Inside Story

The myth of the abusive protesters

Bestselling historian Paul Ham stands by allegations that anti–Vietnam war activists confronted veterans at airports and in the streets. But where’s the evidence?

Tom Greenwell 24 April 2020 3604 words

Returned Australian soldiers parade through the streets of Brisbane on 14 June 1967. According to the Australian War Memorial’s caption, “More than 2000 people gave a rousing welcome to the 500 troops arriving home from Vietnam on board the HMAS Sydney, 60,000 people later lining the route as they marched through Brisbane city.” Yet it’s often said that there were no welcoming parades.

Was it common for demonstrators against the Vietnam war to denigrate and even assault soldiers returning to Australia? Many people believe so, but when journalist Mark Dapin was researching his book Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History he could find no evidence that incidents like this occurred. To make his case, he politely but exhaustively critiqued a well-known version of the story — Paul Ham’s account of the homecoming of Australian veterans in his bestselling Vietnam: The Australian War — and effectively left a key chapter of that book in tatters. And yet, a year on, Dapin’s case hasn’t received anything like the attention it deserves. When I contacted Paul Ham, he wasn’t aware of this challenge to his version of events.

Ham’s account, which won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History, depicts a protest movement pitted against the men who fought in Vietnam as much as the governments who sent them there. In a chapter titled “Baby-killers,” Ham recounts allegations that demonstrators appeared at airports, abusing and even spitting on soldiers the moment they touched down in Australia.

One veteran quoted by Ham recalled being attacked as soon as he got off the plane in Sydney. “Outside Mascot airport, hundreds of demonstrators pelted him and his fellow troops with rotten fruit,” Ham tells readers. Another soldier described family reunions inside an airport terminal being interrupted when “these motherfuckers come bursting in carrying placards… One I’ll never forget as long as I live… a placard saying ‘CHILD KILLERS.’” A third veteran attested to an airport demonstration at which a woman lunged at him and spat in his face.

Reacting to incidents like this, Ham’s assessment of the anti-war movement is scathing. Describing the protesters as a “fifth column,” he comments acidly that “perhaps silence is the only refuge open to them. If so, their silence condemns them: none has publicly recanted; none has apologised.” That, of course, assumes they were guilty of the sins alleged.

Intrigued by these claims, Dapin scoured digitised newspapers from the period for reports of anti–Vietnam war demonstrations at Australian airports. He found no reports of incidents at any airports, nor any reports of protesters insulting, abusing or spitting at soldiers anywhere else. None at all. What he did find was that the first allegation of this nature wasn’t published until 1982, a decade after the last Australian soldiers had returned home from Vietnam. Ultimately, Dapin concluded that airport demonstrations, spitting and jeers are the stuff of myth, not history.

Ham, on the other hand, stands by his original assessment of the evidence. “The argument that airport protests against the Vietnam war weren’t reported, ergo, they didn’t happen, is illogical and absurd,” he wrote recently via email from Paris. “I spoke to many veterans, not just the ones recorded in my book, who recall clearly encountering hostile anti-war protests at Australian airports on their return from Vietnam… Dapin is, in essence, calling them liars. I believe the soldiers’ accounts. And I stand firmly by my account of the history of the anti-war movement.”

In fact, Dapin goes to great lengths to avoid calling anybody a liar, but he does conclude the allegations are untrue. His research extended well beyond the mainstream press, and he found no contemporary record of conservative Australia criticising the anti-war movement for targeting soldiers. “The National Civic Council’s News Weekly, the scourge of the student left and tireless chronicler of radical outrage, recorded no airport demonstrations,” he notes. ASIO, which spied intensively on the peace movement throughout the war, produced no reports of airport demonstrations. Dapin even trawled through archives of materials produced by the anti-war movement itself in search of flyers, posters or polemics that might point to any of the fabled airport confrontations. Again, he found nothing.

Similarly, there is no contemporary evidence of Australian soldiers being called baby killers or anything similar. The term didn’t appear at all in the Sydney Morning Herald during the war years, and the Canberra Times made only two mentions of “baby killers” during the period: one related to a lethal virus, the other to a cot death. In News Corp’s and Nine’s digital archives, the first mention of “baby killers” in relation to Vietnam veterans doesn’t appear until 1997. “There are thousands of photographs of anti–Vietnam war demonstrations in archives throughout Australia,” writes Dapin, “and I have been unable to find a picture of a banner reading ‘baby killers.’”

