Early draft resistance in the Vietnam War, 1966-69

The Australian Menzies Government introduced conscription in late 1964 in the form of a ballot of 20-year-olds to ensure it could send enough troops to the Vietnam war in a context where it was uncertain that it could or would secure enough volunteers to prosecute the war. Student antiwar groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other campus based groups played a major role alongside Save Our Sons (SOS), the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC) and the Moratorium Movement in actively opposing and resisting the “National Service Scheme” as it was euphemistically called by the government.

Throughout 1966-68 the number of conscientious objectors grew but of greater impact was the growth of the draft resistance campaign from 1967 onwards in a move characterised by the organisers as a shift from protest to resistance. In early 1967 several young men refused to register in direct breach of the National Service Act under which all young men were legally obliged to register by their twentieth birthday. Instead of going into the lottery the refusal to register meant an automatic call-up notice and subsequently appointment dates for the medical examination prior to induction. Direct refusal was the start of a campaign to make the National Service Act “unworkable”.

Many off-campus anti-war and anti-conscription activities were organised from 57 Palmerston Street (christened the Centre for Democratic Action or CDA).

In December 1968 the first national SDS-Draft Resisters Conference was held at the Palmerston Street CDA and La Mama theatre. The conference instituted the first large-scale ‘Don’t Register’ campaign, urging 20-year-old males to refuse to register for national service.

In January 1969 several students were arrested for distributing ‘Don’t register’ leaflets in the Melbourne CBD. While most were arrested under a Melbourne City Council by-law (By-Law 418) which prohibited leaflet distribution without a permit, several were arrested under the ‘Incitement’ clauses of the Federal Crimes Act. By-Law 418 was seen as an anti-democratic denial of freedom of speech and became an early test of civil disobedience tactics in opposition to conscription and the war. Within a week of these arrests a call went out and the following Saturday morning more than 500 demonstrators handed out ‘Don’t Register’ leaflets at the GPO steps. This became a regular event at the GPO; many more hundreds of arrests were made over the next nine months and several of us went to gaol for up to ten days for refusing to pay fines.

Within the next few months trade union officials, church ministers, members of Save Our Sons (SOS) and Dr. Jim Cairns, a member of federal parliament, were arrested amidst growing public and media opposition to the by-law. Even the Victorian Police Force felt obliged to tell the City Council that police responsibility for enforcement of the by-law rested with Council and its officers, not with the police force. By-Law 418 was repealed not long afterwards. 

The tactic of sit-ins was also gaining increasing popularity amongst protesters, especially at Melbourne and Sydney universities, largely organised by the SDS on each campus. In Melbourne there were several such sit-ins during 1969-70. These often led to arrests, followed by court cases and inevitably further demonstrations in support of those arrested.

Other demonstrations occurred whenever a draft resister had to appear in court for failing to register or failing to attend their medical. Sometimes these were small affairs but on other occasions they could be large and/or quite militant with court sit-ins or sabotage to police vans trying to take a draft resister to gaol. When draft resisters were gaoled on several occasions angry students, organised at very short notice by SDS, marched from Melbourne University through the CBD disrupting traffic and chanting for their release. On one such occasion a Department of Defence building was invaded and a large number of files thrown from a third floor window into the street followed by an occupation of the parliamentary offices in the old Customs House (now the Immigration Museum). 

By the end of 1969 public opinion was turning against the war. Pictures of burnt children running away from the bombing, public executions of suspected NLF members or the many other horrific images on the television were making people realise the brutal nature of the US and Australian military actions in Vietnam. The increasing awareness of the lies and distortions emanating from the Pentagon was also starting to penetrate the public consciousness to a greater degree. 

The growing draft resistance movement and its direct defiance of the National Service Act and the authorities’ attempts to enforce it, was taking a toll on government credibility. The message increasingly stressed by the draft resisters was that the government was not only devoid of moral justification but also devoid of the power to enforce its conscription laws. The number of draft resisters was increasing and the government was loath to imprison those few it managed to catch. The number of people inciting young men not to register was similarly growing at a rapid pace, and again the government was not prepared to enforce the Crimes Act to any extent. Indeed, three Sydney University academics, subsequently joined by 8,000 other academics, students, trade unionists and members of the general public, issued a signed statement strongly urging young men not to register and pledging support and aid for all draft resisters. This was nationally circulated and gained substantial media coverage but the government refused to prosecute.