During the 1960s and 70s the author was prominent in the radical student and New Left movements. Ahead of the second moratorium he was a Vice-President of the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament, the largest anti-war movement in NSW.
Speaking in the House of Representatives in May 1970, Australia’s Minister for Labour and National Service, Billy Snedden, gave vent to his severe case of vexation. The anti-Vietnam War and anti-conscription movements were, he declared, “political bikies pack-raping democracy”.
The particular object of his vexation was the forthcoming Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam. The word moratorium means a temporary cessation of business as usual. However, since late 1969 Australian anti-Vietnam War and anti-conscription organisations and interests had highjacked and politicised the word, giving it a capital M. They had been working together to overcome differences and divisions to mount national Moratorium protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
This followed the success of Moratorium demonstrations earlier in 1969 in the USA, where millions of people, variously estimated as between 15 to 20 million, had turned out across the nation in opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in a diversity of massive rallies, marches, and events in as many as 1,000 cities and towns. This turnout shook and enraged the administration of President Nixon. Publicly, it characterised the demonstrations as street politics of little consequence orchestrated by effete intellectuals and hard-core radicals and anarchists. In private, however, Nixon and his minions felt besieged, their illusory policy of seeking ‘an honourable peace’, which necessarily extended the war, threatened.
During and following the US Moratorium actions which ran through October and November, solidarity actions took place in Australia. For example, I was present at the Metro Theatre in Sydney’s Kings Cross the night the cast and audience of the peace and love Musical Hair stood for a minute’s silence in solidarity with the US Moratorium. Outside, 60 protestors bearing flowers and candles left for the iconic Sydney Cenotaph, in an anti-war protest led by the Reverend Ted Noffs of the charitable social justice based Wayside Chapel (Kings Cross).
Around Australia there was a host of other solidarity actions, their character robust, confident, their themes and slogans decisively ‘End the War’, their makeup including not only radicalised university students who had been the mainstay of protests to that time, but prominently also trade union leaders, Labor MPs, public intellectuals, religious figures, leading academics. It was obvious from these actions that the anti-war movement in Australia had moved well beyond the university campuses that had been the centres of resistance since the mid-sixties. In December 1969 Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, then an interestingly innovative national newspaper, came out demanding the immediate recall of all Australian troops from Vietnam. How times had changed.
What tends to be forgotten in the mish-mash of public imagination regarding Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War from the beginning in 1962, when 30 military advisors were sent to Vietnam, escalating with massive troop deployments from 1965 onwards (conscripts were deployed in 1966), and conscription from its introduction in 1964/65 onwards, is the level of public support: 71 per cent for conscription in November 1964; 52 per cent in May 1965 for sending Australian troops to Vietnam. Opposition to both the war and conscription were minority concerns and mightily unpopular, only increasing significantly following the shock of the Tet Offensive in February 1968 when the ‘we will win’ rhetoric of the US and its allies was exposed as spurious. It was not until October 1969 that the Whitlam leadership of the ALP hardened its opposition to the Vietnam War, promising to bring troops home, and in 1971 promising to end conscription by repealing the National Service Act.
The conservative Royalist-loving anti-communist government of Robert Menzies had schooled the nation well since coming to office in late 1949; democracy ended at the ballot box and in-between times one knuckled down, worked hard, and let the government do its job. The idea that public places could also be political spaces, and that democracy was always a work-in-progress, were anathema.
Support on campuses for both the war and conscription mirrored public support. A Sydney University poll in 1966, for example, showed student support for conscription at 59 per cent and for sending troops to Vietnam at 68 per cent. That was the year I was part of the editorial team of the Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit led by editor Hall Greenland, then pioneering and controversially taking a prominent anti-war/anti-conscription stance. As our anti-war editorial content and dissidence increased, we had to protect bundles of the newspaper in the early morning on campus delivery days from being stolen or destroyed by organised student conservatives. The culprits came from the Engineering Faculty mainly, and members of the Sydney University Regiment, many of them private schoolies and Rugger footy types not averse to a bit of biffo. The following year, 1967, during Orientation Week on that campus, I was part of an early outing of the recently formed Students for a Democratic Society with leader Mike Jones, delivering anti-war/anti-conscription spiels via hand-held megaphone by the side of Science Road, key thoroughfare to the main campus eatery. It was lunchtime and throngs of students were making their way to lunch, swarming casually down the road, until they got to us, whereupon the crowd swerved and made a conga line shift sideways as far away from us as possible, avoiding us like we were contaminated in some way.
ASIO surveillance photo: Activists Rowan Cahill (left) and Russ Darnley (right) outside the Left Action Conference, April 1969, Sydney, an early attempt to build a radical unity well prior to the moratoriums.
