1968: The Year of Really Living

Meredith Burgmann

The Woodstock generation will go to its grave with a sense that it is special. And indeed even those of us that weren’t invited to the party must concede that there was something unique about the 60s.

Timothy Noah, 1984

The year 1968 was the highpoint of my life. I have always complained that my life was all downhill after that. My personal journey in that year included losing my respectability (and my religion), becoming a socialist, being arrested and gaoled (often) and becoming a target for ASIO … and I was just one statistic in the whole student revolt zeitgeist.

It was the year of international ‘student power’, Black Panthers, Hippies, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Paris Spring, LSE sit-ins, Bernadette Devlin, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But above all it was the year that the world erupted in opposition to the American war in Vietnam. In Australia it was student revolt, draft dodgers, unruly anti-Vietnam protests, mass civil disobedience, and drawn-out trials of conscientious objectors.

I had arrived at Sydney University in 1966 a prim(ish) Anglican bishop’s granddaughter from the leafy but boring WASP suburb of Beecroft. I had never spoken to a Catholic, let alone a migrant or an Aboriginal.

I probably had quite conservative views about party politics, but was beginning to have a growing unease about our presence in Vietnam. This was both an intellectual concern and an emotional response to the increasingly brutal images on our tiny boxy television sets. Each night we would see tragedy and lifeless bodies in our own living rooms. The 1960s was the first time that newspapers or films ever really showed dead bodies and it was cataclysmic for a nice little Anglican from Beecroft.

One particular image stays with me to this day. It was the casual cruelty of the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head in front of the world’s press.

The war in Vietnam and the issue of conscription had coalesced in the minds and actions of the protesters and those that we protested against. Australian involvement in the Vietnam war had slowly grown out of an advisory role in 1962 and conscription for 21-year-olds was introduced two years later.

I was much more concerned about the issue of the war than I was about conscription. I was opposed to conscription, but to me the issue seemed to be that we were sending young men overseas to kill other people in our name. Many young men who shared these views sought to register as conscientious objectors and others worked outside of the law and became draft resisters.

What was probably more devastating at a personal level was that the gradual uncovering of the many deceptions about our rush to war had also convinced me that my government was lying to me.

This was the government of Robert Menzies who had been our overlord since I was two … the natural ruling party of Australia, or at least of Beecroft. How could they be lying? Surely that ‘common’ Mr Calwell could not be right about the ‘dirty unwinnable war’? If they were not telling the truth about Vietnam … what else were they lying about?

Vietnam began to shake my belief-system to the core, so by the end of first year at Uni, whatever religious belief I’d ever had, just slipped away. So what was to take its place?

My strengthening opposition to the War and, let’s face it, the excitement of the weekly protests, led me to wake up one day in early 1968 and decide I was a socialist. It was as simple as that. It sort of came to me overnight, and I remember going in to the old McCallum building the next day, meeting Student President Geoff Robertson in the smelly corridor and exclaiming, “Geoff, Geoff, I think I’m a socialist.” And he said, as disparaging as always, “Don’t be silly, Meredith. We’re all socialists.” How sixties!

By 1968 the University was on fire. Not only were there Front Lawn meetings at least three times a week but students from the other tertiary institutions started arriving at our meetings — enthusiastic newbies from Macquarie and impossibly trendy types from ‘Kenso Tech’ (UNSW).

Our Front Lawn meetings were legendary throughout this period. It was where draft resisters in old army surplus store gear burnt their draft cards; where one day we discovered the Head of the Police Special Branch Fred Longbottom sitting in his police Mini, taping our meeting; where we later liberated draft resister Mike Matteson from police custody and cut off his hand cuffs with a bolt cutter. It was real Boys’ Own Annual stuff.

It wasn’t until July 1968 that I took part in my first demonstration against the Vietnam War. I’m not sure what led me to actually take to the streets. I suspect that it was just inevitable. I would like to be able to pin down the reason for this important life event but I can’t remember. I wasn’t on drugs, I was just very busy.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Bobby Kennedy in June had rocked my world. Especially Bobby … he had promised to stop the war and I believed him. I remember walking back to Women’s College crying because now the war would continue and Vietnam would be bombed forever. I think we all believed that the electoral road had been taken away from us by violence so maybe it was our turn to throw some bombs.

Hey hey, LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?

Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, dare to struggle, dare to win

In that first tumultuous week of demonstrating, I took part in a sit-in at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Martin Place; protested against Prime Minister John Gorton, also in Martin Place; celebrated Independence from America Day by occupying Liberal Party Headquarters in Ash Street; and demonstrated outside the Young Liberals Conference at Anzac House.

