Jean McLean was born in 1934. She describes being brought up by “parents who were – well, they weren’t pacifists, but they were political, and they thought wars were wrong. … My mother was a Russian Jew, and was very aware of the whole Second World War” (interview with Jean McLean). She had opposed the Korean War (1950-53), and opposed the Vietnam War from the very beginning, as well as Australia’s use of conscription. McLean was heavily involved in the protest movement from the outset until the very end, with Whitlam ending national service and bringing the last of the Australian troops home. She was a public figure: her roles included being a deputy chair of the Moratorium Committee, as well as the secretary of SOS (because she was prepared to put her name and address at the bottom of leaflets, a requirement of the time.) She was arrested and fined multiple times, and was one of the ‘Fairlea Five’ – five SOS women who spent eleven days in Fairlea Women’s Prison for trespassing (they entered the Department of Labour and National Service building to hand out anti-conscription leaflets). McLean helped to organize safe houses for men who were ‘underground’, avoiding conscription; she gave speeches to unions, asking for money to help with the campaign; and she visited North Vietnam in 1969, at the invitation of Madam Cam.
This is how she remembers SOS beginning:
Menzies announced in December 1964 that he was going to bring in conscription for overseas service. Now, I had always – and still am – very interested in our region. So I knew a lot about Vietnam, I knew the history of Vietnam, and I knew about the secret war that America was carrying out in Laos and creeping into Vietnam and Cambodia.
And Australia had been – Australia asked, actually, whether they could go and kill some people in Vietnam. And they finally invited us – not straight away – the Americans. And then the government said it was through ANZUS. And it wasn’t through ANZUS. Again, if one understood the history of all this –
So I knew that this was why he introduced conscription, to join the war in Vietnam. And so I obviously opposed it. I spoke to women that I knew. I was a young mother. I was doing a pottery class, and I spoke to the women in the pottery class. And a couple of them had fourteen-year-old sons, and they said, “God, this could affect our children.” And they were pretty upset.
And so I said, “Well, let’s have a meeting, call a meeting, get as many people that we know together, and see what we can do.” I mean, I’d never done that sort of thing before, and nor had they. But anyway, we had a house meeting. And I invited a minister of religion called Bruce Silverwood, who was the – the Uniting Church had just combined, with the Methodists and Presbyterians. I think he was Methodist. I think – but anyway, he came to the meeting, because he was – he spoke out about peace and this sort of – and I think he had a letter to the editor, or something like that. So I asked him to come, to tell us what to do. How to oppose things. Not religiously, but just to speak.
Anyway, he suggested to hire a hall in the city called the Assembly Hall, because it only cost $9 or £9 to hire it. And it was a public hall, you know, so you could invite people. Which we did. And we put a little ad – I wish I had it. A little ad about that big in the Herald or The Age. The Argus – no, The Argus had had it by then. The Age or the – anyway, we put this little ad in. And we had over a hundred people turn up. We got the shock of our lives. Because we didn’t have a network. We didn’t have anything.
So, anyway, a hundred people came, including two women who’d been involved in the first conscription, including Dorothy Gibson, who was a member of the Communist Party and the wife of Ralph Gibson, who was also a Communist. And I think Nancy Walsh was another one of that era. And so they talked about how important it was, and how it had been a battle that was won. And I’ve always – the most satisfying thing about the anti-conscription movement was that it had a beginning and a middle and an end. And we actually won. Because when you look at other issues, like nuclear and – well, dozens of them. The environment. All these things. You have struggles, you get bigger, and then it dies down. But we’ve never actually had a final winning. And they’re bigger issues in some ways. But this was really life and death.
So a hundred people turned up. And we discussed the possibility of the name, and they said that – at the same time that we had our meeting, the little meeting, there was a meeting in Sydney. And they had a little ad in the – a little thing in the paper, a write-up, that they had formed a Save Our Sons movement. And so we decided that it would be better to have – look like we were bigger – [laughing]
So we called it Save Our Sons. But it was a Victorian movement. In those days, of course, you didn’t have these magic phones, and travel was expensive, and you couldn’t just fly up – fly to other states. So we all did our own thing. We joined together to take a petition to Canberra. And we had one conference, I think, in Sydney, that people came for. But basically, it was a Melbourne organisation.