During the entire period of the war, just three confrontations between protesters and soldiers were documented. In June 1966, at Sydney’s welcome home parade for the first men to return from the Vietnam war, a young woman poured red paint over herself and ran between the marching veterans as they approached Sydney Town Hall. In 1969, when the recently returned Ninth Battalion marched through the streets of Adelaide, roughly two dozen protesters carried out a silent vigil with placards reading “Peace Now” and “Withdraw Them All Now.” And in May 1970, men from the Third Battalion, R.A.R., turned up at a student protest in Adelaide, repeatedly charging and attacking the demonstrators. One soldier punched a nineteen-year-old woman, rendering her unconscious. “These events were not rumoured or recounted for the first time many years after the fact,” Dapin pointedly comments. “They were photographed and reported in the press the next day.”

Paul Ham believes there’s a plausible reason why the airport confrontations alleged in his book were never reported. “By the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the peace movement was so ubiquitous that small protests simply weren’t newsworthy,” he wrote to me. “University sit-ins, street marches, public protests were happening often by late 1968… and the press grew weary of them.” This might explain why some, even many, incidents went unreported. But it doesn’t explain why none was ever reported.

The issue is not that the press tired of the airport demonstrations: there’s no report of any to get tired of. It wasn’t that the mainstream press ignored an issue covered by others; conservative Australia apparently chose to ignore the anti-war movement’s misdemeanours as well. And, on Ham’s logic, the left itself avoided any public debate of the merits of targeting troops at airports; no activist wrote about whether such a tactic might be counterproductive or worse.

Ham’s example of the veteran who was supposedly pelted with tomatoes at Sydney Airport relies on the testimony of a pseudonymous “Mike” in a pamphlet published in 1987 by a veterans’ counselling service. “We got our satisfaction afterwards,” Mike says in the pamphlet. “150 toey, angry lads from Vietnam versus 400 demonstrators — they didn’t stand a chance. The cops were very good about it. They seemed to be otherwise occupied for a while.”

Dapin scoured newspaper archives from the period, surmising that an airport riot involving 550 people, inspired by one of the era’s great political controversies, must have attracted plenty of press attention. But it turns out that there is simply no mention of the alleged incident, or anything like it, in any newspaper from the time. To believe Ham’s evidence, we have to imagine that the Australian media missed this story entirely.

Ham insisted by email that “all the servicemen I interviewed told me they’d experienced some form of abuse on their return home, mostly verbal insults etc., at airports and public places or in their own communities and homes… To assume that the story of the past is limited to press reports and whether there’s an official document to account for an event (which I call “document-fetishism”), is not only bad history; it’s anti-history. It ignores the voices of those who experienced these events.”

Dapin doesn’t ignore those voices; he draws on conversations with more than a hundred Vietnam veterans he interviewed for an earlier book, The Nashos’ War, and reflects at length on the nature and reliability of oral history. Indeed, he begins Australia’s Vietnam by describing an article he wrote for Good Weekend in 2007 based on interviews with members of the Queensland chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. One veteran told Dapin how his unit was forced to sneak home under the cover of darkness, their flight home rescheduled to avoid demonstrations at the airport in Australia. Another said he was spat on and a bucket of paint was poured all over him by a student activist. “We came back with the general consensus that we were a bunch of bloody idiots, bludgers, baby killers, morons,” the club president recalled.

Reflecting on this story, Dapin explains that he didn’t bother to ask for specific details about when and where the alleged incidents happened, or whether there were any press reports at the time. He didn’t need to. The stories made sense. They were the kind of things everybody knew had happened. Thus he shared the stories with his readers, repeating them “faithfully and uncritically.”

But he now believes they were untrue. This is not because he thinks oral testimony should be ignored. It’s because he recognises that it needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny and interpreted in the light of other available evidence. To accept Mike’s story about the mass riot at Mascot (relied on by Ham), we have not only to believe that police turned a blind eye but also that protesters — hardly unpractised at making their voice heard — failed to raise so much as a peep. Indeed, if we are to believe that airport demonstrations occurred frequently, we have to imagine that authorities allowed them to occur without making a single arrest, pressing any charges, or making any arrangements or laws that might have prevented them.

Ham cites at length a veteran who claimed he was confronted by a large demonstration, and spat on, when he caught a connecting flight to Brisbane, the day after his unit had arrived in Sydney. What is the likelihood, asks Dapin, of demonstrators going out to the airport on the off-chance of confronting a soldier who had got in the day before? The notion that flights arrived during the night to avoid demonstrations, which Dapin himself once uncritically reported, turns out to have been publicly debunked long ago: it was simply so planes could be available for commercial use in the daytime.

