Conscription ballot balls used in the Vietnam War
Recording date:

Curator Dr Walter Kudrycz discusses the Vietnam War in 1968—a time of major developments and public outrage at the images that were starting to be shown on televisions.

Speakers: Guy Hansen (G), Walter Kudrycz (W)

Audience: (A)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 30 May 2018

G:        - Kudrycz. Walter studied and then taught history at Sydney University. Since moving to Canberra he’s lectured at the Australian Defence Academy and worked as an historian for the Australian War Memorial, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the National Museum of Australia and more recently the National Library of Australia.

Walter’s research and publishing has covered many areas including medieval history, the philosophy, history and ethics. He currently lectures on ethics as part of the Animal Law Course given by the University of New South Wales and delivers history, philosophy, cultural studies and Latin courses at the Australian National University Centre for Continuing Education.

We’re very lucky to have Walter here. Recently he was able to be one of the co-curators of the 1968 Changing Times exhibition which is on show at the moment in our Exhibitions Gallery. This exhibition explores what was happening in the world, Australia and Canberra in 1968. One of the areas that Walter worked on in the exhibition was the section dealing with Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. Today Walter is going to focus on the National Service Scheme and how that was seen by the Australian public in 1968. I’d like you to join with me in welcoming Walter to tell us more about this topic. Thank you.


W:       Gidday, everyone. Thanks Guy. I have a very weird feeling that Guy was actually talking about someone else, someone more substantial than me but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Let me just say before I start, Guy, what a pleasure it was working with you and your team on this exhibition, I learnt a lot from you. You fellows – you people really know how to put an exhibition together so congratulations.

I’m going to talk about Australia and the Vietnam war with particular reference to 1968 and as Guy mentioned to our exhibition on 1968, Changing Times. My theme’s going to be one of the turning points or a turning point. It’s acknowledged that 1968 was a turning point in the Vietnam war itself largely on account of the immediate and long-term consequences of the Tet Offensive early that year. What I’m going to concentrate on today though is the idea that 1968 was also a turning point in attitudes within Australia towards the Vietnam war and towards our involvement in that conflict.

I’m especially going to concentrate on the growth in and the nature of opposition to the war and especially opposition to national service or conscription. I thought it might be interesting per se and also perhaps heuristically useful to draw some comparisons between the 1960s, 1968 and the world war one era in Australian history.

During world war one as you’d know there were two referenda on the subject of conscription and these were divisive, bitterly contested events. And both in world war one and in 1968, the central issue of course was that of compulsory military service overseas.

With that in mind I want to go straight to an item from the exhibition. If I can manage these arrows, bullseye. This is an anti-conscription pamphlet produced in 1968 by Bertha Walker. Bertha Walker was a Melbourne-based unionist and labour activist. She draws on the world war one anti-conscription campaigns and she adduces a relevance between those campaigns and her own times. She in fact talks about an anti-conscription tradition in Australian history.

Now when we’re using the word tradition we’re implying relevance and continuity. This is what I want us to be thinking about today. I think that there are some important parallels between what was going on in world war one in Australia and what was going on in the ‘60s but I think that there were also differences – discontinuities. In the 1960s we’re talking about different times, of course, a different society and different ways of thinking.

So let’s just begin by briefly rehearsing some of the attitudes to war and conscription in world war one Australia especially those surrounding the defeat of the two referenda. In world war one Australia we have a particular significance attached to social class and religion which were more or less the same thing. The middle classes in world war one Australia were Protestant, pro-Empire, pro-war and pro-conscription. In contrast the working classes were Catholic and therefore potentially at least pro-Ireland therefore anti-Empire, anti-war and anti-conscription.

The Catholic vote was in fact divided on the matter of conscription but it was largely anti. We also have within working class Australia in world war one left wing ideology especially within the union movement. This ideology is essentially Marxism. It was felt that class solidarity which was seen as being intrinsically international should trump – you can’t even use that word now, can you? Should outweigh nationalism.

With that in mind let’s go forward to the Vietnam war era, a different - to a large extent a different social and ideological environment.

