Recollections of the struggle against the war in Vietnam


Bob Gould

Four days before Saigon fell in 1975, when it had become clear it would fall, ABC Radio interviewed a spectrum of Vietnam protesters on their attitude. They chose to end the radio piece with my comments, which were, in sum: that I was not a pacifist, that my first political sentiments in life had been an interest in the struggle for Irish independence, and that when the battle-scarred NLF guerillas marched into Saigon, I’d be cheering.

Nothing that has happened in the 20 years subsequent to May 1, 1975, has led me to change this basic view. The primary issue with Vietnam was always a struggle between the Vietnamese movement for national independence and unification, which happened to be led by Stalinists, and first French and later US imperialism. US and Australian troops had absolutely no moral right to intervene in Vietnam.

In the event, the regime in independent and united Vietnam has, as Stalinist regimes go, turned out to be a relatively humane one. In Vietnam now, I would support the demand for political freedom, trade unions independent of the state and the legalisation of political dissent, but that is in the context of the now successful completion of the struggle for national independence, and it is also the business of the Vietnamese masses themselves, without imperialist interference.

The 20 year long imperialist blockade of Vietnam has, in fact, hindered the development of internal democracy in Vietnam. I find it particularly sickening that right-wingers who supported the war against the Vietnamese people somehow manage to justify supporting a political role for the Pol Pot forces in Cambodia.

From 1965 to 1972 my life was totally dominated by the campaign against the imperialist intervention in Vietnam, of which, as the secretary of the Vietnam Action Committee, I was one of the main initial organisers.

It’s worth recording the fact that the courageous and early opposition of the Labor federal opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, to conscription and the dispatch of Australian troops to Vietnam was the major initial factor that made it possible to build a mass movement of opposition to conscription and to the war in Vietnam.

In the critical first two years of Australia’s major involvement, 1965 and 1966, when the war was still overwhelmingly popular in Australia, a small number of people of the anti-Stalinist left, three of whom were John Percy, Rod Webb and myself, founded the Vietnam Action Committee. Two young representatives of the indigenous social democratic left in the ALP, Barry Robinson and Wayne Haylen, the son of one of Calwell’s closest confidants, left-wing Labor MP Les Haylen, founded the Youth Campaign Against Conscription. These two organisations, in alliance, in September 1965, took the initiative in regular mass demonstrations against the war and conscription. (The fact that Wayne was Les Haylen’s son gave us a certain amount of entree to Calwell, which was exceedingly useful in those early years of the antiwar campaign.

The fact that Calwell, in the position of ALP parliamentary leader, opposed conscription and the dispatch of the Australian troops, enabled us to reach a far broader audience than we could ever have achieved without Calwell’s bold stand on the question.

Many of us who started the antiwar agitation were also involved in the ALP, and the very real battle in the ALP on the Vietnam War was an important part of the struggle.

The Communist Party, which still had a major influence in the labour movement, was quite strongly opposed to the ALP and the broad antiwar movement having a central policy of withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. They considered this policy too leftist. They favoured a policy for the mass movement of “Stop the Bombing and Negotiate”, and the official left, including the Communist Party, did everything in their power to weaken Calwell’s stance in favour of withdrawal.

The battles of those days are reflected, for instance, in the rather venomous attitude adopted towards Arthur Calwell by Tom Uren in his autobiography.

The political battle over Vietnam policy raged in the ALP for the next seven years. Initially the branch membership of the ALP in NSW in 1965 was pretty moribund and pretty right wing, pretty much like today, but Calwell’s stance on Vietnam led to a massive influx into the ALP of opponents of the war, which radicalised the ALP for the next generation. It has taken 10 years of Hawke/Keating deracination to get the ALP back to the more or less right-wing composition it had in 1965.

In 1992 Greg Langley interviewed me for his excellent book of oral history on Vietnam, A Decade of Dissent, published that year by George Allen and Unwin.

