The campaign against the Vietnam War

Issue 

[This is the slightly abridged text of a talk given at a public forum in Sydney on June 6. The author, JOHN PERCY, is national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

The campaign against the Vietnam War here developed in similar ways to the movement in the US.

Of course Australia was a junior partner, and tagged along behind the US. But the Australian ruling class had its own aims and ambitions and interests in South-East Asia.

In 1964 the Australian government introduced conscription to provide the cannon fodder — the "death lottery": birth dates were balloted to determine who would be called up. In 1965 they sent the first contingent of troops to Vietnam.

The movement and demonstrations that sprang up in protest were proportionately as big or bigger than the actions in the US. The movement took its lead from the US antiwar movement, responding to dates set in the States for international protest actions, drawing inspiration from successful massive demonstrations organised there.

We can be very proud of the Australian movement. The hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life across Australia who participated in actions against the war helped make a difference. They helped to force the withdrawal of Australian troops, they helped save many Vietnamese lives, and they also contributed to the defeat of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition government and the election of the Whitlam ALP government in 1972.

Many of the same debates, disputes, and splits in the movement that occurred in the USA also happened here. The key issues that divided the campaign there, and here, were:

1. The tactic of mass action versus small confrontationist stunts.

2. The central demand of Withdrawal or Negotiations.

3. The question of non-exclusive and democratic structures for the movement versus elitist control.

Sydney Experiences

My experiences were confined to Sydney from 1965 to 1970, and Melbourne from 1970 to 1972, so the personal reminiscences will be from those cities. And because the formation of Resistance, the beginning of our political current here, was intimately bound up with the campaign against the Vietnam War, this view is the view from Resistance. However, I'll try to give an overall national picture, and in any case the general lessons and experiences were very similar around the country.

The first Vietnam action in Sydney was a demonstration organised by the Eureka Youth League, the Communist Party of Australia's youth organisation, outside the US consulate in early 1965.

When the government announced in April 1965 that Australian troops were being committed to Vietnam, there were larger protests, including a demonstration of 400 outside Parliament House in Canberra on May 5.

A few weeks later I found myself in Canberra at the Australian Student Labor Federation conference, organised at that time by all the ALP and Labor clubs on campuses. The conference decided to hold a protest against the Vietnam War in downtown Canberra. Conference delegates marched from the conference on the ANU campus to Civic, and held a sit-down on a pedestrian crossing, blocking traffic. Sixteen of us were arrested.

These were the first arrests on the issue of Vietnam. Thousands were to follow in the next seven years. The demonstration got nationwide publicity, in the press and on TV. And although we know that the impact and success of the antiwar movement were achieved through the mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of people, we can also recognise the publicity value of symbolic acts and arrests at certain points in the campaign. Such actions could help build the mass campaign, but shouldn't be allowed to hinder or substitute for the mass campaign. And they shouldn't be elevated to a permanent tactic as some people did, or have delusions that a handful of student demonstrators could take on the capitalist state.

In the left milieu, the CPA was the overwhelmingly dominant force. There had been a split from the CPA by pro-Peking forces to form the CPA (M-L), but that was mainly confined to Victoria.

The peace movement was overwhelmingly dominated by the CPA. The Australian Peace Council had been set up by the CP in the '40s. In late 1959 they organised a very broad peace congress in Melbourne, and out of it set up AICD, the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament, in Sydney, and CICD, the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, in Melbourne, with sizeable offices and staff. These were the main organisations for the CPA's peace work in the '60s, and it hoped to channel antiwar sentiment through them.

Vietnam Action Campaign

At that Canberra demonstration, in addition to learning more about the CPA (I shared a cell with a CP student) I first became aware of Bob Gould, one of the 16 arrested. He wasn't a student, and the police gave him special attention, claiming that there was a long list of outstanding charges against him. Gould was eventually able to convince them that someone else had used his name in relation to these charges.

In Sydney, Gould was a member of the small Trotskyist group, which was divided and was to split later in 1965, following a split in the Fourth International. The Trotskyists in the early '60s had done some solidarity work with the Cuban Revolution, and were also in the leadership of a modest-sized Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, modelled on the British campaign. In 1965 some of the younger members of the group, especially those who in the subsequent split supported the FI majority, such as Bob Gould and Ian MacDougall, used the resources of CND, mainly its mailing list, to establish the Vietnam Action Campaign.

The first VAC demonstration was called for September, in collaboration with the Youth Campaign Against Conscription. It was soon followed by a further demo in October in response to the call for international days of protest from the movement in the US.

