Between 1964 and 1972, young Australian men turning 20 were required to register for national service, a scheme that became known colloquially as ‘nasho’. More than 800,000 men did so, and almost 64,000 went on to serve in the army. Dr Christina Twomey, recipient of the 2009 Frederick Watson Fellowship, researched national service records held by the National Archives of Australia to investigate how Australians responded to the scheme.
One evening in late May 1966 Mr Brian T, from rural Western Australia, sat down with his notepad and pen and wrote to Prime Minister Harold Holt. Brian described himself as a ‘fair-minded Australian and supporter of the Liberal Party’. He had just learnt about the death of the first national serviceman in Vietnam. ‘The atmosphere in our household tonight changed dramatically from one of belief and trust in your actions to one of anger,’ Brian confessed. ‘I believe that the great majority of Australians object only to one facet of your National Service policy,’ he continued, ‘that is the extreme moral blunder that you are making in not asking these chaps to volunteer for service overseas.’ If only the government would ask, rather than compel, they would find plenty of national servicemen willing to serve overseas.
The Menzies government introduced the national service scheme to assist the regular army to fulfil its military commitments in Vietnam. Twice a year, the government conducted a ‘birthday ballot’ in order to determine which of the registrants would be called up for service. Almost 64,000 served in the army, more than 3500 won exemptions, and nearly 100,000 were rejected for failing to meet the army’s standards. The scheme generated an extensive bureaucracy and left a large archival trail. Australians such as Brian T from Western Australia were prepared to put pen to paper and tell the government what they thought about the national service policy.
The most infamous figure to emerge from the national service scheme was the draft resister: going underground, burning his registration papers and protesting in the anti-war movement. Moving beyond this relatively well-known story, examination of the records held in the Archives’ collection reveals the way Australian men and their families negotiated the requirements of the scheme, presented their views about compulsory military training, and debated its implications in the quieter forum of personal correspondence.
This research has yielded surprising results. For example, it is often forgotten that between 1951 and 1959 ‘nasho’ was preceded by a scheme that required 18-year-old men to undertake 176 days of military training. In the early 1960s, groups as diverse as the Queensland Women’s Electoral League and the Australian Legion of Ex-servicemen and Women wrote to the government arguing for the reintroduction of compulsory military training.
Young men also demonstrated a commitment to military training. Lester B, from a small town north of Brisbane, was devastated when national service was in abeyance. ‘As a boy,’ Lester assured the Prime Minister in 1963, ‘all through school, both myself and my friends eagerly awaited the day when we would be privileged to serve our short but beneficial period in NST [national service training].’ Suggesting that national service should be reintroduced, 19-year-old Lester concluded: ‘I humbly believe that the discipline, along with the company and atmosphere, would help immensely to stabilize the young man and help him in the crucial stage of life.’
One World War II veteran put his view in slightly more colloquial terms once ‘nasho’ had recommenced: those who resisted the idea of national service were ‘hanging onto their mothers’ apron strings … I think Sir, they are spoilt, for they want jam on it and do nothing for there [sic] country’.
Opposition to conscription
Sentiments such as these go some way towards explaining why national service was broadly, although not universally, accepted when it was reintroduced in 1964. Opposition to the scheme was often not opposition to the war itself – although this was a perception that would gather force by the late 1960s – but to the way national service flouted established Australian traditions. Any mention of the Anzac spirit is notable for its rarity: the language that dominated this debate, at least in the mid-1960s, was not about the heroic achievements of Australia’s military forces in the past, but about the need to make boys into men and the considerable obligations people bore towards the state, within traditional and agreed upon limits.
There were some features of the scheme that distinguished it from the old one. The most significant, apart from its random selectivity, was the government’s recently acquired capacity to send national servicemen to serve overseas. It was this, rather than the idea of national service per se, that generated controversy. An ex-serviceman who described himself as having ’3 lots of war service’ was in favour of compulsory training but warned the Prime Minister:
What I do know is this, Australians do not like to be conscripted … When we were asked over in France if we were in favour of Conscription, although in 1918 we were extremely hard pressed, I do not know of one serviceman who was in favour of it then. If all fit young men were compulsory called up … we would have the answer. Then I feel sure if we called for Volunteers for Overseas, we would readily get them as we did in 1914 and also 1939. The discipline these lads would learn would be of great advantage and would help them a lot to become better citizens.
Both this ex-serviceman and Brian T from Western Australia, consciously or not, articulated the governing assumption by which Australians had consented to military training, and compulsory service, in the twentieth century.
Alongside studying why young people objected to what they called ‘conscription’ (and certainly some of them did), we also need to ask why so many of them complied with its provisions. The official registration of more than 800,000 men born between 1945 and 1952, in an environment where failure to register was an offence – but one very poorly policed – does not suggest that national service was the subject of mass civil protest. Only 14 people were imprisoned for refusal to obey a call-up notice during the life of the scheme. Conscientious objectors formed only a small proportion of the overall numbers.
For at least the first half of the duration of the national service scheme (until about 1969), it was the scheme’s break with accepted traditions of compulsory military service in Australia that attracted criticism. Conscription for overseas service had always been controversial in Australia, as the bitter referendums of 1916 and 1917 had made so abundantly clear. The idea that it was the duty of young men to complete some form of military service – as an obligation of citizenship and as preparation for the responsibilities of mature masculinity – was more broadly accepted.
‘Hidden’ perspectives re-emerge
The controversy that ultimately engulfed Australia’s participation in Vietnam has meant that these perspectives on national service have largely disappeared from public view. More recently, they have reappeared. In September 2010, the Governor-General, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC, dedicated the National Service Memorial in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial. Unveiling the granite, stone and bronze memorial, the Governor-General hailed former national servicemen as ‘true patriots’. ‘They knew that, with civil and personal rights, came responsibilities to the nation – the obligation to serve capably with dignity and loyalty.’
While the reintroduction of national service seems an unlikely prospect, despite the Governor-General calling attention to Australian citizens’ ‘responsibilities’, her sentiments captured well the understandings that informed Australians’ support for the scheme in the 1960s.
Dr Twomey is an associate professor of history at Monash University in Melbourne.
Editor’s note: surnames have not been used in order to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned.
View Archives records relating to this article:
- National service training scheme – general representations
- National servicemen going overseas – general representations
Read more about the Archives’ holdings relating to the national service scheme
Read more about the Archives’ Frederick Watson Fellowship