Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 6. April 9, 1968
Vietnam Protesters — A Mixed Lot — An Enquiry By Anthony Haas
Vietnam Protesters — A Mixed Lot
An Enquiry By Anthony Haas
Three major fields of enquiry are opened up in considering the Vietnam protest movement in New Zealand.
First—who are the protesters and what is the protest movement?
Second—what are the protesters saying?
Third—what does the movement achieve?
This article examines the protest movement—the backdrop to a discussion of its impact and attitudes.
Like so many other phases of the anti status quo protest movements, the Wellington Committee on Vietnam (COV) is vindicated by a clearer perception of what it was all about. Mythology and misty memories are the main record of too many of the earlier phases in New Zealand's intellectual fashions. As a result, those who would detract from the legitimate exercise of protest as shown by the COV and its intellectual, emotional and ideological antecedents do so without telling and informed rebuttals.
The protesters have a wide range of talents and backgrounds. It was partly because their first chairman of the Wellington COV was such a personable chap and partly because so many different people disliked the war that the COV developed its broad base.
Barry Mitcalfe, had been little more than a spectator of the changing fashions in the protest movement until he formed the COV.
He lectured, and still does in Polynesian studies at the Wellington Teachers College.
One of the advantages of the Kowhai Road site for the Wellington Teachers College is that it encourages an active exchange between University and Training College Students and Staff. This was the climate in which the protest movement erupted forth in May and June of 1965. The COV formed in response to its assessment that Government was planning to send troops to join the American quagmire in Vietnam. The protesters felt the Government was under pressure from the United States, and that Government had a distorted view of the Asian scene.
The initial burst of protest grew on the decaying remnants of older and more experienced grass roots political movements. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was one of the important roots of protest. Unfortunately, no one has exhaustively documented its life, but by the time the Vietnam protest had developed CND had passed its peak. It seems CND was very similar to the COV in the way in which it drew diverse groups and individuals together. CND reached its death bed in the same way that the COV will approach its own shortly, not because the urgency of the issue has gone, but partly because it develops broader acceptance of its goals and does itself out of a job partly because the initial fright passed, and partly because no two people seem to be able to patch up all their differences all the time—even though married.
The groups subscribing to the central COV aim of objection to participation by New Zealand in the War in Vietnam were diverse and not always compatible. It was their common concern at the war which patched over most of their differences. They recognised too, that their differences were being exploited by those who wanted to see their very central point obscured and abandoned.
Separately, most of the groups identifiable had come in for their share, and more, of abuse in their lives. CND brought a measure of experience of political protest to the COV. Its legacies were bequeathed in the form of contacts with different people likely to have strong feelings about Vietnam, and in the form of knowledge of certain proceedures such as how to respond to Police practice and possible infringements of civil liberties.
The COV needed this type of experience to advise it. for it grew in a hostile climate.
First there was Government, whose view of the Vietnam war the COV challenged. Never before in New zealand had public opinion erupted in such a dramatic and persistent way on a foreign policy issue. Government's defence mechanisms opened up at National Party figures swung to the loyalty of the protesters.
There was the comment of Mr. Talboys, Minister of Agriculture "there are faces and names . . . .
"I am not saying that all of them are Communists or all of them are pacifists, but I am saving that the Communists and pacifists support them all the time".
Mr. Holyoake made his contribution:
"When the question was raised the Communist Party . . . protested against the sending of troops to Vietnam. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament passed similar motions. Where did it get its inspiration from? The Peace Council passed similar motions. Where did its inspiration come from? The anti-American groups and the anti-New Zealand Government groups passed motions . . ."
Following Government's hostile lead came the automatic responses of the RSA whose antiquated view of NZ's foreign policy problems required that they spy internal subversion in NZ. "The Communists in the universities have not got the support of the people," said one S. J. Geary of Christchurch to his co-RSA colleagues.