The Vietnam Action Campaign drew in a range of individual activists from different political backgrounds — Trotskyists, some Maoists, anarchists, some people in the ALP and some from the CPA, especially the youth. The CPA had an ambivalent attitude to VAC. They had to participate, but they were very uncomfortable with Trotskyists in the leadership of it, and they wanted AICD to remain the main antiwar organisation, where their control was guaranteed.

VAC initially operated out of Bob and Marie Gould's house at Woollahra, where meetings were held and big mail-outs organised. There was a Gestetner in the little back room upstairs cranking out newsletters and leaflets by the thousands. Bob Gould was the secretary of VAC. His house then was like his bookshop today. There were piles of books and magazines and newspapers from around the world that you could rummage through. I and others were won over to a Trotskyist perspective as a result of the actions, and the rummaging, and discussions and some classes that were organised.

VAC's mailing list built up, and more names were added at each action, until we were organising mail-outs of the newsletter to more than 10,000 people and groups. How to finance such large mailings? Stamps were cheaper then, but 5c times 10,000 was still a lot of money. Donations that came back from each mailing helped finance the next demo, or the next mail-out. We were helped also by the fact that the stamp machines outside post offices in those days accepted 5c for a stamp, but also accepted, we found, a certain type of washer that cost only half a cent. Comrades were sent out on stamp collecting expeditions late at night to distant suburbs.

Johnson demonstration

Opposition to the Vietnam War grew. When US President Johnson visited Australia in October 1966, he was met by protests wherever he went, which had a dramatic impact around the world. In Melbourne his car was splashed with paint. In Sydney 10,000 demonstrated at Hyde Park corner as his motorcade came into the city from the airport. We broke onto the road, some lay on the road to block the cars. This is when Liberal Premier Askin uttered his infamous words, "Ride over the bastards".

At the demo we had a running battle to try to drown out the Mormon Choir, who had been allocated the same corner for the official welcome. They were belting out "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Deep in the Heart of Texas", and we were screaming out, "Johnson Murderer", "Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?". They had the advantage of a powerful amplification system rigged up in the park — we only had thousands of unassisted lungs. Nevertheless, we did manage to dig up a pair of pliers. We cut their power. They repaired it. We cut it in another spot. They repaired it again. We cut it again, and fortunately we were on top at the crucial time when Johnson came into view.

After the motorcade passed, most of the demo ran through the park to the Art Gallery, and got there before Johnson. The press reported two lots of demonstrators — really it was the same crowd; we moved fast. The motorcade also moved fast after its scary confrontation with us, so fast that the little kids who'd been dragooned out of school to line the streets didn't realise he'd gone past. The editorials the next day railed at the cold-hearted demonstrators who forced the president to speed through the city, spoiling the day for the school children who had come to see the president. The flagpoles outside the gallery sported US flags, and cheers went up as demonstrators succeeded in hauling down all but one of them.

Australia had been considered Washington's closest ally. After Johnson's reception, there was practically no place on earth that a US president could visit without confronting a demonstration against the Vietnam War.

In January 1967, South Vietnamese dictator Marshall Ky visited Australia, and was met by demonstrations around Australia. In Sydney, the action was led by Arthur Calwell, the federal Labor leader. He was an old-style ALP politician, a Catholic, and although against the rabid right wingers in the National Civic Council, still very conservative himself. But on the question of Vietnam, he took a militant, principled position.

Also in January 1967, a successful Sydney Anti-Vietnam War Activists Conference was held. In that period seamen on the ships Jeparit and Boonaroo were refusing to take war cargo to Vietnam.

In April 1967 VAC started publishing Vietnam Action, a printed magazine that was distributed nationally. It incorporated the VAC newsletter, of which 14 issues had appeared during the previous two years. It had a lift-out that was printed in larger runs for free distribution.

VAC produced many leaflets and pamphlets, including a number of publishing coups. For example, a reprint of American Atrocities in Vietnam, and then Australian Atrocities in Vietnam, by Alex Carey. Both were hot sellers.

Two lines

In 1967 Gough Whitlam replaced Arthur Calwell as ALP leader, partly because he'd been too outspoken on Vietnam. Whitlam pulled the ALP back from that outspoken stance, ditching the "withdraw the troops" line in favour of "withdraw to holding areas".

