From 1962 – 1971 Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. The elected Prime Minister of Australia was Sir Robert Menzies from1949 till 1965. In 1962 the government started to introduce the belief to the Australian public, that if Vietnam fell to communism, then the other countries in South East Asia would fall one by one to communism. At the beginning the main reason for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War was the fear of communism overtaking Australia. The government had decided that there is no other alternative than to get involved in the war, and also to introduce compulsory service. The Australian public was afraid of communism and it can be that this view has affected some people’s decision to fight in the war. The Australian public admired and looked up to the former Prime Minister and initially did not oppose the re-introduction of compulsory service in the Vietnam War. In 1964 it was becoming clear that the war would worsen and that Australia would need to send more troops. It was obvious that the manpower of the Australian armies was not great enough to continue sending men and still protect Australia at home; therefore the government announced the reintroduction of conscription and plans to increase the size of the Australian army.
This intention is called National Service, all men had to register for military service when they reached the age of 20. A ballot based on birthdays was used each year to select some 6900 young men who would then be required to serve in the armed forces. This decision was to cause one of the greatest divisions in public opinion in Australia’s history. There is the opinion that this method was not very democratic and that everybody or nobody should fight, otherwise it would be unjust. Harold Holt became the new Prime Minister in 1966. His first action was to send more Australian troops to Vietnam. These troops included conscripted National Service Men as well as regular soldiers. This action caused resentment towards Holt from those who opposed to conscription and believed that should only be fought overseas if Australia was attacked. Australia accepted again a Liberal government even though Australian society was split between opposing the war and supporting it. When the public found more about the Vietnam War out, people began to show antipathy towards the fact that Australia was involved. This feeling made the Vietnam War an unpopular war. The Australian public many began to think that it was a civil war and Australian soldiers had no reason to be there. Opposition to the war grew in 1967 and a strong anti-Vietnam War movement began to develop in 1968. Even though most Australians were against communism, more and more people, mostly students from high schools and universities, began to join the anti-Vietnam War campaign as it became obvious that the war was impossible to win.
Public protests saw young conscripts burn their draft notices and some refused to register at all. The media started to get involved and began to push for an end to Australian involvement in the war. The public then started showing aggression to soldiers. A soldier’s statement was that they were “treated like lepers and put down by the media, unions, and the Labor Party… I thought it was a real shame how the media treated the soldiers.” In 1971 there was more an attitude change for some supporters of the war to become anti-war enthusiasts, as a result of heavy anti-Vietnam War protests during 1971 – 1972.
Huger moratorium marches were held. On these days many people usually left work or other pursuits and went on marches to show how strongly they felt about Australia’s involvement in the war. The peace sign became an important focus for the thousands of anti-Vietnam War protestors in Australia. Peace graffiti could be seen on buildings, signs and even roads. Australia’s anti-war feeling created a sense of betrayal among the soldiers in Vietnam that has lasted to the present day. Australia’s form of government allowed its people freedom of opinion and consequently protests and demonstrations occur. However, because these people had this freedom, returning soldiers from Vietnam were spat at and had red paint thrown over their uniforms, the red to symbolise communism. These actions showed the less attractive side of democracy. To avoid demonstrations and conflict, the Australian troops were forced to return from Vietnam of the night in 1971. The protestors focused their anger on individual soldiers. Soldiers were told not to react when these incidents occurred. Official marches were held nation-wide for the returning soldiers, but the feeling was more like something that had to be done rather than the thanks of previous wars. These men were finally home, but returned without pride and strength. Those civilians who supported the war had little opportunity to cheer their troops. The soldiers once again felt bitter and betrayed. Australia as a nation was involved in the war in Vietnam, but at the same time Australian society was bitterly divided over this commitment. A federal election was held in 1972. The Liberal Party promised to continue spending money on the Vietnam War. Running against the Liberals was the Australian Labor Party, which won the 1972 election. Labor’s campaign was based on change within Australia, most importantly withdrawal from Vietnam and the ending of conscription. A short time after the election Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. The re-introduction of conscription was not an undemocratic measure as such, because the Federal Parliament, elected by the people of Australia, had passed it. The influence of the people ultimately removed Australia from the Vietnam War. As the people hold supreme power in a democracy, governments can be changed which results in many outcomes. In this case, the people elected the Labor government thus eliminated Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam.