Introduction to Melbourne protests against the Vietnam War and the National Service Act

The people involved in protesting against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the National Service Act, had many and varied reasons for doing so. Some were motivated primarily by political reasons, others more by personal reasons. Some felt moral and ethical objections to all wars, while others were particularly outraged by this particular one. Some began with an objection to the war, and objection to conscription developed from that, while others began with opposing conscription. Some came from apolitical families, others from conservative backgrounds, and a few had parents in the Communist Party. Some protesters objected to the war and the draft right from the beginning, while for others it was a gradual process of learning about the situation and developing their personal perspective. From these different backgrounds, these members of the community converged on the same stance: that Australia needed to withdraw troops from Vietnam, and that the National Service Act needed to be revoked. 

Note: “conscription” and “the draft” are used interchangeably for “the National Service Act”.


Janet McCalman: introduction to the socio-political context of the 1960s. 


Janet McCalman  

It's difficult to convey to people now how oppressive Australia was: oppressive in terms that a lot of books were banned. If you expressed left wing views, you lost your job; I grew up with being told never to talk politics on the phone, never to disclose that my parents had radical views. My father had lost his job in the early 50s. So you know - and they weren't deeply involved in, you know, they were sort of on the fringes, but that still hurt them. So the left lived a fairly secretive life. And so to reach the point by 1970, where so many people turned out to march in the Vietnam moratorium was miraculous. It was an extraordinary feeling for the left of liberation. And they weren't alone any longer. That the things that they were talking about people were beginning to take seriously. So, you know, even environmental interest, certainly things around Aborigines, peace, social justice, these are all things that were all completely shut out. Now think [unclear] and Gough Whitlam changed everything. Well, he didn't. I mean, my parents saw him as a right winger, and you must remember that he didn't come out against conscription until he felt that the country had moved, and that he wouldn't lose votes if he went out against conscription. Whereas Arthur Calwell, who was a very devout Catholic, and a socialist, and had proposed conscription in World War One, never wavered on conscription, you know, he had - he was a man of principle, much more so than Gough. You know, I know Gough's great, but he wasn't, you know, he was in the right. He was, you know, it was a lot of sort of what we'd now call virtue signaling a bit like the Greens, you know, all the middle class people love it. But does it really make that much difference to people who are poor? It made some difference, but not profoundly. They weren't in government long enough. So, but anyway, what I think - what I found in my book Journeyings is that the softening, if you like, of the, the liberal mentality, they started with, in Victoria, the hanging of Ronald Ryan. And I remember one of my teachers at school saying that had been the last straw for her. So and that was, so Henry Bolte, and his sort of thuggish, Barnaby Joyce sort of conservativism finally repelled people. So that's the beginning, was the hanging of, and then Vietnam and the sons and, you know, for the parents, whose sons who were protesting and not wanting to go, they'd been in the Second World War. So you've got to think of those generational effects. And, and there'd been the Korean War. I mean we'd been at war a long time. And they'd been very, very nasty wars. So the Malaysian emergency was particularly vicious, and very, very oppressive against the Chinese. You know, I mean, that - that sort of softening them up, and then they liked Gough. And so they voted for Gough. And then I think they got very scared by the Khemlani Affair, because you mustn't mismanage money. So they went back again. So that's the sort of context - so the Vietnam War - people's feelings about it accelerated in the last years of the 60s, and then reached a peak by 1970, with the big moratorium. And that was, for a lot of students at the university, a big difficult time, a lot of people found it hard to commit to going on that march. Certainly one who became a major public intellectual since, couldn't quite bring himself. So he stood on the steps of Parliament House and watched and then felt he should have gone it, but he wouldn't go in. And so, but it was a very, it was a very difficult time for a lot of people who, because the narrative was that the left and communism and socialism were evil. And it suppressed human rights. And they did. That's true. So the context of the Vietnam protests, a lot of it in the mid to early, from about '65-'66 onwards, was actually led by children of left wing families. So a lot of the leading radicals came from left wing families. And so they'd already been prepared or primed. And then, gradually, others joined in. And I mean to, for a boy to refuse the draft was very brave, because you know, they went to jail. We had a family friend who spent two years in hiding; family didn't see him for two years. It wasn't funny. And then those who went to Vietnam had a terrible time. So it was an ugly war. And it was a very nasty, stressful war, in many ways worse than World War One, worse than the trenches, because they were in, they had much less chance to recover. And they had so much environmental things of diseases and bugs and snakes and mosquitoes and all of that, and the sweating and all that sort of things terribly demoralising.

Alexandra Pierce  

And such a different socio political context, as well.

Janet McCalman  

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, I think, in Vietnam, now, they call it all the American war. They didn't see it as a war of liberalism fighting communism from within Vietnamese society. It was an American imperialist war, which did incredible damage to the people. I mean the other thing about the Vietnam War was that the television coverage began to change. And people began to see war more vividly. Although, I remember going to France in 1971-2 - and I was amazed at the difference in the television coverage in the news, so that was far franker. So that's the context.


 Martha Kinsman: theoretical and political perspective of a 1960s Trotskyist. 


Martha Kinsman  

Let me go back to the kind of... not so much the politics, but the sort of quasi theoretical discussions and debates that were occurring at that time. I probably should emphasise more than I have the, the role of, I say the Maoists but particularly Albert Langer and probably Darce Cassidy, who was quite a bit older than Albert, particularly those two people in clarifying I guess, in helping to clarify the way people were thinking about the Vietnam War. And in particular, in helping them put it in a context of the issues of American imperialism, capitalism, imperialism, and the different manifestations, I suppose, of socialism in the communist world, and I think that was very important in radicalising a lot of the student left. And Albert himself had written a lot of theory; had, in fact, gone through various iterations of where he felt the most, the most promising analysis was to be found. And he by then, I think, was directly involved in the Maoist Communist Party, which was called the ... that's right, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, I was thinking Marxist-Leninist, with Ted Hill, and also another much older person, much older people that were involved in that, were Ken and Pat Miller. When I went - when I was teaching in '68, after I finished my degree I got to teaching for a year or so, before I went overseas, the school I was at Pat Miller was one of the senior women teachers. And she, she was the mother of Kerry Miller, who Albert eventually married. There was a group of older people that I think Albert found both knowledgeable and in a sense provocative in terms of teasing out the distinctions of - particularly at that stage - between Russia and China. Later, of course, there were lots of factions developing within the Maoist communist parties. That was much later so that by about 1975 I was most concerned with the way that for instance, what was happening in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. And there were still people in Melbourne who were defending Pol Pot and saying it was all okay, you know, that this was a, this was how the peasants felt, I suppose - I don't know what they were feeling. But that was that was much later. And in the anti Vietnam... among the anti Vietnam activists with whom I was involved, the student activists and the other activists at the time I was a student,  that's more to the point, in '66, '7, '8, '9 perhaps the Maoist group, not just Albert and the Maoist students but the Maoist leaders, the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist, and Ted Hill's group, were instrumental in influencing students to contextualise their concerns about Vietnam. And I don't think for a moment that that was manipulative. And I'll just contrast that - I want to contrast that with the Communist Party of Australia, which, of course, as I recall, was starting to go through all of those splits after Czechoslovakia - well, obviously, you know, people left after Hungary in 1956. But after Czechoslovakia there were actual, I think, the beginning of the splits in the party and I, I've lost track now, I've forgotten just how those splits all worked. But there were certainly Communist Party people who were wanting to, you know, get very active against the Vietnam War. There were also communists who, while they opposed Vietnam, it seems to me now they didn't really want to draw attention to themselves. The people who religiously followed the Russian line. I remember two issues. The first was a person called Laurie Carmichael, he was certainly a leading member of the Communist Party. And he was also at that stage, I think, something like an assistant secretary, of the New South Wales branch of the Metal Workers Union. And I don't know why he was in Melbourne, but he must have been in Melbourne because he was on the ACTU executive or something, but at one stage in Melbourne, he called a couple of us in, including Peter Price and said to him - said to us, because I was there - that he and the Communist Party would like us to...  what I remember him saying is, the Communist Party could offer us an umbrella. And I'll never forget the way he said, "umbrella". That's why I remember. So the Communist Party wanted to, in a sense, take control of the students, but not to... not to facilitate their activism, in my view, to control and channel it. The other person that I think, well, I know this, because I've since read his comments in his ASIO file as a result of a completely different