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‘We had to bring it in’: defending conscription, 50 years on

The Menzies minister who brought in conscription in 1964 for has no regrets. InDaily journalist Kevin Naughton looks back through the history books with Jim Forbes.

Jim Forbes (pictured) is the last surviving Liberal Party MP from the 10th Menzies government ministry, which introduced national service into Australia in 1964. As minister for the army and a retired army officer with a Military Cross for bravery, he brought the policy to the cabinet table, overriding a recommendation from Defence’s chairman of the Chiefs of Staff.

Fifty years on — and almost 40 years since his last media interview — he stands by his decision. He’s just turned 90, and family from all around the globe have returned to Adelaide for a week of celebrations that included Christmas.

Some of his children were born after the national service decision, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren would perhaps know little of the drama that surrounded Australia’s increasing commitment to the war in Vietnam and how the army would be resourced.

Perhaps there was no better qualified person than Forbes to propose a national policy of conscription. The son of an army officer, he’d enlisted at age 16, graduated from Duntroon at age 19 and saw active service before he was old enough to vote. In the early 1940s he was in Darwin when it was still under attack from Japanese aircraft.

Forbes-at-war

Officers of 2 Australian Mountain Battery (Artillery) — Lt Jim Forbes third from the left

Shortly after, the then-20-year-old Jim Forbes was part of the 2nd Mountain Battery, hauling four American 75mm pack Howitzers in the jungle around Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.

We were in a very tight position in what used to be called the Genga River on the north coast of Bougainville, and we’d had some pretty bloody clashes with the Japs, and we were dug right on the edge of the river, trying to hold them,” he recalled in an interview with InDaily. “They had some very good Japanese marine units, and they were more than a match for us. The role of the battalion I was with was to attempt to hold the ground while we got reinforcements.

We were in a defensive position — I had to do all sorts of funny things like climb trees in dense jungle or wade out into the sea to try and get a look at the Japanese positions so that you could direct the guns. So I did a lot of this by either hanging on like a monkey up a palm tree or up to my neck in water out at sea. I wasn’t conscious of anything heroic about it. As far as I’m concerned I just did what was required without thinking about it.”

Twenty years later he had plenty to think about. Australia had made firm commitments to assist the USA in its war in Vietnam, but a resource-stretched Australian Army couldn’t match the political commitment.

Vietnam’s situation was a real threat,” Forbes recalled as we sit in his Adelaide home, surrounded by hundreds of politics and history books and a rack of leather-bound Hansards that record his 19 years as federal MP for the South Australian seat of Barker. “The conflict with Indonesia, the emerging threats in Asia and south-east Asia were real. The problem was principally a manpower one. It became apparent that we would have to increase the strength of the services if we were going to be able to meet our commitments.

As minister for the army I had been able to persuade cabinet to override the objections of Treasury to improving pay and conditions for the army quite markedly … but it didn’t have much effect on enlistment, other than end the increasing rate at which we had been losing officer.”

[Then-defence minister Paul] Hasluck had asked for proposals on how to get the manpower. As I later discovered, the Chiefs of Staff Committee threw out the proposal for conscription because they thought the politicians would lumber them with a universal scheme, and they didn’t want that. This drained the resources of the army because they  had to do so much training. So I came up with a selective scheme.”

What happened next at the cabinet table defined the future of thousands of young Australians. Cabinet agreed on a system of selecting numbers from a barrel — the number representing a date that made a young man’s birthday the defining criteria of whether he went into national service or not.

The Defence Department’s chairman of the Chiefs of Staff had proposed to cabinet that “we at least have one more go on improvement of conditions of service and a publicity campaign and all the things which had been tried in the past and hadn’t worked”, Forbes recalled.

I leapt in at that stage and said; ‘I have to make it clear, Mr Prime Minister, that I can’t agree with the Minister for Defence. We will not get the men, and the army cannot perform its function in the time scale that the cabinet is requiring unless we do get more men, and there is only one way we can get them in that time scale, and that is be selective conscription’.

I can remember when the die was cast and the decision finally taken, Menzies sat back in his chair and just looked around the table and said: ‘There comes a time in the life of any government where it just has to make decisions which it believes are in the best interests of the country, even if they believe they are committing political suicide’.”

