Throughout the 1960s, students were galvanised by a growing protest movement against the Vietnam War, alumna Megan Stoyles writes.

In 1964, the Australian National University was a campus of two parts. There was the Institute of Advanced Studies, with its internationally-recognised research focus, and the School of General Studies (SGS), with a traditional undergraduate and postgraduate structure.

When the Vietnam conflict and Australia’s role in it became the subject of public interest and opposition, ANU academics were early participants in the national policy debate.

As a second year Political Science student, I attended public debates with TB Millar, JDB Miller and others from the Institute, as well as my lecturers including Bob Gollan, Ian Wilson, Bruce McFarlane and Bob Cooksey.

The institute had close links with Australian and US defence, foreign affairs and intelligence and its experts were early proponents of the domino theory that a communist victory from China via Vietnam would overrun Asia down to Australia. This soon underpinned Australian Government policy.

A different mood prevailed over at the SGS, where campus discussions started with public lectures, then moved to teach-ins, along with a transition from antiwar sentiment to support for the National Liberation Front in 1966.  

For some students this signified the beginning of a wider analysis of US imperialism.

Speakers at SGS were nearly all (with eccentric exceptions such as historian Geoffrey Fairbairn) anti-war, anti-imperialism and anti-American.

They were boosted by a few outsiders like Alan Roberts and Gregory Clark, a Chinese and Soviet expert and linguist who resigned from the Department of External Affairs — and joined ANU — because of the government’s position on Vietnam.

Public debate, then government policy and the introduction of conscription — personally affecting my student contemporaries— led to public opposition and demonstrations, organised by the ANU Students’ Association, the Canberra Labor Club and the Vietnam Action Committee, as well as local and national community and union groups.

Opposition to Government policy led to demonstrations outside Parliament and elsewhere, including the arrest of the now distinguished ANU Professor Des Ball AO, who refused to come down from the George V statue when directed to do so by police.

This led to a famous court decision when Kep Enderby (then an ANU law lecturer later MP, Attorney-General and Judge) got him off — legally.

The later arrest of McFarlane led to a famous ballad, Muscles McFarlane, the pride of the clan, written and sung by American literature lecturer and poet, Bob Brissenden.

Enderby also successfully defended ANU student Merrilyn Sernack in her refusal to be fingerprinted after a sit-in in the Embassy of the Republic of South Vietnam, setting a legal precedent prohibiting the blanket exercise of police administrative powers.

My friend and fellow politics student Helen Jarvis remembers the threat of arrest after burning an Australian flag. But in those less jingoistic days, police discovered that the only possible offence was burning rubbish in a public place.

Another friend and distinguished academic Emeritus Professor Diane Austin recalls facing security problems when studying for her doctorate at the University of Chicago, based on ASIO phone taps of Gollan.

The war and opposition to it grew and in 1966 I achieved worldwide notoriety demonstrating against US President Lyndon Baines Johnson when he visited Canberra to boost the election fortunes of his ally Harold Holt.

Megan Stoyles wearing her ‘Make Love Not War’ T-Shirt in 2016 – 50 years after she wore it at a protest against the Vietnam War. Photo: Stuart Hay/ANU

I wore a T-shirt stating, in modest typeface ‘Make Love Not War’ (and holding a poster stating ‘We want Bobby Kennedy for President’).

Visiting US journalists, as well as locals, were quite taken with the image which lived on in newspaper files, re-emerging recycled later in Life magazine as an “American student in revolt”.

Years later when the Australian Government eagerly joined the Coalition of the Willing against Saddam Hussein, I was asked — given my earlier anti-war stance — what I thought of this war.

Using the techniques of study, discussion and debate learnt at ANU, I again said “No” to this unnecessary and tragic war, which still bedevils Australian politics today.

Megan Stoyles graduated from ANU in 1968. She went on to work as a press secretary in the Whitlam Government.

Top image: ANU alumna Megan Stoyles in 1966 wearing her ‘Make Love Not War’ T-shirt at a protest against the Vietnam War. Photo: The Canberra Times

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