Resistance and VAC were clear and unequivocal about what the antiwar movement's aims should be — immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops. Liberal peace activists, ALP parliamentarians and the CPA, backing them up, equivocated on this, wanting to restrict the demands we placed on the government to "negotiate". This mirrored the same debate that was taking place in the US antiwar movement, so well told in Fred Halstead's book Out Now.

We also had to debate with the ultralefts, who wanted the mass actions to adopt a position of support to the Vietnamese revolution, victory to the NLF etc. We solidarised with the Vietnamese revolution, of course, educated people, carried out propaganda activities, held forums, carried NLF flags on May Day and other events like that. But to reach and involve the maximum number of people, on the streets, to reach new layers, to reach workers, a demand like withdrawal was required. This was a demand that compromised nothing, a demand which, if successful, would mean the victory of the Vietnamese revolution.

We fought to build the movement as a united front around the withdrawal demand, organising mass mobilisations of all those opposed to the war.

Non-exclusion had to be the principle of such a united front. Nobody was to be excluded from the action and the organising of it on the basis of their political views, as long as they were against the war and wanted to build the protest action.

We also argued for the democratic functioning of the movement. There should be open meetings, involving as many activists as possible in the decision-making. Leadership should not be the monopoly of one group or political tendency.

We also argued against any attempt to impose a multi-issue program on the movement. Ironically, this was often pushed jointly by the ultralefts and the liberals. These people wanted a substitute for a party. They sometimes had left-sounding rhetoric, but the effect of the movement adopting such a multi-issue program would be a lowest common denominator type party. And it would limit the participation of the broadest numbers of people.

Resistance was formed in 1967 from this milieu. In our Goulburn Street centre we started the Third World Bookshop in the front room. It was initially set up by the Vietnam Action Campaign. Bob Gould had previously been manager of Farmers book department, and he'd been sacked for his political activities after the Canberra demo in 1965. He ran the bookshop (eventually grabbing it for himself in 1970 following a split in Resistance and the party group we were attempting to organise).

The Vietnamese launched a massive offensive against US bases and the cities during the Tet holiday period in early 1968, stunning the US.

In 1968 occurred the biggest anti-Vietnam War demonstrations up to that time. In London, 100,000 marched, with the International Marxist Group, our co-thinkers in Britain, in the leadership. In the USA, the Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers Party and their youth organisation, the Young Socialist Alliance, were the most prominent and active in building the mass mobilisations and the national student group, the Student Mobilisation Committee.

How not to join the army

Perhaps our biggest scandal and national publicity windfall resulted from a little pamphlet we printed, "How Not to Join the Army", consisting of advice and practical hints on how to avoid conscription, and how to stuff up their system if you got in there. It wasn't a particularly great pamphlet; an anarchist seaman had brought us a copy of it produced in the States, and gave us 20 bucks to print it. It was mostly sitting on our shelves unsold for months until a rabid Liberal MP cottoned on to it and raised it as an issue in federal parliament, demanding that the government and police act.

The police raided our headquarters, grabbed the offending pamphlets, our battered typewriter and the Gestetner duplicator on which it was printed. But we had received a tip-off half an hour before the raid. So we phoned the TV stations, tidied up the headquarters, made sure posters advertising an upcoming teach-in on Vietnam were very prominently displayed, stashed away the bulk of the pamphlets and waited for the cops.

It was fantastic publicity. There we were on TV, there was our Gestetner getting carted out of the Third World Bookshop by the cops, there were the posters advertising the teach-in. Bookshop sales went right up (especially of a "Jesus Christ — Wanted for Sedition" poster that we'd also stuck up to catch the TV cameras.)

We had to print tens of thousands more copies of the pamphlet. Pirate editions appeared in other states. We'd authorised it "J. Percy", and neither Jim nor I were going to say which Percy that referred to. But the publicity potential was too good to miss, so I owned up and got a lot of speaking engagements and interviews as the notorious authoriser. We produced an edition of the pamphlet authorised by dozens of people. The cops eventually returned all our equipment, even the pamphlets, without any charges being laid. The publicity was worth thousands.

High schools

Resistance members in high schools established High School Students Against the War in Vietnam, HSSAWV, and published a news-sheet, Student Underground. The high schools Vietnam teach-in that received free publicity during the raid was attended by about 500 people, and we received great follow-up publicity in the Sunday Telegraph after it. They were red-baiting us, but didn't understand that their lurid descriptions of our activities only made us sound even more attractive to radicalising young people.

