Recollections of the struggle
against the Vietnam War
By Bob Gould
Four days before Saigon fell in 1975, when it had become clear
would fall, ABC Radio interviewed a spectrum of Vietnam protesters on
their attitude. They chose to end the radio piece with my comments,
which were, in sum: that I was not a pacifist, that my first political
sentiments in life had been an interest in the struggle for Irish
independence, and that when the battle-scarred NLF guerillas marched
into Saigon, I'd be cheering.
Nothing that has happened in the 20 years subsequent to May 1,
has led me to change this basic view. The primary issue with Vietnam
was always a struggle between the Vietnamese movement for national
independence and unification, which happened to be led by Stalinists,
and first French and later US imperialism. US and Australian troops had
absolutely no moral right to intervene in Vietnam.
In the event, the regime in independent and united Vietnam
Stalinist regimes go, turned out to be a relatively humane one. In
Vietnam now, I would support the demand for political freedom, trade
unions independent of the state and the legalisation of political
dissent, but that is in the context of the now successful completion of
the struggle for national independence, and it is also the business of
the Vietnamese masses themselves, without imperialist interference.
The 20 year long imperialist blockade of Vietnam has, in fact,
hindered the development of internal democracy in Vietnam. I find it
particularly sickening that right-wingers who supported the war against
the Vietnamese people somehow manage to justify supporting a political
role for the Pol Pot forces in Cambodia.
From 1965 to 1972 my life was totally dominated by the
against the imperialist intervention in Vietnam, of which, as the
secretary of the Vietnam Action Committee, I was one of the main
It's worth recording the fact that the courageous and early
opposition of the Labor federal opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, to
conscription and the dispatch of Australian troops to Vietnam was the
major initial factor that made it possible to build a mass movement of
opposition to conscription and to the war in Vietnam.
In the critical first two years of Australia's major
1965 and 1966, when the war was still overwhelmingly popular in
Australia, a small number of people of the anti-Stalinist left, three
of whom were John Percy, Rod Webb and myself, founded the Vietnam
Action Committee. Two young representatives of the indigenous social
democratic left in the ALP, Barry Robinson and Wayne Haylen, the son of
one of Calwell's closest confidants, left-wing Labor MP Les Haylen,
founded the Youth Campaign Against Conscription. These two
organisations, in alliance, in September 1965, took the initiative in
regular mass demonstrations against the war and conscription. (The fact
that Wayne was Les Haylen's son gave us a certain amount of entree to
Calwell, which was exceedingly useful in those early years of the
The fact that Calwell, in the position of ALP parliamentary
opposed conscription and the dispatch of the Australian troops, enabled
us to reach a far broader audience than we could ever have achieved
without Calwell's bold stand on the question.
Many of us who started the antiwar agitation were also
the ALP, and the very real battle in the ALP on the Vietnam War was an
important part of the struggle.
The Communist Party, which still had a major influence in the
movement, was quite strongly opposed to the ALP and the broad antiwar
movement having a central policy of withdrawal of Australian troops
from Vietnam. They considered this policy too leftist. They favoured a
policy for the mass movement of "Stop the Bombing and Negotiate", and
the official left, including the Communist Party, did everything in
their power to weaken Calwell's stance in favour of withdrawal.
The battles of those days are reflected, for instance, in the
venomous attitude adopted towards Arthur Calwell by Tom Uren in his
The political battle over Vietnam policy raged in the ALP for
next seven years. Initially the branch membership of the ALP in NSW in
1965 was pretty moribund and pretty right wing, pretty much like today,
but Calwell's stance on Vietnam led to a massive influx into the ALP of
opponents of the war, which radicalised the ALP for the next
generation. It has taken 10 years of Hawke/Keating deracination to get
the ALP back to the more or less right-wing composition it had in 1965.
In 1992 Greg Langley interviewed me for his excellent book of
oral history on Vietnam, A Decade of Dissent, published that
year by George Allen and Unwin.
