The Result of Conscription for Vietnam?

Rafe Champion

This paper was drafted before the Labour Party surprisingly lost power in Western Australia.  A Postscript will be written in August 2011 with the ALP out of office in Victoria and NSW, and unlikely to survive in Queensland,  South Australia and the National Parliament on current polling figures.

The recent launch of The Howard Years has prompted some comparisons with Bob Menzies and his long term of office. Some people have suggested that Menzies had an easier task than Howard due to the more conservative tone of the times. Menzies did not have to go to the electorate after the “swinging sixties” in the new climate of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Nor did he have to personally face the backlash from one of his own policies that agitated so many people.

I will argue that the Menzies Government left the Coalition an electoral poison pill when it resolved (contra the WW2 precedent of keeping conscripts close to home) to send conscripts to the Vietnam war.  It is most likely that conscription, more than the war itself, created a wave of protest and discontent which energised supporters of the ALP (and radical leftwing groups) and more significantly, diverted political activists from the conservative side of politics into long-term suppport for the ALP or other non-conservative parties. Even allowing for the other social changes that were happening at the time, it is likely that the conscription issue played a major role in tipping the electoral fortunes towards the ALP a couple of decades later.

In The End of Certainty (1992, 1994), Paul Kelly suggested that the “Vietnam quagmire” lost the conservatives a whole generation of politically-active young Australians.

"This was the generation which underwrote Labor's governance in the 1980s. Labor succeeded in the 1980s because it had better leaders, organizers and strategists. These resources grew from seedlings nourished for over twenty years."

Until the recent and unexpected ascent of the Liberals in Western Australia the ALP ruled in Canberra and in all the states and territories. The situation in mid-1965 was very different. Menzies had been the PM for as long as many people could remember and Liberals or allies under various names held power from coast to coast with the relatively minor exceptions of Tasmania and South Australia.

Apparently something very significant happened to the relative status of the major parties in the course of a generation. With the wisdom of hindsight a major cause of that fundamental shift in the balance of power can be traced to a blunder by the Menzies Government. This was the dispatch of conscripts to the Vietnam war.


The policy was announced in late 1964 and it commenced in 1965 when there were  ballots to recruit young men who turned 20 during the year. The situation was aggravated by the conscription of boys who had not reached the voting age of 21 at the time. Another grievance was the highly restrictive law on conscientious objection which demanded both religious grounds for objection and an objection to all wars. Unbelievers were excluded, as were men who may not have been pacifists but wanted to exercise the right to make a decision about just and unjust wars.

Paul Kelly referred to the “Vietnam quagmire” but he did not pinpoint conscription as a critical or even a particularly significant issue. This is most likely because the issue of the war and conscription were mostly fused into one without taking account of a nuanced position that addresses the two issues separately. The importance of keeping the two issues separate is that the Government would have been more credible if it had simply pursued the war and not sent conscripts. Reasonable arguments could be advanced to support the defence of the people in South Vietnam from a communist takeover but it was very difficult for anyone with a sense of moral and intellectual consistency to accept the use of conscription in a war that was supposed to be fought in defence of freedom.


There are two main lines of argument to support my case on the pivotal importance of the conscription issue. The first is to make a comparison with the Korean war (1950-1953). The second is to note the kind of protestors who mobilised to resist conscription and the way that their political orientation and/or their level of involvement was permanently changed. In addition there are two secondary lines of argument. One is to respond to the obvious objection that everything was up in the air in the heady times of the swinging sixties and that alone would have created serious problems for political conservatives. The other addresses the fact that there was a worldwide surge of  radicalism, notably involving Britain, France and Germany which were not involved in Vietnam, so it could be argued that this movement would have exerted influence in Australia regardless of conscription and the war.


I am not aware of any significant public unrest over the Korean War, although no doubt Communists and their fellow travellers would have objected. Compulsory military training was introduced  (90 days full time and two years in the Citizen Military Forces) but there was no obligation for active service ( in stark contrast with the Vietnam situation). 

