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The lasting legacy of the Vietnam Moratorium

  • 08 May 2020
The Vietnam Moratorium in Melbourne was one of the most momentous events to occur in Australia in the post world war two era. It led to a seismic shift not only in Australia politics but also within society. The moratorium, held fifty years ago today, was a historic achievement in how it united diverse groups behind the goal of ending Australia’s role in the Vietnam war.

It embraced left-wing university activist groups, school students, trade unions, academics, pacifists, women’s groups, church groups and Labor politicians. They all sat down together in Bourke Street for fifteen minutes in the first mass protest of its kind in Australia on 8 May 1970. I was among the 100,000 protesters who brought the center of the city to a standstill. It was the largest demonstration ever in Australia up to that time.

Nationally 200,000 people participated in the first Vietnam Moratorium staged in cities around Australia. As deaths mounted in Vietnam, it was followed by two more Vietnam Moratoriums in September 1970, drawing a smaller crowd and in June, 1971 almost matching the 100,000 people who protested at the first Vietnam Moratorium. It could be argued that the moratorium influenced the coming election that led to the formation of the Whitlam government.

The Vietnam Moratorium was inspired by similar protests in America. It was not just a form of protest. It was a movement. Like any movement, it took time to build both momentum and unity. It took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War in which Australia had joined America — some felt blindly — in sending troops to a country many Australians knew nothing about in 1962. Two years later Prime Minister Robert Menzies brought in national service.

It was a birthday ballot of males turning 21. When they turned twenty were required to register with a Department of Labour and National Service. Many called up felt they had no choice. Some deferred with university studies. Others became draft dodgers and yet others such as Michael Hamel-Green (now professor) declared themselves conscientious objectors. They were jailed. It was a lottery in life and death. Just about everyone had a brother, a nephew or a friend or knew of someone who faced getting called up and possibly sent to Vietnam.

Australia already had a significant pacifist movement, from the 1950s against what was seen as the threat of nuclear war. A group of women who included artist