By 1970, the Vietnam War had become the longest war in which Australia had ever been involved. The anti-war movement had grown from small demonstrations into huge rallies, marches, sit-ins, church services and candlelight vigils. The people who took part were not all political and social radicals. Many ordinary Australians were coming out in opposition to the war. The moratorium rallies were an outpouring of that support with huge numbers of people taking to the streets to demonstrate the strength and power behind the anti-war movement. They believed if they could prove there was enough popular support for withdrawing from Vietnam, then the government would have to listen.
The beginnings of the moratorium movement
The first moratorium on Vietnam took place in America. Hundreds of thousands of people stopped work for the day and marched in the streets to protest American involvement in the war. The Australian moratoriums were organised by representatives of the major anti-war groups in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre coming to light and the defeat of the Labor Party in the 1969 federal election. They met in November 1969 and announced that an Australian moratorium would be held in May the following year. Its aims were twofold: firstly, to force a withdrawal of Australian and other foreign troops from Vietnam and secondly, to repeal the National Service Act 1964 (Cth).
The moratoriums were a turning point in the anti-war movement in Australia as it was the first time that there would be a nationwide response to Vietnam. Until that point, demonstrations had been independently organised by the various different peace groups, with no central organisation. That was all about to change.
It was announced in December 1969 that in line with the beginning of American withdrawal, one Australian battalion would be brought home by the middle of 1970. This did not stop the moratorium movement - they continued to make plans for the rallies and continued to demand immediate withdrawal of all troops.
The first moratorium
The first Vietnam Moratorium took place on 8 and 9 May 1970 and over 200 000 people across Australia took part. In Melbourne, an estimated 100 000 marched. It was a peaceful demonstration with no arrests made. It was also a defining moment for many Australians who had never openly declared their support for the peace groups. It was a very sensitive and divisive issue, many people went against their families' and friends' beliefs to march in the moratoriums - some people even disguised themselves so as not to be recognised. See image 1
In Adelaide, some pro war protesters also came out on the day of the first Moratorium. They set Viet Cong flags on fire and threw them in among the marchers. Scuffles between pro- and anti- Vietnam groups also took place in other cities around Australia, but it was generally peaceful. For once the government did not overreact and employ any heavy-handed tactics to deal with the Moratorium marchers.
The second Vietnam Moratorium in September 1970 was smaller, however, more violence occurred. Approximately 50 000 people participated and there were violent incidents between police and demonstrators. Two hundred people were arrested in Sydney alone. See image 2
The third moratorium in June 1971 closed the centre of many of the major cities. In Melbourne there was another march of nearly 100 000 people. By this time public opinion was beginning to turn decisively against conscription and Australian involvement in the war.
The effects of the moratorium movement
The strength of the moratorium movement did shock the government. They were surprised at the level of ant-Vietnam and anti-government feeling in the country. They had thought the announcement of the withdrawal of a battalion would be enough to appease the people, but they were wrong. They had only just won the 1969 federal election and they were starting to realise that after more than 20 years in power, they were no longer invincible. The Liberal Party was starting to fall apart.
By the end of the war in 1972 it became obvious that the majority of Australians were anti-conscription. Australians no longer wanted the prestige that supposedly came with fighting wars, and they no longer agreed with the 'Forward Defence' policy of going out and meeting the threat where it was. The graphic nightly news broadcasts of the conflict in Vietnam had increased ordinary Australians' dislike for the war; until they no longer believed they should be fighting or that the war could be won.
Withdrawal from Vietnam
Despite their superior technology, it did not seem the Americans would be able to achieve an outright victory. As a result, America was determined to step up the training for the South Vietnamese army and begin a withdrawal of its troops. This policy was also adopted by the Australian Government. Between November 1970 and December 1971, Australian troops were slowly withdrawn from Vietnam. As each battalion completed its tour of duty, it was not replaced. Only a small advisory force remained to represent Australia. This was in accordance with the American withdrawal policy, but was also spurred on by the anti-war movement in Australia.
Six months after the third Moratorium, the Liberal Party, now led by William McMahon, was defeated in the federal election by the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The ALP, now led by E. G. (Gough) Whitlam had campaigned on the platform of ending conscription. They immediately abolished conscription and freed those who had been imprisoned for resisting it. Whitlam also announced that the last of the Australian troops in Vietnam would come home. Australian involvement was officially over after ten years.
The end of the Vietnam War
In 1973, the Americans and North Vietnamese signed a peace deal which saw the withdrawal of the majority of American troops from South Vietnam. The war between North and South Vietnam continued. Without American support, the South Vietnamese government could not hold back the forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. In April 1975 the world watched in horror as Saigon was captured by the communists and thousands of South Vietnamese people fought to get on the last US helicopters to leave the city. The Vietnam War was over and the country had been reunited under communist rule - something America had spent 20 years, billions of dollars and 55 000 dead soldiers trying to stop. See image 3
Vietnam War Moratorium: participatory democracy
By Nick Irving
Updated September 29, 2010 12:10:24
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first Moratorium march.