Menzies was about to turn 70. He’d been Australia’s prime minister at the start of the Second World War, declaring to a nation of just 7 million people in 1939 that: “It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.” It came at a huge political cost, and Menzies and his United Australia Party lost his majority in the 1940 election and he was forced to resign in 1941. He later re-grouped under the banner of the newly-formed Liberal Country Party Coalition and reclaimed government in 1949, holding the prime ministership until 1966.

On this day in 1964, the seasoned Menzies knew the political storms ahead. The much-younger Forbes would later see them unfold. In 2014, does he see the decision of 50 years ago in a different context?

No. Menzies understood that we had to bring it in. I knew we had to bring it in,” he said. “More than any other person, I had been responsible for persuading cabinet that they should introduce this scheme. It was the right decision.

It was never terribly popular, but it was a very fair system, and I had to take the burden for that. It never worried me … because I was completely convinced that we had to do it and it was a very fair system.“A lot of people mocked the idea of putting marbles in a ballot box … but it was a lot better than the system used in the US for example, where people of wealth and influence could keep their sons out of the draft. It was very Australian way of doing it, and we never got the credit for doing it. People got knocked off in Vietnam, and it became very unpopular.”

As minister for the army, it was Forbes’ responsibility to look after the National Service recruits, or “nashos” as they became known. As a former army officer he moved to make sure they got what they needed.

It turned out it was very good for the army. Its pre-war barracks had not been maintained or improved since the Second World War because of various economic restraints,” he said. “Now, the army realised that government was edgy enough about introducing national service without the added risk of facing accusations that the conscripted soldiers were being put into inferior accommodation. Treasury resistance was brushed aside and substantial building programs took place, including training establishments such as Kapooka and Puckapunyal.”

In 1964 the National Service Act passed the Parliament, and compulsory National Service for 20-year-old males was introduced. Conscripts were obliged to give two years’ continuous full-time service, followed by a further three years on the active reserve list. The full-time service requirement was reduced to 18 months in 1971.

The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that National Servicemen could be obliged to serve overseas and in March 1966, the government announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army and for secondment to American forces. It would have ended in 1969, except that the ALP had engineered a way to lose the election despite popular opposition to conscription.

Forbes says the Coalition government’s eventual defeat at the 1972 poll was more about the decline of the party under Billy McMahon than the issue of conscription, which had been more powerful in 1969.

It wasn’t a defeat of conscription. We’d been in office since 1945. We would have lost in ’69 if it hadn’t been for the DLP split and divisions in the Labor Party. In 1972 McMahon lost because he was out-campaigned by Whitlam,” he said.

Defence papers show 63,735 National Servicemen served in the military from 1964–1972. Of that number, 19,450 National Servicemen served in Vietnam, all with the Australian Army.

After that decisive day in 1964, for Jim Forbes, political and family life would continue apace. Some of his five children were born during his eight-and-a-half years as a minister. He would serve under five prime ministers — Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton and McMahon — and did battle across the chamber with Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.

He worked as a backbencher and fellow minister with future prime minister Malcolm Fraser and shared Canberra digs with future ALP PM Paul Keating. After his period as minister for the army and minister for the navy, he would be minister for health from 1966 to 1971. When he left politics on 11 November 1975, it was a vastly different society.

*This story has been made possible with the time and co-operation of Jim Forbes and his permission to access papers held in a private collection by the National Library of Australia. This article was originally published at InDaily.

17
  • 1
    mobsmith
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Looks like Jim is third from the left to me.

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, fixed now. Thanks,

  • 3
    Douglas Ross Robbins
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Conscription changed me from a callow youth into a quietly confident young man. And conscripts changed the Army. Leaving aside the possible manipulation of the system by influential individuals for the benefit of sons and friend’s sons, issues of conscientious objection etc. my experience was to my total benefit. My qualifications were recognised and, more importantly, utilised, as were the many and varied professional and semi-professional qualifications of my peers. It was this unintended consequence that I believe changed the Army just as much as the Army changed us.

  • 4
    Matthew Drayton
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The kidnapping of young men to fight and die in another country’s war is indefensible. Simple as that.

  • 5
    Dax Romanov
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Jim Forbes was a great Minister for immigration too! Except he wouldn’t let poor old Joe Cocker in, which was a shame really. Dr. Forbes was also an extremely talented golfer. His tee shot nearly hit me on the 4th hole at Victor Harbor. An extremely erudite gentleman is he.

  • 6
    billthompson@tpg.com.au
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    An obvious error, the Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments were in office in 1945, not Menzies.