It’s easy to get het up, become interested in the anti-war movements that pertained to the Vietnam war but of course we musn’t forget that there were significant, strong and for a while these were in the majority, pro-war movements, pro-war thinking in Australia. These were of course different from the ones in world war one, though. The pro-war forces, if they are forces, during the Vietnam war period were united by an anti-Communist ideology. During the 1950s fears of Communism were widespread in the western world and I guess during that period they entered what we might refer to as the middle-class consciousness. It’s strange to us now, isn’t it? When we think that the threat of Communism was taken seriously. The idea that the world might be dominated by Communism was seen as a real possibility. It seems like a relic from another time, doesn’t it? Something really archaic now.

Moving to the anti-war forces during the Vietnam period we have a strong movement or strong movements but something – a phenomenon that wasn’t ideologically monolithic, I think. We have two new themes as well if we’re comparing it to world war one, age and education and there’s overlap, Venn diagram-style, with those two new themes. When I’m talking about age, of course, I'm talking about the idea of a generation gap which comes from the 1960s, an emphasis on youth culture, hippies, pop music, a general anti-war sentiment within the counterculture of those times. When we come to education we’re talking about the levels of education to be sure but we’re also talking about the importance of universities and university life. Universities as a site for anti-war sentiment and anti-war activity. There was a proliferation of universities from the late 1950s in Australia which brought education and university life into the I guess social mainstream.

So my main point at this stage is that this growing anti-war sentiment was a multifaceted thing and to a large extent it transcended traditional classes, religion – sorry, traditional categories like class, religion and even political affiliations. And at that time these things during the ‘60s seemed up for grabs, seemed relics of the past to some extent anyway. These traditional categories I think were being challenged at this very time.

But in the 1960s, and here we have clear echoes of world war one, the issue of compulsory military service overseas was at the heart of growing opposition to the war. We’re talking about the national service scheme which was introduced in 1964, November ’64 and lasted until 1972. Twenty-year-old men were required to register for national service according to the scheme. It was a socially significant thing. Eight hundred thousand Australians during that period registered, 64,000 were called up and 15,000 served in Vietnam. Two hundred out of the 500 or so Australians killed in Vietnam were national servicemen and by 1968 half of our forces in Vietnam were national servicemen.

This is Reconciliation Week, of course. I should mention here that Aboriginals were specifically exempted through legislation from participation in the national service scheme. The legislation went into a significant amount of detail as to what an Aboriginal was at the time which is of course a relic of another time as well but whatever the case, they were exempted. Nevertheless we – as an aside we happen to know that around 150 or so Aboriginal men did in fact serve in Vietnam through voluntary channels.

The National Service Scheme I’m talking about is the - or was the fourth in Australian history. We have one, the first from 1911 to 1929, was mainly – apart from the war years, mainly involved youth training and service in the militia. In the second world was we had the second National Service Scheme from 1942. The third in Australian history was from ’51 to ’59. Despite the Korean war falling within that period this scheme didn’t involve service overseas, it involved 18-year-old men doing three to six months’ fulltime service. And a fourth scheme was from ’64 to ’72 which is the one we’re concentrating on. Only the first and the fourth were controversial, in any sense unpopular. The first interestingly was initially unpopular. Only about half as I recall of those who could register did so. There may be a couple of reasons here. Again at that time class was important. There’s also a possibility of some sort of antipathy towards state coercion at the time.

So only the first and the fourth - when the first was divisive and unpopular only the first and the fourth pertained to were about a war overseas and a potentially at least unpopular war overseas. That’s the commonality there.

These are the conscription balls themselves where we get the name, the birthday ballot from. Twenty-year-olds as I mentioned registered and the balls had numbers on them which pertained to days of the year and if the day of the year on which your birthday fell was drawn then you were called up for national service. This was the process. The balls are being placed in an apparatus which – now this is pretty surreal. This is kind of something out of Catch 22. This very apparatus, this very barrel was used for Tattersall Lottery draws too.

Alright, let’s – with that excellent image behind us let’s talk more about the fourth scheme which was introduced in November 1964. Now conservative historians deny that the introduction of national service at the time had anything to do with the Vietnam war. You will pick up an official history and you’ll read something like this.

