LBJ sitdown was a defining event


Bob Gould

In 1966, the Vietnam War was still fairly popular, and the jingoistic patriotism of the previous period in Australia was still predominant. In this context, it is hard to understate the courageousness of federal Labor leader Arthur Calwell. Despite his other major political weaknesses, Calwell dragged the ALP and the labour movement, with some of his parliamentary colleagues kicking and screaming, into opposition to the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Action Committee (VAC), of which I was secretary, was the militant left wing of the antiwar movement, but we were also well entrenched in the left of the labour movement in NSW. We were a vocal minority in opposition to the prevailing official left, the Steering Committee and the Communist Party (CPA), which dominated the official peace movement.

Nevertheless, we weren’t that easy to push aside as we already had a substantial following among the youth. In addition to that, we had a certain entre to Calwell through an alliance with Wayne Haylen, son of Les Haylen, Calwell’s chief ALP parliamentary henchman, who, along with Barry Robinson, was the leader of the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC). We were the junior partners in a coalition with the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament (AICD), which was run by the CPA and the Labor left, which held Sunday afternoon demonstrations and marches of a more peaceful sort.

The VAC and YCAC constantly nudged the official peace movement to the left and specialised in Friday night militant demonstrations in the city, which often involved a physical battle for the right to demonstrate, which was denied by the Liberal Party NSW government.

When US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit was announced for October 1966, we in the VAC immediately started pushing for a militant demonstration on the route of Johnson’s cavalcade. Dominated by thoughts of the election, and the possible negative impact of a militant demonstration on the route, the official left, particularly the leaders of the CPA, moved into action to try to avoid a collision of the mass antiwar demonstration with the main Johnson cavalcade.

A bit of a pirouette commenced between the VAC, leaders of the official left, and the coppers. We stood our ground and insisted on a mass demonstration at the eastern end of Hyde Park.

As the inevitability of a mass demonstration at that location unfolded, CP leaders used rhetoric about having “advanced action” at some other location. We ignored that rhetorical diversion and stuck to our guns.

The leaders of the official left insisted that we negotiate with the police and eventually myself, Geoff Anderson (AICD) and Mavis Robertson (CPA) negotiated with the police. The other peace movement participants in the negotiations tried to pressure me to give a commitment that there would be no militant action at the demonstration, but I refused on the grounds that I couldn’t predict what might happen — because many people were deeply angry about the war in Vietnam.

NSW Special Branch (political police) chief Fred Longbottom said that if anything happened, I would be held personally responsible (as is recorded in my ASIO and Special Branch files).

Eventually, the police gave us a verbal permit to have a mass demonstration at the eastern end of Hyde Park on October 20. Unbeknown to us, however, they gave the same patch to the Croatian National League and the Mormon Church to welcome LBJ.

`Consider her, confront him’

The main organising for the event took place in the large living room of the house occupied by Mairi Petersen (my wife at the time), my daughter Natalie and myself at Holdsworth Street, Woollahra (which was a more downmarket address at that time). From that lounge room we mailed out about 15,000 copies of our 10-page roneoed publication, Vietnam Action, about five days before the demonstration. The front page was printed for the occasion and was really a small poster, with the heart-wrenching photo of a Vietnamese girl in the water, juxtaposed against an ugly Johnson, with the caption: “Consider her, confront him.”

We printed an extra 10,000 copies of this cover, with the date, place and time of the demonstration, and for the three or four days before played hide and seek with the coppers around Sydney, pasting them up on lamp posts from Sutherland to Broken Bay, and from Vaucluse to Camden and Katoomba. Haydn Thompson, the person in charge of the roneo machine, spent about four days solid in the little loft at Holdsworth Street roneoing the 10 pages 15,000 times.

Political agitation in those pre-internet days required quite heroic physical effort. The people involved developed a certain camaraderie that, in some cases, has lasted a lifetime despite people being carried in different and sometimes contradictory directions.

As Hall Greenland recollects in his February 11 Bulletin article, the militant action of blocking the cavalcade was organised informally at several meetings in a pub, at which the coppers don’t appear to have been present since they don’t have reports of them in any of their files on us. I wasn’t centrally involved in organising the sitdown, although I attended the meetings.

My task was to hold the line so that the mass demonstration happened in the right spot. The trick was to maintain the unity to achieve the demonstration, and maintain its general legality, despite the fact that a number of our opponents-cum-allies within the movement were reasonably well aware that we were up to something that they disapproved of.

When we got to the eastern end of Hyde Park at about 5am on that warm Saturday morning we discovered a couple of Croats and a clutch of Mormons also trying to stake a claim to the territory. We all bounced up to the city council employees, who were on hand to manage things. I knew the two chiefs of the council workers, who happened to be rather moderate members of the ALP and the Municipal Employees Union, and they helped us to stake out the territory, while maintaining the demeanour of official neutrality.

These council officials demanded written permission from the Mormons and the Croats, but they waived that for us. The Mormons managed to rock up with some piece of paper an hour or so later, which gave them the right to set up their loud music machine (which was put off the air by the repeated use of wire cutters).

Defining event

An hour or so of advantage was all we needed because our troops began to arrive in large numbers pretty early. The CPA had mobilised some old proletarian pensioners, partly with an eye to keeping us under control, and they occupied all the pensioner seats on the road at the front. However, in practice, these old proletarians proved more sympathetic to our more militant approach and quite a few of them eventually joined the sitdown on the road.

When Johnson’s cavalcade arrived, the dozen or so militants who had decided to sit on the road did so. There are a number of photos of a very young and strikingly beautiful Sandra Levy lying on the road. The commando dozen were spontaneously joined by several hundred others.

The Johnson demonstration was a kind of defining event in quite a few people’s lives. A few years later, I had a relationship for a while with a young woman, a Mormon, who had been at the demonstration to welcome Johnson. Her later political radicalisation had commenced at that protest.

Sydney solicitor Charles Waterstreet’s memoirs of growing up a Catholic in NSW, Repeating the Leaving (Sceptre 2001), includes a hilarious account of being bussed, with other pupils of the Catholic Waverley College, to the Art Gallery to welcome Johnson, but sneaking off, shedding his school blazer, and joining the demonstration against Johnson. At the end of the demonstration, Waterstreet put his Waverley blazer back on and went back to the school on the bus. He was representative of many people whose attitude to the Vietnam War and other social questions was changing by the second in 1966.

I doubt whether the Johnson demonstration had an enormous direct impact on the outcome of the subsequent federal election, which the Liberals won. The publicity about the demonstration, however, went all over the world, and underlined to the oppressed in every country that even in relatively stable Australia there was a large and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War.

The defiance of conventional authority that the demonstration involved, coming as it did at that particular moment, was a very significant catalyst in the radicalisation that unfolded fairly consistently and in wider and wider eddies for the next 15 or 20 years.

[First published in Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.]


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