The First Phase: Initial Dissent 1964-66
The initial phase of opposition to the Vietnam War from 1964-66 involved generally conventional forms of protests, including small street protests at Hiroshima Day rallies and at US consulates.
One of the first anti-conscription street protests was at the Melbourne National Service office in Swanston St at the time that the first marbles were drawn out of the barrel in early 1965. It was organized by the East Melbourne Unitarian Peace Church YCAC branch. Cartoonist Michael Leunig recalls joining with 15 other young 20 year olds in this protest, and how “people going to work accused us of being traitors, communists and cowards”, and how he was spat upon by some of the passers-by.
During this first 1965-66 phase, national anti-conscription groups such as SOS and YCAC were formed with branches active in most states. They particularly focused on electoral campaigning and support for the ALP, which had pledged to end overseas conscription for Vietnam. While the early protests were relatively small, the size of marches and rallies gradually increased to several thousand protestors by the time of the 1966 Federal Election.
At the same time, this initial 1964-66 phase of antiwar activity involved new forms of community education on the history and nature of the war, such as Vietnam “teach-ins” organized on many university campuses and community venues, and open air “concerts of protest” with music and speakers on the war.
The initial phase culminated in the very intense 1966 election campaign in which the Liberal Coalition government sought to bolster its Vietnam War intervention by inviting US President Lyndon Johnson to visit Australia in the lead up to the election. There were major antiwar demonstrations against LBJ’s visit in Melbourne and Sydney, with much police violence directed at student protestors.
Labor lost the election badly. This greatly dismayed the peace movement at the time. A large majority of Australian voters had evidently accepted the Government’s fear-mongering about how the communists needed to be stopped in Vietnam before the dominoes fell all the way to Australia. Facing criticism from the right faction within his own party, Arthur Calwell declared that the struggle against the Vietnam war had to be fought to the end, and that “it was better to be right than to be Prime Minister”.
In the wake of the 1966 election, some groups that had primarily focused on electoral strategies (such as YCAC) did not continue, while others, such as SOS, WILPF, CICD, AICD, left wing unions, left wing groups within the ALP, and some faith-based groups, continued campaigning against the war and conscription. Over much 1967, anti-war or anti-conscription demonstrations were few and small in number, with about 1,000 at the 1967 CICD-led July 4th antiwar demonstration outside the US Consulate. This was a period when many in the antiwar movement were seeking to reassess and rethink their strategies and approaches, and to regroup on the basis of new approaches.