Fifty years ago, on May 8, 1970, one of the greatest mass mobilisations in Australian history took place — the first Vietnam Moratorium against the country’s involvement in the murderous United States-led invasion of Indochina.
An estimated 200,000 people took part in rallies and marches in capital cities and country towns around Australia on that day. This total includes about 100,000 in Melbourne, 30,000 in Sydney and up to 10,000 in some other major centres, with sizeable rallies in dozens of regional towns.
The Vietnam Moratorium, which took its name from huge anti-war rallies in the US in 1969, was a turning point in the long campaign to force the then-federal Liberal-Country Party government to withdraw troops from Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was a decisive event in post-World War II history, which divided the entire world into pro- and anti-war camps and fundamentally changed the social and political history of the capitalist world.
For the US and its imperialist allies, such as Australia, the war was intended as a decisive blow against the “advance of Communism”, and also against the national liberation movements of the Third World, which were challenging imperialist domination internationally.
Within the advanced capitalist countries, the Vietnam War accelerated the 1960’s youth radicalisation then sweeping the West. In the US and Australia, which were directly involved in the invasion and occupation of Vietnam, the introduction of the draft (conscription) for military service in Vietnam effectively threw petrol on the growing flames of anti-war sentiment among young people.
In 1965, then-Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies ordered Australian troops into Vietnam and introduced conscription for 20-year-old males. This lit a small brush fire of anti-war opposition, which grew to become a huge bushfire by the end of the decade.
I was one of those 20 year olds, whose birthday marble came out of the barrel in early 1966 in what became known as the “Lottery of Death”. While, in the end, I managed to stay out of the army, this began my personal journey of determined opposition to the Vietnam War and the capitalist system, which generated such wars and oppression.
I was a university student at the time and became increasingly involved in anti-war activities, that began as small protests and teach-ins and gradually grew to become larger demonstrations, public meetings, anti-war committees of various kinds, as well as the draft resistance movement.
In early 1968, the Tet Offensive by the National Liberation Front of Vietnam (NLF) and the North Vietnamese Army was a decisive blow against the occupying forces of the US and its allies. It demonstrated that the US war drive could be defeated and that the Vietnamese liberation forces were capable of winning the war.
From that point the anti-Vietnam War movement gained a decisive edge over the pro-war forces, and public opinion turned in favour of withdrawal. From 1968 onwards, the US, Australia and other invading governments were on the defensive against the Vietnamese freedom fighters and a growing anti-war movement was on the march at home.
In Australia, this culminated in the development of the Vietnam Moratorium movement, which brought disparate peace groups into a broad coalition, primarily around the demands “Troops out now” and “End conscription” In Melbourne, where the anti-war movement was strongest, this led to mass Moratorium committee meetings, involving up to 1000 activists in the Richmond Town Hall on more than one occasion.
The final detonator for the May 8, 1970, Moratorium marches was news of the Kent State University massacre, in which Ohio National Guard soldiers shot and killed four students and wounded another nine, at a campus anti-war rally on May 4.
This resulted in a wave of outrage around the world, including in Australia, and it drove up attendance at the Moratorium marches here.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, with the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese liberation forces at the end of April 1975, I wrote in the May 3, 1995, issue of Green Left: “The anti-war movement was now a gigantic force, but even we activists didn’t realise just how big.
“Preparations for the first Vietnam Moratorium of May 1970 were growing apace. The movement was now very broad, with local committees and suburban protest actions breaking out all over.”
“[Labor left spokesperson] Jim Cairns was the central figure in the Moratorium campaign. But the movement was a unique coalition of the entire left and progressive movement, from the radical left, to the Communist Party, to the churches and various liberal organisations.
“There were many debates on strategy and tactics over mass action versus small-group direct action, and over demands, such as ‘Troops Out Now!’ versus ‘Negotiations Now!’ But it was a period of great ferment of ideas, and a tremendous movement of people’s power.
“On the morning of the [first] Moratorium, hopes were high, but even the activists were stunned at the crowd which filled the entire centre of Melbourne, bringing the city to a standstill. More than 100,000 marched to stop the war, coming from every age group and walk of life.
“The government had accused marchers of being ‘bikies pack-raping democracy’, and one elderly grandmother replied by carrying a placard, ‘I’m a pack-raping bikie!’
“The stunning success of the first Moratorium in Melbourne and other cities marked the beginning of the end of Australia’s intervention in Vietnam.”
Mass action strategy
I was then a member of the Socialist Workers League/Socialist Youth Alliance. We were campaigning for all the troops to leave and for conscription to be ended once and for all. We wanted to continue the mass-action strategy until the imperialists were forced back.
Two more Moratorium mobilisations were organised in Australia: in September 1970 and June 1971. Around the country, they were of a comparable size overall to the May 1970 event.
Socialists continued to play an important role within the anti-war movement, which had dwindled after the Gough Whitlam Labor government was elected in December 1972. Whitlam withdrew the remaining Australian troops from Vietnam and ended conscription, an immensely popular move.
Labor’s election was the result of movements for change after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party reaction. A new era for political change had opened up, and alongside that new challenges for the left. We continued to organise anti-war protests against US policy, until that famous day in April 1975 when NLF troops entered Saigon and the US puppet regime finally collapsed.
Anti-war activists felt that we had played some modest part in this great victory. We understood that US and Australian imperialism had suffered a major blow, and that the national liberation movements of the Third World would be inspired to greater efforts by this victory.
The Vietnam Moratorium experience holds some important lessons for the movement against war and for social progress more broadly, including the necessity of building a united coalition for broad action around concrete, winnable demands, as a first step.
The key to winning immediate struggles against right-wing governments and their ruling class masters is to build the biggest movement possible by bringing together all sections of society who support the specific progressive aims. Only by doing this can we apply the maximum political pressure on the ruling class.
In the course of struggle, mass consciousness can and does change, often including toward more radical ideas about how society could function. Winning against powerful forces also changes political consciousness.
Forcing the withdrawal of imperialist troops and the victory of the Vietnamese liberation forces also generated the long-term political impact — the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome”. It became a lot more difficult for US, Australian and other governments to carry out and sustain invasions of Third World countries for decades afterwards.
The death of about 50,000 US troops, and 500 Australian soldiers in Vietnam helped make foreign wars very unpopular at home — even when they can be forced through, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The successful Moratoriums were a major turning point in the history of political struggle against the ruling elites. They were also an important example of international working class solidarity because they helped the Vietnamese people win their freedom.
Today’s movements for climate action, workers’ power and social justice can learn a lot from the Moratorium movement, particularly the tactic of building a mass movement with enough political clout to force substantial progressive change.
[Jim McIlroy is a member of the Socialist Alliance and and was active in the Melbourne Moratorium movement in the 1960s and 1970s.]