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The lasting legacy of the Vietnam Moratorium



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.

Protesting outside in Swanston Street about Australian involvement in Vietnam War. (Getty images/Wesley )

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 Jean McLean formed Saved Our Sons in 1965 to oppose conscription. Using pacifist tactics they handed out anti-conscription leaflets and attended anti-war campaigns.


'It convinced ordinary Australians that they could have a voice in government policy and foreign policy.'


At the new Monash University, a Labor Club had been formed that was left wing and radical. It actions to oppose the war included provocatively collecting funds for the Viet Cong, the guerilla group fighting for Vietnam’s independence against American and Australian troops. It looked upon passive resistance with disdain and as ineffectual. I was a member.

When then US President Lyndon B Johnson visited Australia in 1966, Prime Minister at that time, Harold Holt responded with the unfortunate phrase ‘All the Way with LBJ’. The obsequiousness of that phrase hardened the attitudes of those who felt Australia should have an independent foreign policy.

Within the Monash Labor Club our focus increasingly became America with an annual July 4th demonstration outside the US consulate that usually involved violent clashes with police. More moderate groups were critical of these protests, leading to divisions within the anti-war movement.

However, new alliances formed earlier between trade unions and student groups were strengthened when one of Australia’s leading unionist and Communists, Laurie Carmichael and his wife Val were arrested at a demonstration in 1969 after supporting their son who was a conscientious objector. Laurie Carmichael Jn, was ``'kidnapped’ and openly given sanctuary by church groups.

What the moratorium provided was a platform to bring these disparate groups together in a united front. In late 1969 a number of large meetings were held to form a coalition. A steering committee elected then Labor shadow trade and industry spokesman the late Labor Minister Jim Cairns as chairman with Carmichael, Jean McLean and Students for a Democratic Society leader Harry van Moorst as vice presidents. 

Cairns charismatic leadership was a key in holding it together as was the leadership of the other three with their respective bases. Some wanted the protest couched in more strident terms of anti-imperialism but moderate voices prevailed and the slogan ‘stop work to stop the war’ with its wider appeal was adopted.

It can be argued that pressure from the moratoriums laid the groundwork for the first withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam by Prime Minister John Gordon in November 1970 and Labor ending conscription in 1972.

More lastingly, the legacy of the Vietnam Moratorium is reflected in the strong opposition to the South African Springbox tour in 1971; Indonesia’s invasion of Timor in 1975; The Iraq War in 2003 when Melbourne’s protest was cited as the biggest demonstrations since the Vietnam War; and more recently in climate change protests. It convinced ordinary Australians that they could have a voice in government policy and foreign policy. 


Andra JacksonAndra Jackson is a freelance writer and award winning refugee issue specialist. 

Main image: Protest on Swanston Street about Australian involvement in Vietnam War. (Getty images/Wesley)


Topic tags: Andra Jackson, Vietnam war, Vietnam Moratorium, Whitlam, Menzies.pacificism, anti-war



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Existing comments

Brings it all back. But for the feeling of being watched by Vic Police Special Branch, Sergeant Bob Larkin in charge.

David Stephens | 08 May 2020  

I remember my father a WW11 vet ringing to check we were ok after the violence of police in Sydney saying "I don't know what I fought a war for if people here cannot walk in the streets as a protest."

Dianne Mackenzie | 08 May 2020  

I was there too - a year 12 student!

jim coghlan | 09 May 2020  

Ah, the memories! As a conscripted Monash Uni Student, and as one of the 100,000 who jammed Melbourne's city streets, this was the greatest issue that we faced. After Mr Wilfred Kent Hughes in Parliament had described demonstrators as "political bikies pack raping democracy", there in the middle of us all on the intersection of Swanston and Collins was a little old lady holding a sign saying "I am a political pack raping bikie!" Arthur Calwell's speech to the House of Representatives on 4 May 1965 is still ringing true today. A great speech that history has borne out.

Christopher Chenoweth | 09 May 2020  

The Vietnam Moratorium hasn't stopped Australian governments from joining in America's various wars but it has stopped Australian governments using conscription to get the required numbers. They've learned that going to war with a professional standing army is less likely to attract civilian protest than with an army of conscripts. It is arguable that if we had had a citizen army all these years we would have been less likely to join in every American sortie into someone else's territory.

Ginger Meggs | 09 May 2020  

the melbourne march may have numerically biggest but according to a Flinders Uni Masters or PhD student the Darwin one was the biggest pro rata head of population. I was the instigator/organiser after being arrested in Canberra when Spiro Agnew visited, and sat in a large cell or room with others incl the main national organiser. I foolishly said I support what you are doing, and he hit back with: well organise one in Darwin !! Main support came from the wharfies, and we were helped by a dopey city councillor who argued to deny us a permit, attracting a fiery editorial by NT News ed Jim Bowditch I got to know Prof Harry Medlin, who in fact gave the eulogy at Dad’s funeral. His bro Brian Medlin led the huge Adelaide march, and when they got to Victoria Square a lage sergeant of police stood there with his hand up to stop. Brian stopped close to him, and the sergeant punched him in the stomach so hard it split the lining. He was not the same for months/years or ever, not quite sure.