The following extracts of his interview with me, in my view
adequately cover my own activities and the activities of the Vietnam
Action Campaign. They follow here, along with a short extract from the
reminiscences of Anne Curthoys that also bear on the topic. (I've
amended some of the material slightly to better express the sense of my
remarks, and to eliminate verbal idiosyncracies.
Greg Langley: Gould joined the ALP in 1955 at the age
In the late 1950s, he associated with small revolutionary socialist
groups who were critics within the framework of the left wing.
Bob Gould: We were often abused as Trotskyists, and the
Stalinists and the powerful Labor left influenced by them, attacked us
and called us police spies, wreckers, and agents of the CIA. That was
the kind of slander aimed at anyone who opposed the predominant
widespread Stalinist influence in the left of the labour movement.
Greg Langley: In 1967, Gould was expelled from the
Committee of the NSW Left for indiscipline. He had moved a motion at
that year's State Conference to restore the ALP's policy on Vietnam to
full withdrawal in line with the party's position under the previous
leadership of Arthur Calwell.
That motion was in opposition to the official position of the
Left wing which, at the time, supported the watering down of the
Vietnam policy. Although most of the Left-wing delegates at the
conference supported Gould's stand, he was the only one punished.
Bob Gould: The year things started to happen was 1965.
CND meeting, we decided to set up the Vietnam Action Committee (VAC)
and I became secretary. We collaborated with YCAC, because we had
similar aims, and called a demonstration in Sydney in September.
Three hundred people turned up, mostly students and a
trade unionists. The trade unionists were suspicious, because they had
been told by their leaders that we were wrecking CIA-ASIO bastards. But
they responded to our call because they were angry about conscription.
We had a little demonstration on the footpath and got four lines in the
Sydney Morning Herald.
We then organised another protest for October, a few days
similar demonstration in the United States, which was the biggest
antiwar demonstration of that time. We got a fair bit of press, radio
and television publicity as a flow-on from the US events for our
forthcoming demonstration in Sydney.
The Revolutionary Socialists decided to use qualified civil
disobedience at the demonstration to get publicity. A couple of days
before the demonstration, the leaders of the CPA agreed there should be
civil disobedience. They still hated us, but they wanted to get in on
This demonstration was larger, and about 500 people attended.
were circling Martin Place but, at one point, instead of going back up
the other side, we started walking up Pitt Street.
There was no mall then, Pitt Street was one-way and we walked
with the traffic at 5.30pm on a Friday night. It took the coppers
completely by surprise, and we were halfway from King Street to Market
Street before they could get in front of us.
About 50 of us got pinched including Jack Mundey, Peter Black
for many years mayor of Broken Hill), an Irish CP member called Joe
Dryburgh, and other colourful characters.
It was not a violent demonstration. It was completely passive,
except the coppers threw us around a bit, but it was effective in terms
of publicity across the nation.
A piece later appeared in Outlook, which described my
voice on a loud hailer and my five-year-old daughter, a veteran of many
demonstrations, climbing on her mother's back to get a better view of
There was tension [in Sydney] between the broader peace
VAC over aims and methods. We favoured full withdrawal and
self-determination for the Vietnamese, but the official peace movement
hankered for a more moderate policy of withdrawing to holding areas in
They held peaceful Sunday demonstrations for families, and we
favoured Friday night marches that confronted shoppers. We specialised
in militant, colourful demonstrations with occasional acts of civil
disobedience, but were not preoccupied with fighting the police.
The ground rules that the Askin Government tried to lay down
that you couldn't march in the street, but if we had the numbers, we
did march on the road, and there was often a bit of pushing and shoving
with the coppers.
We were prepared to get in the coppers' way, but civil
was strictly a means to an end. We didn't want a lot of people pinched,
and we didn't have the fetish for martyrdom the Melbourne Maoists
The classic demonstration that year was against President
VAC decided we would confront the cavalcade, but the "official" peace
movement said this was a bit too leftist. They were worried
demonstrators might tangle with pro-Johnson crowds, but eventually they
caved in to our proposals.
The police gave us permission to have the eastern end of Hyde
We got there at six in the morning on a warm spring day.
