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Marching to Victory:

The National Service Scheme and the AntiWar Movement


Zoe French

Think of the My Lai massacre. Whose side


are you on? The Vietnamese kid with his guts
blown out? Or the soldier who pulled the
trigger? If the Government conscripts you to
kill Vietnamese, dont say later: I was only
obeying orders. The German and Japanese
was criminals said that, and the world
condemned them.1

Left: The
National Service
Bill before it
was passed into
law as the
National Service
Act2
(Image 1)

Consider for a moment the possibility that


being called up for national service depended
entirely on luck and the date that your birthday
falls on. For 63,000 young men, this
possibility was their reality. It is 1964, and
although the world wars are over, the threat of
the Cold War remains very real. Anxious to
bolster numbers in the Australian army to
counter the surge of communism spreading
through the eastern countries, the Menzies
government passes the National Service Act.
By 1966, the 19,000 men whose birthdays
have been drawn out of the birthday ballots
over the preceding two years have been sent to
the frontline of the Vietnam War.
Public outcry for this scheme to be abolished
was not initially very strong or prevalent,
however anti-war sentiment gradually
increased over the next few years, leading to
its eventual abolition in 1972. This essay will
explore how the anti-war movement

contributed to the end of Australias


involvement in the Vietnam War, with a
particular focus on the moratorium marches
that were held across the country in the early
1970s. The marches will be discussed in
comparison with the initial movement which
began in America and saw the first antiVietnam War moratorium marches from which
Australians drew their inspiration.
The birthday ballots
The National Service Scheme (NSS) worked
by way of birthday ballot. Men who turned
twenty years old were required to register with
the Department of Labour and National
Service (DLNS). Between 1965 and 1972
there were two birthday ballots conducted
every year, making for a total of 16 ballots.
Below is an example of one such ballot. It was
held in March 1969, and was the ninth total
ballot. Any twenty-year-old that is; any man
born in 1949 whose birthday was drawn out
in this ballot would be called up for national
service. 3
Below: The birth dates that were drawn out of the
ninth National Service Ballot throughout 1969
(Image 2)

Birthdates drawn in the ninth National


Service ballot: 14 March 1969
January 2, 3, 9, 11, 12, 14, 19, 20, 23, 25, 29, 31
February 3, 8, 12, 14, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28
March 1, 7, 11, 12, 20, 22, 26, 28
April 2, 3, 8, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 21, 25, 26
May 13, 18, 19, 27
June 7, 9, 10, 23, 28, 30
July 2, 3, 9, 11, 12, 14, 19, 20, 23, 25, 29, 31
August 3, 8, 12, 14, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28, 30
September 5, 9, 10, 18, 20, 24, 26
October 1, 2, 7, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 20, 24, 25
November 11, 16, 17, 25
December 6, 8, 9, 22, 27, 29, 31

A lack of opposition
Over 800,000 men registered with the DLNS
and during the first four years of the scheme
less than 1% applied for an exemption, and 14
were imprisoned for contravening the Act
during the years it was in effect4. If it seems
odd that there was so little opposition to this

scheme given how controversial the idea of


conscription was during the twentieth century,
it is useful to look at the context of Australian
society at the time to gain an understanding of
the way people were thinking around this time.
For many years beforehand, it was common
practice for young men to undergo military
training, and many people believed that it was
necessary to maintain a strong defence. At the
time, it was seen almost as the duty of a
responsible citizen to defend his country. The
general consensus seemed to be: If a country
is worth living in, it is worth protecting5.
The Minister for the Army outlined as much in
his statement to the press in 1968, promoting
the success of the scheme and the benefits that
it provided to national servicemen, promoting
a tough mental attitude and physical strength
that otherwise they may not have gained in
their ordinary lives6.
In letters sent into the Canberra Times in
August of 1968, some readers expressed
concerns with the implementation of the
scheme. The National Secretary of the
Returned Services League of Australia wrote
an article addressing this, pointing out that
engagement in some branch of defence was
the norm in almost every other country in a
similar political situation. In fact, it had been
accepted by the citizens of these countries as
something that was necessary to secure the
future of that country7.
The beginning of the anti-war movement
So what changed in the minds of so many
Australians to start a movement campaigning
for Australian troops to be pulled back? It
wasnt really until 1968 that enough people
started to protest against the scheme for any
notice to be given to them. People were being
prosecuted for refusing to comply with the
call-up, and imprisonment started being used
as a punishment for this crime8.
The dissent that developed was borne out of
issues relating to conscription and
conscientious objection, and also issues with
the Vietnam War itself and the tactics
involved. The American tactics of bombing
and napalm use were a significant reason for
Australias moral objections to the war9. It has
been described that My Lai confirmed the
view of Australian dissenters that their country

