Save Our Sons
Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War
Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing 2021
Paperback 360pp RRP $34.95
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, June 2022
Founded in May 1965 in Sydney, Save Our Sons (S.O.S.) was one of the earliest anti-conscription groups of the Vietnam war period. I describe them as an “anti-conscription group” as initially their sole focus was on the repeal of the Menzies Government’s National Service Act (1964) and especially the Act as amended in 1965 where there was an explicit statement that conscripts could be obliged to serve overseas. One contribution of this book is that it shows that as the war went on, they also became stridently opposed to the Vietnam War itself. A second contribution of the book is the detailed information we are provided on key members of S.O.S. and especially the founding members of the various branches. This is done in such a way that the biographical material enhances the description of the formation and evolution over time of activities undertaken by the various branches.
The nature of S.O.S. protests varied – some involved silent vigils in public places of commemoration such as Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance; at other times members handed out leaflets at Army barracks or railway stations from which national servicemen were travelling to begin their military service. Indeed, in April 1971 five S.O.S. women were sentenced to 14 days in Fairlea Women's Prison in Melbourne for handing out anti-conscription leaflets to men registering for National Service. Members of S.O.S. also prepared and circulated petitions, approached members of parliament and worked in conjunction with other anti-war groups to protest against National Service and the war. Members of S.O.S. also played a role in assisting conscientious objectors and draft resisters, even to the extent of providing them with ‘safe-houses’ where they would hide from the police. Sometimes protest activities resulted in the arrest of S.O.S. members.
Regarded as a communist front organization by ASIO, their activities were closely monitored by the police and the security agencies. The book shows that some members of S.O.S. were Communists or were members of other organizations which might reasonably be described as communist front organizations, there were numerous members who clearly were not communists and were not simply doing the bidding of those members who were communists. Indeed, the author demonstrates that S.O.S. branches were made up people of varying ages, religious and political persuasions (including many Liberal voters), united solely by their concern about conscription and the War. Also, the author shows that, contrary to popular belief, mothers of sons who might be liable to be called up comprised only a small fraction of the total S.O.S. membership.
The book is quite comprehensive and is clearly the result of a great deal of solid research. Also, unlike many other books based on a PhD thesis, is very well written. In addition, the font size is ‘older-reader friendly’. I have only one major criticism. The author points out that there were S.O.S. branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle, Townsville, Wollongong, Adelaide and Perth, and we are given information on how these branches came into being. This is all fine and well, but one notes that there were no branches in (for example) Canberra-Queanbeyan, Geelong, Hobart, Cairns, Darwin and the Gold Coast. I think that one would learn more about the nature and appeal of S.O.S. if the author had made some attempt to explain why there were no branches in places such as these. An obvious question is: why was there only one branch in Victoria?
The book is a major contribution to the social history of Australia(ns) and the war in Vietnam and will be of particular interest to relatives of S.O.S. members and to those conscientious objectors and draft-resisters who were assisted by S.O.S. The author is a graduate of the University of Adelaide where her PhD thesis, upon which this book is based, was awarded the University Medal for Doctoral Excellence.
The book includes sixteen very well-chosen B&W photographs which complement the text perfectly. The book also has thirty-six pages of endnotes, a select bibliography and a lengthy index (mostly of names).
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.