When we first started publishing Student Underground after the teach-in, the number of schools where it was distributed steadily rose, as word spread. After a little while, we were lucky enough to get red-baited again. Our subversive undermining of the official brainwashing that takes place in schools was denounced in parliament, and our circulation skyrocketed.

Demand outstripped supply. Jim Percy was churning them out on the duplicator, and we couldn't produce enough. Eventually it was getting distributed in 100 Sydney high schools. Kids would ring up and complain: they'd heard about it on TV, or read the papers, and why was their school being discriminated against — they hadn't seen it yet!

Again we got great publicity, and made sure the press photographers included the posters for the next antiwar demo in their shots. Principals and politicians called for the banning of Student Underground, but of course that only increased demand.

Eventually Student Underground graduated to a four-page printed tabloid format for its last two editions in 1969. This was the immediate precursor of Direct Action, the precursor of Green Left Weekly, and it gave us training in producing a newspaper.

December 15, 1969

For a whole period in 1968 and 1969, the CPA and the ALP lefts tried to prevent demonstrations being called, in response to a lull in the war before the US elections, and demobilisation of the US movement suckered in behind Democrat peace candidates, and Nixon's peace plan after the election.

Eventually we went ahead on our own with a demonstration on December 15, 1969, with a clear demand to "Withdraw the Troops". It was called by the Vietnam Mobilisation Committee, the backbone of which was VAC, Resistance and HSSAWV. Several thousand people demonstrated; it was very militant, very colourful. It probably had the best placards, before or since. I'd obtained a huge load of great cardboard at an auction — large, solid, wonderful quality, it had been damaged in a fire. Resistance silk-screened half a dozen great designs and slogans on hundreds and hundreds of placards that totally smothered the march.

The Moratoriums

The biggest, most effective demonstrations against the war were organised in May and September 1970 and June 1971 through the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. The largest actions took place in Melbourne, with 60,000-100,000 on the streets each time, but large actions were held in all other Australian cities too.

People remember the anti-Vietnam movement as the Moratorium, but it was set up only in 1970, following five years of hectic activity in other structures and coalitions.

When the Moratorium campaign began, a meeting to form the campaign in Sydney resulted in a defeat for the bureaucratic practices of the CPA and AICD. Their response was to close down the meeting. However, in Sydney a democratic structure was eventually adopted, and general meetings of all activists became recognised as the highest decision-making body of the movement. It was with this structure that the movement achieved its greatest success.

The first Moratorium march in May 1970 drew 100,000 on the streets in Melbourne, 30,000 in Sydney, thousands in other cities.

Resistance's founding national conference took place in August. One of the documents adopted was "A Socialist Strategy for the Antiwar Movement". We changed our name to Socialist Youth Alliance, and decided to publish a monthly paper, Direct Action.

Immediately after the first issue of Direct Action was published, I moved to Melbourne to help build a Resistance branch and a Socialist Review Group branch there. There were four of us to begin with, and DA was out just in time for the second big Vietnam Moratorium demonstration of 60,000 people in September. We sold 600 papers that day; there were queues waiting to buy it, and I was weighed down with 10 cent coins by the end.

There was another big Moratorium action on June 30, mobilising 80,000 in Melbourne, and tens of thousands in other cities.

Beijing and Moscow

Then Nixon's visit to Beijing was announced, and the McMahon government promised on August 18 to withdraw Australian troops by December.

In Sydney, AICD and the CPA retreated from any mass actions, refusing to support the Moratorium action set for December 10. At the end of 1971, the CPA and AICD decided that the war was virtually over, and no further point could be served by continuing to participate in the Moratorium coalition.

Nixon returned from Beijing on February 28, 1972. On March 1, US bombing resumed. People noted the connection.

But on March 30, a new offensive by the liberation forces in the South was launched. The cover of DA 17, April 17, announced: "Imperialism Crumbling Under Vietnamese Offensive — Demand US Out Now!"

There was a massive escalation of US bombing of the north. Demonstrations were held around Australia on April 20-22, but there were no more than several thousand in any city, the peace movement having been demobilised.

On May 11 we published a special eight-page Vietnam edition of DA to protest against the further escalation and Nixon's mining of Vietnam's ports and the extension of the air war. There was a quick response to the new escalation, with demonstrations in cities around Australia.

The DA cover headline was: "Our one point peace plan — Out Now!" The CP and liberal forces, and the ultralefts, were pushing for the movement to adopt support for the Vietnamese "Seven-point Peace Plan" as the demands for the actions here. These proposals for peace from the Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government included compromises and concessions forced from them by imperialism — the antiwar forces in the US and Australia were under no such pressure, or need, to endorse concessions. Imperialism had no right to be in Vietnam.