The following extracts of his interview with me, in my view adequately cover my own activities and the activities of the Vietnam Action Campaign. They follow here, along with a short extract from the reminiscences of Anne Curthoys that also bear on the topic. (I’ve amended some of the material slightly to better express the sense of my remarks, and to eliminate verbal idiosyncracies.

Greg Langley: Gould joined the ALP in 1955 at the age of 16. In the late 1950s, he associated with small revolutionary socialist groups who were critics within the framework of the left wing.

Bob Gould: We were often abused as Trotskyists, and the Stalinists and the powerful Labor left influenced by them, attacked us and called us police spies, wreckers, and agents of the CIA. That was the kind of slander aimed at anyone who opposed the predominant widespread Stalinist influence in the left of the labour movement.

Greg Langley: In 1967, Gould was expelled from the Steering Committee of the NSW Left for indiscipline. He had moved a motion at that year’s State Conference to restore the ALP’s policy on Vietnam to full withdrawal in line with the party’s position under the previous leadership of Arthur Calwell.

That motion was in opposition to the official position of the NSW Left wing which, at the time, supported the watering down of the Vietnam policy. Although most of the Left-wing delegates at the conference supported Gould’s stand, he was the only one punished.

Bob Gould: The year things started to happen was 1965. At a CND meeting, we decided to set up the Vietnam Action Committee (VAC) and I became secretary. We collaborated with YCAC, because we had similar aims, and called a demonstration in Sydney in September.

Three hundred people turned up, mostly students and a left-wing trade unionists. The trade unionists were suspicious, because they had been told by their leaders that we were wrecking CIA-ASIO bastards. But they responded to our call because they were angry about conscription. We had a little demonstration on the footpath and got four lines in the Sydney Morning Herald.

We then organised another protest for October, a few days after a similar demonstration in the United States, which was the biggest antiwar demonstration of that time. We got a fair bit of press, radio and television publicity as a flow-on from the US events for our forthcoming demonstration in Sydney.

The Revolutionary Socialists decided to use qualified civil disobedience at the demonstration to get publicity. A couple of days before the demonstration, the leaders of the CPA agreed there should be civil disobedience. They still hated us, but they wanted to get in on the act.

This demonstration was larger, and about 500 people attended. We were circling Martin Place but, at one point, instead of going back up the other side, we started walking up Pitt Street.

There was no mall then, Pitt Street was one-way and we walked along with the traffic at 5.30pm on a Friday night. It took the coppers completely by surprise, and we were halfway from King Street to Market Street before they could get in front of us.

About 50 of us got pinched including Jack Mundey, Peter Black (later for many years mayor of Broken Hill), an Irish CP member called Joe Dryburgh, and other colourful characters.

It was not a violent demonstration. It was completely passive, except the coppers threw us around a bit, but it was effective in terms of publicity across the nation.

A piece later appeared in Outlook, which described my raucous voice on a loud hailer and my five-year-old daughter, a veteran of many demonstrations, climbing on her mother’s back to get a better view of daddy …

There was tension [in Sydney] between the broader peace movement and VAC over aims and methods. We favoured full withdrawal and self-determination for the Vietnamese, but the official peace movement hankered for a more moderate policy of withdrawing to holding areas in Vietnam.

They held peaceful Sunday demonstrations for families, and we favoured Friday night marches that confronted shoppers. We specialised in militant, colourful demonstrations with occasional acts of civil disobedience, but were not preoccupied with fighting the police.

The ground rules that the Askin Government tried to lay down were that you couldn’t march in the street, but if we had the numbers, we did march on the road, and there was often a bit of pushing and shoving with the coppers.

We were prepared to get in the coppers’ way, but civil disobedience was strictly a means to an end. We didn’t want a lot of people pinched, and we didn’t have the fetish for martyrdom the Melbourne Maoists displayed.

The classic demonstration that year was against President Johnson. VAC decided we would confront the cavalcade, but the “official” peace movement said this was a bit too leftist. They were worried demonstrators might tangle with pro-Johnson crowds, but eventually they caved in to our proposals.

