Remembering the War in Vietnam and at Home

Sixty years ago today, a step was taken that fundamentally shaped the history of Australia right down to the present time. Today at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance a ceremony will be held to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In the early 1960s South Vietnam was quickly sinking into a deep crisis. There was a growing communist insurgency, and the government was losing control over the countryside outside major towns and cities and was facing growing internal dissent. Realizing its vulnerability, the government sought help from the United States, which was prepared to help but was anxious to avoid the appearance of replacing the earlier French colonial regime with American imperialism and so sought the involvement of other countries from the region, such as Australia, to indicate that any intervention reflected regional and international concerns at a prospective communist takeover of Vietnam.

The US was Australia’s major ally, and so the Australian government was keen to display the nation’s loyalty, responding with a small contribution of civil and military aid. In July and August 1962 a team of advisors arrived in South Vietnam in accordance with the then prevailing Australian military doctrine of ‘Forward Defence’ – meeting threats at their source rather than waiting to fight an enemy on Australian soil. This was the vanguard of a decades-long involvement in the Vietnam War, a war that would prove to be the pivotal event of the second half of the 20th Century.

At the centre of this was an ‘Adversary Culture’ and a radical Intelligentsia that emerged out of opposition to the war, was greatly empowered by it, and has never released its grip on the political and cultural life of this country. Nobody could have foreseen 60 years ago that Australia’s initially minor commitment would have intellectually, culturally and politically devastating consequences that persist to the present day.

It has been remarked by an historian of modern warfare that “the way a nation organizes itself during warfare reflects the nature of its entire social system and those forces, ranging from its class structure to its intellectual processes that define its institutional life and influence its values”.[1] This applies to that war, Australia’s fighting of which was hindered, obstructed and ultimately terminated because a fundamental disjunction emerged between the political establishment and general popular opinion, on one hand, and the nation’s intellectual culture, on the other. The Sixties introduced an historical caesura — a discontinuity — into the social, cultural and political history of Australia whose scale and implications no government recognised at the time.

In April 1965, when Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies announced Australia’s commitment of a battalion to the war in Vietnam, he emphasized that it had to be seen in terms of a worsening communist threat in Southeast Asia and Australia’s alliance with America, a relationship that was becoming increasingly vital as Britain continued its strategic withdrawal from the region, and the US became Australia’s most important economic and military partner. There was nothing unusual about such foreign policy decisions. Nevertheless, as Australia’s involvement in this war unfolded, a new radical Intelligentsia became increasingly successful in mobilizing and legitimizing both opposition to the war and active support for the communist cause.

The manner in which various long-term demographic, social and cultural processes inter-acted in a myriad ways through the Sixties and coalesced around opposition to the Vietnam War is a remarkable phenomenon that appears almost to defy historical analysis. For example, one history of the war recounts Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, proceeding in an organized fashion through its various phases until it comes to the point where the narrative addresses the crucial intersection between the war effort and the inchoate Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Here the relevant chapter (pointedly entitled, ‘Australian Viet Cong’) begins with a single sentence that continues for two pages, listing hundreds of names and concepts (e.g., Maoists, Che Guevara, Timothy Leary, Structuralism, the Pill, Woodstock, LSD, Buddha, etc., etc.) in a sort of stream of consciousness that in itself invokes the cultural experience of many people at the time.[2]

This gigantic list is not systematic, but neither is it random, rather it is best viewed as a constellation of inter-related elements whose sprawling complexity reflects the intellectual challenges that this period represents: how did this vast number of widely disparate cultural phenomena come to cohere sufficiently to constitute a dynamic and resilient Adversary Culture that fueled and sustained a long-term campaign against the Vietnam War?

