Popular Fronts & Vietnam Moratoriums

Students for Democratic Action member, Brian Laver, at a rally in 1967 holding up the SDA pamphlet Impact opposing the visit of Marshall Ky from South Vietnam.

He writes Vietnam like a huge four-letter
word in blood and faeces on the walls
of government; reminds me when
the intricate machine stalls
there’s a poet still living at this address

– Bruce Beaver


Vietnamese Premier Ky’s visit to Brisbane
Air Vice-Marshall Ky and his wife visited Brisbane for only 48 hours. Nguyen Cao Ky went to the Army base at Canungra and his wife, Tuyet Mai (Snow Flower), went to the Blood Bank in Brisbane CBD.

The leader of the federal opposition Arthur Calwell called for demonstrations against Ky at a rally at City Hall. This was to be Calwell’s undoing. He had lost the 1966 election against Harold Holt who supported the Vietnam war and who was to drown the following year at Portsea in Victoria.

Holt gave Air–Vice Marshal Ky a state reception in Canberra. Hundreds who opposed his visit gathered at the official reception at Lennon’s Hotel in George Street. Security was tight. Uniformed police moved in to arrest some of those demonstrating against Ky.

Two police officers, one on each side of Wharfie Phil O’Brien, took hold of his arms. Phil did not move, but kept cool and said: “What’s wrong fellas?” This stunned them and they released their hold. Had he stiffened or moved he surely would have been arrested for assault or resisting arrest.

A friend of Phil O’Brien’s, Hec Chalmers, ex POW in Singapore and department head of a leading Brisbane insurance company, was arrested. Hec was later fined for assaulting special branch detective, Don Lane (later disgraced National Party MLA who earned the nickname Shady Lane). When Phil had last seen Hec, Don Lane had a head lock on him. [A standard police practice at demonstrations was to charge a person they had assaulted with ‘assault police’]. Anyone who knew Hec knew him to be a quiet and gentle person.

Hec Chalmers: “I  looked over and saw my wife on  the ground. I made  my  way  through  the crowd attempting to get to her. The next thing I remember was that I  was  being  dragged through  the Court  House (across the road on George Street),  held  about  the neck with a severe headlock. I was nearly fainting.

Bad luck continued for the family: during the anti–Ky demonstration Heck’s wife, Norma who was secretary of the Queensland Peace Committee had her ankle broken amid the melee of police and demonstrators.

Norma Chalmers, sitting on the footpath in George Street, contemplates her bruised knees, torn stockings and broken ankle after Anti-Vietnam War rally in Brisbane in 1967 (thanks to Fryer Library at UQ for photo)

Unfortunately, at the demonstrations against air vice marshal Ky the police force moved in and there were 14 arrests. The usual charges of failure to move, resisting arrest, and assaulting police were manufactured.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Marshal and Madame Ky dined with members of Qld State Cabinet while Special Branch Shady Lane and his uniformed mates beat up the demonstrators below.

Impact pamphlet put out by SDA in 1967

The sentiment in the press at the time was that the Peace Committee was run by Communists and therefore not to be trusted. However during the 1960s it was the Qld Peace Committee led by Norma Chalmers that co-ordinated much of the opposition to the war in Indo-China. Other groups came and went.

Ralph Summy in his study of the 1960s Peace Movement had this to say:

“The Qld Peace Committee’s Executive formally reflected a diversity of community representation, a factor which made it easier for the Peace Committee to extend its influence into some of the other peace groups. However, as has already been strongly emphasised, the directing and chief influence in the Peace Committee emanated from a section of the trade union movement – the sine qua non of its existence.

This close relationship was symbolically confirmed when the Peace Committee, in 1962, was granted permission to march in Brisbane’s traditional Labor Day Parade, an honour never before accorded a nominally non-labour organisation . The practice has been continued in the ensuing years.

The Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) constituted the largest and most consistent financial supporter of the Qld Peace Committee. The union imposed a voluntary peace levy of 25 cents payable once yearly by the members at the time of their September half yearly union dues. From the revenue collected in this manner the Union officials made disbursements throughout the year to the Peace Committee as well as, on special occasions, to the other peace groups.

The system of voluntary peace levies was also practised in the Seamen, Miners and Boilermakers unions. Another fairly reliable source of finance and manpower came from the Waterside Workers Federation through its special peace body, the Waterfront Peace Committee led by Phil O’Brien.” – AUSTRALIAN PEACE MOVEMENT, 1960-67: A STUDY OF DISSENT by Ralph V. Summy.

The Communists are behind this movement, way behind‘” – catchy Students for Democratic Action (SDA) slogan.

Yet the Queensland Peace Committee “often provided SDA with the use of its office equipment and vitally needed materials.  It opened up to SDA its trade union contacts; and it maintained formal organisational link with SDA through an interlocking of top leadership (two of SDA’s founders were members of the QPCICD (or Qld Peace Committee) Executive).” – AUSTRALIAN PEACE MOVEMENT, 1960-67: A STUDY OF DISSENT by Ralph V. Summy.

Summy devoted a lot time analysing how the SDA became an ‘independent body’. By the last Vietnam moratorium march in September 1971 the SDA was even unable to get its nominal spokesperson, Brian Laver, on the main platform facing a crowd of over 15,000 in the Roma Street forum . SDA was a spent force.

Ian Curr
3 Oct 2019

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