Amid the attention to the various centenaries of the first world war, we should not overlook the half-centenaries of the Vietnam War. As a recent ‘Rear Vision’ program on the ABC reminded us, fifty years ago this month the first intake of ‘nashos’ was recruited into the army under the controversial 1965–72 national service scheme that sent some 15,000 conscripts to serve, and 200 to die, in Vietnam.
Although always associated with the Vietnam War, the scheme was not introduced principally with Vietnam in mind. When the legislation was introduced in November 1964, policymakers’ main concern was Konfrontasi, Indonesia’s confrontation of the new Federation of Malaysia. Australia had already committed an infantry battalion and other forces to support Malaysia. A strong, but seldom expressed, fear in Canberra was that Jakarta might not only escalate its low-level conflict with Malaysia, but also take on Australia directly across the border between the western half of New Guinea, recently incorporated into Indonesia, and the eastern half, today’s Papua New Guinea but then administered by Australia under a United Nations mandate.
In the following months, the tensions behind Confrontation eased, until it was formally ended in 1966, while Vietnam moved to the top place on the regional, and global, agenda. The first Australian battalion sent to Vietnam in mid-1965 was composed of regulars. They arrived just as the first intake of ‘nashos’ was starting initial training. The first national servicemen went to Vietnam a year later when the commitment was raised to a task force of two battalions in 1966. From that time, the main combat elements of the task force were comprised of regulars and nashos in roughly 50–50 proportions.
Initially protests against conscription were mild, but when nashos were sent to Vietnam, two separate strands of opposition to government policy became linked, with a sort of multiplier effect. The scheme was highly selective, taking about 8% of the eligible cohort. The selection was by a ballot based on men’s 20th birthdays, when the voting age was 21. Opponents labelled the ballot a ‘blood lottery’, which sent voteless youth to an increasingly controversial war. ‘No conscripts to Vietnam’ was a powerful protest slogan.
In fact, less than a quarter of those called up—about 15,000 out of 63,000—served in Vietnam. Some served in Malaysia, Singapore or Papua New Guinea; most never left Australia.
The army hadn’t sought national service. Since the introduction of a standing army in the late 1940s, the army had turned away from the great citizen armies of the world wars towards smaller, more professional forces. The army’s leaders had not liked the electorally popular scheme of the 1950s, which produced large numbers of men with some basic military training, who could not be sent overseas. The army also knew that any form of compulsory overseas service would be controversial, reflecting on the army’s own standing in society. The army’s hand was effectively forced by the government, led by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who had long thought that Australia should emulate the compulsory service imposed by our great and powerful friends.
The scheme was complex and difficult to administer. (A good summary by Sue Langford is available on the Australian War Memorial website.) Numerous myths arose, some of which have recently been challenged by Mark Dapin. The system, for example, was not rigged in order to provide the skills that the army required. It always had more popular support than the strength of the protests suggested. Even in the era of Moratorium marches, volunteers for national service outnumbered those who refused to register or to respond to the call-up. But the protesters captured the public imagination, especially after some episodes in which draft resisters outwitted the authorities trying to enforce the National Service Act. In the early 1970s even establishment figures like the highly respected Governor of New South Wales, Sir Roden Cutler VC, publicly questioned the value of selective national service.
When Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to victory in December 1972, he suspended the scheme with immediate effect. Like his actions in withdrawing the last troops from Vietnam, he was delivering a dramatic coup de grâce to a moribund policy.
Although it’s technically possible, it is hard to imagine any government re-introducing compulsory military service, except in the most extreme circumstances. In 2006 the former CDF, Chris Barrie, raised the idea of a scheme in which military service would be one option. The Howard government shut down that conversation before it started.
That’s perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Vietnam era protest movement. The protesters did not end Australian involvement in the Vietnam War; they did not end the practice of sending Australian forces overseas to fight in coalitions led by the United States; they certainly did not, as the most extreme wing hoped, bring down Australia’s liberal, democratic and capitalist institutions. But at every level, from school cadets to the ranks of the ADF, the principle of voluntarism seems thoroughly entrenched.
Peter Edwards is the author of Crises and Commitments, A Nation at War and Australia and the Vietnam War, all of which discuss the introduction and implementation of the 1965–72 national service scheme. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.