Although it is commonly supposed that the introduction of conscription pertained directly to Vietnam this was just not the case, simply not the case. These sorts of words.

There is I guess something to be said for such a view. The main conflict – overseas conflict that Australia was involved in at the time was something which is now beneath the radar, I think, it was the Indonesian confrontation which lasted from ’63 to ’66 largely on the island of Borneo. I guess the confrontation can be seen as the last colonial British Empire war that Australia was involved in so there’s an interesting shift going on there.

In ’65 an Australian battalion was in fact sent to Borneo, not national servicemen, though. I think though that thesis of the lack of any connection between conscription and Vietnam is at the very least a bit disingenuous. Australia was already involved in Vietnam, we had an Australian army training team of 30 men there from 1962 and in ’64 Australian caribou aircraft were in Vietnam based at Fung Tau near Vietnam. And in ’64 also the training team was augmented by another 30 men.

I think what we really have to do here is look at the timing, the sequence of events. Okay, we’ve got conscription introduced in November ’64, the first birthday ballot, the first example of this was held in March ’65. In April ’65 Prime Minister Menzies announced that Australian troops would be sent to Vietnam and in May ’65 the government legislated that national servicemen would be sent overseas.

There are lessons from world war one here. It was felt by some that Billy Hughes had made a mistake in world war one in calling referenda on the issue, that he could well have just introduced conscription thorough parliament and so this is I think a reference to that perceived mistake. As I recall the Governor General, Munro Ferguson, felt that Billy Hughes should have proceeded in that less divisive, less - perhaps less controversial way.

Let’s come to the nub of the matter now, let’s think about responses to conscription, to national service and to the Vietnam war in general. There was initially a kind of a passive acquiescence. Conscription was accepted. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. I suspect that it acquired a legitimacy in world war two. I think it’s also perhaps significant that the scheme, the third scheme that had lasted from ’51 to ’59 had been relatively benign. Whatever the case, in ’64 less than 1% of those required to register failed to do so.

So we have only muted opposition at this stage. Amongst the opponents of conscription and the war there was a feeling that this opposition should be expressed through the electoral process and there are echoes of world war one there again, of course. And the aim was to bring the Labor Party to power in the 1966 federal election. Arthur Calwell, the leader of the Labor Party, again echoing world war one – I think I echoed myself then – maintained – said publicly that the 1966 election would be a referendum on conscription which was a mistake because the Labor Party was totally defeated at that election. It’s hard to say why, possibly because most people were at that stage still pro-war, pro-conscription. Many of you will remember Arthur Calwell as well, though, and you will remember that he was an immensely uncharismatic figure so I think that might have had something to do with it too.

Here’s the thing, though, defeat in the election changed the nature of opposition to the war and to national service. Opposition became more organised, it became more public, more radical and more effective. We can in fact, I think, see the federal elections during this period as milestones or probably a better metaphor would be dividing points in the overall anti-conscription movement. We can see a first period which I’ve referred to up to 1966. A second period from ’66 to 1969. In 1969 a reinvigorated Labor Party under Gough Whitlam nearly won and we can see a third period from ’69 to ’72 when the Labor Party did come to power and conscription was in fact abolished.

The third period is probably the one we know about. We know that in 1970 there were huge moratorium marches in the capital cities. I think 100,000 were supposed to have marched in Melbourne, for example. At this stage we were winding down our involvement in Vietnam too. In 1970 Prime Minister Gorton had announced a withdrawal – ultimate withdrawal of Australian troops and this process was continued in ’71 and ’72 by McMahon. That’s the third period, though. By then things had changed.

During the second period, ’66 to ’69, we have a period of change. This is why it’s interesting, I think. Things were up for grabs at that time and the great thing about this exhibition that we put together is that being centred on 1968 it enables us to see aspects of and I guess the nature of opposition to war and to national service during this what I would suggest is an important, a dynamic, a liminal period.

So let’s go to a couple of items from the exhibition. This is a Save Our Sons demonstration in Canberra. We can actually see Mt Ainslie in the background and it’s the King George V memorial I think which has now been moved. Nice pun, isn’t it? Sons for Johnson.

