MILESAGO - Features
The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War has been extensively and intensively studied, and there are many excellent resources on the political and military history of the conflict now available on the Internet. The purpose of this section is not to repeat those efforts. We will quote from and refer to these resources selectively, to provide views about the war as it relates specifically to Australia, to highlight aspects of social reactions to the war, and in particular to look at the effects of the war on Australian music and popular culture.

For more than a decade until 1975, the war in Vietnam was arguably the defining issue in world politics. The conflict in Vietnam had of course begun decades before, and in some repects the USA merely inherited the long and bitter colonial war between the Vietnamese and their former masters, the French. But when in 1950 the United States government stepped into the void left by the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, it had a wider agenda. The United States was vying for world supremacy with its hated rivals, the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China (who supported the North Vietnamese).

The USA saw Vietnam in very similar terms to Korea, as a crucial battle front in the Cold War. Their policy, encapsulated in the famous "Domino Theory" was based on the assumption that if Vietnam "fell" to pro-Communist rule, the rest of Asia would inevitably follow. And as in Korea, the USA (at first) believed that victory would be swift and easy, by virtue of its overwhleming military strength. But they reckoned without the resilience, ingenuity and implacable tenacity of the Vietnamese people. Despite diirect warnings from De Gaulle himself, the US ignored the lessons of the humiliating defeat that the Vietnamese inflicted on the French at Dien Bien Phu and launched headlong into what became one of the worst mistakes in American history. America arragantly assumed it could contain and control the situation, but the Vietnamese front of the Col War soon became too hopt to handle. It ended up costing trillions of dollars, killing tens of thousands of Americans and their allies, killing millions of South-East Asian lives, and laying waste to large parts of the region for decades to come. The shockwaves from this disastrous intervention still reverberate throughout South East Asia.

Although America poured vast amounts of aid into Vietnam from the early 1950s, direct military intervention did not come until the early 1960s. Originally the involvement was small, just a few small force of military "advisers". But the forces of the North gained ground through the early '60s, and by the time of the "Gulf Of Tonkin Incident" in late 1964, the rickety puppet government of the South was in serious trouble and begging for help from the United States, who in turn was pressuring Australia and other allies to assist.

Domestic opposition to the war was also small at first, but as western involvement rapidly increased from 1964-67, and the casualties mounted, anti-war sentiment quickly grew and coalesced into a massive international anti-war movement. The movement was fuelled and focussed by the shocking film and still photography coming from Vietnam and elsewhere. Several of these images are now regarded as among the most famous in history -- Malcolm Brown's 1963 photograph of a Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire as a protest against religious persecution; Nick Ut's 1968 photograph of 9-yea-old Kim Phuc, naked and burned by napalm, fleeing from teh bombing of her village; Ronald Haeberle's chilling photographs from the My Lai massacre, and John Filo's photogrpah of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over teh dea body of one of the student killed at Kent State University in 1970. NickBy the end of the '60s it was clear that the majority view was that western involvement in Vietnam was immoral, that war itself was unwinnable and was being waged illegally, and that millions of innocent people were being made to suffer needlessly. Equally important was the recognition that the internal campaigns carried out by western governments to bolster support for the war, and their often brutal attempts to suppress dissent, were threatening to tear apart the democratic fabric of their own nations.

In Australia, New Zealand and the United States, the anti-war movement had a special impetus, because from 1965 onwards a large proportion of the Australian forces in Vietnam were not regular armed forces, but conscripted troops drafted into compulsory national service. One area of particular concern was that, even though by the laws of the day they were not yet eligible to vote, many of the young conscripts, those aged 18-20, were being drafted to fight in a foreign war that posed no direct threat to any western nation.

In Australia, the turning point came when Menzies fell into line with the USA and re-introduced conscription in late 1964. Interestingly, public opinion was aparently in favour of the war for the first few years, and opinion polls of the time indicate that support for the war in fact increased in the period 1964-66. But by 1969 that support had reversed dramatically, and even those who still supported conscription in principle were now saying that Australian troops should come home. The opposition reached a crescendo when hundreds of thousands of Australians turned out for the famous series of Vietnam Moratorium marches and demonstrations in May and September 1970.

