between capitalism, as represented by the United States, and an emergent socialist society. The Viet-Cong and its allies not only attracted liberal sympathies as heroic nationalists fighting a war of decolonisation, but also as socialists deserving sympathy and support from left-wing forces throughout the world. These factors led to a high level of anti-American feeling in some sectors of Australian society.
But the majority of Australians were staunchly pro-American. Australia entered the war because it was an American ally, and because Australian foreign policy was dominated by anti-communism during the cold-war era of the 1950s and 1960s. Communism was seen as a monolithic entity and a dangerous threat that had to be blocked. Many Australians believed that their security rested on the protection of the United States and “if we help them there they’ll help us here.” Many concerned by the rise of communism believed in the Domino Theory, which subscribed to the idea that if one country in the region went communist, then all the others would too, one by one. A line had to be drawn and a stand had to be made to prevent this happening. That line was drawn and the stand made, in South Vietnam. In the early stages of the conflict this was a powerful and popular theory, supported by the majority of the Australian public. Australian had always been fearful of the “Yellow Peril”, as articulated by the White Australia policy. Events in Korea and the Malayan Emergency seemed to provide evidence that if South Vietnam fell to the communists in the north, then other countries in south east Asia could be next. Altman, in discussing this, makes the perceptive comment that “the Domino Theory, it appears, may have had far more validity within those countries that sought to combat it than in those to which it was claimed it applied.” Harries, in rejecting the Domino Theory, writes of the greatly increased probability of the spread of communism if the Americans were to be defeated in South Vietnam.
Opponents to the war pointed out that Australia would never have gone to war in Vietnam if the United States had not gone there first. Australia did not intervene in South Vietnam to fight communism so much as to support the United States. Its goal was not to halt Chinese expansion so much as to earn the right to American protection in future. Opponents considered this stand naive and hypocritical, with Stone noting the “hypocrisy of a white country allegedly attempting to defend an Asian ‘ally’, whose war refugees would not be racially suitable as migrants, can hardly be lost on Asian sensitivities.”
Other opposition to Australian support, for what was widely considered to be an American war was based on the grounds that because of our geographic location in the Asian region, we should have good working relationships with these countries. This was seen to be in our interest, while launching attacks on Asian people were seen to be inimical to this. Opponents to the war on these grounds also stressed that Asia was not some monolithic entity and that the fall of one country to communism would not necessarily lead to the fall of others in the region. These opponents saw, in Australia, a country whose geographical location put it in a unique position to develop a mediatory role in the conflicts between the Asian search for social justice and the Western need for order and security. They deplored the fact that Australia had chosen to stress a military, rather than a diplomatic, approach to problems in Vietnam.
Many Australians who supported democracies over communism were uneasy with their country officially supporting a South Vietnamese government that was anything but democratic. The Sydney Morning Herald, in an editorial reflecting on the lessons of the war, described the South Vietnamese government as “an unwanted, increasingly discredited regime”. That the United States and its ally Australia were fighting to impose this regime, led by Air Vice Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, on the whole of the country, troubled many Australians. Most younger opponents against the war did not believe the official line that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the spread of communism across the region and then down to Australia. Therefore official Australian support for the corrupt South Vietnamese regime only resulted in increased opposition to what opponents considered was an unjust war on behalf of an unjust regime.
Conscription, and opposition to it, was a major issue for many Australians, particularly students and their mothers. National service and conscription, while having a long history in Australia, had often been divisive. National Service, which had been abandoned in 1958, was reintroduced by the Menzies Government on 10 November 1964. Conscription was in the form of a ballot for 20 year old youths and the first national service intake occurred in July 1965. In March 1966 it was announced that national servicemen would be sent to Vietnam.
The principle of compulsory military service and the employment of conscripts in the Vietnam War was opposed by the Labor Party, but Main believed that outside parliament there was general and widespread acceptance of this development. Curthoys takes a very different view, believing that the reintroduction of conscription had a lasting impact on the Coalition Government’s ability in the long term to sustain widespread popular support for Australian participation in the war. She makes the valid point that conscription was hard to justify in a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular and that the continuation of conscription beyond involvement in the war was a major factor undermining the popularity and authority of the Liberal governments in 1970 and 1971. Saunders suggests that by introducing conscription for overseas military service for the first time in Australia’s history, Menzies was breaking with tradition in a way that a growing number of Australians could no longer accept. However Saunders also made the point that opposition to the war would have been equally strong whether or not conscription was introduced and that historians refer to the anti-war movement rather than the anti-conscription movement. In addition, opposition to conscription was a personal decision as there were sufficient volunteers for the Vietnam War, while men who were drafted could get out of going to Vietnam if they so wished. Thus conscription was more a bogey than a reality for most men. Despite this, conscription was one of the principal issues in the Federal elections of 1966, 1969 and 1972. The fact that this national service was the first time conscripts could be assigned to an overseas war acted as a lightning rod for dissent and opposition to Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.