Representatives of the Croatian National League and the Mormons were
also there (to welcome Johnson), because the police had given them the
same bit of turf.
Our troops started arriving faster than theirs, so we got the
positions and little Stalinist pensioners even occupied the pensioner
seats up the front, on the roadway.
By 9am, there were about six or seven thousand people, by far
biggest demonstration in Australia against the war up to that point,
and right in the middle was a solid bloc of about 300 or 400 Mormons
and a couple of hundred Croats were at the back. Both groups were
welcoming Johnson, so it was tense.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir started up, and they had an
organ which drowned out our chants. Dave Taylor, an engineer from New
Zealand, said, "Bob, we can't have this". He went to Woolies and bought
some wire cutters and all of a sudden the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went
off the air. Then it's on the air. Then it's off the air. Then it's on
the air. After about 10 minutes of this, it went off the air for good.
When Johnson finally came, our strategy proved right. The
erupted, poured onto the road, and laid down. That is when Askin made
the famous comment, "Run the bastards over".
I was up a big figtree all the time, speaking to the crowd on
megaphone, trying to direct the human traffic against this imperialist
monster, and it was incredible. People were going everywhere; it
evolved way beyond anyone's direction.
It was an extremely effective demonstration and we fought hard
have it, knowing it would erupt in non-violent civil disobedience.
Everyone who participated felt happy and elated, and it didn't lead to
the masses being alienated. In fact, it dramatically symbolised that
many Australians were opposed to the war.
Ann Curthoys: In 1966, I was studying fourth year
was not very active, though I attended a lot of demonstrations during
the lead up to the elections. I was also involved in VAC, which Bob
Gould organised. By involved, I mean I went along and helped fold
Gould managed to take the leadership of the youth in the
movement away from the CPA, which was a leading organisation until
then. Gould had a confirmed form of Trotskyist politics and a more
confrontational approach that appealed to a lot of people.
Even though I was a member of the CPA, I attended the
his group organised. The distinctions were not as sharp as people
sometimes think, or as they were to become later.
Greg Langley: Doctor Curthoys is Professor of Social
at the University of Technology, Sydney. In the 1960s she was a member
of the Eureka Youth League, a communist youth organisation, and as a
student activist too part in the first Aboriginal Freedom Ride
organised by Charles Perkins.
Bob Gould: I was a full-time functionary of VAC and
my then wife, Mairi Petersen, who loyally supported me for
two-and-a-half years. It was a hectic, tense, and stressful time, and I
have never worked harder.
We had no resources, but we did amazing things. Before the
visit, we roneoed a pamphlet with eight pages and a printed cover with
a picture of Johnson on one side and a photo of a Vietnamese woman with
her children swimming in a river to escape cross-fire. The caption
read, "Consider her. Confront him."
We sent that to 30,000 people. We had to scrape together the
pennies. Stamps cost six cents and it was a lot of money to us, but we
Later, we rented a building in Goulburn Street, on the edge of
Chinatown, and ran VAC from upstairs. Resistance, a youth organisation,
had the back room and I ran the Third World Bookshop from the front.
The shop was supposed to support the whole venture.
From September 1965 to early 1970, I probably participated in
organising a significant demonstration a month, to say nothing of
hundreds of minor events.
You literally lived from one demonstration to the next. It was
terrible workload in a way, but it was extremely exciting. You felt you
were contributing to the cause of sweating humanity.
I started the Third World Bookshop in 1968 and it was financed
mortgage on my then-wife Mairi's and my house at Woollahra. It shared
premises with VAC and Resistance.
There was a cultural transformation going on throughout this
period and censorship was a thorny issue. The Third World Bookshop was
often raided because of the material we sold.
The first time was for a pamphlet produced by John Percy
called How Not To Join The Army. We were tipped off before the
raid by a sympathetic copper, so we were well prepared.
