The Guardian May 9, 2001

Visiting Vietnam with the "Fairles Five"

by Joan Coxsedge 

Thirty years ago  on Easter Thursday 1971  I was one of five Save Our 
Sons women sentenced to 14 days jail for aking part in an anti-Vietnam War 
action. A few months earlier, we had walked into the headquarters of the 
Department of Labor and National Service in Melbourne and handed out anti-
conscription leaflets, while explaining the options to a trickle of anxious 
young men registering for National Service. Their reactions were positive. 
One turned tail for home, stating he would not sign up, and others 
announced they would become conscientious objectors. Suddenly, we became a 

Within minutes, six Commonwealth Police appeared and asked us to leave. We 
declined and sat down on some benches. They dragged us out of the office 
and dumped us in the lift lobby. We stayed put on the floor. Eventually a 
fellow came along and stated he represented the Employers' Federation, the 
owners of the building. He was accompanied by a posse of Victoria Police 
who ordered us to move on. Once again, we refused to budge. The state 
wallopers hustled us down to a basement car park where two police cars were 
waiting to take us to Russell Street Police Headquarters. 

We were not charged with breaching the National Service Act, a draconian 
law introduced by the Menzies Government to conscript 20-year-olds, but 
with wilful trespass under the Summary Offences Act, a state law used by 
Victoria's reactionary Bolte Government in an attempt to stifle dissent. 

Our case was the last to be heard that Easter Thursday, but if the powers-
that-be wanted a particular verdict they certainly picked the right 
magistrate, whose allegiance to the extremist League of Rights was well-

After going through the usual legalistic bullshit, he dished out a 
mandatory 14-day jail sentence with no option of a fine. By this time the 
media pack had departed for their holiday break, except for one lone ABC 
reporter who ensured our jailing was number one news item on all national 
bulletins, which was then picked up by other media outlets. There was a 
shocked reaction at the harshness of the penalty, although I wasn't overly 

Ever since Save Our Sons started in 1965, only a few weeks after PM Menzies 
announced that Australia would join the United States in the war against 
"the Communists of Vietnam, we had been a thorn in the Government's flesh. 

Apart from letter-writing, vigils and rallies, SOS women often took part in 
joint actions with other anti-war activists, from the serious to the funny 
to the highly illegal, often combining all three elements. 

There was a heady feeling that we could not only stop conscription and stop 
the war but create a fairer more independent society. 

As a consequence we were very familiar with the inside of the City 
Watchhouse and the magistrates courts. 

We bade farewell to our families and friends and were driven to Fairlea 
Women's Prison, adjoining the Yarra Bend National Park. But there was 
nothing park-like about Fairlea. It was grey and dismal and encircled by a 
high wire fence topped with barbed wire. 

Earlier in the year, Fairlea women had rioted against the harsh conditions. 
The minute we stepped over the threshold, we knew why. We had become "its, 
the property of the state, and were weighed, checked for scars, made to 
wash our bodies and hair with carbolic soap, before being given a bundle of 
regulation prison gear, the daggiest clothing imaginable. 

Wing 3, our home for two weeks, was a large dormitory with 19 beds jammed 
together, off which were six small rooms for slightly more privileged 
prisoners, mainly long-term. 

In the front, a "recreation area boasted a long wooden table, decrepit 
chairs and settees, a bookcase full of "romantic novels and an ancient 
tellie. The latter was locked on to one particular channel until the lights 
snapped off at 9pm. 

Soap was as scarce as hen's teeth and disinfectant was non-existent. It was 
a little disconcerting to run a bath after ten others and not even have a 
piece of soap to sluice it out between users. 

I worked in the dining-room from 8am until 5pm seven days a week for the 
princely sum of 40 cents a day. After clearing and stacking the dishes, I 
had to lift 56 heavy wooden chairs on to 14 wooden tables and sweep the 
room. As a special treat, I was allowed to use an electric polisher! 

The last meal of the day was served at 4pm and consisted of three slices of 
bread (made at Pentridge), a sad-looking salad, two sausage rolls and a mug 
of tea. At 5pm we were mustered, roll-called and locked up in the wing 
until 7am the following morning. Heaven help anyone getting sick. 

Spending time in jail was an eye-opener. Anyone believing we live in a 
classless society should pay our jails a visit. There were no well-heeled 
crims from Brighton or Toorak or rich mothers who offended while suffering 
from post-natal depression. 

One poor soul, who spent all her time knitting, had drowned her three 
children. After spending two years at the Larundel Psychiatric Institution, 
she was transferred to Fairlea to complete the rest of her sentence. 

But back then, the majority were young street prostitutes, the non-
achievers living on the margins. 

A punitive 19th century mentality dominated everything. The "screws, mostly 
middle-aged women with no training, sat like puddings watching, never 
joining in. They were the ones who created problems, or tried to, by 
building a wedge between us and the other women. 

No newspapers or reading material with any political content were allowed 
inside the walls. Perhaps the authorities were afraid the lumpen would turn 
into a proletariat. 

During our stay, vigils and large rallies took place almost every day 
outside the prison wall by people who cancelled their holidays when they 
learned of our plight. 

We couldn't see them but picked up the odd cheer and snippets of speeches 
carried on the wind. There was even a 24-hour stoppage on the docks. It was 
comforting to know that people outside cared. 

But most of the other women faced something else again. No cheering crowds, 
no fans and admirers waited to congratulate them for surviving such a 
dehumanising, deadening experience. For many, there was no-one waiting and 
no-one at home, or no home at all. Most were shunned as ex-cons and denied 
jobs and hope. 

