An Overview of the Political and Social Background
to the Vietnam War

Mavis Robertson

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Sydney Branch’s two day conference on ‘Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975: which was held at the Women’s College, Sydney University, on 22-23 September 2001

Many concerns brought us to that day in May 1970 where we demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Many events and issues: had moulded our opinions. We spilled out from the Town Hall steps right across George Street to be hemmed in by Woolworths windows. We then filled the spaces way past Bathurst Street on one side and part way down George Street towards Market Street on the other. The diverse concerns, events and issues of the 60s all played a part in getting us there. Consider some of these – not necessarily in chronological order or in order of importance – which influenced many people to join the Moratorium in 1970.

I remember Sharpeville, although there were very few images on the TV and practically no one in mainstream political life who mentioned it at the time. That brutal event and the lack of response reinforced in me, and others, the notion that democracy was always conditioned, and that outrage against violence was often selective.

This was not exactly surprising given that the United States then, as now, was designated the leader of the free world and at that time was a country divided. Those who sought to end racial discrimination there were vilified, brutalised, beaten, jailed, and murdered. I can still see in my mind the black children set upon by alsatian dogs, handled by police, because they and their parents had the temerity to want an end to segregated schooling.

These were also years of political assassinations – John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King b~!ng the most obvious, but in reality only a small section of these who became victims of a disturbed and divided nation and world.

The post-war peace movement was born out of the cold war where on balance it seemed a sick joke to label the United States the bastion of freedom and democratic values, and it was not too difficult for many to see the then Soviet Union as more sinned against than sinning. The 60s were also marked by the Cuban missile crisis, If you have seen the recent film Thirteen Days – you can capture some of the atmosphere which we felt at that time. For myself, there has been no other time, before or since, when I felt so close to being a casualty of a world war. The danger of a nuclear holocaust was imminent. In those days the US Consulate was near Wynyard in Margaret Street. A growing number of citizens came to demonstrate day after day. When the Russian ships steamed onwards to Cuba we really wondered if we would be back the next day. When the ships turned around the relief overwhelmed us. We saw the agreements as a victory for common sense and a guarantee of Cuba’s rights.

In the same period when the Soviet Union ended a moratorium on nuclear testing with a massive explosion, the peace movement began to shift away from a partial acceptance that the Soviet nuclear weapons were an understandable reaction to the US monopoly of such weapons and that their existence curtailed some aspects of US military power. Few peace movement participants, after that, articulated the notion that there were good nuclear weapons confronting bad nuclear weapons. The concept of a nuclear-free world began to gather strength.

Nevertheless, the US continued to be the world’s police rewarding those whose anti-communism it applauded, whatever their democratic or, more likely, their anti-democratic attitudes and punishing those who would not conform. It’s a sobering thought that a small Carribean island state has had to face 40 years of blockade, as punishment for its non-conformism. Little wonder that Vietnam, faced with a divided world communist movement, made common cause with Cuba.

By 196,5 Vietnam was sometimes mentioned in the Australian press not least because of increasing involvement of the Australian army. Those who read Tribune were often well informed because a succession of Tribune journalists were posted to Hanoi to report from that country but also to help Vietnam with its English language communications in print and radio.

We knew that Ho Chi Minh was a modest man who had led the fight against Japanese imperialism – the French colonials had, of course, fled. He declared independence in a speech based on the US Declaration of Independence. We knew too that when the French colonists tried to regain lost territory the Vietnamese fought and won in an epic battle. In the aftermath the United States had moved in first with so called advisors and then through various escalations to full-scale war. But it was not Vietnam or Indo China that were fully in focus in the mid -1960s.

The war of words between the USSR and China involved various countries as surrogates of the main protagonists. Hence Yugoslavia and Albania fought their own war of words. Much later and long after the demise of the USSR that became a real war. The war of words found echoes in Australia but more importantly helped many on the left to face – at last, some would rightly say – the true nature of bureaucratic, state socialism. This led to some resurgence in philosophical discussions on the true nature of democracy. The discussions were lively and varied – workers control, limited tenure of office, charters for democracy and a sense that democracy everywhere was faulty not only because of the role of economic power but because democracy has to account for minority opinion not crush it or ban it or persecute it. Hence many issues not previously widely discussed in the left began to be discussed – the plight of Soviet Jewry, the labour camps, the various foreign policy options especially in respect of newly independent countries where the hope of political advantage often saw principles abandoned.

