The movement against the Vietnam War


The movement against the Vietnam War

By Doug Lorimer

April 30 was the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon, marking the victory of the Vietnamese people over United States imperialism. In South Vietnam, the US sought to crush a national liberation movement led by a mass-based revolutionary party, the Vietnamese Communist Party, which also headed a workers' state in North Vietnam.

Picture During that war, US combat forces were joined by military contingents from only two other imperialist powers - Australia and New Zealand. The history of the Australian movement against the Vietnam War provides invaluable lessons about how to block an imperialist victory in a war against a Third World country.

The first action against the Vietnam War to get national headlines after Liberal PM Robert Menzies' announcement in April 1965 that Australia was sending troops to Vietnam, was a demonstration in Canberra organised by delegates to the Australian Student Labor Federation conference in May 1965.

A sit-down on a level crossing led to the arrest of some delegates, including Bob Gould and John Percy. Gould and Percy helped found Resistance, the socialist youth organisation, in 1967. Today, Percy is the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP).

Following the Canberra demonstration, Gould and Percy played a key role in establishing the Vietnam Action Campaign in Sydney, the first organisation formed in Australia to campaign against the Vietnam War. During 1965 and 1966, the VAC organised a series of demonstrations which paved the way for the form of action that was to be the hallmark of antiwar activity: mass street marches.

The VAC campaigned for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam. The immediate withdrawal demand placed responsibility for the war squarely on the imperialists. It was the most concrete way of supporting the Vietnamese people's right to national self-determination.

In October 1966, 10,000 demonstrators greeted US President Lyndon Johnson in Sydney. This protest, in which Johnson's cavalcade was doused with blood-red paint, gained international publicity.

ALP, CPA right turn

During 1966, the ALP came out against Australian involvement in the war. This was a big factor in building support for the antiwar forces. However, in November 1966 the ALP suffered an electoral disaster in large part due to its strong antiwar stand.

Following that federal election, Gough Whitlam, who led a conservative attack on the ALP's antiwar policy in 1967, became party leader. The ALP's previous call for the withdrawal of Australian troops was watered down to "withdraw to holding areas". The new position was adopted unanimously by the ALP parliamentary caucus.

The Communist Party of Australia, which dominated the radical left, accommodated to the ALP's right-wing turn. From 1967 on, the CPA argued for the antiwar movement to drop its original demand of immediate troop withdrawal, a demand encapsulated in two words: "Out Now!". Instead, the CPA argued, "Stop the bombing, negotiate!" was all that the antiwar movement needed to campaign for.

Almost alone, Resistance continued to support the "Out Now!" demand. We argued that "Stop the bombing, negotiate!" failed to recognise the Vietnamese people's right to national self-determination, the central issue underlying the war. US and Australian troops had been sent to Vietnam to stop the Vietnamese people from determining their own affairs and removing the hated landlord-capitalist regime imposed on South Vietnam by France and the US following the defeat of French colonial rule over Vietnam in 1954.

We argued that while the Vietnamese liberation forces were perfectly justified in calling for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam and the beginning of negotiations, antiwar activists in the countries that had troops in Vietnam must reduce the imperialists' pressure on the Vietnamese by demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all their military forces from Vietnam. Moreover, we warned that even if the imperialists stopped bombing North Vietnam, they would continue the ground war in the South.

During 1967, antiwar actions were drawing up to 7000 participants in Sydney. Then, in early 1968, following the Tet offensive by Vietnam's liberation forces, the CPA won its "Stop the bombing, negotiate!" demand in relation to North Vietnam and the antiwar movement collapsed. From then on, the CPA concentrated almost exclusively on the issue of conscription.

Meanwhile, during 1968 the US poured another 100,000 troops into South Vietnam and escalated its bombing of the South. In demonstrations in Sydney, antiwar demands were again raised by Resistance, the Sydney University Labor Club and by High School Students Against the War in Vietnam, culminating in a march of 2500 in December 1969 organised by the Vietnam Mobilisation Committee, in which Resistance members were leading activists.