At the time, we had a poster with a picture of Jesus Christ on
and the caption, "Wanted: Jesus Christ for sedition". We stuck one in
the shop window and when the television cameras arrived to film the
police carting away this beat-up little Gestetner, our engine of
revolution, they lingered on this poster. We were deluged by requests
for this poster for weeks and sold thousands.
We were also busted for selling Portnoy's Complaint,
but the most interesting case was over Michelangelo's David.
Just before Resistance split in early 1970, we were busted for
printing Aubrey Beardsley posters. Some of them were mildly erotic, and
some not at all. The problem was that some of them had pricks in them.
We had been selling these posters for several months when the
coppers raided one busy Saturday morning. They busted in to the
storeroom and charged Keith James, Jim Percy, and me for resisting
arrest. As they were pulling down the posters, one of the customers
said, "Well I suppose if you're taking those Beardsleys, you'll be
taking that as well". He pointed to posters of David.
A constable looked at it and said, "Sarge?"
"Yer, take them."
Our defence lawyer, Ken Horter, said the resisting arrest
depended on the legality of the pornography charge. We argued that in
the lower courts, and the resisting arrest was adjourned until the
pornography charge was heard, but that never happened. The courts were
overcrowded, and they didn't want to be clogged up with a huge case
like this, particularly one that could make them look utterly
We still had to go to court every couple of months for an
adjournment, and it dragged on for years. It became a standing joke. In
the Sydney Morning Herald, Column 8 even compared us to "The Flying
Eventually a magistrate said, "This is ridiculous". He
with no conviction recorded in order to get it out of the courts, but
the whole case showed the attitudes of the time. Heaps of things were
banned: films, plays, books and magazines. In Victoria, they even
banned a book called Fun In Bed. It's obvious the censors never
bothered reading it because it was a book of games for children with
My thanks to Greg Langley for recording the foregoing in his book of
oral history, A Decade of Dissent.
I also include the following, more recent, observation on the
censorship court appearances.
This periodic reunion of Jim Percy, Keith James and myself at
Central Court every three months or so for five years assumed a rather
piquant quality. The split in Resistance, which took place almost
immediately after the initial arrest, eventually located all three of
us in rival factions quite hostile to each other. But we were old
associates who had been together in the past for a few years in the
same grouping, and these strange reunions in Central Court gave us the
chance for cautiously comparing notes on current developments, a little
bit outside the context of the current factional battles.
The following article was written by the late Helen Palmer,
founder and initial editor of Outlook: An Australian Socialist
which became the voice of dissidents leaving the Communist Party after
the Khrushcheve revelations and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
She was also the daughter of the novelist Vance Palmer.
Helen Palmer wrote the following article in Outlook in
December 1965, describing the first major sit-down protest against the
war in Vietnam, in Sydney in October 1965, in which 51 people were
arrested. I keep being told by people who visit the Vietnam War Museum
in Ho Chi Minh City that in the alphabetical section A-Z, showing the
international solidarity with Vietnam during the war, the one photo
from Australia is of this sit-down demonstration, with my ugly mug up
Helen Palmer: After half an hour of circling the Martin
block slowly with a sandwich board, it's a change to be setting off at
a brisk patter down the centre of Pitt Street, the peak hour traffic
honking and nudging us in the rear. For days the city has been
plastered with stickers: "Vietnam Protest Rally, 5pm, Martin Place,
Friday, October 22" — the Vietnam Action Campaign's contribution to the
International Day of Protest. By 5.50pm there are some hundreds of
after-work protesters — enough to set off to the Town Hall, we think,
to hold a meeting. Those who wish to are taking the direct route.
(Later the police documents will refer to it as the "carriageway".
"One two three four, we don't wan't war! Five six seven eight,
say negotiate!" Simple enough, but it's not often one hears mass
chanting in the middle of Sydney at this time on a weekday. (An idea
for the Waratah Festival?) But one block, and Phase One is over. Just
past King Street the police have reassembled and the carriageway is no
longer ours. "Sit down!" someone calls out. It seems like a good idea.
those who have been following on the footpath come to a halt, placards
raised, and weh hold ours up like a phalanx.
