When Monash Students Resisted the Vietnam War

‘The first televised war’ showcased the blood and barbarity of American imperialism. People across the world witnessed the massacres in villages like My Lai, saw the images of running children burned by napalm and heard the ruthless justifications like “it was necessary to destroy [Vietnam] in order to save it”. They didn’t buy it. Although the US and Australia paint themselves as fighters of freedom and justice, their drive to destroy as much of Vietnam as possible picked away at the image of their so-called democratic war. Here at Monash, that politicisation was felt early on. 

A radical minority of Monash students began to discuss and debate the question of Vietnam in 1965, just a month after the Menzies’s government brought in conscription. Protests and teach-ins were organised with less than 100 people participating. But discussion about the war started to heat up when the Monash Labor Club decided to collect military aid for the National Liberation Front of Vietnam (NLF), Australia’s enemy in the war. This sparked a huge debate and polarisation within society as anti-war activists took their opposition to the next level. The Liberal government, the Labor Party and the mainstream press went into a complete frenzy and condemned the action as “treason”. Both major parties worked together to outlaw aid to the NLF and the Monash Vice-Chancellor banned the collection.

Rather than deterring students from aiding ‘the enemy’, this galvanised over a thousand students in a general meeting supporting the right for students to collect aid for the NLF. This initiated a series of the largest student meetings in the country and inspired other campuses to collect aid for the Vietnamese resistance. The Labor students won and defied the University and political establishment, personally handing $500 (over $7,000 in today’s terms) to the NLF in January of 1968. In May 1969, there was a meeting to oppose disciplinary measures against anti-war activists at which 6,000 out of 9,500 Monash students attended. Radicalisation happened suddenly, particularly in 1968, and students were some of the first to move into action. Radical students had been a minority, but after the disaster of the Tet Offensive, they were joined by thousands of others as society became more politicised.

However, activists need to have the right approach to be successful in their aims. Police violence pushed students to understand the role of police under capitalism. Monash activists were arrested by police for the ‘crime’ of stopping traffic as early as 1965 facing persecution and violent beatings from police throughout the anti-war movement. Police brutality overseas also had an impact on students in Australia. In the US, the Kent State Massacre proved that the government will exert brute force through the police if their political stability is threatened. Activists at Monash were quick to realise the police were not on their side and saw first-hand how the state repressed any opposition to the government and their interests.

The limits of electoral politics opened a space on the left for radical, anti-capitalist politics. As mentioned before, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), including leaders of the left such as Jim Cairns, supported legislation that banned raising funds for the NLF in a direct attempt to suppress Monash students. Students reacted to the shameful collaboration by rejecting the politics of ‘respectability’ and became interested in revolutionary politics and the disruption of the status quo. Although a few ALP members used anti-war rhetoric during the Vietnam War, it was an effort to relate to the biggest radicalisation of Australian workers and students seen in decades. The ALP was and continues to be firmly committed to the US alliance. Capitalism causes all the barbarity we see in society; inequality, oppression, genocide, war and imperialism. The ALP has no interest in getting rid of this system. Their project is to maintain the system of profits and competition. We need a revival of radical and militant politics that rejects the lies of the Labor Party and has a strategy for a truly equal society. 

The student movement against the Vietnam War was part of a broader radicalisation within society. The 1960s and 1970s saw the revival of militant union struggle in Australia for political issues such as indigenous rights, women’s rights and the anti-Apartheid movement. The actions of working-class militants in opposition to the Vietnam War is what made the Australian movement so strong and successful. For example, in 1967 militants in the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) banned the ship HMAS Boonaroo which was carrying weapons and ammunition to American troops in Vietnam. While the student movement was an important layer to the radicalisation against the Vietnam War, ultimately without the international movement, Vietnamese resistance and power exerted by the Australian working class, students wouldn’t have been successful on their own. The success of the movement is a reminder that with broad and working-class resistance, even the biggest imperialist armies can be defeated.

The anti-Vietnam War movement serves as a huge inspiration for leftists today. It exposed the lies of Western ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ threatening the rule of Australian capitalism. After more than six months of Israel’s war on Gaza, more people are questioning the normal functioning of capitalism today. Join the movement for a free Palestine and get organised with radical politics on campus. We’ve got to “mourn the dead, and fight like hell for the living” just like students at Monash did against the Vietnam War.



Amiriya Dorian

The author Amiriya Dorian

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