The CPA boycotted that march, arguing that it should be built around the slogan "Victory to the NLF!". The CPA knew this slogan would mobilise only those who consciously stood for the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution. The CPA leaders couldn't stand to see the revolutionary socialists playing a leading role in the antiwar movement and sought to sabotage any actions called by forces influenced by Resistance.

In order to give their abstentionism a political cover, they claimed that the "Out Now!" demand wasn't militant enough. The fraudulence of their argument becomes clear as soon as we ask: What stood in the way of an NLF victory in South Vietnam? As the events after the bulk of US forces were pulled out in 1973 demonstrated, without the direct involvement of US troops, the corrupt and hated Saigon regime could not stand up to the Vietnamese liberation movement.

Vietnam Moratorium Campaign

By late 1969, massive demonstrations in the US around the "Out Now!" demand led the CPA leaders to the conclusion that unless they took up antiwar activity they might be confronted by a mass movement they did not control. So a call went out from the CPA's front group, the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament, for a meeting to establish a big, new, antiwar committee. They "forgot" to inform the Vietnam Mobilisation Committee (VMC) activists, but we turned up anyway.

They wanted a committee that would consist only of representatives from affiliated organisations, one which they could bureaucratically dominate and from which the mass of antiwar activists would be excluded. However, their proposals were defeated and the new VMC was established as a non-exclusionary coalition functioning through open mass meetings of antiwar activists.

The VMC adopted "Out Now!" as its central mobilising slogan and, in 1970, it built the biggest antiwar actions in Australia up to that time through a series of nationally coordinated marches in all the state capitals. The largest of these was on September 18, 1970, when some 150,000 people participated in antiwar marches around the country. The biggest turnout was in Melbourne, where 75,000 marched, followed by 20,000 in Sydney.

A major reason for the disparity between the sizes of the mobilisations in Melbourne and Sydney was the role of the ALP in the two cities. By late 1969, public opposition to the war had grown to such an extent that the ALP leadership recognised that opposition to the war could be a vote-winner. Moreover, significant sections of the Australian ruling class desired an end to Australian involvement in the war because of its domestic political costs: the radicalisation of a whole generation of young people.

In 1970, the Whitlam leadership sought to capitalise on the deepening antiwar sentiment by altering ALP policy and calling for the withdrawal of Australian troops "within six months". Whitlam and other federal Labor leaders participated in the Moratorium marches and the ALP left began to play an active role in the Moratorium organising committees.

In Victoria, where the left faction dominated the state ALP branch, active ALP support for the Moratorium helped mobilise large numbers of workers in the Melbourne demonstrations. By contrast, the right-wing ALP leadership in NSW gave only token backing to antiwar mobilisations, thus limiting their size.

Opportunists and ultralefts

The right-wing ALP politicians began to take fright at the size of the demonstrations and their radicalising effect on large numbers of people, particularly workers. The ALP left and its friends in the CPA adapted to the right's pressure by trying to call off mass marches.

In Melbourne, Victorian ALP deputy leader Jim Cairns and the CPA pushed through a motion that the next Moratorium action, scheduled for April 30, 1971, be focused on "decentralised" actions (small suburban rallies). Resistance did not oppose localised actions, but argued that the antiwar movement was most effective when it concentrated its forces, thus impressing upon both the ruling class and the population in general the strength of the movement.

The opportunists justified their opposition to centralised mass actions with the argument that people were "tired of marching". This position was supported by ultraleft groupings like the Maoist Worker-Student Alliance, which argued that mass marches around the "Out Now!" demand were not "anti-imperialist" enough.

Instead, they raised slogans like "Smash US imperialism!" and tried to provoke violent confrontations with the police. The ultralefts' confrontationist tactics resulted in savage police attacks on demonstrators, thereby demoralising more people than they radicalised.