Photograph provided by Rowan Cahill
I had been conscripted in 1965 courtesy of the newly introduced birthday-based lottery-ballot conscription system, had destroyed my call-up papers in 1966, had a temporary student deferment until completion of my degree, then spent the next few years as an anti-war/anti-conscription activist. When time was up, I refused to attend two compulsory medical examinations (a significant crime at the time) until authorities got heavy handed in 1968 and significant jail time was imminent. Whereupon I eventually successfully argued a long drawn out court case for being a conscientious objector. The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation opened its file on me in 1967.
Togetherness for a While
The idea of drawing together the many Australian anti-war and anti-conscription outfits (some 146 organisations at least) in common action had been mooted before, but the US Moratorium solidarity actions gave hope that the many divisions and histories and sensitivities of these could perhaps be overcome and a way forward found. Which is what happened. Representatives of 35 organisations from four states (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia), and the ACT met in Canberra in November 1969, and managed to establish a national co-ordinating committee tasked with forming state-based committees, with the aim of creating nation-wide Moratorium events in 1970.
In practice this unifying process was not easily achieved, was tension laden, and there were divisions. These were smoothed over and in May 1970 the first Moratorium was held, with turnouts that exceeded expectations: estimations vary between 120,000 –200,000 overall; 70,000-100,000 in Melbourne; 25,000 in Sydney, and demonstrations in the other capitals, and centres including Armidale, Bathurst, Burnie, Devonport, Fremantle, Goulburn, Launceston, Newcastle, Townsville and Wollongong. It was the largest protest assemblage in Australian history at the time and, despite some violence, was generally well-ordered. Authorities had been expecting significant violence and there were massive police presences, for example some 1,700 police in Sydney and 1,000 in Melbourne. At the Sydney rally seven US military personnel on ‘R and R’ leave were arrested by US military police for taking part in the demonstration; at the time there was growing dissent and active opposition to the war amongst US frontline personnel.
A second Moratorium followed in September 1970, and a third variously in April, May and June 1971, but the sizes of these were smaller and did not achieve the turnouts of May 1970. Estimates of the September national turnout range between 80,000 and 100,000, with Melbourne drawing the largest crowd. Generally, more violence was evident than previously. In Sydney, for example, more police were deployed than in May, and, under orders to be more proactive in policing the event, they tried to confiscate placards and flags on sticks as ‘possible’ weapons, and arrested 173 demonstrators. Conservative state governments in NSW and Victoria approached the second Moratorium in a provocative ‘law and order’ way. The turnout nationally for the third Moratorium was smaller again, though once more, the showing in Melbourne was strongest.
Anti-conscription and Moratorium badges from the 1970s
Courtesy of Danny Blackman
Explanations for the smaller turnouts during the second and third Moratoriums should be seen in the context of the conduct of the Vietnam War. They occurred at a time when the writing was on the wall so far as the Vietnam War was concerned, and both the US and Australian governments were variously manoeuvring for ways out. A sense of anti-climax was a contributing factor. However, both of the latter Moratoriums experienced factional, tactical, and strategic divisions avoided in the euphoric novelty and determined unity that had created the first Moratorium, and these were also contributing factors. The state too contributed, and organisers faced more state-generated hurdles and wrecking tactics than previously; for example during the second Moratorium in Sydney, police attacked large university-student feeder marches to ensure they did not reach assembly points.
In a sense the first Moratorium was the icing on the cake – a highly visible and theatrical event attesting to the fact that the government had lost its moral ascendancy and the debate over the rightness of the war. Increasing radicalism and defiance generated by conscription served notice too on the government, and the ALP, that conscription was a thorn best drawn. By 1972, figures indicated that maybe as many as 10,000 young men eligible for national service had failed to register for call-up as required by law. While these were not all politically motivated non-compliers, defaulters were difficult to track down and prosecute; it was a time before sophisticated computer technologies, and the necessary records and procedures were simply not up to the task. Conscription as a system was flawed from the outset, and by the early 1970s was breaking down.
When the Whitlam ALP government was elected to office at the end of 1972, a metaphorical stroke of the pen ended both Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, and conscription. As for the significance of the protest period of the 1960s through to 1972, capped by the spectacles and experiences of the Moratoriums, it restored to Australian political and cultural life, and to the future, the notions of democracy as a work-in-progress with citizen involvement a constant, and the effectiveness of protest in public spaces and places.
A chronology of protest explaining the pressures, context and constraints of the organisation of the first Moratorium in Australia is available on the ASSLH Melbourne Branch website at: https://labourhistorymelbourne.org/chronology-of-protest-8-may-1970-moratorium/