Now Save Our Sons were formed within weeks of Menzies’ announcement that Australian troops would be sent overseas. As you can see Save Our Sons as a movement consisted of middleclass, middle-aged women who would otherwise have been socially conservative. This is significant. This is probably the first time since world war one again that we have the involvement of women in public political life.

Save Our Sons was not an ideological movement, their opposition to war centred around the concept of motherhood. This is a – Save Our Sons demonstrations at this time were generally unlike student demonstrations, they were silent vigils. This is one outside the Marrickville Army Depot in Sydney where those called up were required to assemble. And this is the banner which we had at the beginning which we have in our exhibition, the very banner from Save Our Sons demonstration.

Now I mentioned that Save Our Sons was not an ideological movement. It was nevertheless accused of pro-Communist leanings. When I was researching Save Our Sons, I was looking through their significant archive, I came across an envelope, a really fat envelope called Fan Mail and I thought what the hell is this? I opened it and I found that it was an entire collection of vituperative material that had been sent to the organisation and we have a couple of examples here. These are relatively tame. We have – I’ll go straight to this one. We have crude gender roles here, you old goats should get back into the kitchen. More important I think even than that is the proposition that Communists are about to overrun the free world.

In this one, although it’s difficult to read, there are specific analogies drawn between the Japanese in world war two and the Communists in the 1960s. We can also see here by the way – this is a foundation document, really of Save Our Sons. This emphasises just how socially conservative I think apart from their stance on the war this organisation was. Here we see the women in question referring to themselves just by their surnames, which would be their husband’s names, as Mrs something or other. They don’t even use their first names. We’re a long way from Ms, aren’t we? Here.

I myself remember watching the TV news during this period with my mother and there was a story on Save Our Sons on the TV news. My mother was a nailed on – what is it? It’s rusted on, I think, that’s the cliché, a rusted-on Labor voter. Nevertheless interestingly she was still anti-Communist as most middleclass people were so there was a story – I was just a child sitting next to her – TV news story on Save Our Sons and my mother turned to me and said those Save Our Sons women, they’re Communists. So this would have been the general perception at the time and of course at the time this is about the most pejorative thing that anybody can say.

During this important middle period, ’66 to ’69, we also have in Australia the emergence of the conscientious objector. The conscientious objector, almost individual stereotype if you like. The first prominent one from 1966 was Bill White. I just love this picture. The body language is magnificent, isn’t it? This is Bill White being dragged off. You can just look at the gestures of the individuals in question. We can see a generation gab thing going on there as well. Poor old Bill White’s I guess a – just a victim, isn’t he? In this image.

The conscientious objector that we dealt with in our exhibition though was Simon Townsend who in 1968 was sentenced to 28 days in Holsworthy Military Prison where he was subject to brutal degrading treatment, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and when news of his treatment got out there was in fact a public outcry. And things were changed from that point. Conscientious objectors would be held not in military prisons but in civilian jails where it was felt – it’s hard to believe this is the case – they would be treated much better.

When we think about White and Townsend we’re talking about middleclass, well educated people I guess we could all – to use a term from the times – they’re professionals. Bill White was a schoolteacher, Simon Townsend was a trainee journalist. We have here conscientious objection based not on authority but on individual ratiocination. Your typical conscientious objector in world war one or world war two would have been a Quaker, somebody who didn’t believe in killing because of the authority of God or the Bible. Here we have individuals making their own choices without references to external authorities. This is probably the way ethics have been going since the enlightenment when – and as we all know the task of ethics today since the enlightenment is to come up with a viable modus operandi without external authorities or without God. But this is the first time as far as I know that style of thinking showed itself within the anti-war movement.

Townsend and White were thoughtful, articulate people and they were able to construct compelling, sophisticated arguments against war. Townsend went on a tour of east coast Australia and inland cities as well after he was released from prison later in 1968. There was another conscientious objector at the time, a fellow called John Zarb who is something of a contrast with Townsend and White insofar as his ideology, his motivation seems to be left wing ideology. He was a postman and he was assisted in his conscientious objection by his union.