Nixon was scheduled to visit Moscow, but Moscow didn't call off the visit or postpone it, or even indicate it was in jeopardy.

The massive bombing continued. The dykes of Hanoi were threatened, but there was still no response from Moscow or Peking. In an editorial in the August 3 issue, DA asked, "Can we let Vietnam Stand Alone?" and took up the lack of action by the bureaucrats, the defusing of the antiwar movement by the election campaign in the US, and the need for continuing mass mobilisations.

A new nine-point peace plan from the Vietnamese government again confused much of the antiwar movement, who fell in behind the "sign now" demand rather than sticking to unconditional withdrawal. Bernie Taft, the Victorian CPA secretary at the time, admits in his recently published memoirs that the Vietnamese had revealed to him during a meeting in Paris in 1972 their displeasure at the pressure being exerted on them from Moscow to accept a Korea-type solution. But Taft and the CPA were adamant throughout this period in supporting the "negotiate", "Sign the peace treaty", line rather than the demand for complete and immediate withdrawal of US and Australian forces.

Elections

Nixon was re-elected on November 7. Peace negotiations were going on, and people had the feeling the war was over, but by November 18 the accord was still not signed. Small demos took place in the US and Australia.

On December 2, the Whitlam ALP government was elected.

On December 18, Nixon resumed bombing.

The CPA and AICD were jolted. Several unions placed bans on US commercial activities. On December 29 the Seamen's Union black-banned US ships, with the support of other maritime unions.

In Washington on January 20, 100,000 turned up for the "Counter-inaugural", but the actions were small in Australia.

On January 23 Nixon announced a cease-fire agreement had been reached. Bombing in the south continued until the signing on January 27. Bombing in Laos and Cambodia continued.

But it was two more years before the real end of the war. The US rushed in enormous amounts of war supplies, advisers and technicians for its puppet regime. Fighters and B-52s were still stationed in Thai bases and on aircraft carriers off the coast.

DA 35, February 8, 1973, had as its cover story, "Why Vietnam Treaty Won't Bring Peace". The editorial concluded: "The struggle will continue in Vietnam against the Thieu regime's bloody dictatorship. Our struggle here will continue until the US is forced to withdraw entirely, and without imposing any conditions, from all of Southeast Asia. Only when that is done will the Vietnamese be able to determine their own future. Only then can there be peace in Indochina."

Final victory

With the US and Australian troops out, the antiwar movement went into recess, but the struggle in Vietnam continued against the Saigon puppet regime, until the final liberation of the country on April 30, 1975.

At the time I had the good fortune to be working on Intercontinental Press, the Marxist international news magazine based in New York. I had the responsibility for following political events in many countries in Asia, including Vietnam, and I had the pleasant task of chronicling the final collapse of the Lon Nol and Thieu regimes.

Beginning with the capture of the capital of Phuoclong province on January 7, 1975, by the forces of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the whole military position of the Saigon regime collapsed like a pack of cards.

In many places the PRG units could not keep up with the retreating Saigon army. Huge stockpiles of US-supplied weapons fell into PRG hands. Washington started making plans to reintroduce US troops, but the Saigon regime melted away too fast for any such plans to be seriously considered.

A sustained propaganda campaign was mounted in the US and around the world about the impending "bloodbath". It didn't occur, of course — the victorious National Liberation Front troops were welcomed into Saigon by the majority of the population.

A special issue of Direct Action on May 2 welcomed the liberation of Saigon with a banner headline — "A Victory for All Humanity".

That's what it was. And for that, we all have a debt to the Vietnamese people.

The Vietnamese finally won their independence and freedom after decades of brave struggle. They showed that a people, united in its just aims, can withstand the military firepower of the most powerful imperialist force on earth.

They were assisted in no small measure by people in the US and Australia and around the world who raised their voices, organised, leafleted, put up posters, held teach-ins, resisted conscription and demonstrated on the streets in their millions.

It showed the power of a truly mass movement. The "Vietnam syndrome", that fierce opposition by ordinary people in the US to the sending of troops abroad for imperialist adventures, though weakened, is still there.

Thousands of young people had their eyes opened to the nature of imperialism and the capitalist system, became implacable foes of that system and joined or formed Marxist organisations.

And for that, those of us who were radicalised have an extra special debt to the heroic Vietnamese people.