The police gave us permission to have the eastern end of Hyde Park. We got there at six in the morning on a warm spring day. Representatives of the Croatian National League and the Mormons were also there (to welcome Johnson), because the police had given them the same bit of turf.

Our troops started arriving faster than theirs, so we got the front positions and little Stalinist pensioners even occupied the pensioner seats up the front, on the roadway.

By 9am, there were about six or seven thousand people, by far the biggest demonstration in Australia against the war up to that point, and right in the middle was a solid bloc of about 300 or 400 Mormons and a couple of hundred Croats were at the back. Both groups were welcoming Johnson, so it was tense.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir started up, and they had an enormous organ which drowned out our chants. Dave Taylor, an engineer from New Zealand, said, “Bob, we can’t have this”. He went to Woolies and bought some wire cutters and all of a sudden the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went off the air. Then it’s on the air. Then it’s off the air. Then it’s on the air. After about 10 minutes of this, it went off the air for good.

When Johnson finally came, our strategy proved right. The crowd just erupted, poured onto the road, and laid down. That is when Askin made the famous comment, “Run the bastards over”.

I was up a big figtree all the time, speaking to the crowd on a megaphone, trying to direct the human traffic against this imperialist monster, and it was incredible. People were going everywhere; it evolved way beyond anyone’s direction.

It was an extremely effective demonstration and we fought hard to have it, knowing it would erupt in non-violent civil disobedience. Everyone who participated felt happy and elated, and it didn’t lead to the masses being alienated. In fact, it dramatically symbolised that many Australians were opposed to the war.

Ann Curthoys: In 1966, I was studying fourth year honours and was not very active, though I attended a lot of demonstrations during the lead up to the elections. I was also involved in VAC, which Bob Gould organised. By involved, I mean I went along and helped fold mail-outs.

Gould managed to take the leadership of the youth in the antiwar movement away from the CPA, which was a leading organisation until then. Gould had a confirmed form of Trotskyist politics and a more confrontational approach that appealed to a lot of people.

Even though I was a member of the CPA, I attended the demonstrations his group organised. The distinctions were not as sharp as people sometimes think, or as they were to become later.

Greg Langley: Doctor Curthoys is Professor of Social History at the University of Technology, Sydney. In the 1960s she was a member of the Eureka Youth League, a communist youth organisation, and as a student activist too part in the first Aboriginal Freedom Ride organised by Charles Perkins.

Bob Gould: I was a full-time functionary of VAC and lived off my then wife, Mairi Petersen, who loyally supported me for two-and-a-half years. It was a hectic, tense, and stressful time, and I have never worked harder.

We had no resources, but we did amazing things. Before the Johnson visit, we roneoed a pamphlet with eight pages and a printed cover with a picture of Johnson on one side and a photo of a Vietnamese woman with her children swimming in a river to escape cross-fire. The caption read, “Consider her. Confront him.”

We sent that to 30,000 people. We had to scrape together the pennies. Stamps cost six cents and it was a lot of money to us, but we did it.

Later, we rented a building in Goulburn Street, on the edge of Chinatown, and ran VAC from upstairs. Resistance, a youth organisation, had the back room and I ran the Third World Bookshop from the front. The shop was supposed to support the whole venture.

From September 1965 to early 1970, I probably participated in organising a significant demonstration a month, to say nothing of hundreds of minor events.

You literally lived from one demonstration to the next. It was a terrible workload in a way, but it was extremely exciting. You felt you were contributing to the cause of sweating humanity.

I started the Third World Bookshop in 1968 and it was financed by a mortgage on my then-wife Mairi’s and my house at Woollahra. It shared premises with VAC and Resistance.

There was a cultural transformation going on throughout this whole period and censorship was a thorny issue. The Third World Bookshop was often raided because of the material we sold.