The power of this Cultural Revolution and its effects on the Australian war effort can be gathered from the transformation in attitudes that occurred in just a few years following 1965. When the Vietnam commitment was announced, opinion polls showed solid community support for the decision.  For example, in May 1965, 52% of a Gallop Poll sample supported the war against 37% opposed; while 64% (versus 16%) believed that Thailand and Malaysia would fall to communism if the Americans abandoned Vietnam. A massive 72% (versus 16%) believed that China would become a threat to Australia in such an eventuality. Six months earlier, in November 1964, a selective National Service scheme for twenty-year-old males had been introduced with considerable support and little opposition in an atmosphere “of gathering alarm” about the deteriorating political situation in Southeast Asia.[3]

Clearly, at this stage, “the principal elements of the domino theory … were deeply embedded in the Australian psyche”.[4] The media generally supported the government’s decision, sharing the view that the communist threat was very real, and confident that Australia had taken a responsible decision and couldn’t “shirk its responsibilities”, ever though “Australian casualties in [such a] dirty war are inevitable”.[5] The Australian Labor Party was torn between its right and left wings and provided little effective opposition. Major social institutions like the unions, the churches and universities initially either supported the government or at least accepted the necessity of the action. When the communist-controlled Waterside Workers’ Federation demanded strike action there was little support and a few protest meetings around the country drew disappointing crowds. Amongst the churches, the Anglicans were divided but key leaders and most members supported the government. Within the Catholic Church, the hierarchy and most of the membership also supported the commitment, as did the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council, all being concerned with the general communist threat and the fate of the Catholic population in Vietnam.

On university campuses opinions were divided and small demonstrations championed both sides of the conflict. At the University of Melbourne in May a student meeting supported the commitment by a vote of 312 to 200. Broad public support for the government was also registered in the 1966 federal election, which saw the Liberal-Country parties’ coalition returned with an historically large swing and a substantially increased majority over the ALP (82 seats to 41), and this occurred after Menzies had given a speech in London in June 1965, declaring that “we’re at war, don’t make any mistake about it”, and the 1965 federal Budget had increased income tax and imposed higher duties on petrol, tobacco, and alcohol, to help pay for a 27% increase in defence expenditure.[6]

Nevertheless, and despite this widespread initial support, by the end of 1965 it appeared the die was cast as far as the strategically vital Intelligentsia was concerned, as Peter Samuels concluded in the Bulletin: [7]

While it is certain that a clear majority of the electorate support Government policy, in the opinion-forming circles – in universities, among school teachers, journalists, clergymen – and among the more politically interested and active people, the ‘antis’ appear to be in the ascendancy.

This Adversary Culture led by a radical Intelligentsia had emerged as an effective political force with a ‘teach-in’ at the Australian National University (ANU) on July 23 1965, which attracted some 750 people to hear sixteen speakers. On July 29 a similar event was held at the new Monash University, attracting some 2000 people to hear two teams of four speakers argue each side of the case. The occasion brought the minister for external affairs, Paul Hasluck, face-to-face in debate with the leading ALP left-wing MHR, Dr Jim Cairns, who emerged as crowd favourite, with Hasluck attracting “recurrent jeers and sarcastic clapping”; indicating that university audiences already had their minds made up, seeking only “to have their emotions given intellectual reinforcement”, rather than to dispassionately evaluate the issues.[8]

In this fashion, within only a few years, “Vietnam [had become] the litmus test … To be heard mildly defending the cause, if not the war, in fashionable intellectual circles was the social equivalent of announcing one’s Nazi memorabilia collection over the canapés”.[9] Indeed, a new and bizarre system of morality had come to prevail within the Intelligentsia, as a future president of the NSW Legislative Council remarked: “I judged everyone on how they viewed Vietnam”; adding in a moment of apparent insight: “I was as mad as a cut snake”.[10]

The Vietnam Action Committee was formed, abandoning the antiwar position in favour of open support for a communist victory in Vietnam. It held the first of many violent demonstrations in Sydney in October 1965, at which some 50 people were arrested, a small foretaste of what was to come, as similar groups were formed in other states. Resistance to the draft intensified, tens of thousands attended protest marches, and in 1969 some 500 academics signed ‘incitement statements’ calling upon young men to refuse to register for national service, with one prominent professor declaring that this was necessary because “the average Australian is a gutless rabbit …”[11]

Active support for the Viet Cong, including fund-raising, came to be seen as acceptable on the campuses and amongst the Intelligentsia generally. Eventually the government was forced to legislate to try to stop militants providing financial, medical, and material aid to North Vietnam and the NLF.