  • 7
    Desmond Carroll
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    What a load of crap. Vietnam was never a threat to anyone except those who tried to subjugate her. Ask the Frogs, then the Nips, then the Frogs again, and then the Catholic-fascist Vietnamese installed by John Foster Dulles in 1955.

  • 8
    billthompson@tpg.com.au
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    The Menzies Government were not prepared to give the soldier his due by improving pay and conditions of service. Conscription was considered to be the cheaper option. More recently, when Australia sought to advance its diplomacy by other means, volunteers for active service overseas have received large payments in allowances to put their lives at risk. This is as it should be.

  • 9
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Conscription is indefensible, and nothing in this article can dissuade me of that view. Yes I’m sure he is a lovely old chap but that still doesn’t mean what he did is not abhorrent and stupid.

  • 10
    Miowarra Tomokatu
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Forbes claims “We had to bring it in”

    What he avoids is the reasoning. HE and Menzies may have “had to bring it in” if they wanted to conduct their sycophantic military adventure into VietNam.

    When the motive is wrong; the decision is also wrong.

    That single political action decided my political future and orientation. I have never voted for the Liberal Party or its hangers-on, I have consistently opposed their international and domestic stance on just about everything and, over the decades, I have never regretted that opinion.

  • 11
    Madison
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    When I was very young he was referred to in my home as “that horrible man”. Even the local priest disliked him. We used to watch the ballot on TV hoping my brother did not have to go to war, it was a terrible experience and the war was all for nought except deaths of thousands.
    He should be ashamed but as a true politician his ego and lack of remorse lets him ride above it.

  • 12
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Vietnam was a disaster from the beginning, we just went all the way with LBJ until he couldn’t even stand it anymore. There was no valid reason for young Australians at the time to be conscripted.

  • 13
    Scott Grant
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I was another whose political orientation was formed and solidified by my opposition to conscription. At the time I knew little of the history of Vietnam, but subsequent reading confirmed to me that it was an immoral war from start to finish.

    It would never have happened without McCarthyism in the United States. Senator McCarthy and his supporters destroyed the American foreign policy establishment in the post WWII years by forcing experienced policy advisors and diplomats into early retirement because they were deemed too liberal. The resulting lack of experience and balance led the US into several strategic mistakes, including The Vietnam War.

    Australia’s foreign interventions, whether Menzies and Vietnam, or Howard and Iraq and Afghanistan, were fundamentally about support for the US no matter what.

  • 14
    Norman Hocking
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    The year 1964 confuses me. I did my initial National Service in the fifth intake in January 1953. The Vietnam war was unheard of, and we Nashos lived in dread, fearing that we may be sent to the current war at that time in Korea. I’m not sure whether that period of National Service started in late 1951 or early in 1952, but it continued for quite some time and I cannot recall if it was discontinued prior to 1964. Maybe someone else can throw a bit of light on the timing.

  • 15
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 9 January 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Menzies did not lose office from siding with the UK in WW11 so had nothing to do with any ” brave ” decision about conscription . The UAP was in turmoil and Menzies spent about 6 months in London .
    Norman Hocking
    You are talking about 3 months nasho
    wiki
    In 1951, during the Korean War, National service was introduced under the National Service Act (1951). All Australian males aged 18 had to register for 176 days training (ninety-nine days full-time) and two years in the CMF. Later the obligation was 140 days of training (seventy-seven days full-time) and three years of service in the CMF. The regular military forces were kept as voluntary. In 1957 the system was changed to emphasise skill rather than numbers. The system was ended in 1959.[18]

  • 16
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Saturday, 11 January 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Strange how that sectarian minority which fought against conscription in WWI was all for it when, as one poster has indicated, it was for the purpose of supporting a fascist, colonial Catholic state in South Vietnam.
    And DLP control of The Senate stopped Labor from stopping Australia’s involvement in that failed war altogether.
    Also worth noting John Kennedy’s opposition to said Catholic, colonial, fascist state in South Vietnam, (he said that they were not worth supporting) before his assassination for the failure of the Bay of Pigs attempt to reinstate the Catholic Mafia’s casino empire in Havana.

  • 17
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Tuesday, 21 January 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Consciption was as great an evil as manufacturing a war, such as was the case for Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, oh probably every bloody war.

    Lies, justifications, rationalisations. We all have to live with our decisions, some have the courage to recognise them and own up to them.

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