The first time was for a pamphlet produced by John Percy called How Not To Join The Army. We were tipped off before the raid by a sympathetic copper, so we were well prepared.

At the time, we had a poster with a picture of Jesus Christ on it and the caption, “Wanted: Jesus Christ for sedition”. We stuck one in the shop window and when the television cameras arrived to film the police carting away this beat-up little Gestetner, our engine of revolution, they lingered on this poster. We were deluged by requests for this poster for weeks and sold thousands.

We were also busted for selling Portnoy’s Complaint, but the most interesting case was over Michelangelo’s David.

Just before Resistance split in early 1970, we were busted for printing Aubrey Beardsley posters. Some of them were mildly erotic, and some not at all. The problem was that some of them had pricks in them.

We had been selling these posters for several months when the coppers raided one busy Saturday morning. They busted in to the storeroom and charged Keith James, Jim Percy, and me for resisting arrest. As they were pulling down the posters, one of the customers said, “Well I suppose if you’re taking those Beardsleys, you’ll be taking that as well”. He pointed to posters of David.

A constable looked at it and said, “Sarge?”

“Yer, take them.”

Our defence lawyer, Ken Horter, said the resisting arrest charge depended on the legality of the pornography charge. We argued that in the lower courts, and the resisting arrest was adjourned until the pornography charge was heard, but that never happened. The courts were overcrowded, and they didn’t want to be clogged up with a huge case like this, particularly one that could make them look utterly ridiculous.

We still had to go to court every couple of months for an adjournment, and it dragged on for years. It became a standing joke. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Column 8 even compared us to “The Flying Dutchman”.

Eventually a magistrate said, “This is ridiculous”. He released us with no conviction recorded in order to get it out of the courts, but the whole case showed the attitudes of the time. Heaps of things were banned: films, plays, books and magazines. In Victoria, they even banned a book called Fun In Bed. It’s obvious the censors never bothered reading it because it was a book of games for children with disabilities. My thanks to Greg Langley for recording the foregoing in his book of oral history, A Decade of Dissent.

I also include the following, more recent, observation on the censorship court appearances.

This periodic reunion of Jim Percy, Keith James and myself at Central Court every three months or so for five years assumed a rather piquant quality. The split in Resistance, which took place almost immediately after the initial arrest, eventually located all three of us in rival factions quite hostile to each other. But we were old associates who had been together in the past for a few years in the same grouping, and these strange reunions in Central Court gave us the chance for cautiously comparing notes on current developments, a little bit outside the context of the current factional battles.

The following article was written by the late Helen Palmer, founder and initial editor of Outlook: An Australian Socialist Review, which became the voice of dissidents leaving the Communist Party after the Khrushcheve revelations and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. She was also the daughter of the novelist Vance Palmer.

Helen Palmer wrote the following article in Outlook in December 1965, describing the first major sit-down protest against the war in Vietnam, in Sydney in October 1965, in which 51 people were arrested. I keep being told by people who visit the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City that in the alphabetical section A-Z, showing the international solidarity with Vietnam during the war, the one photo from Australia is of this sit-down demonstration, with my ugly mug up the front.

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, October 22” — the Vietnam Action Campaign’s contribution to the International Day of Protest. By 5.50pm there are some hundreds of after-work protesters — 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 wan’t 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 One is over. Just past King Street the police have reassembled and the carriageway is no longer ours. “Sit down!” someone calls out. It seems like a good idea. those who have been following on the footpath come to a halt, placards raised, and weh 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 out earlier perambulations. Ordinary point-duty types; leggings and caps; the Top Brass … Conferring with personages in plain clothes … The little group of anti-protesters who have 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 10 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 plain-clothes men seems to be masterminding 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? Many 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, the Big Brother finishes 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 in 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 in to 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 policement hold it steady and it backs out. Lantern-jaw moves onminously 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 around us, snarling, “All right, you can go home now, you’ve done your job. They’ve got your 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.

September 24, 1998

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