Rob Wesley-Smith | 10 May 2020  

Ginger Meggs says we would see less military adventurism if the population had "skin in the game" through a citizen army, but this is a redundant point. Since Vietnam our population has doubled but military numbers are only up slightly. And we have had Iraq, Afghanistan and huge expenditure and incoherent policies on subs and plane purchases, with a war dynamic. I take slight issue with Andra's "draft dodgers" phrase. There were any number of covert people trying to keep below the radar, but the Draft Resisters' Union and allies such as SOS were out loud and proud, defying and challenging. Yes we had skin the game, but many found it a revelatory experience to discover the lies and inhumanity of official ideology which rationalised Vietnamese and Australian deaths.

Kevin Bain | 11 May 2020  

It is only the lack of the indiscernibility which hampers foresight that allows hindsight to parade as wisdom. At the time of the Moratorium, the model of Asian communism was Mao’s China or Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea. Deng Xiaoping’s conversion to capitalism around 1978 would have been a heretic’s fantasy in the 1960s. It is only by accident that Vietnam today is like China today, an authoritarianism that is ‘communist’ in name only. And so, the Australians who today visit Vietnam as tourists might wonder what the War was about when the outcome was a Vietnam indistinguishable from, say, Pinochet’s Chile. Well, the model of Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea still exists. And no Australian who visits the Korean Peninsula today could disagree with the Western premise for fighting the Korean War. And, before capitalistic ‘communism’ became an improbable reality, just at the end of the Vietnam war, another model of communism (actually, quite an orthodox model of a communism which ‘cleanses’) emerged victorious in Kampuchea. Does any Australian disagree that Vietnam should have invaded Kampuchea? If the Moratorium is on the right side of history, it is purely by luck.

roy chen yee | 12 May 2020  

Thank you Andra for this article which brought up so many memories one of the most significant periods in my life. In 1970 I was in my third year of a Civil Engineering degree at the University of Queensland. I accepted the Courier Mail view of the world - the Communist hordes were heading South and we needed to join the US in opposing them in Vietnam. In one of our first tutorials in 1970, our tutor Rod O'Donnell convinced a few of us to buy a booklet "Vietnam and Australia" that had been recently produced by the Australia Union of Students (AUS). I was shocked by what I read and my world view began to change. I became a regular attendee at the forums held outside the Relaxation Block at UQ and listened to speakers such as Dan O'Neill, Peter Wertheim, Brian Laver and students from Vietnam . In May, I marched in the first Moratorium held in Brisbane and I also marched in the September Moratorium. At the end of 1970 I travelled to Papua New Guinea with an AUS delegation to lead a camp for senior high school students at Mount Hagen. My world had changed.

Peter Hanley | 16 May 2020  

Thank you for marking this anniversary. I was a student at the time. I was one of a few students who volunteered to begin a mini newspaper for students, with backing from a union, highlighting the relevance of the war to younger people. The whole thing politicised me. My brother was conscripted and sent - infantry. I've witnessed the whole horrible impact of that war on the lives of many people since. The pain and suffering continues today. The whole time arouses inside me immense sadness. A political war of narrow ignorance, kowtowing to the Americans. The lies told - remember the Pentagon Papers? And very little has changed. The young men who pay the price. The few who are alive [so many suicided; so many dead from cancers] who are now old men, waking [if they can sleep] at night with nightmares of blood and death. The way they were made to feel shame. Let decisions on war go before the Parliament. Let us discuss and vote on such a profound and overwhelming issue in the future. As I get older, I find my anger not receding.

John Kilner | 17 May 2020  

In Andra's article there are "typos" I presume i e John Gordon should be John Gorton and Saved Our Sons should be Save Our Sons . While these are minor errors easily seen as such by those who knew the era they can cause doubts over the article's veracity for younger readers.. It's also important for comments made about the period to be accurate e g where it is implied Harold Holt made his "All the way with LBJ " in Australia when LBJ visited here in October 1966 .Holt said it in Washington in July ,1966 on the lawn outside the White House. Andra recalls her memories and her perspectives but in one glaring error of fact completely misstates the age at which conscription applied to 20 year old males in Australia: (quote) "It was a birthday ballot of males turning 21" (unquote) As a reminder to her ,and readers of all ages, as to how she has misread history look up Errol Noack, on the net, and see that at 20 years old conscription applied to him in 1965. And Andra regrettably doesn't state how constant television news coverage of the war turned public opinion against it

Des Files | 22 May 2020  

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