7 May 2010
by Nick Irving
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first Moratorium march.
Forty years ago this Saturday, between 100,000 and 200,000 people
thronged the streets of the country's capital cities, emphatically
announcing that they did not support their government's involvement
in the Vietnam War, or conscription of the nation's youth to fight it.
The massive marches were unlike anything before them; they did not
merely occupy city streets but took them over. The protesters
shrugged of the authority of the police and government for thee days
as they engaged in an entirely peaceful protest. It was on that day
that the antiwar movement, which had been protesting against the war
since 1962, felt that they had finally won. But forty years on, what
is the legacy of the Moratorium?
The three Vietnam Moratoria - in May 1970, June 1971 and September
1971 - were organised by a coalition of anti-war and
anti-conscription organisations called the Vietnam Moratorium
Campaign. Formed in Canberra in late 1969, it was the brainchild of
the Victorian Committee for International Co-Operation and
Disarmament. By early 1970 it had a loose federal structure, with
Vietnam Moratorium Campaigns in each state, and a National
Co-ordinating Committee with representatives from each state.
The Moratorium Campaign was a very big tent. It included the usual
crowd - students, unionists, socialists and communists - but it also
included politicians, academics, radical clergymen and churchgoers.
The Moratorium's aims were the withdrawal of Australian and all other
foreign troops from Vietnam, and the repeal of the National Service
Act. These two campaign aims were the focus of a decade's debate in
Australia over both the war and conscription. Midway through 1969,
the Gallup polls showed that the Australian population had shifted
its long-held views on Vietnam and now opposed the war. The protest
movement had always felt that conscription was unfair. The Youth
Campaign against Conscription and the mothers' group Save Our Sons,
and later, the Draft Resisters, all held that the scheme unfairly
targeted young men who could not vote.
The Moratorium, at its heart, was about participatory democracy. The
antiwar movement had spent the previous five years undoing many
cherished assumptions about the nature of engagement with the nation.
In 1964, protesters were not allowed to carry placards on poles,
stand still in one place or march in the street. By 1970, they were
routinely occupying streets in "sit-down" protests. The Chairman of
the Victorian VMC, Labor Party MP Jim Cairns wrote that "there must
be freedom to break the law, when we know the law is bad. We must
have freedom to express opinion contrary to the ruling opinion."
Cairns was a champion of participatory democracy, stating in
parliament that "Parliament is not democracy. … Democracy is
government by the people, and government by the people demands action
by the people." But he was no anarchist - he expressly stated that
"there must be no claim for the use of violence." The first and
largest moratorium was an entirely peaceful affair.
Forty years on, what the Moratorium fought is no longer as important
as how it fought it. The cause - ending conscription and the war in
Vietnam - has been eclipsed by the idea of people power. The moment
when up to 200 thousand people marched through the streets of
Australian cities in May 1970 is etched indelibly in the mind of
everyone who lived through it. Ask anyone over 55 today about the
Moratorium, and they will probably tell you they were there.
It's a myth that it ended conscription; Whitlam did that. Equally, it
didn't end the war - John Gorton, a Liberal Prime Minister, made the
decision to bring the troops home. But the Moratorium wasn't a
failure. Its greatest victory was the way it changed our minds about
The key to participatory democracy is that it's participatory -
democracy requires the populace to be engaged, informed, and to
discuss their ideas with each other at all levels, and to speak out
when they see an injustice or a wrong. It's also fundamentally
inclusive. We aren't as naïve as we were in 1964. We were far more
sceptical of claims that Iraq had WMDs than we were when told that
the "Viet Cong" was backed by China. Then again, we are still at war
in Iraq, despite the original casus belli being debunked.
The Moratorium was also, fundamentally, about peace. In that, it
stands in stark contrast to our national myth, Anzac. The Anzac
legend has only recently come under fire for being a
backwards-looking story, one that bestows hero status on its warriors
and privileges war as a method of nation-building. The Moratorium
privileged informed, critical debate, and an inclusive, consultative
model of nation-building. At its heart, the Moratorium recognised a
community of humanity, far larger than the nation, and bade us all
treat the members of that community with respect.
For all its faults, it was forward-looking, compassionate, and it
would not stand for injustice. It is telling that, on its 40th
anniversary, the Moratorium is overshadowed by debates about Anzac.
Australia has changed a lot in the last 40 years. The protesters are
now the middle-class; baby boomers who now inhabit positions of power
in our society and are on the cusp of retirement age. The heroes of
the movement, like Jim Cairns, are gone, and its opponents, like
Gerard Henderson, are everywhere. The pendulum has swung back to the
right. But democracy is always strengthened by informed,
compassionate political engagement amongst its citizenry, and we only
have to look to the Moratorium for that moment in our history. And
with the challenges that lie ahead - continued war in the Middle
East, the consequences of the 2008 market crash, even Rudd's takeover
of the health system - can we afford to remain complacent?
Nick Irving is completing a PhD on the antiwar movement in Australia
during the Vietnam War.