The role of the Higher Education sector was important in fermenting and maintaining opposition to the War. This opposition was encouraged by the National Service Act which impacted most on young men, who formed the majority of university students. Opposition to the Vietnam War on university campuses began in earnest in 1965 and continued until the end of the conflict. Bitter debates broke out on campuses across the country between the right and left. The first arrests of demonstrators against the war took place on a university campus in Canberra in June 1965, while the pages of student newspapers and other journals linked to Universities were filled with debates about the Vietnam War. Teach-ins arrived, from the United States, on Australian University campuses for the first time on 23 July 1965, with one at the Australian National University. Numerous demonstrations occurred on university campuses and draft resisters were frequently sheltered there.
Campuses became hot spots of radicalism, with a baby boomer generation united by a common opposition to what was considered an unjust war fought for the benefit of big business and capitalism, with Australia seen as the lackey of United States imperialism. These attitudes and convictions were facilitated through access to a university education for a generation of Australians better educated than any that had gone before them. These educated dissenters brought with them more radical ideas and more effective techniques of protest with which to challenge the faith of Australians in the judgement of their government.
Australian participation in the Vietnam aroused more opposition than in any previous conflict for the combination of reasons outlined above. As the Redners’ perceptively noted, it would take “an issue of great national moment” to arouse somnolent liberalism. These conditions were only fulfilled by the Vietnam War. They were fulfilled to the extent that dissent became respectable for denominational leaders and liberal elements. A phalanx of groups lent their support to the anti-war movement, including the Labor party, clergy, the trade union movement, intellectuals, communists and socialists. The high point of opposition was the first moratorium march in 1970. Vietnam remains of historic significance to Australia’s political history because it was the first time that such a considerable proportion of the population opposed a war to which the government was actively committed.
Despite the level of opposition generated, it is unlikely that the anti-war movement had any discernible influence on the outcome of the war and Australian involvement in it. However, it is likely that the Liberal Party’s handling of the Vietnam commitment, contributed to its downfall in the 1972 elections which resulted in a radical reshaping of Australian society through the incoming Whitlam Labor Government. After the election of the Labor Government, and with most of its goals achieved, the Vietnam protest movement rapidly died a natural but premature death.
However the peace movement which had sprung from the anti-Vietnam war movement survived. A generation had been radicalised, with Vietnam and conscription stimulating tens of thousands of people to participate in the politics of protest. Not only did this period represent an intense involvement by many middle-class youth in the politics of their society, but it also provided a springboard for political action over a host of other issues such as those relating to women and the environment. So not only did the Vietnam War arouse more opposition over our participation in it than any previous conflict, it also had the major consequences for the peace that followed and the Australian society shaped by it.
Altman, Dennis. (1970) “Australia and Vietnam: Some Preliminary Speculations”, Australian Quarterly, 42, 2, June 1990, p. 61-69
Coates, H.J. (1977) “National Service”, The Australian Encyclopaedia, (Vol. 4), Sydney, p. 295-297
Curthoys, Ann. (1992) “The Anti-War Movements”, in J. Grey and J. Doyle, (eds), Vietnam: Myth and Memory: Comparative Perspectives on Australia’s War in Vietnam, Sydney
Gilbert, A and A.