In the 1960s the government of Sukarno, the national independence leader of Indonesia, which included the PKI (the Communist Party). engaged in a confrontation policy with Malaysia. A period of instability led to what was claimed to be a failed coup against the military. In the actual military coup which followed which bought Suharto to power, upwards of 3 million people died. They were mostly ethnic Chinese and some were members of the China leaning PKI. The brutality was incredible, yet most of the world was silent on the atrocities. The Americans had helped engender the coup. The Russians saw the result as further reason to criticise Maoism. In Australia the red arrows, much loved by conservative government, continued to point downwards from China through most Asian counties to threaten us but suddenly Indonesia was promoted as an obstacle in their way. It took more than 30 years for the military dictatorship of Suharto to lose the support of succeeding American and Australian Governments. Until then he was always presented as an honorary democrat.

Slowly but surely Vietnam moved to centre stage. Consciousness was built as so-called strategic hamlets were constructed of barbed wire to contain parts of the peasant population. In some cases the barbed wire came from Australia. Seamen and other maritime workers found ways to express solidarity by refusing to load such cargo, or by refusing to sail ships containing such cargo. Later trade union strength became a key factor in the success of the Moratorium movement.

There were many and various actions – stadium rallies which followed marches through the city to Rushcutters Bay (where once there was a stadium) – visits from and to the United States brought a reality check on democracy again. Leading Labor parliamentarians, Cairns, Uren and Wheeldon, were several times refused visas to undertake speaking ‘engagements against the war, in the United States. The Eurkea League held vigils at the US Consulate on Friday nights and as military involvement grew and conscription became a reality, a whole new series of OI’1~.lnlsiltions came into being – draft resisters and Save our Sons – are but two examples among many.

The 1966 election was something of a shock. Those who believed that if people were given clear choices they would make the right choice found that the Labor party which had bravely opposed conscription polled the lowest vote in living memory. Community organising was one response to electoral defeat. Through Arts Vietnam almost every known artist actors, singers and musicians – participated. Campus and school organising developed, the latter new to Australia, gathered pace and caused controversy. A significant new movement initiated by Bob Gould attracted many young people to the Vietnam Action Committee. The churches developed specific groups and people joined local groups against the war. The peace movement was evolving into an anti-war movement.

And against all this, as background, came 1968 in Paris where for a few weeks it seemed that every old concept could be challenged and in Prague where the hopes of democratic socialists were crushed under Soviet tanks.

A new world of TV war showed us Vietnamese scenes which we could not ignore – the napalmed child running down the road is still there in our collective memory. It made it harder to be any of the way with LBJ.

In retrospect it is my view that while all these events, activities and struggles had some influence both in the United States and in Australia the key influences that led to a majority rejection of the Vietnam war are bound up in conscription and the resulting body bags, the perceived unfairness of the lottery of death, the courage of the resisters and other opponents of conscription.

Perhaps conscription might have been more acceptable if it had been universal and if casualties had not been so great, especially American casualties. This is another way of saying that the second key issue was that the Vietnamese were tenacious and unwavering in their struggle for liberation. They were the first to deny victory to the mighty power of the US military machine. They made many of us believe that, now and then at least, right can overcome might. They appealed to our consciences. How was it possible that so much talent, so much wealth could be diverted into a war machine which sought to crush a peasant people with so few material resources – and fail?

Out of all this, slowly, sometimes painfully here in Sydney and around Australia, we found ways for people with different views, even opposing views, to work together. People who did not normally trust each other. people who had never made commQn cause now did so. All those preparatory meetings, all the negotiations which, with goodwill ensured that most voices were heard in the preparations and in the public forums, were essential for the success of the first Moratorium which exceeded the most optimistic expectations. Mostly we tried to respect the democratic rights of those within our movement with whom we disagreed and we relied on a range of organising centres and found ways to co-ordinate our various activities. In this, AICD played an essential part.

We even learnt to negotiate with the police and other State officials to ensure that mass peaceful demonstrations are not something that we should have to ask permission to achieve but are, or should be, our right. We were fortunate too to have leaders of integrity, not least Jim Cairns who worked at every conceivable political level to build support for the Moratorium – from national forums attended by thousands, to suburban meetings attended by only a handful.

There was one other influence I associate with that time. Most of what is now called the women’s movement was very new in the late 60s but it was there and we called it Women’s Liberation. I cannot say that it always united the anti-war forces when in reality it challenged and even offended some people and many long held practices, but it invigorated many women Including long time activists to think differently, to act differently and to contr”lbute more profoundly. It also ensured that the thousands of mundane tasks which must be done in any successful movement were ,shared tasks, not just women’s work. It is one part of the movement of that time whichcontinues to influence the way we live.