MILESAGO - Features - Vietnam
Save Our Sons Movement
1965 - 1973

In August 1964 the questionable "Gulf Of Tonkin Incident" became the pretext for a dramatic escalation of America's controversial involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. As a close ally, Australia had made a commitment to assist the United States of America in its military campaign to resist the North Vietnamese. On 10 November 1964 Menzies Liberal government made a fateful decision -- the introduction of conscription for national military service.

A few months later, on 29 April 1965, Menzies made an even more momentous announcement -- Australian troops, including National Service conscripts, would be sent to Vietnam to assist the American war effort.

Just two weeks later on 13 May 1965, while opposition to the war was still tiny, the community action group SOS -- Save Our Sons -- was founded in Sydney. Other branches were established in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle and Adelaide. SOS protested against the conscription of Australians to fight in the Vietnam conflict. The focus of their campiagn was conscription of men under 18 who were not eligible to vote.

The women of SOS "... put on their hats and gloves and carried their blue and white banners high -- to the army barracks, to court, to Parliament House, to the City Square, and even, in 1969, to Vietnam itself". Most of the SOS members were ordinary middle-class and working-class women, wives and mothers, who had no connections to the radical youth counter-culture, but they educated themselves and others on the situation in Vietnam and on the laws associated with conscription and conscientious objection. In the process, their politics became increasingly radical.

The women in SOS were widely condemned at the time as"... hysterical mothers with nothing better to do, as communist dupes, or as bimbos". In his book Harvest of Fear: A History of Australia's Vietnam War historian John Murphy describes the early anti-war groups like Save Our Sons as “distinctly genteel ... concerned with “respectability”, with a strong faith in “liberal democracy and the piercing light of rational argument”.

SOS campaigned against conscription, and for the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resisters. Their contribution to building what eventually became a victorious mass movement against the war was tremendous. Although complete novices as political activists, SOS members learned fast how to raise funds and to how to organise and address public meetings, rallies, teach-ins and protest marches. Along the way they were abused, assaulted, arrested and even gaoled.

Groups like SOS had a sometimes difficult relationship with the established political parties, particularly the Labor oppostion, who were theoretically on the same "side" as SOS. In the lead-up to the 1966 election, the ALP, led by Arthur Caldwell, had come out strongly against Australian involvement in Vietnam, pledging the withdrawal of Australian troops if elected. While this won the support of the still small anti-war movement and groups like SOS, the public opinion still supported the war. The Liberals, who had been hanging by a one-seat majority since Menzies retired, fought the election explicitly on the war issue and were re-elected with a greatly increased majority. In the aftermath, Caldwell was replaced by Gough Whitlam who then led an attack on the party's withdrawal of troops policy, watering it down, in 1967, to "withdraw to holding areas".

By late 1969 public opinion had altered dramatically. Many forces combined to bring about the change -- the stunning impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the shocking revelations of the My Lai Massacre, the unprecedented media coverage, including now-famous photos and film footage of a Vietcong prisoner being summarily executed in a Saigon street, and the horrifying image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, naked and burned, fleeing an Allied napalm attack on her village. Above all, the steadily mounting toll of Allied dead and wounded ate into the public consciousness and began to turn the tide against the war. Locally too, the impact of the often brutal attempts to supress anti-war demonstrations and the harrassment of protestors was also an important factor; the dignity and determination of the SOS women in the face of official repression did much to win sympathy for their cause and respect for them. The ALP now felt safe to change its position again to oppose the war. They did this in 1970, calling for withdrawal of Australian troops "within six months". Only then did many ALP left leaders place themselves at the head of the moratorium campaign.

The Australian anti-war movement, impressed by the success of an American moratorium on 15 October, held a national conference in Canberra on 25 November to organise a similar event. Coordinating organisations emerged in most capital cities, holding lead-up demonstrations on 15 December. Like its American prototype, the Australian moratorium attracted diverse and widespread support.

As a prelude, large press advertisements appeared, with long lists of signatories. Occupational groups organised their own campaigns. The moratorium was to consist not only of the main marches but also of local activities. Women who had gained their organising experience in Save Our Sons, the student movement, some of the trade unions and the Australia Party were heavily involved.

On Easter Thursday 1971, five Save Our Sons members -- Jean McLean, Joan Coxsedge, Irene Miller, Chris Cathie and Jo McLaine Ross -- were jailed in Melbourne for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets whilst on government property. The gaoling of the so-called "Fairlea Five" was the first many Australians had heard of ‘Save Our Sons’. They spent 14 days in Fairlea Women's Prison and their successful campaign against a law prohibiting the distribution of leaflets in the streets of Melbourne was a victory for all progressive activists.

Under growing public pressure, Liberal PM Bill McMahon announced that Australian combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 1971. When the Whitlam Labor government was elected in 1972, it simply took over this policy and ended conscription. With their objective achieved, SOS was wound soon after.

Some thirty years later, Jean McLean's daughter Rebecca made a film about the experiences of the Fairlea Five (now available on video) and took it to Vietnam. As a result, the Five received an official invitation to visit the country, which they did in march 2001. The reference below will take you to an account of the visit, written for The Guardian by Joan Coxsedge.


References / Links

"Save Our Sons" video

Australian Anti War Movement- 1965 to 1972 - video

The Moratorium 1970: Save Our Sons

Australian History Sources - NSW Board of Studies
This is a PDF document. You will need to Adobe Acrobat plug-in to view it

The Australian Invovlement in Vietnam

Australian Women's Archives Project

War, resistance and the ALP

Fighting the Vietnam War in Australia

Visiting Vietnam with the "Fairlea Five" - Joan Coxsedge