The newspapers had to be bullied and trapped into carrying news of the protest as an exercise in legitimate dissent. "Beardies and weirdies", they echoed after Mr. J. R. Harrison, MP. The initial protesters had little of consequence to say on the war apart from the fact they did not like it, but the little assessment they did have to offer was smothered by unsympathetic newspapers—most of whom editorially supported Government's decision to send troops.
For a country so nominally wedded to principles of free speech and assembly, New Zealand has a maze of restrictions on protest which only the most experienced of dissenters could pick through. The Police were not above suspicion for partisan opposition to the right to protest, nor were the laws which back them.
The Security Service, with a traditional veil of secrecy shrouding its initiated activities, east the fear of the unknown into protesters who were nurtured on the legacy of innocence deprived rumouring through the radical community.
City Councils required considerable cajoling before processions, unity conferences of the protest movement, received permission to be held in main street.
Even the traditionally innocuous Post Office showed fangs when some of its zealous regulation men fell under suspicion for interfering with Her Majesty's protest mails.
Whilst these responses to the protest were unpalatable, they helped knit the movement together. But it was basically the feeling of common cause that led so many diverse groups under the same banner.
Reasons for opposing the war were as numerous as the groups involved, perhaps as numerous as the thousands of individuals involved.
From the universities, the training colleges and the various groupings throughout the community came a base, knitted together by overlapping contacts, that sustained the protest movement.
The Churches associated themselves with the protest, causing stresses within religious ranks, but a valuable focal point for their liberal members. For such a small body Christian Pacifists were proportionately highly represented in the COV Clergy and laity From other churches were Found in prominent roles in the protest, but tended more than most groups to voice opinions independent of the COV.
Increasing church involvement in protests may be explained by the fact that in 1965, the National Council of Churches set up a Church Commission on International Affairs, legitimising interest in foreign policy among affiliates. The image of respectability provided by the clerics has been conciously used as a defence mechanism by the protesters.
Unions too, came out in protest. Like the churches in more ways than one, they had factional problems and a past to overcome. A decade ago, one participant said, union leaders would have supported a Vietnam war stand like the New Zealand Government's today.
Public Service Association politicians also joined the protest, and paid for the privilege by rumblings in the ranks.
The Womens' International League for Peace and Freedom, a small group of well meaning women provided another recruiting centre for the protesters, a recruitment process that required no canvasses but worked as the medium carried the message through the community.
The United Nations Association, cherishing its resportability, kept the COV at arms length, but provided yet another arena for the cross fertilisation that followed the protest.
The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, little more than a still born COV in the NZ context ushered some protesters in as it ushered itself out.
The Wellington Peace Council, never clearly disassociated from the image of its predecessors, threw itself into a sectarian form of Vietnam protest.
The Auckland based Medical Aid Committee, which caused a Parliamentary storm over the export of overseas funds to the NLF had little early contact with the COV, partly because its scope was limited. But like so many other phases of the protest it gradually merged some of its activities and personnel with the COV and side kicks.
Associated with the Wellington based COV were protest organisations in over twenty other centres, including the main centres. The tone and structure of these organisations differed, but all were able to find common cause when occasion demanded.
The other group and movements described above, were the links betwen the COV and the Vietnam protesters throughout New Zealand. As time passed, the COV developed its own organisational contact with other centres,
A spasmodic contact had always existed with the protest movements abroad, but at no time has this link been used so exhaustively as it was in organising the recent "Peace, Power and Politics in Asia" Conference.
These contacts abroad, so far as the Wellington COV was concerned in its early years, never led to any meaningful communication with North Vietnam.
It did, however, lead to considerable attention being Focused on the Americans, whose Government was attacked for its foreign policy by some, and its general values by others. Accusations that the COV was antiAmerican are unfair unless precisely directed.
For example, Auckland sections of the New Zealand Communist Party indulged in what Maurice Shadbolt, author and a critic of the war called "an orgy of antiAmericanism".
But even the Communists split over this approach. The Socialist Unity Party breakaway from the Communist Party of NZ moderated its criticism to focus on US foreign policy as distinct from American life.