By Bob Hall
In May 1964 the Australian government introduced the National Service Scheme. Under the scheme, young men were selected by ballot for two years compulsory military service which could include service overseas in a war zone. National servicemen first deployed to Vietnam as part of the 1st Australian Task Force in May-June 1966. The 1RAR Battalion Group, which had deployed to Vietnam in mid-1965, and the AATTV which had begun service in Vietnam in 1962, were both comprised of members of the Australian Regular Army only.
The graph below, shows support for Conscription (the blue line) compared to opposition to it (the orange line). The white line shows those who were undecided about the issues polled. The numbers (1 to 5, in red) refer to particular points of interest on the graph and refer to the same numbered note in the text below.
Support for the National Service Scheme never fell below 50% for the entire war. Its lowest point was in late 1971 on the eve of withdrawal of all Australian forces from Vietnam.
Although National Service had solid support from Australians (according to the polling), there were signs that deploying National Servicemen to fight overseas received much less support from the Australian public. The Gallup Poll reports sometimes mention that respondents to their surveys provided unsolicited comments saying that while National Service was supported, National Servicemen should not be compelled to fight overseas. It is also evident from the graph that support for National Service dramatically increased following the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam when overseas service in a war zone ceased to have an influence on attitudes. The Scheme was abolished by the newly elected Whitlam Labor government in December 1972.
Three years before the introduction of the National Service Scheme a June 1961 poll asked ‘would you favour, or oppose, again having compulsory military training?’ Of those polled, 73% said that they were in favour, 21% said they opposed, and 6% were undecided. The idea was favoured by 71% of men and 74% of women. Young people aged 20-29 – those most liable for call-up under a National Service scheme – favoured it (73%), a similar level of support from people aged 50-59 (74%).
In April 1966 each of 1900 people were interviewed. They were reminded that each year 8400 20-year-old men were called up for two years’ military training, with possible overseas service. Interviewers then asked ‘Are you for, or against, that call-up?’ Of those polled, 63% said they were for the call up, 31% were against, and 6% were undecided. The continued call-up was favoured by 65% of men and 61% of women, 65% of those aged less than 50 compared with 63% of those 50-59 and 50% of those over 70. In favour were 72% of Liberal-Country Party (L-CP) voters, 67% of Democratic Labor Party (DLP) voters and 53% of Australian Labor Party (ALP) voters.
Many subsequent polls on the question of National Service used the phrase ‘with possible overseas service’. Although the phrase did not specifically say that the overseas service might be in a war zone, it seems unlikely that Australians responding to the question would not have been aware of Australia’s role in the war in Vietnam.
In September 1966, shortly after the battle of Long Tan on 18 August in which 11 of the 18 soldiers killed in action were National Servicemen, a Gallup Poll was conducted. A sample of 2082 electors was told it had been suggested that all young men of 20 should be called up for two years’ national service – some of them in the armed forces, others on development projects. People were then asked if they favoured, or opposed, that suggestion. Of those polled, 77% favoured the proposal, 17% opposed it and 6% were undecided. Of those who favoured the idea, 13% spontaneously gave qualified answers, such as; not for overseas service (7%), two years is too long (4%), not for development projects (1%), not for 20-year-olds (1%). Two years service for all young men was favoured by 81% of L-CP voters, 79% of DLP voters and 74% of ALP voters.
The 11 National Servicemen killed during the battle of Long Tan brought the total number of National Servicemen killed in Vietnam to that point, to 17. Despite this rising toll, Australians seemed mostly satisfied with the prospect that young men should be compelled to serve although they were less convinced that they should be compelled to serve in an overseas war zone.
In June 1971, People were reminded that of all young men aged 20, 1-in-12, selected by ballot, is called up each year for 2 years’ military training, with possible overseas service. They were then asked ‘in your opinion, should that call-up be ended, or continued?’. Of those polled, 53% said it should be continued, 37% said it should be ended and 10% were undecided. Men and women, as separate groups, gave almost the same answers. L-CP and DLP voters were 2 to 1 in favour of compulsory military training. ALP voters were evenly divided about it. Support for continuing the call-up came from 61% of those over 70, 56% of those 50-69, and 54% of those 30-49, but from only 50% of those 21-20 and 49% of those 16-20. Comments by those in favour and by those against, included ‘all should be called up’, and ‘the ballot is unfair’.
In September 1971, 2,420 people aged 16 and over were reminded that compulsory military training was being reduced from two years to 18 months. They were then asked ‘in your opinion, should compulsory military training continue or be ended?’ Of those polled, 69% said it should be continued, 23% said it should be ended and 8% were undecided. The vote of 69% for continuing the call-up was the highest found by the Gallup Poll since 1967. It came from 70% of men and 68% of women; 82% of DLP voters, 80% of L-CP voters and 59% of ALP voters; 67% of people in capital cities and 72% of other people; at least 60% of people in every state. Analysis by age showed that 53% of ‘girls and boys’ under 21 favoured the call-up continuing. So did about 70% of older people. When asked ‘who should be trained’, of the 69% of those in favour, 56% said all young men aged 20, while 10% said only 1-in-12 should be trained. 3% were undecided.
 AGP 1531-1546, May-Aug 1961.
 AGP 1900-1915, May-Jul 1966.
 AGP 2003-2020, Oct67-Jan 68.
 AGP 2271-2275, Jul 71.
 AGP 2292-2294, Sep-Oct 71.