The war also revealed Australia's servile role in its strategic relationship with the United States and our government's unequivocal and unquestioning support for American foreign policy, regardless of the many moral, ethical and legal questions our compliance opened up. Much of this was based on what our political leaders saw as their "obligation" to honor the wishes of the U.S., particularly because of the "debt" we owed them for their help in World War II, and because of our supposed obligations under the conditions of the ANZUS Treaty (which in fact did not apply in the case of Vietnam).

The Vietnam issue became a lightning rod that conducted a wide range of radical actions and agendas into the public arena for the first time. Never before had a single issue polarised western societies in such a dramatic and dangerous manner, and seldom if ever had the very honesty and "rightness" of democratic governments been so seriously challenged. This new questioning of fundamental aspects of society and government, and the experiences and methods of the anti-war movement, spilled over into many other areas of social activism. The anti-war protests of the 60s were without doubt a major source of inspiration for the growing environmental movement, which in Australia led to the first expressions of urban environmental activism anywhere in the world -- the famous BLF "Green Bans" of the early 70s.

The anti-war movement was a large, fluid and heterogeneous amalgam of groups and individuals who joined forces for a common purpose. The movement included established political parties, fringe political groups, religious groups, "grass-roots" groups such as Save Our Sons (formed by middle-class suburban Australian women) and outspoken individuals like maverick Australian journalist Francis James. It was probably unique in history; there has been no other social force of similar size and effect that has united so many disparate interests for s single purpose, or was able to protest against the decisions of government while still operating largely within the established frameworks of social activity.

The war in Vietnam is one of the most controversial periods of recent Western history. It was also the most comprehensively reported war, the first "TV war". The role of the mass media was crucial. At every step, and often for the first time, reporters and cameras covered the action, photographing and filming combatants and civilians alike, and for the first time their reports were being shown on TV back home, sometimes within hours of the events taking place. For the first time, many areas of the media -- like the newly-emerged underground press -- were able to debate and discuss the conduct of the war, and to openly dissent without the usual draconian wartime censorship -- although government moves to censor them were certainly a prominent feature of the time.

For the first few years, the impact of the war was limited in popular cultural expression. The Masters Apprentices classic song Wars Or Hands Of Time (1967) is generally acknowledged as the first Australian pop song to directly address the war and conscription. In their case it was not just rhetoric -- lead singer Jim Keays was eligible for the draft and only managed to avoid it (legally) by serving time in the CMF. Many other musicians, some famous, some lesser known, were called up. Drummer Alan Sandow joined Sherbet in 1969 after his previous band Daisy Roots broke up because one of their members was drafted. Two future members of The Dingoes, Kerryn Tolhurst and Broderick Smith, were drafted and had to do National Service between 1968-70.

In 1968 the war touched the Australian music industry directly and very publicly. Normie Rowe, then our biggest solo pop star, was drafted, inducted into the Army and sent to serve in Vietnam. Every step of his service was meticulously recorded and published. It is now widely believed -- not least byu Normie himself -- that his call-up was deliberately "rigged" in an attempt to bolster waning public support for the war effort. Many well-known groups and stars went to Vietnam to entertain the troops, including Johnny O'Keefe, Col Joye and Little Pattie. And on the other side of the issue, there were many pop and rock groups directly involved in the anti-war effort, performing at concerts, rallies and other events, assisting with efforts like fund-raising for the legal defence of conscientious objectors and the the operation of various activist groups. In 1969 Ronnie Burns had a #1 hit with a Johnny Young song, Smiley, a song inspired by the drafting of Normie Rowe, which took the boy hero of the classic Australian films of the 50s and sent him to fight in "the Asian War".

In both its incarnations in Sydney (1963-66) and London (1967-73) Oz magazine took a strong anti-war stance and it became of the most public faces of dissent. Many other local publications, notably the student press, became forums for opposition to the war.

Opposition to the war took many forms, but the most prominent and controversial was conscientious objection. When the National Service Bill was approved in late 1964, it was enacted with the explicit provision that opposition to the war in Vietnam on personal or moral grounds would not accepted as a reason for exemption. Many ignored the call-up or publicly burned their draft cards. Scores of young men, including future TV host and producer Simon Townsend declared themselves to Conscientious Objectors. The government responses included forcing "Conchies" to report for the call-up, followed by detention. Anyone who refused to report for the draft could be jailed for up to two years, and many including Townsend were imprisoned.


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