Providers of such support readily accepted that their actions might lead to attacks upon Australian soldiers in Vietnam and even contribute to their deaths, but not a single supporter of the communist cause felt inclined to place themselves in harm’s way by emulating their predecessors in the Spanish Civil War and actually travelling to Vietnam to fight in the war,[12] apparently happy to let the Viet Cong provide the cannon fodder for the misguided military strategies of the North, as later occurred in the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Instead, protestors focussed their aggression on Australian soldiers serving in Vietnam and their families. War memorials were disfigured, red paint was splattered on troops of 1RAR during their welcome home march in Sydney in June 1966, an officer awarded the Military Medal was spat on, while the parents of a soldier killed during Tet received a phone call declaring, “He got what he deserved”, and their house was daubed with red paint.[13] Even the RSL turned their backs on Vietnam veterans who had to deal with a stigma that lasted for several decades.


Almost overnight, antiwar activism had become “a respectable rebellion … Two years earlier, ‘draft dodgers’ were condemned as cowards and un-Australian; in 1969 they were seen as local heroes”.[14] After the turmoil of 1968, the antiwar and radical student movements moved into a ‘second phase’ to build on the programs of mass radicalization and mobilization undertaken during the mid-1960s.[15]  By 1970 antiwar moratoriums were drawing crowds of between 6,000 and 80,000 protesters in cities around Australia, and the antiwar movement had developed a leadership and cadre that would go on to shape Australian politics and culture for decades to come.[16]

This shift did not occur in an historical vacuum but came about because the antiwar and pro-communist forces in Australia were able to harness and direct the myriad inchoate social and cultural impulses of the Sixties that were reaching a crescendo in 1968, particularly in the universities. The preconditions for this strategic ideological victory are to be found in the radical transformation of Australia’s intellectual culture in the 1960s, mainly as a result of the massive development of the education system, with education expenditure as a proportion of GDP rising from 1.6% in 1950/1 to 4.3% in 1970/1, while primary, secondary, and tertiary enrolments grew by 11%, 45%, and 89%, respectively, in the decade after 1964/5.[17] This reflected the demands of a booming economy, an emerging post-industrial society based on masses of trained knowledge workers, increased urbanization, and the demographic effects of the baby boom and large-scale post-war immigration. At the tertiary level, this involved an expansion in the number of universities from nine in 1958 to 16 in 1971, with four new universities being established in 1964-6 alone. 

University student numbers increased from 30,000 in 1955 to 120,000 in 1970,[18] giving Australia three times as many university students per capita as Britain.[19] The proportion of people aged 17-22 attending university increased by 48% between 1960 and 1972, and a high proportion of these were from families and classes that had had little or no previous association with universities.[20] At primary and secondary levels there was a huge increase in the number of schools. This led to massive teacher shortages and the introduction of teaching studentships, which gave impecunious students an opportunity to attend university but required service in often isolated or undesirable government schools for at least three years after graduation, generating many disillusioned and often desperate young teachers, a cohort that would be a breeding ground for the Adversary Culture as it quickly developed.

This education revolution also saw the establishment of colleges of advanced education and teachers colleges to provide training for students unable to get a place at a university. In addition, supplementary training also had to be provided for existing teaching staff, large proportions of which did not have tertiary qualifications and in many cases had not even matriculated.[21] Ironically, demand for tertiary education was also increased by the fact that attendance at tertiary institutions allowed the deferral of national service. These developments in turn required an enormous expansion in the number of academics, especially in teacher training, with full-time staff increasing 350%, from 2000 in 1955 to 7000 in 1970.[22]

Under such conditions, the dominant political ideologies and commitments of academics, teacher educators, tertiary students, teachers and school students became a vital factor in the political conflict over Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam War, and the subsequent future of the nation generally. This new cohort was the vanguard of “a new middle class … charged with directing [and] expanding education and welfare programs” in accordance with radical, libertarian, and counter-culture ideals, and they found a ready fit between their interests and the aims of the antiwar movement.[23]

Commentators spoke of “a new kind of split” in Australian society, between the conservative establishment adhering to the elements of mainstream Australian culture as it continued the project of post-war nation-building, and an increasing number of people who saw “so many shortcomings in Australian social development”, that they felt themselves driven to “the point of despair”.[24]  Linked to this was the establishment of new arts and social science faculties to challenge the previous domination of Melbourne and Sydney universities. Whereas, “in the 1950s and early 1960s … small circles of intellectuals – based on R.M. Crawford’s History Department in Melbourne and J. Anderson’s Philosophy Department in Sydney – together with a handful of journals and cultural coteries … shaped … serious political and cultural discussion”, in the later 1960s this was no longer possible in the face of a “proliferation of journals, universities, mass media, and broader international influences”. [25]

