The Student Christian Movement, Gough Whitlam and Conscription

The following 1968 telegram from then Federal Opposition leader Gough Whitlam is from the recently created UAA Series 1420, “Australian Student Christian Movement South Australian Branch Records”.

The message was sent in the context of a growing opposition to the War in Vietnam and in particular the compulsory selective conscription – a system whereby all twenty year old men would be chosen for national service according to randomly selected birth dates. The National Service Act (1964) was introduced by the Menzies Government to strengthen the Army’s ability to meet the perceived threat of communism in South East Asia. However, Harold Holt’s commitment of Australian troops (including conscripts) to Vietnam in 1966 saw the scheme come under increasing scrutiny. Questioning of the strategic and moral point of the War and the validity of the assumptions on which it was based was only intensified with extensive television coverage of North Vietnam’s early 1968 Tet offensive.

Against this back drop the conservative coalition government led by Holt’s replacement John Gorton amended the National Service Act in June 1968, adding the possibility of 12 months leave without pay for cases of ‘exceptional hardship’ – no doubt to ease the political pressure the issue was generating with an election due the following year. The Labor Opposition under Gough Whitlam proposed its own amendments to the Act, specifically non-military forms of national service for conscripts who were unable to meet the notoriously difficult criterion for classification as a conscientious objector. These, as the telegram states, ‘were defeated by the combined vote of the Liberal-Country Party and DLP members.’

Gough Whitlam to P. Whittington. UAA Series 1420, Item 5

The telegram reproduced here is likely to have been a ‘form’ message, sent out to the various organisations who were lobbying the Opposition to oppose the War and conscription, one of whom was the Australian Student Christian Movement. It is indicative of a time when anti-War sentiment began to coalesce into a broad movement made up of disparate elements – ranging from trade unions and the radical student left to Christian and mothers groups.

A full description of the University of Adelaide Archives holdings of Student Christian Movement records can be found here.


Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History. (Melbourne: Melbourne Univ. Press, 2008)

“Australia and the Vietnam War”, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from

“The National Service Scheme, 1964-1972”, by Sue Langford, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from

“Conscription in Australia”, Wikipedia article, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from

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4 Responses

  1. J says:

    Good on the SCM stop

    Telegram is so much cooler than twitter stop

    Who is archiving tweets and twits etc.? stop

  2. Dear Andrew

    I was very interested to read this telegram that Peter Whittington received from Gough Whitlam regarding conscription in 1968.

    Also I was interested in your post as I became the president of SCM at Adelaide University in 1969. I remember saying that I could only accept the position if we decided to be involved in the peace movement against the US war in Vietnam.

    Peter was a wonderful bloke and sadly died about 2 years ago. He was not sure about us doing this, but was totally opposed to the war. Well in 1969, SCM got very much behind the actions against the war. We attended many rallies and set up an Asian Awareness Program which involved getting key academics opposed to the war to speak at church meetings, seminars and services. This continued after 1969 when Michael Raupach became president.

    We also got involved in completing fictitious National Service forms to assist overload the conscription system. These were very exciting times. My experiences at the time led me into progressive politics and international solidarity in East Timor, Chile, South Africa, Cuba and East Timor. On ET I got involved with the Campaign for an Independent East Timor SA (now the Australian East Timor Friendship Association SA) in 1975 and amstill involved.

    Below is an excerpt from an email which I sent to a Dennis Voight, a Catholic and a former employee with the SA Council of Churches who gave great support to the work of CIET in the 1990s. He is currenfly working in Vietnam.

    I include this because it gives a little more information of what I later learned about ASCM in Australia long after I was no longer involved.

    I later discovered that many SCMers around Australia ended up supporting left politics.

    I look back on those years very fondly as I met some wonderful people who have since played very positive roles in trying to make the world a more caring, compassionate, safe and peaceful place to be.


    Andy Alcock

    Anyway, I thought this background may be of some interest to you.


    This is an excerpt of an email to a favourite niece, Lou (or Labhaoise – the Cetic equivalent). She is a devout Catholic, studying theology, is a great fan of liberation theology and social justice, was the vice president of Australia Aid for Ireland for sometime and has worked in London and Hong Kong for some years.
    She has just recently made me a great uncle.