study I did a couple of years ago, was a person called George Lees, who at that stage was the deputy president or vice president of the Victorian Teachers Union, and a member of the Communist Party, and was in the middle of running for a presidency that he eventually didn't get. And as a consequence, the technical teachers split from the Victorian Teachers Union, and formed the Technical Teachers Association of Victoria. Now he was a communist. And he was very worried because people who'd been active students, who still were student activists, were employed as teachers as well. And George Lees was most concerned about the - what he regarded as extreme activism of, you know, supporting the NLF. That was the critical break point, not just opposing the Vietnamese war but but supporting the enemy. And he was very, very worried that it would compromise the Communist Party's reputation, I suppose, which is a strange thing to say. But ... and I think it was Lees, I think his concern was visibility. So the point I'm trying to make is that while, now that the mythology is all about the Maoists and how radical they were, and from all reports, people like Jill Jolliffe and so on, in the early '70s, when I wasn't there, the Maoists - some of the Maoists, not Albert, but some of the Maoists did get a bit silly. But while I was there, I make the very strong point that they - and Alber said this in an interview and I agree with him - that their concern was to help give voice and to help articulate, really kids who were only 18 and 19 - help them articulate and put in a theoretical and wider political context, a very real horror of what America and Australia were doing in Vietnam. It's also true of the New Leftt that a lot of the people on the New Left that I was friends with, took Albert Langer anyway, quite seriously. And Darce Cassidy. And that, I think - you'll have to just check with other people that you interview, but I think Helen Hill will be particularly useful on this because she was sort of around for a lot longer than I was - I think they and Jill Jolliffe got more fed up with the... I'm not sure, the activism against the university administration, which I thought was a bit, you know, sort of emulating... the much more justified activism of the Italians and the French students where the paternalism and the... those universities were just unbelievable. I was going to say the antics but you know, when they got to the point of expelling Albert, and not letting him repeat and go on, and he was a very bright young man - is probably still bright, I don't know - I'm not sure that they were just antics. Yeah, they mobilised a lot of the student cohort. Really, when Vietnam was becoming sort of a past issue, it was quite clear, even in '72, that, you know, McMahon was starting to pull the troops out and so on. So I don't know what would have happened then; I mean, from my point of view, it was still going on in Cambodia. And I don't think I was one of the people that Albert felt he had to radicalise in terms of a theoretical perspective. But the New Left group were... were not enemies of the of the Monash Maoists in my time. I didn't think that that became was very clear in what I was talking about, largely because I got diverted on to, you know, certain people and what they did afterwards and stuff. Yeah, that was really what I wanted to add, that sort of - get a bit more balance into what I perhaps had said. I mean, there's a danger in doing a project just on women. That the interest becomes, well, how did the men treat you? And I don't, I mean, I don't, they were too young to start telling people to go into the washing up and all that sort of thing. They weren't, you know, they hadn't sort of - if there were misogynists it hadn't yet sort of coagulated to that point. And the women were perfectly happy to say go and do it yourself. I don't remember there being that flavor among the groups that I moved in, but they were certainly far more male than female in terms of their mix. And certainly the men more than the women - more than most of the women - were concerned with working out theories of socialism and Australian capitalism and, the people I knew, also of internationalism, and far more men than women were involved in those sorts of discussions, but the two Melbourne women that I've mentioned to you, Jill Jolliffe and Helen Hill, they were certainly as involved if not more involved than I was in those sorts of discussions. And there were other women. 

Note: Arthur Calwell was the federal Labor leader before Gough Whitlam

Malayan Emergency: 1948-1960 

Korean War: 1950-53

Khemlani Affair: in 1975 the Whitlam government was accused of trying to borrow money through a Pakistani banker (Tirath Khemlani), which would violate the Australian constitution. 

The interview excerpts you will find here were recorded by Alexandra Pierce between 2018 and 2022. Some of them were conducted in person, while others were done via Zoom or Skype. They form part of a larger project dedicated to documenting the role of Melbourne women in protesting both the National Service Act and the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1972. It is important to keep in mind that these women are recalling events from more than fifty years ago.