Despite the chasm between veterans’ personal recollections and the documentary record, Dapin believes these men generally feel they are telling the truth. Their mistaken memories are symptomatic, he argues, of our capacity to unconsciously confuse, alter, ameliorate and assimilate. As stories have been told and retold over time, he suggests, invented details have been subsumed into sincere recollections of the past in a way that helps make sense of tragic, confusing and often overwhelming events. “It is difficult to communicate an abstract idea of social alienation,” Dapin perceptively observes, “easier to weave a story around a sentiment, to provide the material answer to the question that even the most sympathetic listener silently demands — what happened to you that made you feel that way?”

For his part, Ham points to the testimony of Harry Whiteside, who alleged that he was confronted by spitting demonstrators at the airport and called a “bloody kid killer.” But his recollection, housed at UNSW’s Australians at War Film Archive, exemplifies exactly what is so problematic about this kind of evidence. Recorded in 2004, more than three decades after the alleged events, his statement isn’t questioned, challenged or examined in any way. Whiteside’s testimony is also laced with palpable anger and animosity. “I just had this wild desire to plug a magazine on and clean them all up,” he says at one point. None of this disproves his claim. It just gives us pause for thought before accepting it.

Dapin agrees with Ham that many veterans tell stories like Whiteside’s — he has heard them firsthand. Does their sheer number, then, make it likely that they have at least a kernel of truth, despite the dearth of authenticating evidence? This conclusion would be more plausible were it not for the unambiguous evidence that our collective memory of the Vietnam years has become profoundly distorted in other ways as well.

On a Saturday morning in October 1987, tens of thousands of returned soldiers marched in the Vietnam Veterans’ Welcome Home Parade in Sydney before an estimated crowd of 100,000, including the prime minister, Bob Hawke. The parade, a decade and a half after the last troops returned, was conducted on the widely shared assumption that no such event had occurred during the war itself.

The assumption was wrong. Massive parades occurred across Australia throughout the Vietnam war, and Dapin lists them all in an appendix to his book. In a city of fewer than two and a half million people, 300,000 Sydney-siders turned out to honour veterans returning from Vietnam in June 1966, for instance. The cheering crowds clapped and threw confetti; more than once, women ran out from the crowd to plant a kiss on the cheek of one of the marching men. “There were schoolchildren seeing their first march, and shrilling their excitement,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported. “There were wigged and robed barristers, leaving courts to line the footpath in Macquarie Street and add a measure of dignified applause.”

Newspaper reports of enormous welcome home parades in subsequent years describe “the traditional welcome to homecoming troops,” “hundreds of thousands packing the pavement,” prolonged cheering and “barrages of tickertape.” The crowds far outnumbered even the largest anti-war moratoriums, and yet they have vanished from history, their disappearance a monument to our collective capacity to misremember this controversial period.

Even today, the amnesia endures. Dapin places the multiple Herald reports of enormous public celebrations of Vietnam veterans in the sixties and seventies alongside one from Anzac Day 2013. “None of them were welcomed,” it solemnly reports. “The official ‘welcome home’ parade for Vietnam veterans was not held until 1987.” In defending his account of the supposed hostility faced by returning veterans, Paul Ham summoned the myth that they were denied welcome home parades. “Is it any wonder,” Ham emailed, “the Vietnam veterans had to wait until 1987 for a real ‘Return Home Parade’? The very point of which was a massive public effort to right the wrongs that had been inflicted on so many of them.”

The American sociologist and veteran Jerry Lembcke conducted a similar investigation to Dapin’s in the late 1990s, publishing his findings in a book called The Spitting Image. Lembcke also found no credible evidence of soldiers being spat on, or veterans being confronted at airports; like Dapin, he found that the first allegations of such incidents only surfaced long after the war had ended.

Lembcke also discovered something even more remarkable. The first-ever representation of an anti-war airport demonstration was in an Oscar-winning Hollywood feature film released three years after the fall of Saigon. In the film, Coming Home, the fictional protagonist is accosted by protesters as he reunites with his waiting wife in the airport terminal. Chanting “One, Two, Three, Four, we don’t want your rotten war!” the demonstrators continue to heckle the couple as they get into their car and head for home. Every one of the allegations by people who claimed to have witnessed such incidents was made after that film and others like it were released.

