Personal Stories: Opposition to the Vietnam War

Some eligible men for military service under the 1964 National Service Act (NSA) were mainly opposed to the Act because it provided for possible  military service in Vietnam which they considered to be an immoral war based on their conscientious beliefs.

John Francis Zarb was a postman from Pascoe Vale South in Victoria and he registered under the NSA. He then made application to be exempted from all military duties as a conscientious objector. The magistrate Mr CM Elvish heard his application on 2 November 1967. The magistrate stated he was satisfied that John was sincere in his beliefs and that he was a conscientious objector. However, he dismissed the application because the NSA did not permit an exemption based on objection to a particular conflict. In this case the Vietnam War. John then decided on non-compliance of the NSA. He was convicted on14 October 1968 at the City Court Melbourne for failure to obey a call-up notice and was sentenced to two years imprisonment. During the prosecution John repeated what he had stated at his original court hearing. He had a conscientious objection to aiding and abetting what - he regarded as an unjust and immoral war- the Vietnam War. He indicated that he was not a pacifist and was prepared to undertake military training. He further indicated that he was prepared to defend Australia against an unprovoked attack, including the use of lethal force, but he would not attack another country.[11] John was  adopted by Amnesty International as Prisoner of Conscience.[12] Irene Zarb, the mother of John, expressed through The Peacemaker Newspaper her thanks to all throughout Australia and overseas who supported him. She noted that John had been added to the War Resisters International Prisoners of Honour Christmas List – the first Australian person since conscription in the 1950s. Irene also mentioned that John had elected to serve his imprisonment in Pentridge rather than a Victorian country prison. John was released early from his sentence on 21 August 1969.[13]

Charles Edward Martin of Adelaide, South Australia was an early registrant for national service during 1966. He was balloted in but he then deferred until 1969 so he could complete his tertiary studies. On19 December 1969 he received a call-up for military service which was to commence on 29 January 1970. He wrote to Minister Snedden indicating his refusal to comply with the NSA and accordingly he refused to obey the call-up notice. He was summonsed, pleaded guilty and was fined for this action. When Charles refused to enter into a recognizance to obey a future call-up notice he was sentenced to the statutory two years imprisonment in Yatala Gaol in South Australia. He also refused the Commonwealth’s offer to have a court consider as to whether he was a conscientious objector. Charles left a statement with his friends for publication before he was imprisoned. His major reason for his non-compliance was his opposition to the Vietnam War.[14] He stated, I am sure an Australian military presence in Vietnam is not in the interests of peace, freedom or democracy for the people of Vietnam but on the contrary in the interests of justice and privilege. It is brutalizing and embittering all combatants as well as uncommitted  sections of the populace. He viewed Australia’s involvement in Vietnam in a wider context and stated that, Our involvement in Vietnam is the latest manifestation of a persistent trait of Fascism in our society, expressed in racism…obsession with law and order, unquestioning acceptance of authority, a strong belief in the Protestant Ethic (i.e. “success” and wealth are a  sign of goodness), and interpretation of freedom as meaning freedom to exploit.

Charles was listed on the War Resisters International, Prisoners for Peace 1970 Honour Roll, together with nearly 400 others known to be imprisoned in other countries.  Later he was housed at the Cadell Training Centre. He was released on 9 October 1971 after 18 months imprisonment. Announcing his release the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan,  stated that Charles was a prisoner of conscience and should not have been imprisoned. He also remarked that Charles release followed the enactment by the Australian government to provide for the reduction of the period of full-time national service to 18 months.[15]

David Day was from Carlton an inner suburb of Melbourne and he informed Minister Bury of his refusal to register under the NSA. His registration was due between 20 January and 4 February 1969. He was the first person to be arrested for a national service offence, committed as a matter of conscience under the Crimes Act. There was no normal serving of the summons on him. Fortunately David was aware of his rights and sought an adjournment of seven days so he could seek legal or other advice otherwise he could have been convicted there and then. At an adjourned hearing on 10 July 1969, prosecutor Burgin stated that numerous attempts to communicate with David had been made prior to his arrest. Magistrate Maloney invited David to make an unsworn statement which was not subject to cross-examination, which he did. The magistrate  fined David for the offence and gave him one month to pay. He subsequently refused to take the medical examination. In the unsworn statement he spoke about his arrest and the grounds for his non-compliance.[16] Concerning his arrest he named Sergeant Sullivan as the informant and stated, On the third of July as I was entering this court to answer another charge (of sitting in at the Commonwealth Centre-Ed.), I was suddenly and without warning taken hold of by the Informant in this case. Whilst I was being so held against my will he commenced to ask me questions concerning this matter. When I refused to answer his questions the Informant immediately arrested me, charged me with this offence and brought me before the court on that day. David stated his reasons for non-compliance, Due to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War and its implementation of the National Service Act, I have been forced to consider my position in relation to killing my fellow man…Thus the basis for my non-compliance with the National Service Act is not a pacifist one. Rather it is an objection to Australia’s participation in the immoral war in Vietnam and the government’s conscription of twenty-year olds, many against their will, to fight this war. He further explained that he has undertaken reading and thinking about the Vietnam War during the past three years. He concluded that Australia was fighting to preserve the power of a right-wing dictatorship with little support from the Vietnamese people. He also commented that while he supported the ideals of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) he could not support their methods. Like many conscientious non-compliers and conscientious objectors he believed that the Vietnam War and conscription were both immoral.[17]