At the time it would have been easy to ignore, discredit, and marginalise protestors, given the  increased militancy of the Soviet Union as demonstrated by the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and related activities around the world. And in the normal course of events the management of anti-war protest should have become even easier when democratic sympathies were stirred after the brutal suppression of the Hungarians in 1956, and again after the re-run of Hungary in Prague in 1968. (But it has to be said, foreshadowing a later line of argument, that the course of events ceased to be normal after communism received a huge boost from the  heavy-handed anti-communist initiative in the US, namely McCarthyism).

The history of the Vietnam War has been mostly written by those who regard the involvement of the allies as at best a mistake and at worst an immoral act of imperialism. However the majority of Australians had no strong feelings about the war, many were strongly in favour and most would have been content to live with it, as they had with the Korean War. Among those with memories of World War II, it was accepted without question that regular soldiers who volunteered to join the forces would fight when called upon to do so, and that some of them would die.

The big difference between Korea and Vietnam was conscription. This injected a life-or-death element into the situation of young men—and their families and friends—who had no desire to get involved in a distant conflict which represented no clear and distinct threat to Australia.

The New Protesters

The threat of conscription mobilised a completely different demographic of protesters from the old guard of communists. These including the Save Our Sons movement (1965–1973), Quakers and organised Humanists who tended to be articulate, well-connected, and respectable middle-class citizens  who could not be marginalised like the communist-dominated trade unions and the fringe-dwellers of the radical left.  For example Bridget Gilling, the impressively calm and dignififed President of the NSW Humanist Society was the Chair of the first NSW Moratorium. The Vietnam was and the conscription issue  prompted Gordon Barton to form the Australia Party—forerunner of the Chipp Democrats—which provided a refuge for dissident Liberals who wanted to oppose conscription and the war but did not want to join the ALP. (To test the thesis of this paper it would be revealing to find how many of the Liberal activists and voters who shifted to the shortlived Australia Party returned to the Liberals, or moved on to the Democrats or the ALP).

Support for the government was seriously compromised by the way the issues of the war and the draft were conflated. In principle the two issues could have been separated and a credible position would have been to support the war and oppose conscription (as I argued in “Second Thoughts on Vietnam”, Quadrant, 1987). However the two issues were generally combined, to the great detriment of the case for involvement in the war. In addition, many people who were positive or open minded about the war the war but abominated the draft moved to the anti-war position as a result of friendships and associations formed in anti-conscription activities. So the conscription issue could have been the thin end of a wedge. Another wedge was the way the war was conducted. The first placard which I carried in Adelaide in 1968 read “Stop Bombing Hanoi”, a message that could easily be endorsed by a person who supported South Vietnam but objected to the bombing of civilians.

My thesis is that the end result was to move a significant proportion of the educated middle class, (especially the young), from a Coalition-supporting or politically-passive position to voting support or even active involvement with the ALP, or more radical positions. At the same time, with the expansion of the universities, the educated middle class was growing rapidly in numbers. It is possible that the events of the time did not drive signifcant changes in political alignment but raised the level of activity and commitment to anti-conservatism by people who were already inclined in that direction. This suggestion was put to me by a retired Liberal politician who considered that the mobilization factor, activating  young ALP voters to become long-term workers for the ALP cause, was enough to account for the electoral success of the ALP in the 1980s. He accepted that the conscription issue was a major mobilizing factor, however I do not doubt that a considerable number of people shifted their party allegiance as well. This is implied in Paul Kelly’s statement that the conservatives “lost…a whole generation of politically active young Australians”. Losing the generation is a more damaging result than just energising a part of it, even allowing that the generation was not entirely “lost”. The numbers would be practically impossible to specify at this stage (tracking members of the Australia Party would help) but I am sure that ALP stalwarts were recruited among people who were not inclined by family background or temperament to anti-conservatism, and that conscription was the conservative pill that they would not swallow.

