Students in the anti-Vietnam-war movement in Australia

23 September 2022
Grace Hill

With the vibe today being one of corporate promotions, patronising advertising and soulless study spaces, it can be hard to believe that Australian university campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s were noted for their rebellious students and the decisive role they played in the campaign to stop Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The radical mood of the late 1960s came after a period of relative conservatism. The prosperity of the postwar boom was in part secured by a ruling-class onslaught against the trade unions through the 1940s and 1950s, leading to industrial and political defeats for the working class. The Liberal Party dominated federal politics, and this conservatism was reflected on campuses.

Throughout the 1950s, university administrators accelerated their campaigns of censorship and attacks on dissidents, right-wing religious clubs grew, and the campus left shrunk. Left-wing activists stuck out like sore thumbs against the prevailing mood of conservative apoliticism.

In September 1966, a poll in Sydney University’s student paper, Honi Soit, showed that 68 percent supported sending troops to Vietnam. A 1968 survey at Adelaide’s Flinders University, in later years a hotbed of radicalism, found that only 8 percent of students opposed the war, 45 percent attended church, and 46 percent were so socially conservative that they opposed premarital sex.

However, conservatism is never permanent nor homogeneous. Tensions built up beneath the surface. The unequal distribution of fruits of the postwar economic boom was highly visible, and low unemployment contributed to increased confidence from sections of the working class to push for better pay and conditions. The youth railed against the suffocating conservative culture, developing a cynicism toward mainstream politics and an attraction to countercultural music and art.

As Australian capitalists backed expanding the university sector to secure for themselves a larger layer of better skilled workers and managers, greater numbers of students from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds flooded the campuses. Old campus facilities struggled with the influx, and students increasingly found themselves chafing against academic and social constraints.

Students’ ideas shifted more widely as the post-WWII vision of a world led by the victorious Allies, without racism and totalitarianism, conflicted with the reality of continued racism and imperialism. Anti-colonial movements, and the civil rights movement in the US, sparked anti-racism campaigns in Australia against South African apartheid and racist discrimination against Asian migrants and Aboriginal people. Through trade union anti-racist activity, students came into contact with militant workers, sometimes for the first time.

While positive, these early years of student activism had limitations. The prevailing politics were quite moralistic and liberal, sometimes militant but with significant anti-radical sentiments, and mostly aimed at achieving change within the system. Despite these shortcomings, this early activity was important for the future anti-Vietnam War movement, as it began the process of students breaking from the conservative status quo, starting to think of themselves as some kind of social force, and began the process of radicalisation for some participants.

The anti-Vietnam War movement did not begin on campuses. It started with moderate organisations like Save Our Sons—concerned mothers against the war—as well as the Communist Party, some trade unions and various peaceniks. Students started to take it up as an issue in 1964, when Menzies’ National Services Act brought in conscription. The law required all 20-year-olds to register and serve overseas if called up.

The first student protests were mostly small and relatively passive, but the war became a national campus issue in early 1966 with Prime Minister Harold Holt’s announcement that 500 conscripts would be sent to Vietnam. There were mass demonstrations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, with heavy arrests, burning of draft cards, and Labor clubs (distinct from ALP clubs, these were home to Labor members but also socialists and communists) collecting medical funds for Vietnam.

That year was a turning point. The 1966 election drew the focus of many activists and campaign groups, with great hopes that a Labor victory would put an end to the war. During the election campaign, Labor leader Arthur Calwell campaigned against conscription and Australian involvement in the war. Save Our Sons and the campus-based Youth Campaign Against Conscription campaigned hard for Labor. But Calwell was smashed in the election, with Labor’s vote falling to its lowest level since the 1930s.

Labor responded to the loss by moving to the right. Calwell was dumped as leader and replaced by the “modernising” right-winger Gough Whitlam, an enthusiastic supporter of the US alliance. At Whitlam’s urging, the 1967 federal ALP conference dropped any call for the immediate withdrawal of conscripts from Vietnam. Jim Cairns, the leading figure in the parliamentary left faction, acquiesced in Whitlam’s rightward shift.

This shattering defeat shocked activists and proved a turning point for the anti-war movement. Some were demoralised—the Youth Campaign Against Conscription group essentially disappeared—but the futility of ending conscription through elections, as well as the horrors of the war, shifted a minority leftward and opened a space for radical politics.

Student activists grew more radical, Labor clubs and student meetings voting to send aid, or defend the right to send aid, to the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was of course Australia’s enemy in the war. Sizeable protests greeted the visit of South Vietnamese dictator Air Vice-Marshal Ky to Australia at the end of 1966, with open support expressed for the NLF.

Radical arguments that had been marginal began to be taken up more widely. For instance, at the start of 1965, the Australian Labor Student Federation (a forum for ALP and Communist collaboration) conference in Canberra had debated supporting a protest against the war in which the mood was anti-war, but moderates won the argument against the left not to support the NLF, willing to offer only “conditional” support.

By the 1967 conference, the terrain had shifted and radical left intervention was more successful, the conference now supporting initiation of war against the US rather than “merely reacting to US offences”. Albert Langer, the spokesperson for the Maoist Worker-Student Alliance at Melbourne’s Monash University, commented that the political climate at Monash had shifted in the late 1960s to the degree that now to be a radical meant to collect money for military aid to the NLF, whereas to be a moderate meant collecting funds only for medical aid.

