Women’s History Month: a series

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(TL;DR: all March I’m posting excerpts from interviews I’ve conducted.)

For a few years now, I have been interviewing Melbourne women who were involved in protesting against the Vietnam War and the National Service Act.

Let me explain.

  • The Vietnam War: Australia sent its first troops into Vietnam in 1962, and officially withdrew in 1973. Different people have different views on why Australia was involved. They tend to revolve around fear of Communism (ie the “domino theory” that said countries were falling to communism, or could do so, in a steady domino-like pattern), following America’s lead, fighting for South Vietnamese independence from an encroaching North, or imperialism. About 60,000 troops were sent in that decade (including my dad); 521 died, and 3,000 were physically wounded (many more later diagnosed with PTS, and other issues probably related to things like Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the war)
    • It’s called the American War in Vietnam.
  • The National Service Act: passed in 1964 at the instigation of PM Robert Menzies. Menzies’ argument was about “aggressive Communism” all around Asia. 20 year old men had to register for service, and if their number was called, they were required to serve 24 months with the Army. Initially this was for service at home; six months after the legislation passed, it was expanded to include service overseas, and less than a year later Menzies announced conscripts would be going to Vietnam (including my dad). “Natios” (national servicemen) were chosen twice a year: marbles that represented birthdays were put in lottery barrels, and several would be plucked out. Not registering for the national service was a crime; so was not turning up if your number was called. There was the possibility of registering as a conscientious objector, but it was pretty tough.
  • Protest against both Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and to the National Service Act started right at the beginning, all around Australia, but it was definitely fighting against the prevailing attitude for several years. There were existing peace groups that wanted to do things like ‘ban the bomb’ and who had been holding Hiroshima Day marches and peace congresses for years, who moved right on to protesting this new war. And there were new groups that started up, and new people who got involved, because of this specific war and this new legislation. Early on, they were a small group. By May 1970, though, when there were moratorium marches all around the country, it wasn’t so small: estimates of the number of people in Melbourne who participated on 8 May 1970 range from 60-100,000.
  • One of the first acts of Gough Whitlam’s new government in November 1972 was the repeal of the National Service Act; he had campaigned partly on that, and on officially withdrawing Australia from the war.

Many general histories of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War give scant room to the opposition. Some of them don’t take it very seriously at all. If it is mentioned, then some of the sensational stories – like the draft resistors who evaded arrest – tend to get most coverage. If women are mentioned, then it’s SOS – Save Our Sons – and in Melbourne, it’s particularly Jean McLean (which honestly I can hardly blame them – check out this recent interview and then this picture from back in the day) who gets star billing. Maybe also ‘the Fairlea Five’: five women (including McLean) who went to prison for eleven days for ‘Wilful Trespass’ – they handed out leaflets about conscientious objection in the Department of Labour and National Service.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I decided someone should fill the gap: all those other women who were involved in protesting against the war and conscription – sometimes fiercely, and for years – and that I guess I could be that person. Happily, it’s not just me: last year, Carolyn Collins’ book about SOS all around Australia was published, and it is fantastic.

Throughout Women’s History Month I’m going to post short excerpts from the interviews I’ve conducted, to give a sense of why women were involved and what sort of things they did.

If you know a woman who lived in Melbourne at the time and was involved, please leave a comment!

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