In the late seventies, Lembcke explains, Hollywood began to represent the Vietnam war primarily as a story about the homecoming experience of American veterans. And it is at this point that protesters, albeit fictional ones, started appearing at airports and assailing soldiers as though they were the enemy. In 1982, the maligned and marginalised former Green Beret John Rambo came to personify the theme of home-front betrayal. “I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win,” he says in First Blood, which topped the American box office for three weeks straight and ultimately grossed US$125 million. “Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer, and all kinds of vile crap. Who are they to protest me? Huh?”

The myth-making moved up a gear in the second Rambo film, when the hero was called on to rescue American POWs still languishing in Southeast Asia, only to be constantly betrayed from above. He is sceptical from the start: “Do we get to win this time?” he asks his erstwhile commander. Back in Vietnam he bares his heart to a nascent love interest. “When I came back to the States, I found another war going on. A war against the soldiers returning.” As further sequels followed, rip-offs were released and Rambo became a cult figure, the image of the betrayed veteran slowly seeped its way into our cultural common sense.

Australians, like Americans, have come to remember the Vietnam homecoming depicted by Hollywood over what actually occurred. As Mark Dapin observes, “The existence of the same impossible stories in the US, Australia and New Zealand make it difficult to allow any other conclusion.” But he makes one significant qualification. In America’s case, it’s true that most of the three and a half million Americans who served in Southeast Asia didn’t receive a welcome home parade during the war. In this respect, our mythology appears to borrow more from American reality than American movies.

The mistreatment of Vietnam veterans is so embedded in Australia’s official memory that in 2006 then prime minister John Howard was moved to apologise on the nation’s behalf. “The sad fact is, Mr Speaker, that those who served in Vietnam were not welcomed back as they should have been at the time,” he told parliament. “And I think the nation collectively, Mr Speaker, whatever our views may be, and I include those who supported the war as well as those who opposed it, we collectively failed those men at the time, and they are owed our apologies and our regrets for that failure.”

The attempt to make amends continued with the onset of commemorations of the centenary of the first world war, with the veterans affairs minister declaring that Vietnam veterans’ service and sacrifice had gone unrecognised. As governor-general, Vietnam veteran Peter Cosgrove would claim that only with a welcome home parade held in 1987 did “the Australian community start to put things right,” setting aside the “virulent,” “political anti-war activism” that had “marginalised and stigmatised” veterans up to that time.

Oddly, Mark Dapin might also be partly responsible for the failure of his revisionist history to take hold. In a strange turn, he suggests that the myths about the anti-war movement are nothing more than the harmless expressions of veterans’ subjective experience. “The significance of the airport demonstration stories,” Dapin writes, “may lie less in the fact that the accounts are false than the feeling that their meaning is true for those who remember them and believe they were the victims of an organised campaign of public harassment and shaming.”

Thus, in the final analysis, his book elevates these smears to the status of mythological expressions of personal truths. “Does it matter that the airport demonstrations did not happen?” Dapin asks himself. “The veterans are not libelling anybody: no protester — or even group of protesters — has even been named as having taken part. Why not just let people be?” Because in the mythology that has been given credence by journalists and historians, taken seriously by politicians and enshrined in official declarations, protesters become traitors and dissent collapses into disloyalty.

And what of that one isolated case of a protester targeting the soldiers themselves? The woman who threw paint over herself near Sydney Town Hall in 1966 was Nadine Jensen, a twenty-one-year-old typist from Campbelltown. Before being restrained by police, she ran between the ranks of marching soldiers, bumping into several, and finally threw her arms around the commanding officer at the head of the march.

In court the next day, she stated that she had acted alone and was not a member of any political party or organisation. Her action was “symbolic of the blood being shed in Vietnam,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. She “thought it was her personal responsibility to do something about the situation in Vietnam,” the paper continued. “Miss Jensen said there was a moral issue at stake and she felt that if people examined themselves they would find Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was not justified.”

Jensen expressed regret that she had appeared hostile towards the troops themselves. That was not her intention, she told the court. “My action was not so much against the soldiers but against authority itself,” she said. “My action may have been wrong in that I should have been protesting against those people in Australia whose attitude was one of complacency and apathy.” She was right to make this concession, but her slight was innocuous in comparison with the government policy she was opposing. In symbolising the bloodbath to which we were a party, placing centrestage what too many were willing to put out of sight and out of mind, Jensen called on her fellow Australians to face up to the consequences of their actions.

In court in June 1966, Nadine Jensen was found guilty of offensive behaviour. But Jensen countered with her own accusation. “I know Australians are very brave physically, but I think they should show more intellectual and moral bravery.” She was right then, and the malevolent misrepresentation that still swirls around the anti-war movement suggests the enduring relevance of her rebuke. •