Three snapshots of the Vietnam antiwar movement

by

In Australia between 1965 and 1970

Helen Palmer


Introduction

Bob Gould

In his History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, John Percy crudely portrays the socialist magazine, Outlook, as being isolated from the antiwar movement of the 1960s.

The three articles reproduced here capture the antiwar movement at three phases, from small beginnings in 1965 to the first of the massive Moratorium mobilisations in the early 1970s.

They were all written by Outlook‘s editor, Helen Palmer. They capture the atmosphere of the movement as it developed and evolved.

The Vietnam antiwar movement waxed and waned over seven years, and the lessons for the agitation against the Iraq war are obvious: antiwar movements can decline and revive.

Helen Palmer and the other people involved in Outlook were up to their ears in the Vietnam agitation and mobilisations against the war. John Percy should be more careful than to dismiss them from history in his summary way.


Sit down and speak up

View from the ground

By Helen Palmer

After half an hour of circling the Martin Place block slowly with a sandwich board, it’s a change to be setting off at a brisk patter down the centre of Pitt Street, the peak-hour traffic honking and nudging us in the rear. For days the city has been plastered with stickers: “Vietnam Protest Rally 5pm Martin Place Friday 22 October” — the Vietnam Action Committee’s contribution to the International Day of Protest. By 5.30 there are some hundreds of after-work protestors — enough to set off to the Town Hall, we think, to hold a meeting. Those who wish to are taking the direct route. (Later the police documents will refer to it as the “carriageway”.)

“One-two-three-four! We-don’t-want-war! Five-six-seven-eight! We ­say — negotiate!” Simple enough, but it’s not often one hears mass chant­ing in the middle of Sydney, at this time on a weekday. (An idea for the Waratah Festival?) But one block, and Phase I is over. Just past King Street the police have re-assembled and the carriageway is no longer ours. “Sit down!”, someone calls out. It seems a good idea. Those who have been following on the footpath come to a halt, plac­ards raised, and we hold ours up like a phalanx.

The street is, of course, dirty; the prudent unfold newspapers. Sud­denly there are swarms of police, not merely the dozen or so who supervised our earlier perambulations. Ordinary point-duty types; leg­gings-and-caps; the Top Brass … Conferring with personages in plain clothes … The little group of anti-protestors who had waved Wool­worths Australian flags and given out DLP leaflets in Martin Place (“You are witnessing a COMMUNIST DEMONSTRATION!”) don’t seem to have made it yet … On second glance, no wonder; the traffic’s banked up (one lane is left, along which buses are edging precariously) and pavements are jam-packed.

The police back in a panel van and open the door. Three or four of the front row of sitters are seized; if they resist, four policemen leg-­and-arm them in. How many does it hold? It fills in no time, the door clangs shut and it’s away. Boos and shouts from the pavement. An­other backs in … Meanwhile buses are nudging along the single lane. One young sitter, judging the distance and refusing to budge an un­necessary millimetre, gets his coat-sleeve caught by a bumper bar and is toppled; a flushed, zealous policeman roars, “It’s your own fault!” (It is, of course; fault – or decision.)

We’ve been here for ten minutes; footpaths are packed solid; win­dows are crowded, traffic is piled up for blocks around. Man with camera appears on balcony rooftop. More police. One of the plain­clothes men seems to be master-minding things; another, lantern-jawed, hat pulled over his nose, with a beck and a nod indicates to the uni­formed men whom to single out next. Is that the third police van or the fourth? Most arrested people go limp; some resist, and are thrust bodily into the van. There’s an awkward gap, almost a silence, each time before the next van arrives. It must be an odd experience for these men to stand passively in the middle of Pitt Street while a hundred people confront them from the ground, and Big Brother flashes his Walk and Don’t Walk unheeded.

Bob Gould is up on a stand shouting through a megaphone impro­vised from a folded placard: this is intended as a peaceful protest against what is being done in our name in Vietnam; he has a five-year-old daughter and doesn’t want her to grow up into a world that … The five-year-old daughter, veteran of demonstrations, is clamouring to be lifted up to see what’s going on … “This is a moral question” comes through clearly and hangs in the air … If enough people ask them­selves the moral question … What are the onlookers making of it? Hard to tell – craned necks, curious faces, but one can’t read thoughts. What will they tell their families when they get home? Certainly, that Sydney has never seen the like of this before.

The van door clangs shut every three or four minutes. There’s a lot of noise, but somehow the thump of bodies, the scuffle of feet come through. Difficult to see from down here — too much going on in all directions at once; we need trained, well-placed observers … The atmosphere is changing: things are getting nasty. Several women on the pavement are crying; there are shrieks as demonstrators are man­handled into the van; a girl is dragged across to the van, friends rush protesting after her. Two sitters on the outside are picked up bodily and thrown back into the crowd; everyone winces. How many vans – ­six-seven-eight? A young cop grins as arrested people inside one van rock it so vigorously that the flustered driver cannot start it; three policemen hold it steady and it backs out. Lantern-jaw moves omin­ously through the crowd singling out the victims.