The demonstration against John Gorton turned out to be my first arrest. We had sat down in Martin Place outside Gorton’s Sydney office, and had decided we would stay there until we were all removed (or had stopped the war). It was mortifying to find out in court that I was charged with obstructing access to the men’s toilet in Martin Place. We had absolutely no idea that that was where we were sitting. The arrest seemed almost anti-climactic. It wasn’t frightening; it wasn’t even particularly exhilarating. But I had a certain satisfaction that I was doing my bit towards stopping the war. And my major concern was that my knickers didn’t show as I was dragged away.

Another ironic moment (which I didn’t savour until much later) was that I shared the paddy wagon with a shy, gangly boy called John Fisher who turned out to be the grandson of  Andrew Fisher, the Labor Prime Minister who had dragged us into the First World War promising Britain our colonial support “to the last man and the last shilling”.

Finding myself locked up, I realised for the first time the incredible boredom that hits you when you are confined on your own, in a room with no reading matter and no one to talk to. This was often my problem, as in many of my arrests I was the only girl.

I could always hear the male offenders down the hallway having wonderful arguments and singsongs. Country Joe and the Fish or Phil Ochs would echo down the corridor. There would be, say, 30 boys in a cage, whereas I’d be down the other end of the corridor on my own, or perhaps with a nice lady shoplifter trying to read and re-read a scrappy page out of Pix or the Women’s Weekly which a previous occupant had left behind. Bliss it was indeed when other girl protesters like Nadia Wheatley and Helen Randerson started to join me in those smelly concrete cells.

Exactly a month after my first arrest, one of the more bizarre episodes of my increasingly weird life occurred. The leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Mike Jones, had decided that we should picket the Regent Theatre in George Street because it was showing a ‘shoot ‘em up’ pro-Vietnam War movie The Green Berets starring John Wayne. Mike was considered to be charismatic and was certainly a powerful orator. I was not entirely sold on his charismatic qualities but I was continually astounded by his confidence and his absolute certainty about the correctness of all our actions. Self doubt was not in Mike’s DNA. It was the first time I had ever encountered such certainty and it was remarkably comforting.

So a small group of us gathered outside the beautiful old Regent Theatre and started handing out leaflets to the uninterested cinema patrons. Suddenly the police appeared and arrested every one of us. Talk about over-reaction! A lovely photo exists of me being gripped in a huge bear hug by Chief Inspector Stackpool of Central Command. They had even sent in the heavies!

The explanation for this police overreaction was only revealed years later. A fellow student (later a very senior public servant) had rung the local police as a prank and told them that we had planned to rush down the aisle and cut off John Wayne’s head with a machete. What a great idea! If only we’d actually thought of it first! Once again I was charged with obstruction and months of hanging around Central Court in Liverpool Street ensued.

My arrests did not pass unnoticed as it was still very unusual for women to be protesting, let alone getting arrested. The media fell upon the image of the fallen North Shore school girl with the clerical pedigree. Bishop’s Grand Daughter rides in to Battle and other embarrassing headlines became the order of the day. I even appeared on an ABC TV debate with Politics Professor, Henry Mayer, and eccentric Melbourne Maoist, Albert Langer. I can remember vaguely saying something about it being women’s responsibility to take part in protests against war, but my main memory is simply of numbing inadequacy in the face of the big boys’ arguments.

ASIO Photo showing Aiden Foy, Meredith Burgmann and
Jeremy Gilling outside Central Court 8 August 1968
Photograph provided by Meredith Burgmann

How did my lovely, staid middle-class parents react to my high-profile life outside of the law? They were both wonderful. My mother had become increasingly distressed by the violence and deaths in Vietnam. She totally accepted the force of my beliefs and only begged me never to get arrested for ‘language’, a promise which I readily agreed to … and kept. She did not tell me at the time but later I discovered that she had received poison pen letters about me and was sometimes snubbed at Pennant Hills Golf Club because of my activities. Although the attacks I myself endured from engineering students and college boys were like water off a duck’s back, I know Mum was hurt by these petty nastinesses.

My father, who no doubt quietly agreed with my views, simply asked me at one stage not to get arrested while he was undergoing cabinet approval for a senior CSIRO position. Once again I readily agreed. Although the media was always keen to play up the ‘youth rebelling against their parents’ angle on our mass civil disobedience, it was never so in my case.

Within a few months, Vietnam had taken over our lives. The demonstrations, and consequently the arrests, seemed to multiply. I had always been a busy girl and this was my chance to be busy writ large. We were organising demonstrations, going on demonstrations, being arrested, being in court for our arrests, turning up in court to be witnesses in other people’s court cases and generally making nuisances of ourselves. I remember a Students’ Council President making a Front Lawn speech where he argued that we must rip up the daffodils of the bourgeoisie until they agreed to bring the troops home from Vietnam. It made total sense to me at the time. For the entirety of 1968 I really don’t think any hard study took place.