Consequently, the years around 1968 saw “the transformation of the universities from relatively secluded centres of learning into sites of real political conflict, and of successful radical political mobilization [confirming] the importance of the academic Intelligentsia’s social role”.[26] This strategy was clearly understood at the time: “through confrontations, demonstrations, direct action, influence through student newspapers, broadsheets, etc., the radical core has ‘detonated’ … mass student interest”, in the political agenda of the radical Left.[27]

WHILE governments were slow to recognize the nature, scale and potential of this cultural shift, not so the pioneers of the New Left in Australia, including the group of neo-Marxists clustered around the journal Arena in the early 1960s. These activists argued that the emergence of an ‘intellectual workforce’ in the ‘affluent society’ provided a ‘new class’, sharing “a non-conformist and left-inclining outlook” that could be harnessed for radical political activity.[28] This ‘Arena Thesis’ influenced subsequent radical analyses in Australia,[29] and its main strategic insight was taken up by the Communist Party of Australia, which re-launched its party theoretical journal as the Australian New Review in late 1966, aimed at the student market. Most significantly, in 1968 it published several articles on the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, the theorist of hegemony, which became the dominating concept of Marxist analysis for the next 40 years.[30]

This totalizing notion of an all-encompassing hegemony reveals a great deal about the basic ideological orientation of the Intelligentsia and Adversary Culture as it emerged in the Sixties and evolved down to the present time. Its importance is illustrated by the prominence of Ruling Class Ruling Culture: Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australian Life by R.W. Connell (1977), which a 2003 poll found was the “most influential book in Australian sociology”.[31] Central to the conception was the view that a society like Australia was so deeply under the influence of the ideology of the ruling class and its American mentor that its institutions and culture were incapable of comprehending the reality of the world or of acting outside or against the interests of capitalism and imperialism. This meant, for example, that pragmatic parliamentary liberalism had to be condemned as merely a piece-meal approach concerned ultimately with maintaining Australia within the capitalist system, while (it was believed) the radical position alone recognized the profound corruption of the system as a whole, which therefore had to be overthrown in its totality through revolutionary action.[32]

This form of analysis was linked to other key neo-Marxist concepts current at the time: alienation and false consciousness,[33] and they all had the tremendous advantage of being able to explain why the Australian people had re-elected the federal government in 1966 with an increased majority (and again in 1969) against the wishes of the emerging Adversary Culture and the Intelligentsia: “For many opponents of the government the election result came as an unexpectedly cruel blow. The constant uproar of public demonstrations had led many people on the left to confuse the depth of [their] feeling with its breadth” amongst the Australian public and they felt betrayed.[34] To the frustration of the Intelligentsia, their highly self-conscious passion and moral intensity had not been echoed amongst the general population and, therefore, a theoretical explanation that reduced the populace to the status of alienated victims of a hegemonic false consciousness was readily embraced and remains a key ideological component of the Adversary Culture and a basic premise of the Intelligentsia to this day.

Such theoretical and ideological stratagems meant that everything could be categorized as either hegemonic and repressive (i.e., mainstream Australian society and culture, and the Vietnam War), or counter-hegemonic and emancipatory (i.e., the Adversary Culture and the antiwar movement). They therefore had the tremendous advantage of being able to encompass ideologically the panoply of disparate elements of the Sixties culture, which were already overwhelmingly libertarian, antinomian, anti-authoritarian, and iconoclastic, and therefore readily identified and valorised as counter-hegemonic.[35]

The notion of counter-hegemony also providing the rationale for a wide range of personal and collective attitudes and activities. No matter how worthy, courageous, dangerous, criminal, or inane these might be, they came to be portrayed as revolutionary,[36] and/or counter-cultural,[37] and/or as potentially revolutionary youth subcultures engaged in ‘resistance’ to the hegemonic influence of mainstream (‘straight’) culture.[38] The dominant impulse among young people was to escape the ‘false consciousness’ of the ‘unreal’ world within which they were encouraged to feel they were trapped. Everyday life came to be seen as fragmented, insane, and ‘schizoid’, [39] while capitalist society was seen as a totalized system of oppression: “a prison without bars, a concentration camp without barbed wire”.[40]