6.15, and a change of policy: we are being picked off systematically, row after row — and there aren’t so many left now. The word comes to disperse: some to a nearby park to drum up defence money, the rest to the police station. We move off, making our own traffic regula­tions … A young policeman is being a Dinkum Aussie to a woman demonstrator: “Why should we worry? We’re getting paid for it!” “Aren’t you lucky?” she parries, jabbing him in the chest with a fore­finger. “Careful, madam; you must not lay hands on a person unless you intend to arrest!” He gets his laugh … But Lantern-jaw, hand bloodied (we learn later this happened when he pounded his fist on the hand of a demonstrator who happened to be wearing a ring), moves among us, snarling, “All right, you can go home now! You’ve done your job! They’ve got their pictures for Moscow News and Peking Daily!” … And, dusting ourselves off, we realise the sober truth, that in Menzies’ Australia, power is in fact in the hands of people who be­lieve that this is what protest is all about.

Outlook, December 1965


Student power

If the Establishment had set out to show high school students that it doesn’t want their participation in democracy, it could hardly have done a better job. Seen through the drizzle, Canberra police and officials looked apprehensive at the approach of the three buses carrying 120 young Sydney student protestors as if expecting them to start tear­ing up the paving-stones in Mugga Way or to bring the Cultural Rev­olution to the nation’s capital. At the session of the House at which Cairns and other Labor MPs presented the students’ petition against the Vietnam war and in favour of U Thant’s three points, a Liberal ques­tioner carefully elicited the announcement that the Attorney-General would make a statement that night about “the manipulation of children by communists”, and Cairns’ demand that he see and hear them first was dismissed out of hand. (One could detect a sense of shame for his colleague’s blundering discourtesy in Wentworth’s careful apology soon afterwards for not being able to receive a pensioners’ deputation.) If the parliamentary system whose virtues these students study at school is to save face, it is perhaps a good thing that they were not all in the House when another Liberal MP was describing its perfunctory handling of all those hopeful documents that end “and your petitioners will ever pray”, and their likely despatch, unread and unanswered, to Parliament House’s nether regions.

The evening session brought the Attorney-General’s 20-minute-long revelation that Vietnam protest is a communist plot, and that demon­strations are not “spontaneous” but organised. In contrast, presumably, with the spontaneous overflow of feeling at the Waratah Festival, “Cap­tive Nations Week” and the Billy Graham Crusade. The media had been alerted to this one. Channel 10’s man from Telescope, riding in the buses with the kids, not only made a down-beat theme of the rain to support his argument that it was a washout, but pursued a series of questions designed to convey to the not-too-bright viewer that the stu­dents, if articulate, were tools, and if simpler in their responses, dupes. Fortunately the students were indeed organised, and well briefed; many turned the tables on their interviewers, and they made their point that they ran their own affairs (the preparation leaflet said, “A few respon­sible adults will act as chaperones, but will not be organising our activities”).

In their crash course in Instant Civics, it will not have escaped the students’ notice that the two champions of their right to act were Jim Cairns (“The people who should be criticised are not those who do their best to make democracy work, but those who criticise it and want to stop it from working, or who are apathetic and never try. Don’t be discouraged but continue to be interested in national political matters and be confident you can do something”) and Gordon Bryant, who led some of them into the parliamentary precincts over the red carpet left over from the Lion of Judah’s state luncheon, and in the evening re­fused to let the Attorney-General get away with his pontifications unscathed.

The authorities were of course right to see in the secondary students’ peace ride the shape of things to come: for there are major develop­ments in the student world. The affluent society tries to get at them all ways. It forces social and sexual precocity on young people to sus­tain its own creation, the teenage market, yet when it comes to par­ticipation in the democratic process, calls them “children”. It entices them with earlier driving licences and credit accounts while keeping them longer in school. In three Australian states the full secondary course is now six years; a few years ago the same students would have been undergraduates. Girls go straight from the classroom into marriage, boys are touching call-up age. Most of them are better educated than their parents and often than their rulers (how many MPs had read Levien’s Vietnam study, Myth and Reality?).

The Universities are painfully beginning to learn that students are serious about their right to participate in their own way in public affairs and in their education; the spectre of Student Power haunts the campus. But it is not the threat of Berkley or the Sorbonne that should determine how educationists react. Secondary school administrators and teachers would do well to get this development rapidly in perspective. It is no threat to education but a thoroughly heartening sign that young students, with little enough help from the system, are finding their own ways of contributing to the vitality of public life. The high schools should welcome it by recognising that this generation has a life of its own and the capacity to conduct its own affairs, and should give encouragement by building into the senior school a recognised place for self-determining student extra-curricular activities without adult intervention. This is, after all, what education is about.

Outlook, June 1968


Moratorium: what went right?

Manifestly, it was a success. The planning had begun with considerable doubt, disunity and apathy, in the slump of politics. Then the expected attacks and witch-hunts had attempted to frighten people away with the myth-word “violence”. Then suddenly the Moratorium had become a major public issue, reported and debated in the mass media, its badge a familiar symbol and even its awkward title a household word. Sup­porters who feared they would spend May 11 asking what went wrong found themselves asking: what went right?