My parents had sent me to the residential Sydney University Women’s College for the sake of my non-existent academic work. I found myself more and more alienated from my previous North Shore lifestyle and although I had never really felt I fitted in, I became even more convinced of this as I saw my Women’s College friends demeaned by the rugger bugger boys from the male colleges. I couldn’t understand how college girls could put up with it. I can’t say this was nascent feminism on my part, as the second wave women’s movement had yet to hit, but it certainly meant that I was ready for feminism when it arrived.

Down Broadway to central Sydney we would march in a flurry of Liberty prints, sling backs (ugh) desert boots and duffel coats.

One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war

Five, six, seven, eight, stop the war, negotiate!

Not a message T-shirt in sight; that didn’t happen until the ‘It’s Time’ election of 1972. The Left at this time was reasonably united. It was easy to be united about something as stark as the war and conscription. Yes, we had battles about whether our slogan should be “Bring the Troops Home” or “Victory to the Vietcong” but we all still turned up the next day at the demonstration.

It is hard to comprehend how overwhelming the Vietnam War was in our young lives. Daily our friends and boyfriends were dealing with court cases, conscientious objector cases, or they were in hiding.

We were relentless in our activism but our attention to the intricacies of Left schism was not huge. I was an Anarchist, a Trot and a Maoist all at once. I happily wore a Mao badge but my real hero was Nestor Makhno, an obscure but handsome Ukrainian anarchist who fought both Stalin and Trotsky.

Student Left groups all around Australia were part of that generation, often dubbed the ‘New Left’ for convenience sake, but encompassing de-Stalinisation and new ideas about organising, democracy and personal liberation. There were interesting differences between the various States though. Melbourne was more bookish (lots of journals began life in Melbourne) and perhaps more authoritarian; Monash University became famous for its Maoists. Sydney was much more anarchist, possibly because of the influence of the Andersonians (followers of libertarian philosophy professor John Anderson) and the remnants of the ‘Push’ (drinking Andersonians) – or as other commentators have pointed out, our better weather and a generally hedonistic lifestyle. Brisbane was cranky and dogmatic while Adelaide was creative and laid back. Who knows what was happening in Perth? We hardly knew the Western Australians existed because communication was so expensive that the West hardly figured in our student power alliance.

What we all knew was that we certainly weren’t Stalinists. Even the Old Left, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was beginning to rethink Stalin in 1968.

The New Left’s relationship with the CPA was ambivalent. We admired their steadfast support for Aboriginal rights and their opposition to the Vietnam War but their views on Mother Russia, internal dissent and personal liberation grated with us.

This difference was to become stark and unavoidable. On 21 August, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. The student Left gathered in Martin Place for an impromptu demonstration. SRC President, Jim Spigelman called it “the only really spontaneous demonstration in living memory”. 

There were several hundred assorted Trots, Labor Clubbers, SDS members and some unionists. We had actually arrived at our demonstration before most Australians knew of the momentous events of that day. In the era before social media, we had our own way of knowing what was going on … little transistor radios and word of mouth. Our placards read ‘Defend Human Rights in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam’ and ‘No Russian Nuclear Weapons’.

A motion was passed that we send a delegation of four representatives to question the Communist Party about their attitude to the invasion. I was elected as a representative of the unaligned students to go down to the old CPA headquarters in Day Street and demand a response from the then General Secretary Laurie Aarons, a man I was inordinately fond of because he reminded me of my father.

The NSW branch of the CPA, led by Laurie, had been moving inexorably towards the ‘new left’ identity politics which eventually brought about the Communist Party split of 1971, but at this stage we had little idea what their response to the Soviet invasion would be. Uncle Joe might have died, but the ties to Mother Russia were still strong.

I vividly remember waiting in the shabby little room off the board room while we could hear Laurie on the phone in varying stages of angst. We imagined at the time that he was pleading with the Kremlin or parlaying with Prague but I found out later that he was arguing with the CPA leaderships in the other Australian states. Eventually he came out to greet us and announced that the Communist Party of Australia was opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia … the first national Communist Party in the world to do so. As always I was only vaguely aware of what an interesting historical event had just taken place. I was very pleased with the outcome but not really cluey enough at the time to see it as the first tiny tear in the Iron Curtain.

