The LBJ protest in Melbourne

October 15, 2003


An internet almanac of the 1960s, <>, records the Melbourne protests against the October 1966 visit of US President Lyndon Baines Johnson with this brief entry:

"A[n] estimated 750,000 people turn out in Melbourne to welcome visiting US President Lyndon Johnson. Although most of the crowd are pro-LBJ, a strong anti-war contingent demonstrates against the visit, chanting 'LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' and splattering the president's car with paint bombs."

One of the notorious paint bombers, David Langley, recorded his story in a book, A decade of dissent: Vietnam and the conflict on the Australian homefront (Allen & Unwin, 1992).

Langley and his brother John had been students in the elite private school, Melbourne Boys Grammar. They concocted the plan to lodge their personal protest against the Vietnam War.

According to David, on the day before LBJ's visit to Melbourne, the two practised "bombing" cars with plastic bags of water thrown from a tall building. David recalls that this was not an easy task but remarkably every plastic bag of water they threw hit a car below.

On the day of the visit, David and John joined anti-war protesters in Carlton but when the route of the LBJ motorcade was diverted from there, they made their way to South Yarra where the US President was to attend a festival.

There were no tall buildings in sight so they hid behind trees and waited for LBJ to emerge from the festival. When he did, John threw the bag of green paint and laid down before LBJ's car. David then threw his bag of paint.

A beefy US security man punched David in the face. John was dragged off into a laneway by other security men and beaten up. Just as a stunned David was about to run off into the crowd, he was nabbed by Australian police.

The paint-throwing incident made headlines in the US, including page three in Time magazine.

David completed his first-year university exams in a remand cell. The Langleys were fined $680. David believes if not for his privileged background, he and John would have been sentenced to jail.

A radical for life

While the Langley brothers participated in more anti-war demos, they never joined any political organisation.

For Jim McIlroy, another of the anti-war protesters in Melbourne when LBJ came to town, it was the beginning of a life of radical activism.

"The LBJ visit became a turning point in the development of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia, with thousands of protesters turning out in Melbourne and Sydney to oppose him and PM Harold Holt's pathetic slogan, 'All the way with LBJ'. Similarly, the short Bush tour of Australia this month can be a launching pad for the revival of the anti-war movement in this country.

"The LBJ trip to Melbourne coincided with the last day of final term at the University of Melbourne, where I was a student. As can only be imagined, the end of the study year was a signal for alcohol-fuelled revelry by students in normal times — the arrival of the despised US president, the world's chief warmonger of the period, on our doorstep, merely incited us to greater agitation.

"I recollect thousands of tired and emotional students, pouring out of the nearby pubs, to line Grattan Street, Carlton, alongside the university grounds, which had been advertised in that morning's Melbourne Age newspaper as part of the route for the president's official cavalcade. Police and barricades lined the roadway, and military helicopters whirred overhead.

"Of course, it was a ruse, and LBJ's limousine with its security vehicles proceeded to turn down Elizabeth Street, on its way from the airport, to head to the city centre for the official ceremonies, leaving us noisy students in its wake.

"Well, immediately the students realised the trick, a mighty roar of anger rose up, and masses of students poured down the side streets in a drunken rage to chase LBJ's car cavalcade to the centre of the city, where loud protests occurred, with cries of 'Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today!' and 'Troops out of Vietnam now!'"

Today, McIlroy still hits the streets for demos and he will be protesting US President George Bush's visit later this month. As the Brisbane branch secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party (one of the affiliates of the Socialist Alliance), he remains an unrepentant organiser for radical activism.

Keep struggling

"Johnson toured Australia to drum up support for the US-led war of aggression in Vietnam, and to thank Liberal Prime Minister Holt for Canberra's contribution of Australian troops to the war effort against the Vietnamese people. Now, 37 years later, George W Bush is to visit this country to thank his loyal ally John Howard for Australia's involvement in the 'coalition of the killing' in Iraq, and urge increased military assistance from the Australian government in future.

"We can now, just as those pioneer protesters of 1966 did, send a clear message to Bush, Howard, Blair and Co, to get out of Iraq and allow the oppressed people of that country to decide for themselves how they will be governed in future."

McIlroy says that anti-war activists today should appreciate how much support they already have won in the public, with polls consistently showing a majority of Australians opposed the invasion of Iraq and think that Howard lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify that war.

In the 1960s, anti-war activists faced a totally different situation.

A radical minority

"We were a small minority at that time, even among university students. One of the myths generated about the 1960s is that it just was a period of youth radicalisation", McIlroy explained.

"In reality, like any other period of history, the anti-war movement was fought over a long period of time. The more general radicalisation of youth developed through struggle, just as much as being a product of general social conditions.

"Conscription hit us like a bombshell. I remember rolling into the Melbourne University cafeteria at a late morning hour, a little the worse for wear, in early 1966, meeting a group of my fellow 20-year-old males, only to realise that almost all of us had won the 'Lottery of Death' — our birthday marbles had come out of the barrel, and we were conscripted to go to Vietnam.

"We all decided then and there that we weren't going to fight a war against the Vietnamese people.

"Conscription focused our minds very effectively on the slaughter in Vietnam, and the need to end it as soon as possible.

"But the anti-war forces were quite isolated in the early days. I remember countless teach-ins, meetings and debates, gradually developing into pickets, marches and demonstrations, quite moderate in size at first.

Ideological battle

"We fought out the ideological battle very fiercely in those days, confronting the right-wing forces of the National Civic Council and the Democratic Labor Party, over the issue of the 'threat from the north', the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, the CIA's White Paper on alleged Communist North Vietnamese takeover of 'democratic South Vietnam'.

"The domino theory (that Asian countries would fall to Communism like dominoes once Vietnam was lost) was a major issue of debate. As our radicalism developed, we began to hope it was true."

From Green Left Weekly, October 15, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.