This conception of the social world was of vital ideological importance because of the problems of adolescent identity formation that had emerged in the 1960s amongst the Baby Boom generation. As a leading psychologist argued at the time, “young people need an ideology that will support and give content to their identity”, and while this should be “consonant with existing theory, available knowledge, and common sense”, it also needs to offer “an utopian outlook, a cosmic mood, or a doctrinal logic, all shared as self-evident beyond any need for demonstration”.[41] Ideally, this largely mythical conception needed to have an ethical dimension rooted in a sense of historical and generational continuity. Where this legitimacy was lacking, as many felt it was in the Sixties because of the cultural dislocation that characterized the period, then crises of identity formation among young people were inevitable.[42]

Such crises found expression not only in militant political activism, but in the cult of violence;[43] the cult of the irrational,[44] the embrace of sexual adventurism,[45] experimentation with drugs,[46] and the valorisation of marginality and madness as desirable conditions, as exemplified by the enormous influence enjoyed by the anti-psychiatry of R. D. Laing, Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, and their associates.[47] It was the ideological function of concepts such as hegemony and counter-hegemony to bring such disparate tendencies together as part of an apparently coherent critique of capitalist, post-industrial society, while simultaneously promoting the antiwar and pro-communist cause.

This strategy allowed the widespread confusion and searching associated with the crisis of identity formation affecting young people in the Sixties to be exploited. As one radical strategist observed, the politics of the New Left utilized “shock tactics” against students targeted for radicalization in order to “crack an essentially emotional attachment to the status quo; militant organizers needed to “create a certain emotional disjuncture or ‘chaos’ in which the ordinary, routinized passivity was no longer bearable”; and “this wedge had to be driven emotionally, before [alternatives] could be … contemplated” by the targeted students.[48]

A nightmare world was created, as a prominent Australian analysis from the period brilliantly illustrates. It portrayed society as an oppressive totality, an impersonal system of seamless domination over people that had become an end in itself with no other operating rationale other than its own reproduction and continuing hegemony. Personal and social life was seen to be dominated by the ‘performance principle’, “devoted to the fulfilment of the end of achievement, irrespective of its nature, of whether it serves human or inhuman ends”, and consequently, “most people in modern society suffer from some form of psychological disturbance”.[49] Ours is a “society of the spectacle … a pseudo-world [where] the image becomes reality … a world so alienated, so other, that people do not recognize it as split off from them, and they do not recognize their aims and goals as false ones” because they are trapped inside the system and are denied any sense of an alternative.[50] People “have introjected an ideology that keeps them oppressed”.[51] All human needs are manipulated and even the very lives of individuals are appropriated and made to conform to a “pre-structured existence”, lacking spontaneity and imagination, where “life is reduced to monotonous routine … a uniform life fashioned from outside, a pseudo-life in which the question of individual self-realization does not even figure. People live conditioned, unconscious lives, reproducing the values of the system as a whole”.[52] The traditional interests of Australian life (work, sport, beer, the family, the car, the beach, the house, the garden, etc) hide “the emptiness these people would experience inside if they were not so frantically involved in activity”, or weren’t drowning out their anxieties “with loud pop music” in a “flight from being [that] is a major characteristic of late capitalism”.[53] 

In this fashion, opposition to the war ceased to be a matter of traditional political activity involving compromise and pragmatism, and became instead a form of metapolitics involving moral absolutism, existential urgency, personal identity, and profound alienation from society. The Intelligentsia and Adversary Culture came to oppose the war not just because of objections to Australia’s alleged involvement with American Imperialism, but because it had come to serve as a proxy issue for deeply personal issues that were projected out into the external world where they were perceived and experienced in terms of a quasi-religious confrontation between Good and Evil.

Indeed, as a leading historian noted at the time, there was a continuity between the upheavals of the Sixties and the tradition of revolutionary millenarianism in the West, according to which a particular social upheaval “is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but [apocalyptically] as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed”.[54] Consequently, the Vietnam War ceased to be merely a complex political issue and became a universal ethical litmus test embraced by the Intelligentsia, according to which individual people and society as a whole were to be judged ‘in the totality of their being’, over their attitudes towards the war.