The group left at Martin Place marched to the Polish Consulate, a location decided upon by Students’ Council President, Jim Spigelman, as there was no Soviet Mission in Sydney. There, ten students were arrested and huge bail amounts were posted. It looked like the students might have to spend the night in the slammer until Spigelman leapt into action and convinced Vice Chancellor Bruce Williams to pass the hat around at an august event he was attending (Jim was old before his time), the 10th Congress Dinner of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Sir John Crawford, numerous professors, Michael Kirby and Gough Whitlam were some of the dignitaries who coughed up to get their wayward students out of gaol.

The Left’s opposition to the Soviet Union in this instance was quite confusing for some of our opponents, and the intelligence community remained unimpressed. In fact, when ASIO informed MI6 of my plans to visit Britain at the end of 1968, they gave as part of the reason for my continued surveillance the fact that I had protested against the Russian invasion.

Looking back I find it interesting that our political role models were found in the streets of Haight-Ashbury or in the backblocks of Alabama and Mississippi rather than in our traditional ‘Mother England’ area of focus. Young American activists Abbie Hoffman, Gerry Rubin, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and to a lesser degree Martin Luther King were our icons.

Our particular bible was the Port Huron Declaration, the credo of the American Students for a Democratic Society. This was the group which spawned much of the American razzamatazz such as the siege of Chicago and the craziness of the Yippies (Youth International Party).

The day-to-day antics of the ‘Chicago Seven’ as they conducted their own defence in their conspiracy trial were religiously reported, even in the mainstream media. We followed their activities avidly. On one occasion they brought a birthday cake into the courtroom to celebrate the judge’s birthday … what a moment!!  It was these capers of the Yippies that inspired a spate of DIY court cases in Australia, with many peeved judicial officers and black power salutes in courtrooms (with subsequent gaol sentences). I was even convinced to conduct my own defence for an arrest in Canberra – the so-called ‘Day of Rage’ – with very mixed results.

In between demonstrations and court appearances I had discovered the Forest Lodge Hotel and the delights of alcohol. I had also discovered how to iron my hair, which improved my social life immeasurably.

Our evenings would begin in the ‘Lodge’ (there was no drinking on campus) and quickly spill over to someone’s house. There we would stand round the fridge singing Irish rebel songs or Spanish Civil War songs, something mawkish like Kevin Barry or simple like ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama’. Then someone would break out into a fanciful version of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ and the pleasure of singing would overtake political rectitude. However we never met without at least a few verses of our utmost favourite, ‘Joe Hill’.

Of course it is nostalgia that leads me to believe that these parties were more fun than present day knees-ups. Admittedly there were the boring potheads in the front room lying on the sofa and mumbling “heavy, man” like Neil in The Young Ones, but there was also Russ Darnley who knew the whole of Engel’s speech at Marx’s graveside and would recite it (endlessly). I knew all the Chinese words to ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’ and most of ‘The East is Red’. This would prove remarkably useful later in life when I had to entertain numerous Chinese delegations in Parliament.

1968 in Australia was less about sex and drugs than it was in America. Our youth movement was decidedly more political and less Hippie than our US counterparts. Why did American youth get Woodstock in 1969 and it took us until 1973 to come up with the rather lame Aquarius Festival? Certainly our political circle frowned on excessive pot smoking as it was seen to inhibit activism. You could smoke all you liked but if it prevented you from going out on a paste-up or handing out leaflets the next day, there was an issue.

It is not an exaggeration to say that 1968 and Vietnam changed my life. I was originally enrolled in English Honours and was about to embark on life as a famous novelist but as a result of my Vietnam activities I gradually found myself pulled towards the study of politics, ending up doing my postgraduate work in it and teaching it for 20 years … not to mention ending up in Parliament.

But what did 1968 actually mean? What was that year’s contribution to society generally, as opposed to liberating one very proper young Beecroft girl? There is no doubt it shook the foundations of the respectable middle class. As their sons and later their daughters took to the streets, much soul searching took place in suburbia. And it was the year that changed the progressive forces in Australia forever. It brought about de-Stalinisation and allowed democratic practices to flourish in the Left and it prefigured the important personal liberation movements of feminism, gay liberation and black activism.

1968 was that ‘glorious time to be alive’. I remember one particular demonstration where someone actually took a photo. We forget how rare it was for students to take photos in those days. None of us had cameras and we were too busy to stand still and pose anyway. This photograph shows me standing on top of a truck in front of the Great Hall waving a Vietcong flag, wearing a red headband, a floral mini dress and my beloved ankle-length white boots, all the height of 1968 fashion. In more ways than one, the revolution had certainly arrived for me.

Meredith Burgmann and Jeremy Gilling at Anti-Vietnam War protest 1968. Photograph provided by Meredith Burgmann.