The Welcome LBJ Committee

 

In 1966 the Australian federal government had not only committed Australian defence forces to the US war in Vietnam, they had also introduced conscription and committed the lives of 19 year old males to that war.

At the time I was a dropout from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and enrolled at the University of New South Wales in Sydney as an engineering student. University life had opened my eyes to the government lies about the Vietnam War and this, compounded with the residual anger and disillusion that had come from my Duntroon experience, had radicalised me.

As president of the University of New South Wales Labor Club, the most politically radical student organization of the campus, I was apart from engineering studies near full time organising protest actions against the Vietnam War and conscription.

That year the ruling conservatives, the Australian Liberal Party, were facing an election. "All the way with LBJ!" was their campaign slogan and as a campaign strategy they had invited Lyndon Baines Johnson to be the first US President to visit Australia. LBJ, eager to make the second Indo-China War Vietnam War appear to be more than just another US was, accepted.

When I heard the news announcement I was appalled by the cynicism and was inspired to convene a campus meeting of what I called the "Welcome LBJ Committee".

The meeting room in the Roundhouse was packed up to the walls, not even standing room left, and of the maybe 300 people we estimated 50% to be undercover police and spies. The meeting was made interesting by its combination of passion and guardedness. Commitment was made to stop the motorcade but without being specific about where, how and by whom.

At the time I was doing research for my honours thesis ("the mechanics of orthogonal metal cutting") in the mechanical engineering laboratory. For the two week lead up to LBJ's visit I was pestered by post graduates with Yankee accents wanting more information, people I had never seen before, or if I had seen, never spoken to.

So standing by my wired up planer machine and bored by cutting metal chips from different kinds of steel and at different depths and measuring forces and recording data in which I could perceive no pattern what so ever, I had plenty of opportunity for revolutionary rhetoric. When the day arrived however, I was feeling very ambivalent about the action.

The rendezvous had been late announced, and then changed but not by me. I had no idea who would turn up or what might happen. The changed rendezvous was outside the now demolished Paris Theatre on the corner of College and Liverpool Streets.

The Liberal governments, federal and state, had organised a huge patriotic reception and an estimated 200,000 people had come to town to line the route of the motorcade.

A public holiday had been declared and the NSW Government had put on free train services to ship in country people. State schools organised excursions in school buses from all around the state. The city government had even put out chairs for the aged and the frail all along the route.

Amongst the LBJ lovers was the Sydney Mormon Tabernacle choir which had set up a stage across the road from our rendevous in Hyde Park and was joyfully rehearsing "The Yellow Rose of Texas" as we waited.

At the rendezvous in this huge crowd, my hippie friend, Geoff James, and I found no familiar or friendly faces. But I did recognise two 'plain clothes' NSW Special Branch detectives and went up to them and congratulated them in warm and friendly terms (we believed in the path of peace and love) for their superior intelligence. The federal (ASIO) spies, we later heard, were at the decoy RV.

While chatting so I noticed Geoff's face ashen.

I saw that the cause of his pain was the service-issue shoe that one of the plain-clothes policemen had put on my friend's bare foot. While steadily increasing the weight and the pain, the cop eye-balled maliciousness.

I was once more appalled.

At that moment a helicopter came overhead and I guessed the LBJ motorcade must be very close. "Fuck that!" I said, turned on my heel and dived into the crowd and, apologising and twisting like an eel to pass people, I got through to the barrier and out onto the roadway.

Up the Liverpool street 30 metres away was the motorcade rolling towards me.

I ran towards it with wings on my heels, ran in exultation, ran for freedom, ran towards my destiny.

The black limo stopped and, grasping the front bumper, I slid heels first underneath. Zip! zip! zip! and three other people had followed me. And they kept on coming.

The crowd was roaring as the NSW Police officers who had been lining the route dragged us limp and passive resisters out from under the limo and, for want of hands to hold us, they released us back into the crowd.

Two more times I went back and was dragged out and thrust back into the crowd. Although there was some hissing and booing in the crowd, it was a bit of game for us and the cops. Traditional Labor voters the beat cops had been brought in from all around Sydney and they handled us without anger or aggression.

A photojournalist got a shot of me on my back in a black roll neck sweater, jeans, dark beard and long hair, with a police officer attached to one arm pulling me away with my heels dragging, the other arm outstretched giving a thumbs up. The photo got front page of the Washington Post.

As I remember it the gesture had not been a defiant one aimed at LBJ; rather it was a friendly acknowledgementaimed at the police officer who had pulled me away previously.