had placed itself on the wrong side of an


immoral war.10
America holds the first moratorium marches.
Although the anti-war movement in Australia
was only in its infancy, in America large
demonstrations were already even in the
works, even as President Nixon began
ordering withdrawals throughout 1969.
Anti-war protestors in America wanted to hold
a large demonstration, something that would
attract a great deal of attention, and thus the
idea of staging a moratorium was suggested.
Up to this point, a moratorium referred to an
authorised delay in the payment of a debt.
The anti-war movement took this definition
and gave the word a new meaning. The
moratorium was to stand in place of a strike,
and would describe the actions of the
protestors who were demonstrating their
beliefs. The numbers that attended the
moratorium on the 15th of October, 1969 were
far greater than expected, and when the
movement took its protest to Washington later
that year, it became the largest ever held in
that city11.
The first moratorium
A driving force behind the series of
moratoriums held across Australia was a man
named Jim Cairns, an upcoming
parliamentarian with left-wing views12. He
was opposed to sending Australian soldiers to
Vietnam from the outset. He appealed to
students and workers in Victoria before the
first moratorium, arguing that those who truly
believed that the government was wrong about
the war had a right and a duty to take a stand.

Left: Anti-war
propaganda
encouraging
people not to
sign up for the
national service
scheme.
(Image 3)

However, the moratorium movement was not


confined to Victoria, and it certainly couldnt
have made the impact that it was intended to if
it was confined to just one capital city. The
Moratorium Committee in Canberra took out
an ad in Australian National Universitys
newspaper Woroni, urging its students to join a
discussion about some of the pressing issues
that the country was facing, and in particular
used the Vietnam War as an example of why
everyone should be using their power as
citizens to hold their democratically elected
leaders accountable to the people and their
views13.
The government was well aware of the action
that some Australians were planning to take14.
The first march was held in capital cities
across the country on the 8th of May, 1970.
The estimates as to numbers vary, but there
were at least 70,000 in Melbourne, the biggest
attendance that any of the marches would
draw15. The march in Melbourne was
described as a display of unity, and managed
to gain the attention of the Australian Security
Intelligence Organization, who conceded that
the display was a significant political
demonstration.16
There was never any intention for the march to
be anything other than a peaceful
demonstration, and to this end the protestors
were successful. As Dr Cairns described it in
his book, Silence Kills,
The Vietnamese Moratorium
Campaign is not based on a claim to
the use of violence when one considers
violence justified. It is based on a
claim that this is totally immoral and
unjustifiable.17
The next steps: onwards to a second and third
moratorium
The movement viewed the first moratorium as
a successful start to their campaign. It was
large enough that the event received
widespread media coverage, predominantly
through the media, but it was also a very
peaceful event. This was important because it
meant that the movement was not given a bad
name, and as people began to see that all of
these so-called radicals were not trying to

get their point across in a violent manner, their


support base grew18.
The second moratorium was held in September
of 1970, riding the success of the first just a
few months on. However, it would not emulate
the success of the first moratorium. Numbers
decreased slightly, but tensions increased
during this time and violence broke out at
some of the marches. There were a number of
reasons why the second moratorium brought
more tension the most radical protestors
wanted stronger action taken at this series of
demonstrations, but this coincided with a new
approach being taken by the government of the
day to achieve law and order19. To this end, the
marches were not viewed with as much
tolerance as they were the first time around20.
Although drawing attention yet again to the
anti-war movement, the second moratorium
achieved little beyond this, and people began
to question what to do next21. It turned out not
to matter, however, because just two months
later a Senate election was held, and the issue
of the Vietnam War returned to the forefront
of Australian politics once again.
There were indications that Australian
involvement in the war would be gradually
coming to an end; the end of the war was
approaching and there were few American
troops, if any, left in Vietnam. The third
moratorium in 1971 coincided with a promise
from the Australian government that their
soldiers would be brought home soon22, and
this has led to suggestions that the
moratoriums were little more than gestures at
this point, and not overly useful. Dr Cairns
continued to travel the country however,
stressing the immorality of fighting the war23.
Even though troops were being withdrawn
from Vietnam as Australians continued to
protest, it is easy to assume this meant that the
protests did nothing. But the question has to be
asked without the protests, would the
government have adopted the anti-war position
that eventually got it into power?
So were the moratoriums actually effective,
or simply a coincidental event?
This is a question with no clear answer. There
are so many factors to consider, and so many
things going on at once. There is no question
that America, being the superpower that it is
and a strong ally of Australia, influenced the

steps that Australia took during the course of


the Vietnam War. The influence didnt end
there, because we have seen how the anti-war
movement in America made its way to
Australia as well. It is this movement that
shaped Australias involvement in the war24.
Conscription is and always has been a
contentious issue, and the anti-war movement
was an indication of the shifting attitudes of
Australian society during the Vietnam War.
What started off as an accepted norm was
suddenly being questioned why did we have

to send our men to a foreign country to fight


when it was not a cause we even thought we
should be fighting, and why should we send
them against their will? These were not
questions that the government would have
considered but for the action taken by the
Australian public, who brought attention to the
fact that the government seemed to be making
decisions that went against the new values of
the Australian people.