At the National Antiwar Conference called by the VMC in Sydney in February 1971, 1000 delegates reaffirmed that the VMC would continue to be a non-exclusionary coalition based on the central demand of immediate withdrawal of US and Australian troops from Vietnam, and that the main means to achieve this aim would remain mass demonstrations in each city centre. It called for further mass protests in April 1971.

In Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra, the ALP left and CPA managed to have the April antiwar actions set for midday on Friday, April 30, thus limiting workers' attendance. In Melbourne, Cairns and the CPA formed a bloc with liberal pacifists to have "decentralised" suburban actions.

All of the April 30 actions were small. As a result, the VMC leaders were pressured by rank-and-file activists to call a mass antiwar demonstration for June 30, 1971. The Melbourne June 30 demonstration attracted 80,000 participants, the largest antiwar action then seen in any Australian city.

Collapse of the Moratorium

Following this success, and probably because of it, the ALP lefts and the CPA decided to postpone any further antiwar action until 1972. Instead, they called for a campaign to assist draft resisters. We opposed this as a further attempt to take the antiwar movement off the streets and pressure off the government to get out of Vietnam.

Then, only a month after the June 30 demonstrations, Liberal PM Bill MacMahon - in an obvious move to placate the mass opposition to Australian involvement in the war - announced that Australian troops would be withdrawn by the end of 1971. His announcement gave the opportunist leaders of the VMC the excuse to call off all further antiwar actions. Aside from in Melbourne, where the VMC staggered on for another year as a bureaucratic rump, the VMC ceased to function.

Meanwhile, the Australian government continued to provide material aid to the Saigon regime and the US continued to rain millions of tonnes of bombs on South Vietnam.

When the US launched a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam in April 1972, antiwar actions had to be organised by new antiwar coalitions. These managed to mobilise some 20,000 people in protest actions in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane two days after the US began bombing Hanoi.

As in 1968, it was left to Resistance and the DSP to call antiwar actions. Through the Australian Union of Students we were able to organise a national antiwar conference in October 1972 which endorsed a call for antiwar protests on November 18 around the demand for the immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Indochina.

However, at most of the organising meetings around the country for these actions, the CPA and the Maoists argued that the antiwar movement should mobilise around the demand that the US sign the peace plan put forward by North Vietnam on October 26, 1972.

We argued that adopting the "Sign Now!" slogan would commit the antiwar movement to endorsing a compromise which had been forced on the Vietnamese by savage US military attacks. (Between December 24-29, 1972, US B-52 bombers dropped more than 36,000 tonnes of bombs on Hanoi alone.)

End of the war

North Vietnam and the NLF signed a peace accord with the US and the Saigon regime under which the US ended its direct involvement in the war, but was allowed to continue to arm, fund and advise the Saigon regime's army. A cease-fire was to take place, and representatives of the NLF and the Saigon regime were to form a national council of reconciliation to prepare elections in South Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the idea that "peace" had been restored in Vietnam was promoted not only by the US, but also by the ALP and the CPA, and it proved impossible to organise further mass antiwar actions. However, the war in Vietnam continued, with the Saigon regime repeatedly breaching the cease-fire agreements.

Then, in early 1975, Hanoi and the NLF launched a counteroffensive against the Saigon regime. Lacking any popular support and kept in power only by the force of US arms, without direct US intervention the Saigon regime and its 1 million-strong army fell apart.

Public opposition in the US to re-involvement in Vietnam was so overwhelming that Washington calculated that the political costs of resuming bombing were just too high. The US and its allies lost the Vietnam War, not so much on the battlefields of Vietnam, but at home, due to the mass opposition to continued involvement in the war.

[Abridged from an appendix in the booklet War in the Gulf: a socialist view, New Course Publications, 1991. Available from all Resistance Centres (see page 2 for addresses).]

First published by Green Left Weekly.

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