Recent events were on its side. The extension of the war into Cam­bodia stiffened the sinews of many who had thought it was all over bar the shouting. The total disruption of business-as-usual by the Captain Cook junketings and the Royals helped strengthen the argument that other gatherings also had a right to the streets. And in the event, the refusal of the dissenters to be provoked (though the only opposition was from a few handfuls of army unfortunates who thought they should fight the Vietcong in the streets of home) effectively made the point that the violence is on the part of those who drop the bombs and give the orders to search and destroy.

Our masters are frightened men. Something is happening in the world that they don’t understand, and they are in two minds how to handle it. Accustomed to taking their concepts from the US, they assume that if protest ends in “violence” there it will do the same here. Yet by finally conceding the right to the streets and instructing the police not to start anything, they tacitly admit that “violence” is a function of repression.

However, it’s not the question of confrontation on the streets that is the important one; that’s merely a symbol. The real confrontation needed is with the whole bureaucratic, authoritarian structure of Aust­ralian society and its built-in repressive responses – bans, censorship, philistinism, racism, the stifling of information and criticism, the defen­sive closing of the ranks against any expression of human vitality, independence or conscience that may rock the boat.

In this context the pre-Moratorium activities were as important as those of May 8-9-10. The hundred thousand who stood up to be counted came from innumerable small social groupings — on the job, in universities and schools, in organisations and local areas — where much larger numbers had discussed and considered, questioned and pon­dered, accepted or rejected. There were also individuals, traditional “non-participants”, reacting to the unique experience of serious, sustained public debate on significant issues. All, including those who kept their thoughts to themselves, were involved in watching what happens in the conformist society when a sizeable, determined minority sets out to make an assertion of conscience against policies it considers intolerable.

The lessons were plain, and did not go unnoticed.

First, the authoritarian system reacts instantly and with all its en­trenched powers to reject the dissenters. It is they who are “introducing violence” into the community, bringing the disturbance of “politics” into places where there should be no disturbance, creating discord, outraging the comfortable conventions, challenging the “neutrality” of the education system, questioning the primacy of the commercial ethic of business-as-usual-and-before-all-else, and the concept that democ­racy is epitomised in the citizen’s right to cast a vote every three years. There will always be an Askin or a Snedden to knock out the purple phrase to express the Establishment’s reaction, but “political bikies pack-raping democracy” and “ride over the bastards!” are not such caricatures as they seem. It would be interesting to know just how many of the people who brought capital-city life to a standstill on May 8 were there not because they had originally intended to take part, but because the revelation of how completely the authoritarian society stamps on any flicker of dissent braced them to challenge this kind of society at home and the export of its values abroad at the end of a machine-gun.

Second, the question of numbers. Most Moratorium-watchers under­estimated those who would turn out, which means they underestimated the depth of normally unexpressed dissent. The students were the big­gest single component — augmented, for the first time, by high school students in strength. Here again it would be revealing to know how many formerly silent dissenters were moved to join in because of the sorry and ludicrous spectacle (in NSW) of senior high school students — engaged in senior studies, soon to be conscripted and soon to re­ceive the vote — being prevented from discussion of the Vietnam issues and even suspended for wearing a Moratorium badge.

Numbers are important; there is a threshold above which nothing succeeds like success. It was the aura of mounting support that held many Labor MPs who had signed the original sponsorship but then stood back to see how things would go. More honour to the handful who battled it out even when prospects looked doubtful.

The basic organisations of the Labor Party; however, were com­pletely untouched. And even more serious, the participation of the trade unions was very meagre indeed in relation to other sections of the community. Perhaps we have now reached the point where it is the traditional working class that is the most securely gripped by the ideology of the Establishment, the most firmly enslaved by the parochialism and economism that have been part of its history, the most readily confined within the values of the consumer society, the least aware of any community of interest with the strivings of other peoples, particularly resurgent Asia. If this is so, it is indeed a victory for the ruling class.

Perhaps too this is the answer to those socialist groups who felt that the two aims of the Moratorium — withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam, repeal of the National Service Act — were too moderate, and who sought to convert them into something more militant, more “ad­vanced”. The job of moving the millions of rank-and-file trade unionists to support even these two extremely moderate proposals still remains to be done; and this failure must be offset against the Moratorium’s successes.

Marches, says the PM, will not alter the Government’s policy; policy is made at the ballot box. It is unfortunate for his shaky credibility that so many people are aware that it’s made on the hot line from Washing­ton. But in any case, this vote-and-trust-for-three-years definition of the citizen’s participation in the democratic process just isn’t good enough any more. The original government majority was nominal; it’s become even less secure since. Last September a Gallup poll showed 55 per cent as unwilling to support our Vietnam policy; after Cambodia, this figure must have increased. What the Moratorium campaign has demonstrated beyond question is that even in our supposedly apathetic political climate, this is an issue that splits the community, and that there is a minimum of a hundred thousand people and those they influence who in their political decisions will put Vietnam and conscription first. The ALP, as much as the government, should take note.

Outlook, June 1970

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