The police may not have been angry, but LBJ was pissed. A journalist who was watching him through the limo window told me he had his head in his hands and was saying: "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!". He knew what this action would look like in the media back home.

Beside him sat NSW Premier, Robert Askin, who is now acclaimed as the most corrupt premier the citizens of NSW ever elected. He later recounted the experience and proudly told how he had urged the US President to "Drive over the bastards."

But LBJ thought otherwise and when the way was clear, the motorcade sped through Sydney flashing past and ignoring the adoring crowd.

As for the Sydney Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with their first Yellow Rose note, their PA went dead. An anarchist had cut the power lead.

What a disappointment.

The election was a landslide victory for the conservatives but their government fell apart as the war progressed from bad to worse and the youth protests grew. Five hundred Australians including conscripts were to die in the war. The US lost some 50,000 dead and the Vietnamese an estimated 1.2 million.

Twenty-five years of conservative rule ended in Australia in November 1972 when the Whitlam Labor government was elected. Australian soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam and conscription ended. After seven years of protest, the student resistance had won the peace.

That LBJ action is remembered as something of a turning point in the popular resistance to the Vietnam War in Australia. We became the generation who turned our backs on the Cold War and made friends with Asia.

I sometimes meet people who tell me they were there under LBJÕs limo, or know someone who was. I wouldn't know because it was all so spontaneous and we didn't introduce ourselves or exchange phone numbers.

Occasionally I am asked about the story but mostly it is another moment forgotten.

Many heroes are dead and forgotten. Just to be alive is a victory!

Graeme Dunstan
June 2000

Postscript:

While preparing for the protest against the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney in Agust 2005, I got a call from an old friend, who had found this story, read it and made contact.

His emailed memories follow.

Let me encourage other old friends and eye witnesses to make contact and share their stories of this little piece of history.

Subject: LBJ motorcade
Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2005 17:05:53 +0800 (WST)
From: afsc@asiastudy.com

Graeme,

It was great to chat with you about the LBJ motorcade.

It sticks in my mind as one of the more extraordinary days in my life. The buzzing helicopters, the fanfare, the balloons and streamers, the bizarre signs imploring us to "Make Sydney Gay for LBJ". What must J Edgar Hoover have thought about all of this?

I remember we'd been allocated a space, behind pensioner seating that had been set up along the Liverpool St footpath and right next to a contingent of Mormons, complete with electric organ.

I didn't attempt to run on to the road. I'd already been arrested at a demonstration outside the US Consulate when the bombing of Haiphong and Hanoi had begun in June of that year, I think the case might have even still been on appeal, so I was lying low at the time.

I do remember three women that I knew, Jean Curthoys, Jenny Sinicki (Jenny George) and Jane Rennie who threw themselves under one of the cars.

I was just a kid from Coogee who had given up Rugby and the Surf Club because it didn't feel right and I was angry about conscription and imperialist wars. No one back in Coogee could understand why I was so 'unpatriotic'.I grew up with kids whose fathers were in Changi or who'd fought on the Kokoda Track and it was a big step to say no to the war.

Yet despite Askin's "Drive Over the bastards" comment I think our democracy stood the test in those times. I'm not so sure how it will go in these different times.

The Perkins website is:http://www.johnperkins.org/His book's website is:http://www.economichitman.com/

The book is well worth the read. It was briefly covered on Radio National, Terry Lane's "In the National Interest" Sunday 19 June, 2005. I just happened to hear it while driving home from church. So I kept going to Glebe Books and picked up the last copy. I couldn't put it down.

It tells a story that I understood but that I've never heard told from within the US corporate establishment before.I remember you well from the 60s.

I remember visiting your house, somewhere down behind St Vincent's Hospital, in 1967. It was the night before I went off the Adelaide for a conference and a day or two before the first Australian conscript, Erroll Wayne Noack, was killed in Vietnam.

You drove me and a female friend all the way to Coogee, because it was late at night. One doesn't forget these small acts of consideration and kindness. So you've been in my mind over the years, even though in a social sense, our lives might well have taken different paths.

As I said, I was living in Indonesia, well commuting between Australia and Indonesia, for a large part of the last 20 years.

If you search "Russell Darnley", in Google, you'll get a sense of who I am. Anyway,

I enjoyed the account of that day in Liverpool St and will certainly reference that page in the jumpsite I'm preparing for my students.

Regards,

Russell L Maximos Darnley OAM
Director
Asian Field Study Centres
Tel/Fax: 61 2 9810 5468 Mobile 61 0417 238 199
www.asiastudy.com

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