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 246. This quote is extracted a propaganda poster that has
been replicated on page 247, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
2

NAA: A432, 1964/1293

Sue Langford, Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964-72 in Peter Edwards, A Nation at War:
Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen &
Unwin, 1997) 355
3

Christina Twomey, The National Service Scheme: Citizenship and the Tradition of Compulsory Military
Service in 1960s Australia, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 58/1 (2012) 68
4

Christina Twomey, The National Service Scheme: Citizenship and the Tradition of Compulsory Military
Service in 1960s Australia, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 58/1 (2012) 76
5

NAA: M1373, 3

The National Service Scheme, Canberra Times (ACT), 22 August 1968, 24, in Trove [online database],
accessed 17 September 2016
7

Ray Markey, In Praise of Protest: The Vietnamese Moratorium, Illawarra Unity Journal of the Illawarra
Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1/4 (1998) 5
8

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 206
10

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 246
11

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 245
12

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 25
13

Moratorium, Woroni (ACT), 22 April 1970, 4, in Trove [online database], accessed 17 September 2016

Vietnam Moratorium Campaign ministerial statement, Tharunka (NSW), 5 May 1970, 22, in Trove
[online database], accessed 7 October 2016
14

15

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 267
Ray Markey, In Praise of Protest: The Vietnamese Moratorium, Illawarra Unity Journal of the Illawarra
Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1/4 (1998) 8
16

17

J.F. Cairns, Silence Kills (Richmond, Victoria: The Victorian Moratorium Committee, 1970) 26

18

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 274
Barry York, Police, students and dissent: Melbourne, 1966-1972, Journal of Australian Studies, 8/14 (1984)
69
19

Ray Markey, In Praise of Protest: The Vietnamese Moratorium, Illawarra Unity Journal of the Illawarra
Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1/4 (1998) 9
20

Marchless Moratorium, Tharunka (NSW), 6 April 1971, 6, in Trove [online database], accessed 20
September 2016
21

22

Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997) 290
Thousands join Moratorium rallies, Canberra Times (ACT), 1 May 1971, 3, in Trove [online database],
accessed 20 September 2016
23

Karl Miller, The Melbourne Marches and the role of Labor, Green Left Weekly [website] (24 May 1995), <
https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/melbourne-marches-and-role-labor>, accessed 6 September 2016
24

Bibliography
Primary sources
Cairns, J.F., Silence Kills (Richmond, Victoria: The Victorian Moratorium Committee, 1970)
Marchless Moratorium, Tharunka (NSW), 6 April 1971, 6, in Trove [online database], accessed 20 September
2016
Moratorium, Woroni (ACT), 22 April 1970, 4, in Trove [online database], accessed 17 September 2016
National Archives of Australia: Department of the Army, Central Office Ministers Office; Speeches and
Press Statements; Army Minister Discusses the National Service Scheme 1968
The National Service Scheme, Canberra Times (ACT), 22 August 1968, 24, in Trove [online database],
accessed 17 September 2016
Thousands join Moratorium rallies, Canberra Times (ACT), 1 May 1971, 3, in Trove [online database],
accessed 20 September 2016
Vietnam Moratorium Campaign ministerial statement, Tharunka (NSW), 5 May 1970, 22, in Trove [online
database], accessed 7 October 2016

Secondary Sources
Edwards, Peter, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997)
Langford, Sue, Appendix: The national service scheme, 1964-72 in Peter Edwards, A Nation at War:
Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen &
Unwin, 1997)
Markey, Ray, In Praise of Protest: The Vietnamese Moratorium, Illawarra Unity Journal of the Illawarra
Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1/4 (1998) 5-12
Miller, Karl, The Melbourne Marches and the role of Labor, Green Left Weekly [website] (24 May 1995), <
https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/melbourne-marches-and-role-labor>, accessed 6 September 2016
Twomey, Christina, The National Service Scheme: Citizenship and the Tradition of Compulsory Military
Service in 1960s Australia, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 58/1 (2012) 67-81
York, Barry, Police, students and dissent: Melbourne, 1966-1972, Journal of Australian Studies, 8/14 (1984)
57-77

Images
Image 1:
National Archives of Australia: Attorney-Generals Department, Central Office; Correspondence files, annual
single number series; National Service Bill 1964
Image 2:
Edwards, Peter, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997)
Image 3:
Edwards, Peter, A Nation at War: Australian Politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 19651975 (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997)