In addition it was immensely helpful that these revitalised recruits were active and articulate, and they moved into careers and other positions of power and influence, both in and out of politics, where their views could be most effectively implemented and propagated: in the media (especially the ABC), in the arts and other literary and cultural pursuits, in teaching of all kinds, in trade union organisations, in the increasingly politicised public service and in the regulative, human rights, ethnic affairs, affirmative action and grievance-related agencies that proliferated post-Whitlam.

The “Swinging Sixties” Factor

Many other changes were taking place during the 1960s and 1970s but it is not immediately apparent that they would have made much difference to the political allegiances of young people. On the left there was a slogan, “the personal is political” but this was the talk of dedicated “in your face” activists and most people surely made up their own mind about their personal activities without reference to politics. I don’t imagine that members of the Young Liberals were backward in coming forward to participate in sex, soft drugs and rock and roll, though not necessarily in ways that were deliberately calculated to confront and outrage their elders.

The raft of changes included growing affluence, sexual liberation, feminism, increased overseas travel, new trends in rock music, increased use of illicit drugs, the decline of traditional religious affiliation, increased access to university education and campus radicalism. Apart from the radicalisation of the humanities and soft social sciences on campus these changes appear to be politically neutral. Liberalism is a broad church; indeed it is more open to social change than the traditional working class and trade union base of the labour movement. That was apparent when traditional ALP voters revolted against Paul Keating when he decided to move on from economic reform to be an agent of social and cultural transformation.

Worldwide radicalism and anti-Americanism

My thesis is apparently undermined by the worldwide rise of radical activities in countries like Britain, France and West Germany where the Vietnam war was not a local issue. Apparently young radicals in those countries did not need to be mobilized by the war or by the threat of conscription, and so surely, it can be argued, there was bound to be a similar move in Australia. [Footnote, on a point of detail, it is interesting that some of the principal players in the highly newsworthy protests at the London School of Economics were draft dodgers from the US, so the war in a sense exported radicalism to Western Europe. It is also noteworthy that even though the worldwide radical movement was not sparked by the Vietnam war, the conflict became a potent image in the movement to represent the forces of capitalism and American “Cold War adventurism” at work.].

In reply, I suggest that it was not the radicals who did long-term damage to the Coalition parties, it was the “respectable protesters” like the middleclass ladies of Save Our Sons. Without the conscription issue the radicals could have been answered in debate and marginalised in the political process. Internal weakness and inconsistency in the conservative case created huge problems for Government supporters in the public debate, and in private conversations around the nation.

The beginning of this argument was the thesis that the conservative forces in Australia brought themselves undone by the inconsistency between their stated aims (to defend freedom) and the use of conscription. This thesis has wider application and it was illustrated by a previous episode in the United States. This was “McCarthyism”, a campaign in the early 1950s to expose communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy. The problem was real because there were active communist agents of influence in the administration, in academia and elsewhere, including the arts and the film industry. However the methods employed by McCarthy and his helpers were so heavy handed, indiscriminate and insensitive that they produced a reaction in the form of “anti anti-communism”. This movement found fertile ground in intellectual circles where socialist and leftwing thinking were ingrained for many generations and it created a smokescreen, or a trojan horse, or people running “interference” (whatever image you like to use) for seriously subversive influences. The anti-communist forces became confused and divided, as the “old right” and other conservative groups split over the appropriate stance to simultaneously oppose communism and McCarthyism. The libertarian Murray Rothbard was a spectacular example of this process. He was a powerhouse of the three As (atheism, anarchism and Austrian economics) but for a period in the 1960s he aligned with the New Left because he felt that the non-left forces were irretrievably corrupted.

The point is that the radical forces around the world found their way made easy by a combination of leftwing dominance in intellectual circles, divisions on the non-left which resulted in half-hearted and fragmented efforts, and most important, by inconsistencies in non-left thinking which promoted self-destructive policies. In this perspective, the conscription issue in Australia represents a paradigm case of electoral self-destruction in the medium to long term.

