Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 10. 1965.
Committee On Vietnam
Committee On Vietnam
An Interim History by Barry Mitcalfe
The committee began so informally and spontaneously that it did not acquire even a name until the third week of its life. It still retains part of its democratic structure, each meeting constituting itself the Committee on Vietnam, even though up to two or three hundred people may be present.
Work in arranging protest meetings, seminars, speakers, publications; in fund-raising and liaison with other organisations in other centres is carried out by subcommittees directed by the main committee. Like every committee, it relies heavily on the goodwill, common-sense and understanding of its members.
Despite the range of membership, the committee retains the social and executive coherence of its early days when, as a demonstration, it began simply in response to events beyond its control.
I became involved in it unwillingly, almost by accident, I had noticed the radio and press announcement that the Presidential envoy. Mr. Cabot Lodge, was coming to Wellington to consult with Cabinet on Vietnam. The attempts to recall Cabinet from its Easter holiday underlined the importance of the visit. Then came a 'phone call from Paul Melser, a University student whom I'd met some weeks previously, at an exhibition of his pottery. He asked if I would be willing to picket the airport entrance or to stage a sit-down in front of Cabot Lodge's car, anything to show that this emissary of war was not welcome, or this country not entirely comfortable about what was happening in Vietnam.
Cabot Lodge's visit seemed more important to the small group who met at Melser's place that Sunday afternoon, than the rise in fees which had sent two thousand students marching on Parliament the week before. It was fortunate that it was Easter, for the annual CND rally was on, and many of their members were able to join us. Cunning but foolish, the NZ advisers led the Presidential envoy in cavalcade of cars across the aerodrome away from the gate where we had lined the roadside.
We naturally followed and found ourselves, sixty or seventy strong, waiting outside the Mutual Motel. Most of us, I imagine, felt rather awkward, standing there, figuratively nailed to our placards, wondering what next? Then Mr. Powell, the USA ambassador to New Zealand, an ex-general from the Korean War, came out, climbed into his car, and it drove directly at the picketeers who had moved across the driveway. The car approached them slowly, then accelerated, knocking two men and a woman aside. One demonstrator thumped on the roof of the car; there was a shout of horror as the others went flying, and he was gone. A reporter yelled at him, then came hurrying up, but nobody was badly hurt, only bruised.
The police arrived, asked who was in charge, and it was suggested that I act as spokesman for the group. We were told to leave. After some discussion with an older member of our group — a lawyer—who pointed out that we were within our rights, provided we kept moving on the footpath, and did not block it, we cut our numbers down to an overnight roster of six.
Those not on duty adjourned, some to sleep, but others to prepare the first of our many and varied publications, an open letter to Cabot Lodge supplemented with a four-page cyclostyled pamphlet on the situation in Vietnam.
The "Sunday News" was the only paper to reprint large portions of this open letter, which had given the reasons for our concern. Other papers were more concerned with the brief, but violent passage of the car, and the American Ambassador's report that his standard had disappeared. This made local and world headlines.
It is perhaps a sad commentary on the newshawks' hunger for violence that the much larger, more constructive, and non-cooperative effort of pamphleteering every household in Wellington, using a voluntary group of 80, with 24 cars, received no publicity whatsoever. Yet this was a genuine effort to re-educate, through quotations from conservative or acceptable sources, a public conditioned by newspaper reports to think in simple terms of black and white, of North against South, of democrat against communist, and of the threat to NZ, building on the Mekong River.
Editorially, the "Evening Post." like the "Auckland Star" and the "Sunday News," swung to our point of view on the danger of military involvement with such dubious allies as the South Vietnamese military dictatorship. But the morning newspaper, the "Dominion," took a jaundiced view or our proceedings; its view was reflected through the Press Association reports it sent to every other morning paper. Its attitude was so extreme that it somehow failed, without explanation, to use two successive advertisements we had prepared for a public meeting in the "Lido" Theatre, where Jim Henderson, the writer and a returned serviceman, was speaking against the bellicose Mitchell. President of the RSA.
In all our actions, we were impelled, initially perhaps by conscience, then partly by group morale, and by an awareness learnt in the Lodge incident, to realise the importance of the public image. We were conscious of representing others not present, strangers who rang our homes or sent telegrams, passers-by who stopped to talk, and the mute television and newspaper audience.
After the Lodge incident and our "To the Householder" pamphlet, the Committee on Vietnam began to take formal shape, with 150 present at a typical meeting of the Committee, where all levels of society and shades of opinion were represented. This meeting, despite the pleas of some of its initial student members, appointed a Chairman and a Secretary (Adrian Webster) and a number of specific sub-committees for such things as publicity and finance.
Financially, we weren't badly off. I had found fund-raising more embittering in some ways than any other activity, but in three days, four of us had succeeded in raising over £250, much of it from private individuals, but some from unions and organisations like the CND. More important, various well-known people gave permission for their names to be used as sponsors.
It was typical of the Committee on Vietnam that while some members were approaching Trades Hall and the Unions, others were posting circulars to MPs; yet others were seeking signatures from distinguished people to a short petition, the Gestetner presses were turning out up to a thousand pamphlets a day, a vigil was forming on Parliament steps, to underline the importance of Cabinet meeting next day, when Vietnam would be discussed, while a backroom committee consisting of the Chairman, Mrs. E. Lenart, Nan Taylor, Con Bollinger, Phil Evans and Barbara Metcalfe, was working three days and nights to produce a 30-page pamphlet. "Vietnam." The urgency came, because we felt we were working against ignorance, and a prejudice fostered largely by newspapers and politicians towards the one end—war.
Other organisations, ranging from the FOL Conference, to the Churches, to the Public Service Association, to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, joined in the campaign. Decision was deferred; for two weeks, Cabinet made no announcement, although Mr. Holyoake went through all the motions leading up to a declaration without actually saying anything.
Committees similar to ours were formed in Auckland. Palmers ton North, Nelson. Christchurch and Dunedin. We kept informal contact, sending pamphlets, and trying to co-ordinate activities, such as the call for a referendum, a sort of last-ditch stand before Cabinet's final decision to send troops. This decision, made on Monday (May 24), was not announced until Thursday, the 27th.
It has not changed our resolve. We maintained a vigil on Parliament steps until the mass protest meeting in Parliament grounds on Tuesday, June 1st. This type of activity may not change anything, but it redeems a bad conscience, and it might show some of our near neighbours in the Third World that not all New Zealanders are willing to murder for the sake of so-called Freedom, under the cloak of military dictatorship in South Vietnam.
Not The Last
One crisis has passed. It is not the last.
We will continue to educate, to work through, and with public opinion to change attitudes towards war as a weapon of diplomacy, and towards our near neighbours in Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, who must socialise methods of production if they are to achieve a decent life. If we are to join with America in labelling all such attempts as Communist—as in the Dominican Republic—then we are committing ourselves to a struggle which will become increasingly racial.
I conclude with a quotation from Professor Buchanan ("NZ Monthly Review." June): "As a country with no colonial past, as a nation integrating white men and brown men, as a society with a long and distinguished preoccupation with the welfare of the common man, New Zealand is uniquely fitted to act as a bridge and a mediator, between the wealthy societies of the West and the new societies striving to be born, both in our near North and in the rest of the undeveloped world. It is in this field, and not on the napalm-scorched battlefields of South Vietnam, that New Zealand can make its greatest contribution and win the greatest honour …"