January 1968 marked a turning point in the war. That month, the Tet offensive, a coordinated surprise attack by 80,000 Vietnamese fighters against more than 100 US-controlled cities and bases, proved to be a humiliating political defeat for the US. While not militarily successful, the offensive made clear that the US and its allies were fighting a mass popular mobilisation. And it added to the sense in the West that the war was becoming increasingly unwinnable. Popular opposition on the streets of the US and inside the US armed forces surged.

Radical events elsewhere fed into the Australian movement. In Europe, student protesters had played a key role in challenging repressive Stalinist regimes. In April, riots broke out in more than 100 American cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In Paris, left-wing students protests sparked what was, at the time, the largest general strike in history.

Australian student papers published articles about the tactics and debates in the student movement internationally, and to many activists, world revolution seemed truly possible. Students engaged in mass occupations, confrontations with police and wild street protests against the war, and to improve their conditions on campuses.

Despite warnings that radical action would put off the rest of society, support for the war continued to decline. The drawn-out and futile nature of the war, combined with rising industrial militancy and concerted youth resistance, was a potent mix. The workers’ movement drew inspiration from the students, and the politics of the student movement in Australia was informed by rising worker struggle.

Numerically, the high point for the anti-war movement came in the early 1970s, with the mass Moratorium marches. While the radical students were participants, it wasn’t possible for them to wrest political leadership from the more moderate leaders such as Cairns. However, they did play an important role in shifting the terrain leftward—in order to retain control, the moderates had to accept slogans like “stop work to stop the war” rather than simply “stop bombing”, and some groups of workers did leave work to participate in the marches.

Out of this process came the development of a new student left, which included Maoists, Anarchists, Trotskyists and groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Revolutionary Communist Club at Monash—a forerunner of Socialist Alternative.

SDS described itself as an organisation with “no ideology” that “operates as a federation of issue-oriented committees, each acting on its own action-programme, relating the particular project to the democratic-humanitarian-individualist philosophy”. Essentially it was a radical liberal group without a coherent, radical critique of capitalist society. While it was positive that many involved in SDS rejected the Stalinist states’ claim to communism, their members swung from seeing students as a replacement for the working class, to overemphasising cultural nonconformity and lifestylism. This didn’t provide the political tools necessary to understand and respond to the eventual decline of the movement, nor the election of a Whitlam government that took up left rhetoric.

Anarchists, who had been most substantial in Brisbane, also had political limitations that hindered how much they could make of the radicalisation. Divergent politics under the anarchist umbrella resulted in lots of small, short-lived groups that had difficulty coordinating their ideas and activities, which eventually led to splits and degeneration.

The Maoists has success attracting student leaders after the 1966 ALP defeat. They had the greatest influence of any current on the student movement, especially in Melbourne and Adelaide. They were very enthusiastic about confrontation with the police, and rhetorically against moderates. However, their support for Stalinist regimes alienated some of their potential audience. Their positions on women and gay rights were also appalling—one newsletter inviting members to a party instructed them to “BYO birds”—and their analysis of Australia as colonially oppressed led them to adopt a bizarre variety of nationalism. The Maoists kept up their macho physical confrontationist tactics almost as a principle, and eventually, through various twists and turns and misadventures, lost most of their membership and, with it, the chance to build a lasting left current out of the radicalisation.

Prior to the upsurge, the Australian Trotskyist movement was very small and overshadowed by the Communist Party. Sydney anti-war activism gave birth to Trotskyist youth group Resistance. Into the ’70s, when the Maoists had declined as a force at Monash, the Revolutionary Communist club eclipsed them to become the main far-left group on campus, leading the long occupation in 1974 around issues of assessment and student control. They radicalised and recruited a small layer of members, laying the basis for Socialist Alternative today.

This period holds important lessons for activists today. First, despite long periods when radical politics are marginal, politicisations can happen and happen quickly. Capitalism causes wars, racism and economic pressures, which upend people’s expectations and lead them to lose confidence in the system and take left-wing ideas more seriously.

Secondly, students can play an important role when social upheavals do happen. Having a radical left presence among them is therefore strategically important for any organisation committed to radical change. However, it was inevitable that the student movement would eventually recede, given students’ inability to challenge the capitalist class on their own. This means that only orienting to students is not sufficient.

Thirdly, organisation matters. When the campus mood became more radical, groups that already had a foothold were at an advantage, and the types of political groups built, or not built, left a legacy. The success of the Maoists was, in the end, a negative, as their political problems prevented them from building a lasting student left.

The independent Marxist and Trotskyist groups went into this period with no or very small groups, which limited the extent to which they could take advantage of the period, although they did recruit key activists who laid the basis for future radical left organisation in Australia. Had a serious, non-Stalinist, Marxist organisation existed nationally before the eruption of the student movement, more could have been built politically out of the radicalisation.

The colourful history of the Vietnam era should therefore serve not only as a source of inspiration today but also as a pointed lesson about the responsibility of radicals to build up their support in advance of the next eruption of discontent and struggle.

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