    “……I think I mentioned to you that I was involved with the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM) at school & university. In fact, I was the
    president of the Uni of Adelaide branch in 1969, my final year. I mention this because a book has been written about ASCM,
    “A Century of Influence: The ASCM 1896-1996”. The book is to be launched in September this year. SCM exists in many countries under the
    umbrella of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). So it is 113 years old..

    I thought you might be interested because the WSCF is an organisation that is ecumenical and believes in acting on social justice issues
    – so basically it is on the left of politics.

    Its leaders were very influential in forming the World Council of Churches and the leaders of the anti Nazi Confessing Church in Germany came
    from the German SCM (more info below). I think Bonhoeffer and Niemuller were members. As you would be aware, the writings of Bonhoeffer
    led to the God is Dead debate in the 1960s and liberation theology in the Third World.

    ASCM was involved in the establishment of the Uniting Church, the Australian Union of Students & the Overseas Service Bureau (the agency
    that administers Australian Volunteers International).

    It was quite middle class for much of my time at uni, but it was open to Catholics who hitherto had not been involved & it encouraged a very
    critical approach, non fundamentalist to Christian thinking. I said I would become president if Adelaide Uni SCM involved itself in the peace
    movement. Some were very unsure about this. One them who was doubtful, later became a Uniting Church minister & was the key person in
    SA coordinating the 1971 protests against the Springbok rugby tour.

    Anyway, we set up an Asian Awareness campaign to enourage Christians to understand more about Asia & the beginnings of the American
    war there. We helped encourage churches to hold seminars and we arranged speakers who knew about problems in Asia and the history of
    Vietnam. Two of these were Geoff Harcourt, who later became professor of economics at Adelaide (and even later at Cambridge).and Bob
    Catley of the Politics Department, who later was the ALP member of the federal seat of Adelaide for one term (he had become very right wing by then) and later professor of politics at Otago Uni in NZ.

    I had been very impressed by Geoff’s peace activism. He was an SCMer who came from the wealthy Jewish community in Melbourne. When he encountered great racism at Wesley College (equivalent to PAC), the then chaplain became a close friend and confidant. He was a theologian and a socialist & Geoff said that as he was becoming a Christian, he also became a socialist. At the time, he chaired the
    Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (the forerunner to the Moratorium in SA).

    Later, I felt vindicated when I learned that the ASCM gave support to the black bans on Dutch ships along with the progressive trade union
    movement the left of the ALP and the CPA.

    I was asked to be a resource person at an annual ASCM conference at Tatachilla in 1977 because of my Asian background. A 70 year old
    engineer, who was an SCMer, told students who were being scornful of political action that the ASCM was proud to stand alongside the “great
    CPA and the union movement” to assist Indonesian independence. He also spoke of the other political activities that ASCM was involved in.

    I had only been a member of the CPA for a year and, of course, I was rather impressed by this.It was like the recognition of a connection
    between 2 important parts of my life. Also, for a long time I had felt guilty because the Adelaide Uni SCM branch died a few years after I had
    left and I thought I might have been largely responsible.

    At this conference, I met an Anglican priest who had worked in Singapore and was deported when he published a book critical of Lee Kwan Yew
    and Herb Feith, who was a very remarkable man. He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, became professor of politics at Monash, he helped
    establish Australian Volunteers Abroad (now International), worked with his wife in Indonesia for many years, attended the trials of some of the PKI
    leaders after Suharto seized power in 1965, organised many interfaith (Christan, Islam and Jewish) seminars in Indonesia and spoke out about
    the TNI occupatiion of East Timor..

    Herb thought that the PKI did more to help the Indonesian poor than any other political party and did not seem phased by the anti communism of
    many during the Cold War.Sadly, Herb was hit by a train at a rail crossing in Melbourne in 2001.

    [A lot more can be learned about Herb & Geoff on Google].

    • Andrew Cook says:

      Andy, so pleased you came across this and thank you for sharing your experiences. I gather the late sixties and early seventies were heady times on University campuses in Australia and across the world and it’s peoples’ recollections, in conjunction with the documentary evidence, that brings the era back to life. I’m particularly interested in the intersection of the political left and Christian groups, of which the protest against the War in Indochina was an obvious example. Andrew.