What Happened to the Centre?

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The success of the radical left after WW2 in maintaining a high profile and gathering recruits against the backdrop of real and overwhelming tyranny in the communist regimes of the world signals a problem on the “non-left”.  In my view the problem was the near death of classical (non-socialist) liberalism.

An old saying goes “If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. But if you are still a socialist at 40, you have no brains”. The beauty of the classical liberal creed is that it satisfies the needs of people with both warm hearts and active brains.

The four pillars of classical liberalism are (1) a suite of freedoms – speech, belief, movement, trade, association etc., (2) the rule of law, due process etc including protection of property rights, (3) limited government under the law and (4) a robust moral code including honesty, compassion, civility, community service, personal responsibility, enterprise.

These principles would underpin a vigorous commercial civilisation with an equally vigorous civic culture, supporting human rights without legalism and bureaucracy.  Health, education and welfare could be provided by a mix of private and public services to maximise efficiency and minimise long-term dependency (in the case of welfare).

The four pillars support the pursuit of peace, freedom and prosperity. It is most likely that anywhere in the world where conditions are improving in a sustainable manner, one or more of the pillars are the active ingredients in the policy mix, which of course cannot  be found anywhere in a pure form.

In the absence of a visible and clearly articulated “Radical Centre” of classical liberalism, the best that most moderate and reasonable people could find was some version of social democracy. This has the slogans to attract well-meaning and warm-hearted people who want the State to step in and fix up every problem under the sun. This has appeal as long as people understand little economics and no public choice theory to grasp the way interest groups rapidly capture the organs of Big Government and put in train the law of unintended consequences.

So Big Government intervention has achieved bipartisan support in most countries. Left-liberalism has morphed from the support of civil rights into a vehicle of savage intolerance with speech codes, no touching codes, no jumping into cold water to rescue drowning people codes etc.

Classical liberalism hardly had a profile in the 20th century. In Australia it was buried by the Australian Settlement over a hundred years ago which set in place trade protection, centralised wage fixing and the White Australia Policy. The British Liberals also turned to social democracy at the turn of the century. When classical liberalism was re-born as the New Right it attracted roughly equal incomprehension and abuse from both sides of politics. It has had a rough passage but it has a lot to offer.

In the context of this piece about conscription and the self-destructive tendencies of conservative parties, the point is that a party animated by classical liberalism would not fall into errors like conscription for a foreign war or the debacle of McCarthyism.


The conscription issue had a tsunami effect. With barely a ripple on the voting figures at the time, (actually the ascent of Gough Whitlam in 1972 was a rather substantial ripple) the conservative ships of state rode on to more election victories until the waves broke on the electoral shores during the 1980s and beyond. As Paul Kelly noted, the leading organisers and activists were recruited long before. It remains to be seen whether the Liberals can retrieve the lost ground and match Labor in recruiting leaders, organizers and activists who can win office in the years to come.

In the bigger picture of the battle of ideas (which will in the end prove decisive) it remains to be seen whether the carriers of classical liberalism can regain lost ground and propagate these robust and valuable ideas with the same degree of success that Fabians and other socialists have achieved up to date.

Postscript August 2011

If conscription or some other factors shifted the centre of gravity of Australian politics to the point where the ALP ruled practically from coast to coast for much of the time from 1983 to 2010, what accounts for the current situation where the party could be thrown out of office everywhere with the exception of Tasmania and maybe the Northern Territory? There has certainly not been a surge of classical liberalism in the electorate at large! This requires a substantial discussion which is not attempted here. Contributing factors would appear to be the major focus of ALP activists on winning elections rather than developing good policies, and, associated with that, the politicization of the public service to the detriment of good decision-making and planning in the middle and upper management. More work is required to explore this situation.  It appears that the Coalition parties are not doing that work and it remains to be seen how much better they can do when they achieve office, especially at the State level.

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