The first intake of ‘nashos’ was recruited into the army under the controversial 1965–72 national service scheme that sent some 15,000 conscripts to serve, and 200 to die, in Vietnam.

Although always associated with the Vietnam War, the scheme was not introduced principally with Vietnam in mind. When the legislation was introduced in November 1964, policymakers’ main concern was Konfrontasi, Indonesia’s confrontation of the new Federation of Malaysia. Australia had already committed an infantry battalion and other forces to support Malaysia. A strong, but seldom expressed, fear in Canberra was that Jakarta might not only escalate its low-level conflict with Malaysia, but also take on Australia directly across the border between the western half of New Guinea, recently incorporated into Indonesia, and the eastern half, today’s Papua New Guinea but then administered by Australia under a United Nations mandate.

In the following months, the tensions behind Confrontation eased, until it was formally ended in 1966, while Vietnam moved to the top place on the regional, and global, agenda. The first Australian battalion sent to Vietnam in mid-1965 was composed of regulars. They arrived just as the first intake of ‘nashos’ was starting initial training. The first national servicemen went to Vietnam a year later when the commitment was raised to a task force of two battalions in 1966. From that time, the main combat elements of the task force were comprised of regulars and nashos in roughly 50–50 proportions.

Initially protests against conscription were mild, but when nashos were sent to Vietnam, two separate strands of opposition to government policy became linked, with a sort of multiplier effect. The scheme was highly selective, taking about 8% of the eligible cohort. The selection was by a ballot based on men’s 20th birthdays, when the voting age was 21. Opponents labelled the ballot a ‘blood lottery’, which sent voteless youth to an increasingly controversial war. ‘No conscripts to Vietnam’ was a powerful protest slogan.

In fact, less than a quarter of those called up—about 15,000 out of 63,000—served in Vietnam. Some served in Malaysia, Singapore or Papua New Guinea; most never left Australia.

The army hadn’t sought national service. Since the introduction of a standing army in the late 1940s, the army had turned away from the great citizen armies of the world wars towards smaller, more professional forces. The army’s leaders had not liked the electorally popular scheme of the 1950s, which produced large numbers of men with some basic military training, who could not be sent overseas. The army also knew that any form of compulsory overseas service would be controversial, reflecting on the army’s own standing in society. The army’s hand was effectively forced by the government, led by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who had long thought that Australia should emulate the compulsory service imposed by our great and powerful friends.

The scheme was complex and difficult to administer. (A good summary by Sue Langford is available on the Australian War Memorial website.) Numerous myths arose, some of which have recently been challenged by Mark Dapin. The system, for example, was not rigged in order to provide the skills that the army required. It always had more popular support than the strength of the protests suggested. Even in the era of Moratorium marches, volunteers for national service outnumbered those who refused to register or to respond to the call-up. But the protesters captured the public imagination, especially after some episodes in which draft resisters outwitted the authorities trying to enforce the National Service Act. In the early 1970s even establishment figures like the highly respected Governor of New South Wales, Sir Roden Cutler VC, publicly questioned the value of selective national service.

When Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to victory in December 1972, he suspended the scheme with immediate effect. Like his actions in withdrawing the last troops from Vietnam, he was delivering a dramatic coup de grâce to a moribund policy.

Although it’s technically possible, it is hard to imagine any government re-introducing compulsory military service, except in the most extreme circumstances. In 2006 the former CDF, Chris Barrie, raised the idea of a scheme in which military service would be one option. The Howard government shut down that conversation before it started.

That’s perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Vietnam era protest movement. The protesters did not end Australian involvement in the Vietnam War; they did not end the practice of sending Australian forces overseas to fight in coalitions led by the United States; they certainly did not, as the most extreme wing hoped, bring down Australia’s liberal, democratic and capitalist institutions. But at every level, from school cadets to the ranks of the ADF, the principle of voluntarism seems thoroughly entrenched.

Peter Edwards is the author of Crises and CommitmentsA Nation at War and Australia and the Vietnam War, all of which discuss the introduction and implementation of the 1965–72 national service scheme..


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  • Steve Wynn December 29, 2021  

    We need to get some facts right here, ALL Oz troops were removed from SVN by Billy Mcmahon, by the end of 1971 as I recall, the only troops left in SVN, that Whitlam brought home, were some of the Training Team. Further Conscription was only partly stopped by Whitlam, Labor left the ability to raise Conscription again anytime the parliament agreed to it. I am tired of the ABC’s line that Whitlam brought the troops home from SVN.

  • Ian Henderson December 29, 2021  

    I have refrained from commenting on this subject for fiftiy years but now will.
    In the last weeks of May 1971 I was rung by the Minister for Army’s private secretary to tell me he would have letter for me to take to the Comd AFV. On 1 June 1971, the day before I flew to Sydney I rang the private secretary to ask about the letter to be informed he would get it to me before I flew out to SVN. WWhen the bus loads of us arrived at the Sydney Airport, I was met by
    the Eastern Command DAPM who told me he would organise thye draft and that two provosts would escort me to the Captains Lounge.
    Later we were told the plane was loaded and I was to board. The provost escorted me to the aircraft door where the Captain of the plane, the Cheif Stward, A RASigs Major and two further provost awaited. The major confirmed with the captain that he was ready to fly, and then asked the chief steward all were seated and safety belted.
    The major then asked the provost for the key to the satchel chained to his wrist and removed a white envelope which he handed to me. The chief steward then escorted me to the final row left-side aisle seat where there would always be a steward to protect me.
    In Darwin and Singapore security came aboard and escorted me to a safe place awaiting reboarding for the next leg.
    At Tan Son_Nhat_International_Airport I was met by Australian Miltary Police and taken to Free World in a five vehicle convoy
    where I handed over the letter ordering the withdrawal of 1ATF and other non-AATTV elements.

  • Ian Henderson December 29, 2021  

    Last non-AATTV troops or HQ elements left on HMAS Sydney near midnight on 29 Feb 1972.
    A highly agitated US Army sergeant with a limo for me watched the last of then ferried out in landing craft.

  • Keith Jarrett December 30, 2021  

    There were a few anomalies that made National Service good for some and not for so others financially, for instance men employed in the public services, Banks, PMG, Large corporations etc etc looked after their employees during their service by topping up their income to the same level as their pre recruitment pay. All other industries and particularly Construction where I was employed did not, however they were required to hold your job open on return. I do not regret my service but it came at a cost in a time of your life you needed it most. I have always doubted the birthdate selection for the first intake and others until it became a TV show, I was deferred until I finished my apprenticeship and was in the 4th intake at Puckapunyal almost all in our intake were tradesmen, which the Army had a chronic shortfall at the time.

  • Richard Barry OAM December 30, 2021  

    Ian Henderson. Could you email me please?

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