And at first it was just against conscription. And one of our members, our committee members, said she wasn’t against the war in Vietnam, but she was very much against conscription. She thought people should volunteer. And so we thought, rather than have an argument, that we would accept something everybody could agree to. And Wilma Ames, her name was.
But as the movement grew, it became obvious that the reason conscription was brought in was to send people to the war. And so even Wilma decided that, you know, that there were two sides of the coin. And so we then became more involved in opposing the war, as well. And especially as the war was shown on our television screens every night, and we saw Vietnamese women being burnt by these brave soldiers, and, you know, napalm and all that. So the anti-war side of the movement became as – well, not as important, but it highlighted why it was so wrong to force young people to war.
McLean discussing the 1968 Paris Conference she attended, for ‘Women of Belligerent Nations’:
And then there was a conference in 1968, the Paris meeting. And we had a fundraising thing. Our movement decided that they’d send me. And I said, yeah, well, let’s try and – we’ll raise, you know, have a fundraiser. But we didn’t have a lot of time. It was in April, I think, we had to make the decision. Anyway, so I said, well, we’ll send it out, and if we get two-thirds of the money in the first week, or whatever, we’ll go ahead. Otherwise, we’ll send the money back. Because we didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have the resources. It went very, very well, and all the money came in.
But anyway, so we raised the money, so off I went. I went via the Soviet Union. There was a paper called the – anyway, Tribune, or something. And they had a person in Moscow. And they came and picked me up at the airport. Because I was going to Paris, went via Moscow. Which was very interesting. Met a lot of people there. Then, off I went to Paris. The conference was in a fantastic chateau. Never seen anything like it.
Anyway, so they were all women from belligerent nations. The conference was called that. And out of that connection, those connections, it also got involved in the moratorium, which was, you know, the movement started there and then came here.
But it was there that the Vietnamese women, Madame Binh from the south and Madame Cam from the north, invited me to visit North Vietnam. Which I did. Which was a pretty incredible exercise.
How long was the conference for? In Paris? Was it just a few days?
A week long.
And was it organised meetings, or just, sort of, hanging around with all the women?
Well, yeah, no, it was meetings. We discussed the various conscriptions and things in the different countries. The Japanese were – there were quite a few of them there, and they were very vocal. Yes, so we - - -
Did you get to speak very much?
We – I only did – we only had one presentation. The rest of it were group meetings, trying to work out what to do and how to do it. But in Paris, at that conference, I met Jean-Paul Sartre he was running a draft resistance! He had this little office in an old French building.
I went up the stairs – you know, so I’m sitting there, talking to Jean-Paul Sartre about draft resistance.
McLean reflecting on why SOS was attractive:
I think our movement was very successful. And it was successful, in part, because they couldn’t really label us, you know? We started off being naïve – no, first we were Communists. Then they decided we weren’t. Then we were naïve – and finally, they decided that we were respectable middle class women who objected to the war.
So, yeah – and when we’d sit down – we always made decisions together, what actions – and when we decided, we’d sit down at a demonstration place and refused to move, they’d have to pick us up. But we never fought them. Always non-violent. Mainly because it’s the most effective way of getting things… we didn’t put people off. We had people joining us all the time.
I read somewhere that you had five hundred members by the end of it, and you had lots of other people who were supporting you, not just – I mean, some of the stuff that I’ve read around when you were in Fairlea is simply incredible, the twenty-four hour vigils and so on. What do you think made SOS so attractive?
I think it was because we made our message clear. We spoke about what was wrong with forcing young men, who couldn’t even vote – weren’t old enough to vote – to go and fight in a war in a country where people didn’t even know where it was. You know? People - - -
So there was a lot of education around Vietnam, and the issues?
Yeah. A lot of education about what was wrong. We had a small number of people – women, mainly – who joined us, and then their son didn’t get called up, and they’d leave. But in general, no. In general – they might have been like me, I had a two-year-old son, and and even if they joined because they wanted to protect their son, if he didn’t get called up, they still – you know, by this time, they were indoctrinated to believe in the cause.
McLean, Jean (31 July 2018). Interview with Alexandra Pierce.