Forty years ago this Saturday, between 100,000 and 200,000 people thronged the streets of the country's capital cities, emphatically announcing that they did not support their government's involvement in the Vietnam War, or conscription of the nation's youth to fight it.
The massive marches were unlike anything before them; they did not merely occupy city streets but took them over. The protesters shrugged of the authority of the police and government for thee days as they engaged in an entirely peaceful protest. It was on that day that the antiwar movement, which had been protesting against the war since 1962, felt that they had finally won. But forty years on, what is the legacy of the Moratorium?
The three Vietnam Moratoria - in May 1970, June 1971 and September 1971 - were organised by a coalition of anti-war and anti-conscription organisations called the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. Formed in Canberra in late 1969, it was the brainchild of the Victorian Committee for International Co-Operation and Disarmament. By early 1970 it had a loose federal structure, with Vietnam Moratorium Campaigns in each state, and a National Co-ordinating Committee with representatives from each state.
The Moratorium Campaign was a very big tent. It included the usual crowd - students, unionists, socialists and communists - but it also included politicians, academics, radical clergymen and churchgoers.
The Moratorium's aims were the withdrawal of Australian and all other foreign troops from Vietnam, and the repeal of the National Service Act. These two campaign aims were the focus of a decade's debate in Australia over both the war and conscription. Midway through 1969, the Gallup polls showed that the Australian population had shifted its long-held views on Vietnam and now opposed the war. The protest movement had always felt that conscription was unfair. The Youth Campaign against Conscription and the mothers' group Save Our Sons, and later, the Draft Resisters, all held that the scheme unfairly targeted young men who could not vote.
The Moratorium, at its heart, was about participatory democracy. The antiwar movement had spent the previous five years undoing many cherished assumptions about the nature of engagement with the nation. In 1964, protesters were not allowed to carry placards on poles, stand still in one place or march in the street. By 1970, they were routinely occupying streets in "sit-down" protests. The Chairman of the Victorian VMC, Labor Party MP Jim Cairns wrote that "there must be freedom to break the law, when we know the law is bad. We must have freedom to express opinion contrary to the ruling opinion." Cairns was a champion of participatory democracy, stating in parliament that "Parliament is not democracy. … Democracy is government by the people, and government by the people demands action by the people." But he was no anarchist - he expressly stated that "there must be no claim for the use of violence." The first and largest moratorium was an entirely peaceful affair.
Forty years on, what the Moratorium fought is no longer as important as how it fought it. The cause - ending conscription and the war in Vietnam - has been eclipsed by the idea of people power. The moment when up to 200 thousand people marched through the streets of Australian cities in May 1970 is etched indelibly in the mind of everyone who lived through it. Ask anyone over 55 today about the Moratorium, and they will probably tell you they were there.
It's a myth that it ended conscription; Whitlam did that. Equally, it didn't end the war - John Gorton, a Liberal Prime Minister, made the decision to bring the troops home. But the Moratorium wasn't a failure. Its greatest victory was the way it changed our minds about political engagement.
The key to participatory democracy is that it's participatory - democracy requires the populace to be engaged, informed, and to discuss their ideas with each other at all levels, and to speak out when they see an injustice or a wrong. It's also fundamentally inclusive. We aren't as naïve as we were in 1964. We were far more sceptical of claims that Iraq had WMDs than we were when told that the "Viet Cong" was backed by China. Then again, we are still at war in Iraq, despite the original casus belli being debunked.
The Moratorium was also, fundamentally, about peace. In that, it stands in stark contrast to our national myth, Anzac. The Anzac legend has only recently come under fire for being a backwards-looking story, one that bestows hero status on its warriors and privileges war as a method of nation-building. The Moratorium privileged informed, critical debate, and an inclusive, consultative model of nation-building. At its heart, the Moratorium recognised a community of humanity, far larger than the nation, and bade us all treat the members of that community with respect.
For all its faults, it was forward-looking, compassionate, and it would not stand for injustice. It is telling that, on its 40th anniversary, the Moratorium is overshadowed by debates about Anzac.
Australia has changed a lot in the last 40 years. The protesters are now the middle-class; baby boomers who now inhabit positions of power in our society and are on the cusp of retirement age. The heroes of the movement, like Jim Cairns, are gone, and its opponents, like Gerard Henderson, are everywhere. The pendulum has swung back to the right. But democracy is always strengthened by informed, compassionate political engagement amongst its citizenry, and we only have to look to the Moratorium for that moment in our history. And with the challenges that lie ahead - continued war in the Middle East, the consequences of the 2008 market crash, even Rudd's takeover of the health system - can we afford to remain complacent?
Nick Irving is completing a PhD on the antiwar movement in Australia during the Vietnam War.
Topics:community-and-society, defence-and-national-security, government-and-politics
First posted May 07, 2010 14:00:00