This process of ideological co-option facilitated the otherwise paradoxical New Left achievement of aligning the libertarian counter-culture of the Sixties with homicidal Marxism-Leninism, and mobilizing it in support a Stalinist state carrying out a war of aggression in Indo-China, while opposing the liberal democracies of Australia and the US in their efforts to resist this.

With hindsight, it appears clear that the Adversary Culture that emerged out of the opposition to the Vietnam War bequeathed this totalizing, metapolitical approach to all subsequent Australian history, persistently elevating important questions to a quasi-religious and millenarian status. This can be seen with the present ‘climate emergency’ hysteria, where everything is viewed in absolutist, indeed apocalyptic, terms and the position taken on the issue is taken to reflect the quality of an ethical inner-being – of both the individual and society. Regrettably, such a syndrome ensures that many vital political issues facing liberal democracies remain over-wrought, deeply ideological, and serve as playthings for a radical Intelligentsia acting out paranoid and apocalyptic fantasies. Who could have foreseen, as Australia’s small contingent of advisors left for South Vietnam 60 years ago that this would be the outcome?


[1] Gabriel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914 (New York: The New Press, 1994), p.65.

[2] Paul Ham, Vietnam: The Australian War (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2007), pp.449-50. Ham compiled the list from various histories of the period (p.450, n.1).

[3] Coral Bell, Australia’s Alliance Options (Canberra: ANU, 1991), p.30.

[4] Peter Edwards, A Nation at War (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997), p.49.

[5] Ibid., pp.36-8.

[6] Ibid., p.55.

[7] Peter Samuels, The Bulletin, December 25 1965, p.8.

[8] Edwards, A Nation at War, p.71.

[9] Ham, Vietnam, p. 451.

[10] Ibid., p.452.

[11] Ibid., p.458.

[12] Ibid., p.454.

[13] Ham, Vietnam, p.353.

[14] Ibid., p.459.

[15] Warren Osmond, “Student Revolutionary Left”, Arena, No.19, 1969, pp.22-3.

[16] Edwards, A Nation at War, Ch.13.

[17] Richard Blandy,, “The Economics of Education in Australia 1962-1977”, in F.H. Gruen (ed.), Surveys of Australian Economics, Vol.2 (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1979), p.113.

[18] Geoffrey Serle, From Deserts the Prophets Come (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1973, p.211

[19] Frank Welsh, Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p.464.

[20] A. G. Maclaine, Australian Education (Sydney: Novak, 1974), p.243.

[21] Ibid., pp.81-2, 103-5

[22] Serle, loc.cit..

[23] Edwards, A Nation at War, p.160.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Brian Head, “Introduction” to Brian Head and James Walter (eds.) Intellectual Movements and Australian Society (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988), p.30.

[26] Andrew Milner, “’Radical Intellectuals: an Unacknowledged Legislature?”, in Verity Bergman and Jenny Lee (eds.), Constructing a Culture (Ringwood: Penguin, 1988), p. 277.

[27] Osmond, “Student Revolutionary Left”, p.23.

[28] Geoff Sharp, “Editorial – Why Arena?” Arena, No.1, September 1963, p.6; Ian Turner, “Culture of the Intelligentsia”, Arena, No.5, Spring 1964; “Intellectuals in Australian Life”, Overland, N.33, Summer 1965.

[29] Geoff Sharp: “Class, Education, Politics”, Arena, No.5, 1964; and “Politics of the Intelligentsia”, Arena, No.12, 1967; Geoff Sharp and Doug White, “Features of the Intellectually Trained”, Arena, No.16, 1968; Doug White “Education and Capitalism”, Warren Osmond, “Towards Self-Awareness”, in Richard Gordon (ed.), The Australian New Left (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1970), pp. 192ff.

[30] Alastair Davidson:  “Antonio Gramsci: The Man”, Australian Left Review, no. 1, February-March 1968, pp. 51-63; “Antonio Gramsci: The Man (Part Two)”, Australian Left Review, no. 2, April-May 1968, pp. 59-70; and “Gramsci: On the Party”, Australian Left Review, October-November 1968, pp. 55-60.

[31] See . A leading member of the New Left, R. W. (Bob) Connell has undergone gender reassignment and is now known as Raewyn; prior to this s/he published Masculinities (1995, which was translated into Italian, Swedish, German, Spanish and Chinese and became the most cited publication in the study of masculinity.

