Many Australians know nothing of the courageous actions of anti-war activists in the 1960s and 70s, particularly those who defied the law and resisted conscription during the US war in Vietnam.
Carolyn Collins’ book tells their story. You will read about illegal sit-ins and chain-ups in Parliament, anti-war fashions at the Melbourne Cup, hijacking Billy Graham’s evangelical rally, rallying to support jailed conscript Bill White outside Prime Minister Harold Holt’s house, and avoiding capture in the “underground” draft resisters’ network. And there were songs and poetry along the way.
In particular, the book focuses on Save Our Sons (SOS), set up in Sydney in May 1965 by Joyce Golgerth to fight the Menzies Liberal government’s conscription laws, introduced that year.
There were other groups with similar aims but SOS cultivated a respectable image of concerned mothers from all classes. They dressed in 1950s-style middle class “ladies” attire complete with handbags, hats and gloves, trying to avoid accusations of being “just a communist front”. Not all its members opposed conscription outright and not all opposed the war in Vietnam.
Similar groups set up independently in Melbourne, Newcastle, Brisbane, Townsville, Wollongong, Adelaide and Perth.
They started with demonstrations to coincide with conscripts arriving at army bases, public meetings, vigils, petitions, letter-writing, always protesting within the law mostly as an education strategy. Most felt that the public was misled and would support their anti-conscription stance once they understood the issues.
Many were housewives and mothers with sons threatened with conscription, or already conscripted, but SOS attracted other women and men of all ages and backgrounds.
By 1965 there was a small but self-educated layer of activists who knew about Vietnam, in the context of a left that had opposed military conscription since before the First World War. They faced a determined government and a complacent society, apathetic about the war.
While SOS’s genteel image seems to have enabled it to attract many women beyond the left and new to politics, SOS women’s main support network was among left and trade union activists and among the Melbourne arts community. A relatively large but declining Communist Party (CPA) held important union positions and organised among working class activists. ALP and CPA union leaders often supported anti-war actions.
SOS became an important link for unwilling conscripts and their parents to access legal and political support to avoid the draft and its repercussions, as the aim of saving sons came into conflict with obeying the law.
Lottery of death
The Australian government sent advisors to join US troops in Vietnam from 1962. In November 1964 they announced a two-year conscription period for 20-year-old men. What became known as the “lottery of death” ran like a bingo game. If your birthday was drawn you would be compelled to register or face jail.
Meanwhile Australian society was changing culturally and politically as young people questioned the strict conservatism which dictated cultural norms, including the length of hair and frowned-on new fashions like mini-skirts.
Inspired by the US Civil Rights and then anti-war movements, radical student groups developed a new militancy based on civil disobedience. The core activists were anti-capitalist revolutionaries against US imperialism and the USSR.
The situation for women was changing—strict laws against contraception and abortion were being questioned, with the contraceptive pill available selectively from 1961. In the boom years following the Second World War, labour shortages meant women were being drawn into workplaces and immigration was extended to southern Europeans (challenging the White Australia policy).
Anti-war demands made little headway before the 1966 federal election, which saw the Liberal government returned convincingly. Yet that year was a turning point. Rather than demoralise the anti-war activists, electoral defeat sharpened their politics. Earlier in the year the first conscript, Errol Noack, had been killed in Vietnam and police savagely attacked demonstrations against the visit by US President Johnson.
SOS was clearly in the moderate wing of the anti-war movement but some members were sympathetic to the radicals. In 1967, demonstrations were again attacked by police. In Queensland further restrictions on protesting led to a defiant civil liberties campaign. In Melbourne students and SOS defied a ban on leafletting after many arrests (SOS secretary Jean McLean was arrested 17 times), which succeeded in early 1968. From then on civil disobedience became a favoured tactic.
Four important events shook capitalism in 1968. In January the Vietnamese Tet Offensive exposed US military weaknesses; in May a massive general strike in France saw that government retreat; and in August the USSR sent troops to quash the Prague Spring uprising and US police violently attacked protesters at the Chicago Democratic Convention.
Another turning point came in 1969. An August opinion poll indicated a majority of Australians, 55 per cent, supported withdrawal of troops. Labor came close to winning the election later that year.
Most importantly in May 1969 a revolt by the union movement starts, as strike action by one million workers won the release of a union official and made the anti-strike laws a dead letter. Anti-war activists were linking up with unionists. Collins records the rising of new social movements against sexism and racism—the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) began at the end of 1969 with working women already campaigning for equal pay.
The May 1970 Moratorium, the first of three working day political strike rallies, drew an estimated 200,000 people into the streets, with 100,000 in Melbourne and a rowdy sit-down. The slogan “Stop Work to Stop the War” reflected the disruptive strike action already taking place.
Unfortunately, Collins doesn’t adequately explain the new confidence and the impact of radical action, as militant demonstrations and strikes went beyond the norm.
While SOS did not support the anti-US imperialism politics of far left students they did prove Deputy Labor leader and anti-war activist Jim Cairns wrong when he warned occupations of government offices would likely turn people against them.
Five members of Melbourne SOS were arrested during a second sit-in in 1971 at the Department of Labour and National Service. When these “mothers” spent 11 days over Easter at Fairlea women’s prison it was a public relations disaster for the government.
In late 1971, the government announced that most troops would return by Christmas, following the US lead. They also conceded that conscription would be reduced to 18 months. This was totally unacceptable and protests continued.
In October 1970, the Draft Resisters Union had announced that draft resisters would be protected with “sanctuary in the form of shelter, work and sustenance to all young men who courageously defy the National Service Act”. In fact, much of this activity was started by SOS in 1969.
In 1972 Barry Johnston stood as an ALP candidate for parliament during his sanctuary and came close to winning the seat of Hotham in Victoria, held by Don Chipp, Minister for Customs. The ALP won that election and Whitlam promised to stop conscription; draft resisters were the first to benefit and left their hideouts.
This is an important book that uncovers a history of women activists and the way they organised that most other histories of this period ignore. To explain the omission of SOS from his own history, Silence Kills, Cairns admitted to Collins that women were often unfortunately taken for granted, even though he relied on SOS Victoria secretary Jean McLean as one of the key officials for the 1970 Moratorium.
SOS women are also not included in the histories of feminism, probably because they began earlier than the WLM and lasted only until 1973 and, according to Collins, because their maternal rhetoric did not fit the new radicalism of the period.
The focus for SOS and of this book was conscription. However, as the book shows, all activists would learn from the struggle that the wider issues were inextricably linked.
As Collins argues, SOS clearly made a difference as a small section of a vibrant anti-war movement. The movement helped end the war—alongside the heroic military resistance of the Vietnamese people and the National Liberation Front.
There is little discussion in the book of the turbulent arguments between radicals and moderates in the movement and the reasons why the Vietnam War happened in the first place. Collins does illustrate, however, that education to change public opinion was not enough and that SOS gained from engaging in civil disobedience, even if she does not consider the role of militant industrial action.
It was clear that the ousted Liberal government had wanted to make conscription permanent so it was a major victory when conscription was ended formally in July 1973.
SOS decided to go “into indefinite recess” but promised to be back if conscription was raised again. While no government has dared to do so since, the Keating Labor government’s Defence Legislation Amendment Act of 1992 gives federal parliament the power to introduce conscription.
Collins’ book shows what can happen if we fight. The story of SOS is one important piece of the story of the 1960s’ radicalisation.
By Judy McVey
Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War by Carolyn Collins
Monash University Publishing, $34.95