The street is, of course, dirty: the prudent unfold
Suddenly there are swarms of police, not merely the dozen or so who
supervised out earlier perambulations. Ordinary point-duty types;
leggings and caps; the Top Brass ... Conferring with personages in
plain clothes ... The little group of anti-protesters who have waved
Woolworths Australian flags and given out DLP leaflets in Martin Place
("You are witnessing a COMMUNIST DEMONSTRATION!) don't seem to have
made it yet ... On second glance, no wonder, the traffic's banked up
(one lane is left, along which buses are edging precariously) and
pavements are jam-packed.
The police back in a panel van and open the door. Three or
the front row of sitters are seized. If they resist, four policemen
leg-and-arm them in. How many does it hold? It fills in no time, the
door clangs shut and it's away. Boos and shouts from the pavement.
Another backs in ... Meanwhile buses are nudging along the single lane.
One young sitter, judging the distance and refusing to budge an
unnecessary millimetre, gets his coat sleeve caught by a bumper bar and
is toppled. A flushed, zealous policeman roars: "It's your own fault."
It is of course; fault — or decision.
We've been here for 10 minutes; footpaths are packed solid;
are crowded, traffic is piled up for blocks around. Man with camera
appears on balcony rooftop. More police. One of the plain-clothes men
seems to be masterminding things; another, lantern-jawed, hat pulled
over his nose, with a beck and a nod, indicates to the uniformed men
whom to single out next. Is that the third police van or the fourth?
Many arrested people go limp; some resist, and are thrust bodily into
the van. There's an awkward gap, almost a silence, each time before the
next van arrives. It must be an odd experience for these men to stand
passively in the middle of Pitt Street while a hundred people confront
them from the ground, the Big Brother finishes his Walk and Don't Walk
Bob Gould is up on a stand shouting through a megaphone
from a folded placard: this is intended as a peaceful protest against
what is being done in our name in Vietnam; he has a five-year-old
daughter and doesn't want her to grow up in a world that ... The
five-year-old daughter, veteran of demonstrations, is clamouring to be
lifted up to see what's going on ... "This is a moral question" comes
through clearly and hangs in the air ... If enough people ask
themselves the moral question ... What are the onlookers making of it?
Hard to tell — craned necks, curious faces, but one can't read
thoughts. What will they tell their families when they get home?
Certainly, that Sydney has never seen the like of this before.
The van door clangs shut every three or four minutes. There's
of noise, but somehow the thump of bodies, the scuffle of feet come
through. Difficult to see from down here — too much going on in all
directions at once; we need trained, well-placed observers ... The
atmosphere is changing: things are getting nasty. Several women on the
pavement are crying; there are shrieks as demonstrators are manhandled
in to the van; a girl is dragged across to the van, friends rush
protesting after her. Two sitters on the outside are picked up bodily
and thrown back into the crowd; everyone winces. How many vans — six,
seven, eight? A young cop grins as arrested people inside one van rock
it so vigorously that the flustered driver cannot start it; three
policement hold it steady and it backs out. Lantern-jaw moves
onminously through the crowd singling out the victims.
6:15, and a change of policy: we are being picked off
systematically, row after row — and there aren't so many left now. The
word comes to disperse: some to a nearby park to drum up defence money,
the rest to the police station. We move off, making our own traffic
regulations ... A young policeman is being a Dinkum Aussie to a woman
demonstrator: "Why should we worry? We're getting paid for it." "Aren't
you lucky?" she parries, jabbing him in the chest with a forefinger.
"Careful madam, you must not lay hands on a person unless you intend to
arrest." He gets his laugh ... But Lantern-jaw, hand bloodies (we learn
later this happened when he pounded his fist on the hand of a
demonstrator who happened to be wearing a ring), moves around us,
snarling, "All right, you can go home now, you've done your job.
They've got your pictures for Moscow News and Peking Daily
... And dusting ourselves off, we realise the sober truth, that in
Menzies' Australia, power is in fact in the hands of people who believe
that this is what protest is all about.
September 24, 1998