[32] Richard Gordon and Warren Osmond, “An Overview of the Australian New Left”, in Richard Gordon (ed.), The Australian New Left (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1970), p.4.

[33] For example, Kenneth Keniston, “Psychology of Alienated Students”, in Chad Gordon and Kenneth Gergen (eds.) The Self in Social Interaction (New York: Wiley, 1968); Lewis S. Feuer, “What is Alienation? The Career of a Concept”, New Politics, 1(3), Spring 1962; Jack Lindsay, “The Alienated Australian Intellectual”, Meanjin Quarterly, xxii, 1, March, 1963. Lindsay was a prominent Western commentator on the Hungarian neo-Marxist Georg Lukács, who developed the notions of alienation and false-consciousness, as well as a range of other concepts that became important for subsequent cultural analysis. See Lindsay, “A Note on Georg Lukács”, Meanjin Quarterly,2, xxiii, June 1964; “The Part and the Whole: the achievement of Georg Lukács”, Meanjin Quarterly, xxxi,2, June 1972.

[34] Edwards, A Nation at War, pp.137-8.

[35] Doug White, “Cultural Revolution in Victoria”, Arena, No.24, 1971.

[36] Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (eds.), The New Radicals (London: Penguin, 1967); Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn (eds.), Student Power (London: Penguin, 1969).

[37] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1968); Kenneth Leech, Youthquake (London: Abacus, 1973).

[38] Stuart Hall, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain, (London: Routledge,1976); and Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen,1979).

[39] Douglas Kirsner, The Schizoid World of Jean-Paul Sartre and R.D. Laing (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1976).

[40] R. D. Laing, The Divided Self  (London: Penguin, 1965), p.79.

[41] Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Norton, 1958), p.41.

[42] Erik Erikson, Insight and Responsibility (New York: Norton, 1964), p.171.

[43] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 1967); Martin Oppenheimer, Urban Guerrilla (London: Penguin, 1969).

[44] William Barrett, Irrational Man (New York: Anchor, 1962).

[45] Paul A. Robinson, The Sexual Radicals (London: Paladin, 1969),

[46] Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (London: Paladin, 1987).

[47] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (London: Penguin, 1967); Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York: Pantheon, 1965); Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness (London: Paladin, 1973); Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek (ed.) Going Crazy (New York: Bantam, 1972.

[48] Osmond, “Student Revolutionary Left”, p.24.

[49] Douglas Kirsner, “Domination and the Flight from Being”, in John Playford & Douglas Kirsner (eds.), Australian Capitalism: Towards a Socialist Critique (Ringwood: Penguin, 1972), pp.12-3.

[50] Ibid., pp.18-9.

[51] Ibid., p.19.

[52] Ibid., p.23.

[53] Ibid., p.25.

[54] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Paladin, 1970), p.281.

6 thoughts on “Remembering the War in Vietnam and at Home

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Mervyn. These intelligentsia types have always been with us, carrying out their usual act of whiteanting, very brave in the streets and in print where they know they can get away with it, but put them in the army facing a real enemy and they turn out to be the real ‘gutless rabbits’. They were in ‘action’ during the first world war as well and even more so during the 2nd, and I’m afraid if we want to live in a free democratic county we have to put up with’em, sort of ‘carry these midgets’ on our backs so to speak as I think I read Anwar Sadat quoted as saying. But we should still not make it easy for them, particularly in our universities ; their teeth have to be pulled, at least a lot more of them have to be pulled…..somehow ?

  • Stephen Due says:

    With respect, Mervyn, I do not think that the complicated Marxist perspective you outline so ably is necessary to account for much of the popular opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Remember conscription? I was born in 1948. I had grown up in a period of peace and prosperity in Australia. The thought of being conscripted and sent overseas to kill and maim other people held little appeal. I was certainly not a Marxist, neither was I possessed of any very complicated ideology.
    I was a student protestor, and attended at least one big march in Melbourne. My approach was fairly simple. I had seen images of the devastation wrought by the B52s over Vietnam. I had seen images of the effects of the deforestation program. I had seen horrendous pictures of the effects of napalm as a weapon of war. I had seen compelling evidence of war crimes committed by US forces. I saw no reason for Australia to be involved in this conflict, and I resolved to be a conscientious objector should my name come up in the ballot. Of course I may have been inadequately informed. But there was nothing particularly sinister, complicated or ideologically-motivated in my position.
    I met a number of Vietnam veterans in later years. Many of these men were damaged psychologically – in some cases permanently disabled due to mental illness – as a result of their traumatic experiences. There were, I believe, a lot of suicides. Some have blamed this on vocal opposition to the war in Australia at the time – the suggestion being that this undermined the morale of the troops on the front line. Yet my recollections suggest a measure of moral ambiguity about our support for the US agenda, compounded by the ultimate, catastrophic failure of the entire enterprise.
    Finally, I have seen the excellent exhibit on the Battle of Long Tan at the Australian War Memorial. This is a moving and ennobling tribute. Every Australian should see it.