Jordens. (1988). “Traditions of Dissent”, in M. McKernan and M. Browne (eds), Australia: Two centuries of War and Peace,
Harpur, James. (1991) War Without End: conflict in Indo-China. Melbourne, Longman Cheshire
Harries, Owen. (1966) “The Australian Debate on Vietnam”, in S. Ray (ed), Vietnam Seen From East and West: An International Symposium. Thomas Nelson, Melbourne
Horne, Donald. (1980) Time of Hope: Australia 1966-1972, Sydney
Jordens, A. (1990) “Conscription and Dissent: The genesis of Anti-War Protest”, in G. Pemberton (ed.), Vietnam Remembered, Sydney
Main, J. M., (ed.). (1970) Conscription: The Australian Debate, 1901-1970, Melbourne
Redner, H and J. (1983) Anatomy of the World: The Impact of the Atom on Australia and the World, Sydney
Saunders, M. (1980) “Australia’s Withdrawal from Vietnam: The Influence of the Peace Movement”, Social Alternatives, 1, 6-7 June 1980, p. 56-62
Saunders, M, (1998) 57013. War and Australian Society: Conflict and Division on the Home Front, Study Guide. Rockhampton
Saunders, M and
R. Summy. (1984)
“One Hundred years of an Australian Peace Movement, 1885-1984: Part II: From the Second World war to Vietnam and Beyond”, Peace and Change, 10, 3-4, Fall/Winter 1984
Stone, Gerald. (1966) War Without Honour. Brisbane, Jacaranda Press
University Study Group
on Vietnam. (1966) Vietnam and Australia: History, documents, interpretations. Sydney
Wood, John. (1990) Vietnam and the Indochina Conflict, Auckland, Macmillan
York, Barry. (1984) “The Australian Anti-Vietnam Movement: 1965-1973”, Melbourne Journal of Politics, 15, 1983-1984, p. 24-41
York, Barry. (1988) “Power to the Young”, in V. Burgmann and J. Lee (eds), Staining the Wattle: A People’s History of Australia since 1788, Melbourne
 James Harpur, War Without End: conflict in Indo-China. Melbourne, 1991, p. 1
 Ibid., p. 2
 Ibid., p. 105
 Ibid., p. 3
 Ibid., p. 115
 Ann Curthoys, “The Anti-War Movements”, in J. Grey and J. Doyle, (eds), Vietnam: Myth and Memory: Comparative Perspectives on Australia’s War in Vietnam, Sydney, 1992, p. 90
 Ibid., p. 91
 Ibid., p. 93
 Donald Horne, Time of Hope: Australia 1966-1972, Sydney, 1980, p. 52
 Curthoys, p. 96
 Horne, p. 56-7
 University Study Group on Vietnam. Vietnam and Australia: History, documents, interpretations. Sydney, p. 84
 Barry York, “Power to the Young”, in V. Burgmann and J. Lee (eds), Staining the Wattle: A People’s History of Australia since 1788, Melbourne, 1988, p. 229
University Study Group, p. 87
 Harpur, p. 112
 Alan D. Gilbert and Ann-Mari Jordens, “Traditions of Dissent”, in M. McKernan and M. Browne (eds), Australia: Two centuries of War and Peace, Canberra, 1988, p. 364
 Harpur, p. 87
 Ibid. P. 89
 Dennis Altman, “Australia and Vietnam: Some Preliminary Speculations”, Australian Quarterly, 42, 2, June 1990, p. 63
 Gerald Stone, War Without Honour. Brisbane, 1966, p. 20
 Altman, p. 69
 Owen Harries, “The Australian Debate on Vietnam”, in S. Ray (ed), Vietnam Seen From East and West: An International Symposium. Melbourne, 1966, p. 160
 Stone, p. 150
 Ibid., p. 151
 Ibid., p. 152. While this comment was accurate when written, by the mid 1970s Australia did open its arms and shores to many thousands of Vietnamese refugees!
 Harries, p. 159
 Stone, p. 151-152
 For further details on the political scene in South Vietnam in the 1960s, see John Wood, Vietnam and the Indochina Conflict, Auckland, 1990, p. 42, 50-51 and 54
 Sydney Morning Herald 30 April 1985
 Harpur, p. 105
 Ibid., p. 106
 J.M. Main (ed.), Conscription: The Australian Debate, 1901-1970, Melbourne, 1970, p. 5
 Ibid., p. 5-6
 Curthoys, p. 100
 Malcolm Saunders, 57013. War and Australian Society: Conflict and Division on the Home Front, Study Guide. Rockhampton, 1998, p. 40
 Teletutorial with Malcolm Sanders, September 1998
 H.J. Coates, “National Service”, The Australian Encyclopaedia, (Vol. 4), Sydney, 1977, p. 297
 Curthoys, p. 91
 Ann-Mari Jordens, “Conscription and Dissent: The genesis of Anti-War Protest”, in G. Pemberton (ed.), Vietnam Remembered, Sydney, 1990, p. 81
 Harry and Jill Redner, Anatomy of the World: The Impact of the Atom on Australia and the World, Sydney, 1983, p. 9
 Gilbert, p. 363
 Barry York, “The Australian Anti-Vietnam Movement: 1965-1973”, Melbourne Journal of Politics, 15, 1983-1984, p. 27
 Malcolm Saunders, “Australia’s Withdrawal from Vietnam: The Influence of the Peace Movement”, Social Alternatives, 1, 6-7 June 1980, p. 61. However Saunders believes that there is evidence to show that the Government was concerned about the influence of the peace movement and may have attempted to discredit it or remove its raison de’tre through phased withdrawals of troops from Vietnam
 Ibid., p. 365
 York (1984), p. 39
 Malcolm Saunders and Ralph Summy, “One Hundred years of an Australian Peace Movement, 1885-1984: Part II: From the Second World war to Vietnam and Beyond”, Peace and Change, 10, 3-4, Fall/Winter 1984, p. 68