Conclusion: The Achievements of the 1964-72 Antiwar Movement
During the actual period of the war, the movement already achieved some small advances. Following protests over military imprisonment of objectors, the conscription scheme was amended in May 1968 to change from military to civilian gaols. Then, at the October 1969 Election, there was a massive swing to the Labor Party, which was not enough for them to win office but was widely interpreted as a result of the unpopularity of the war and conscription. As early as April 1970, the Government announced a withdrawal of one battalion from Vietnam, and, by the end of 1971 Australia had withdrawn all its combat troops from Vietnam. The Liberal Government continued with conscription through 1972, but this too was successfully ended when Whitlam came to power at the end of 1972. The ending of conscription was, in itself, a reflection of the influence of the antiwar anti-conscription movement on the ALP and public opinion.
The outgoing Liberal PM, William McMahon, conceded that failure to end conscription was one of the factors in his defeat. Later still, at the ensuing general election in May 1974, the Opposition Liberal Party Leader, Snedden, pledged that conscription would not be reinstated by a Liberal Government, indicating a more long term bipartisan success on the part of the anti-conscription movement.
One notable conversion was Don Chipp, Minister for Customs and Deputy National Service Minister during the Gorton Government, and later a leader of the centrist Australian Democrats Party. At the time of the Vietnam War, he was an advocate for the war, domino theory and conscription under successive Liberal Governments from 1964-1972. In 1992, Don Chipp recalled:
I am certainly not proud of the part I played. I was at the peak of my career…mooted as a future PM. I didn’t want to listen to the voice of Cairns…I deeply regret that, and have twinges of conscience still. As a person claiming morality, I should have gone deeply into the whole question of our involvement when Menzies first told me about sending the troops in…I am still the only former Liberal who has admitted we were wrong, and I have never been so sure about anything in my whole life, never. We were wrong.
A further outcome was the movement’s very effective expansion of the repertoire of protest methods and strategies. Experience in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience was quickly applied in later movements and campaigns on environmental, nuclear, indigenous and women’s issues.
An obvious outcome, reflected in greater diplomatic engagement with Asia under subsequent Labor and Liberal Governments, was an increase in awareness and understanding amongst Australia’s public and political elites of Asia Pacific issues, and the opportunities for cooperation, especially economic cooperation. This began to supplant previous simplistic Cold War approaches to our relations with Asian countries, particularly China.
Many in the antiwar anti-conscription movement were to go on to become involved in a range of other movements after 1972, most notably in the anti-uranium movement but also in the Nuclear-Free Pacific, environmental, women’s movement, Timor solidarity movement, and human rights groups.