  • lbloveday says:

    When my letter came with the news of whether I was conscripted or not, I left it unopened for a week such was my indecision as to whether I’d take a deferment to finish Uni or not if my name had come up. It didn’t, but that of some friends did.
    One was driving a truck transporting soldiers, with strict orders to under no circumstance stop as an ambush was likely. So when the Viet Cong placed (as he believed at least) a little girl in the middle of the road, he obeyed orders and ran over her. He came back a shattered man and lived alone on a boat, then married a Vietnam woman and adopted her daughter. Atonement.
    Another learned to smoke and drink Melbourne Bitter. “Best time of my life” he said, but then he was in Supply – no “action”.

  • guilfoyle says:

    Excellent article. There is an interview with Yuri Besmenov, who was a highly-placed KGB official at that time. The interview was made in 1984, and is accessible on you tube. The revealing aspect of Besmenov’s testimony is that the conservatives who saw the anti-Vietnam protesters as “commies” or “commie pawns” were completely correct. Besmenov basically says as much and describes how the KGB used the complicit intelligentsia in their propaganda war. His complete contempt for them is almost palpable – he quite obviously sees them as hypocrites who betrayed their country for trinkets. As a committed KGB agent, he was willing to use their self-interest to his own ends, but his attitude of derision and cold contempt is revealing of the fact that an ideologue who joined the KGB and who effected morally ambiguous actions for his country had no respect for the effeminacy of the intelligentsia and their grovelling hypocrisy. It reminds me of the caricature of the devil described by Hillaire Belloc, surveying the person seeking sympathy/empathy for their actions under the cold and unforgiving light of truth – everyone is smiling, smiling, but in the background is a face, and the face is not smiling.
    A further aspect to the comment by Stephen Due is that I have close friends who fled the communist take-over at the fall of Saigon. It was not pretty.

  • loweprof says:

    If he was awarded a Military Medal, he wasn’t a commissioned officer.

    And as a Vietnam veteran, I don’t for one moment believe the claim that a soldier ran down a little girl in the middle of the road because he was under strict orders not to stop under any circumstances.

    And bear in mind that more volunteers served in Vietnam than conscripts.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    An excellent read, Mervyn, and thank you for it. Well documented.
    As a student at Sydney University commencing in 1964 I can confirm that by 1965 ‘the movement’ against the Vietnam war had started, very much spurred on by the music of the times coming out of America. It was a youthquake as much as anything else, at the beginning at least and inspired notions of a ‘free’ university where no hierarchies existed with no ‘deluded’ old professors; really a rebellion of the spoiled generation against any imposed authorities or boundaries. Like the climate cult today, if you were young you had to be in it, to believe in ‘the message’ and ‘the movement’. Hard indeed to resist it.
    I read avidly R.W. Connell’s ‘Ruling Class, Ruling Culture’ and for my sins even set it as reading when a lecturer in the mid-70’s. Some of it did strike home as a critique of an older and more staid Australia.
    R.W. Connell was tall and broad-shouldered, dramatic and handsome, a left-wing man-around-campus in his big flying boots with a bevy of adoring female groupies (not me, not even then; I recall laughing at him as I passed by one bevy with him reclining in the middle of it, and he had the good grace to look sheepishly at me then). He’d moved on to extolling feminism, something his very pleasant wife fell naturally into. Later, after she died of cancer, his musing took him further into critiquing sexual identities, then critiquing the concept of gender, which he saw as a social construction entirely, and today Roberta Connell, an older lady in a dress, is a world-expert on masculinities.
    Go figure. Victims of our times, all?

Leave a Reply