So in this interesting middle period, ’66 to ’69, we also have anti-war sentiment, anti-war activity driven by left wing ideology as part of the union movement. Echoes of world war one here again, of course.

This is a pamphlet produced in 1968 by the Communist Party of Australia. It was issued within weeks of the Tet Offensive. This is the famous of course Tet Offensive execution image. I guess this one and the children fleeing from the napalm attacks are the dominant images from the period, both profoundly anti-war, of course. I won’t leave it on that for very long. It’s a horrible image, isn’t it?

I mentioned universities and education. This is the final object I want to show you today from our 1968 exhibition. Make Love, Not War. This was a pamphlet produced at Sydney University in 1968. It situates anti-war sentiment within 1960s counterculture, of course. If we look closely we can see that the people in question are smoking huge spliffs, of course.

I want to finish just by suggesting that all these forces, longest standing forces echoes the world war one and new things that emerged in 1968 gathered together, coalesced. They certainly brought anti-war feelings to the surface but even more importantly they changed public opinion and this idea of a change in public opinion is what I want to conclude with today.

I found in my research for 1968 exhibition that a Morgan Gallup poll conducted in December 1968 showed that for the first time the majority of people in Australia did not support our involvement in the Vietnam war. This is a significant thing, of course. It’s even more significant because, just between ourselves, Morgan Gallup polls at the time were framed in such a way that was supposed to provoke a pro-government response to the questionnaire. Of course I’m speaking publicly now so I have to say that it wouldn’t be thus now. I didn’t have any fingers crossed or anything.

So it was especially significant that – given those constraints and those circumstances for the first time most people in Australia no longer supported the war. This emphasises of course that 1968 is a period of changing times so I think in conclusion we can see in general and from that opinion poll that in 1968 times were a-changing and that Australia was changing with them. Thanks a lot.


G:        Thank you very much, Walter. I thought you were going to burst into song there for a moment.

W:       There’s still time for it.

G:        We have time for a few questions and indeed we may get some – ‘cause we’re streaming this event as well. Yes. Could you just wait for the microphone, please? Thank you.

A:        Thank you very much, Walter. I was 29 in 1969 and I wish I’d heard your lecture then however I did take part in the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. But I just wanted to ask you, the anti-Communism of Australia at that time, how far was that the result of American anti-Communism and the media?

W:       Thank you for the question. They were significant elements in the anti-Communism at the time. We must also remember that there was a conservative Australian sentiment which largely looked to Britain. I’m talking about Prime Minister Menzies here who was himself profoundly anti-Communist too so it wasn’t necessarily American and – media certainly but I think we can see it as a western world thing strangely rather than specifically an American thing – or we can even turn it around and see the intense anti-Communist agitation in America as a subset of worldwide anti-Communist feelings. Thanks, John.

A:        Thank you.

W:       Hello.

A:        I guess I’m interested to know how many people just didn’t want to go to war ‘cause they didn’t want to die. And in that regard was there – my son said this to me and I hadn’t thought about it until he said it to me but people who didn’t want to go the war, couldn’t they have just gone down to the conscription bench desk, gone down with a friend and said I’m gay, kissed him on the lips and got an exemption? I mean it just seemed to me that would be the obvious loophole out of the whole ordeal and I was wondering if that got explored in your research.

W:       The short answer is no, it wasn’t explored. You were – and my feeling is that even if you had behaved thus it wouldn’t have worked because people like Simon Townsend and Bill White had good reasons not to go to war as well and they weren’t listened to. You could be granted conscientious objector status in Australia at this time, you have to go through a legal process but people like Townsend and White did go through that [progress] 36:41 and they were denied that status. I mentioned Quakerism and so forth, that is really the only thing that would – at a kind of starting point situation get you out of war. Sorry, please.

A:        Homosexuality, was that –

W:       No, it wasn’t – as far as I know it was never an issue either for or against as it were at the time. You mentioned the idea of people just not wanting to die which is an interesting one but it’s an argument from silence, really. Nobody ever says that which is I think itself significant –

End of recording