Decades later, Jean McLean's daughter Rebecca made a film about our 
experiences and took it to Vietnam. As a result, the "Fairlea Five received 
an official invitation to visit the country. 

We left Australia in March (this year), reaching Hanoi late at night. A 
little past our prime  our ages ranged from 80 to the mid-60s  we were 
still active despite the odd creaky joint. 

Just as well, because we barely had time to draw breath before being 
engulfed in meetings and interviews and engulfed in rain, which didn't let 
up for the entire week of our stay in the North. Ironically, as we drove to 
the airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the sun came out and the 
rain stopped. 

Such a variety of admirable people and interesting places. Talking to 
doctors at the Bach Mai hospital in Hanoi, a centre of resistance during 
the American bombing, now desperately short of basic equipment. Fronting a 
classroom of lively teenagers at a secondary school with a quartet belting 
out a Beatles classic. 

There were many other stand-outs. One was meeting former guerrilla fighter, 
now Vice-President, Madame Binh, at the gorgeous Presidential Palace, and a 
heart-rending visit to the Thanh Xuan Peace Village on the outskirts of 
Hanoi  one of five such centres  where severely incapacitated children 
are cared for and taught new skills and how to cope. 

Their fathers had fought in the South, most of which was doused with 75 
million litres of defoliants and deadly herbicides like Agent Orange by the 
US of A, the equivalent of six pounds per head of population. 

Agent Orange contains dioxin, a powerful poison that causes foetal deaths, 
miscarriage, chromosomal damage, congenital defects and cancer. These 
monstrous chemicals were sprayed over crops, farms, forests and villages. 

When US officials claim the exact consequences of Agent Orange have not 
been "clarified, they should be made to meet the parents of the 50,000 
Vietnamese children born with horrific deformities. 

Everywhere we went, reminders of that terrible war. The long decades of 
gross betrayals and broken promises started with the French, who refused to 
hand back their colonial possession. 

Vietnamese nationalists were equally determined to win their independence. 
They formed a United Front with the full support of the people under the 
leadership of Ho Chi Minh, which became known as the Viet Minh. 

As we poked around a former French prison, where a guillotine and basket to 
catch the heads sat in the middle of a room next to the death-cells, I 
tried to imaging what it would have been like waiting for your turn. 

More than 2000 Viet Minh met their death this way, right up until the 
French were routed at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. US Secretary of 
State John Foster Dulles pressured the Brits to join in the air-strikes, 
because he wanted to "internationalise the war, and even offered the French 
two atom bombs. His offer was turned down. 

A day after the massive French defeat, a conference in Geneva attended by 
the world's major players agreed to use their combined influence to bring 
peace to the region. 

The Geneva Agreements stated that Vietnam would be temporarily 
divided into two zones at the 17th parallel and that there would be an 
internationally supervised election by secret ballot to reunify the country 
 regardless of who won  to take place by the summer of 1956. 

Until reunification, neither zone would receive outside military assistance 
or make any alliance and the military forces of the two sides would be 
separated and regrouped, with the French moving south of the 17th parallel 
and the Viet Minh moving north. Civilians would be free to move in either 

North Vietnam reluctantly agreed to the temporary division, a decision it 
came to bitterly regret. 

Before the ink was dry, Washington was busily conducting sabotage and para-
military operations in the north and had no intention of allowing free 
elections because it knew that more than 80 per cent of the people would 
vote for Ho Chi Minh against Bao Dai, a pro-western puppet it had 

In an attempt to gain support, the US wheeled in another stooge, Ngho Dinh 
Diem, a Vietnamese aristocrat living in New York, heralding in one of the 
most corrupt, brutal regimes in modern times. 

In December 1960, Buddhists, socialists, communists, liberals, nationalists 
and community leaders banded together to form the National Liberation 
Front, the NLF, which Diem promptly labelled "Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese 
Communists, when the majority were not. 

The Americans, as usual, instead of trying to end the injustices that 
caused the rebellion, tried to suppress it by force. Diem immediately 
cancelled the election but needed massive US military assistance to control 
the South, which he got in abundance. When Diem became too much for 
Washington, the CIA orchestrated a military coup and he was assassinated. 

In mid-1964, US TV showed North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of 
Tonkin and within two days it was claimed they had attacked two US 
destroyers, later shown to be a eliberate lie. President Johnson used the 
phony incident to go to war. 

The Tonkin Gulf resolution was approved by Congress by 416 votes to 0 and 
the Senate by 88 to 2. The American presence grew from a handful of 
"advisers to more than half-a-million military personnel. 

Years later, in a bumbling effort to "explain how Australia became involved 
in the whole sorry mess, PM McMahon tabled copies of two letters dated 29 
April 1965, one from a former PM of South Vietnam, Mr Quat, "accepting 
Australia's offer of troops. 

Much was made of the absence of a piece of paper requesting the presence of 
our soldiers. The pro-war lobby seemed to feel we were not culpable for 
joining in the butchery but rather for not getting ourselves a formal 
invitation first! 

During Christmas 1972, Hanoi was bombed for 11 consecutive days when more 
than 40,000 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on the people. In 
Australia, Whitlam was elected and withdrew our troops. But the US war 
dragged on until 1975 with their ignominious defeat, one they never forgot 
or forgave. 

Vietnam was punished by a trade blockade and by political and economic 
isolation which lasted for more than two decades. Vietnam was also punished 
 like Cuba  for not having a full-scale capitalist parliamentary 

"We smashed the country to bits, wrote Talford Taylor, chief US prosecutor 
at Nuremberg, "and we will not even take the trouble to clean up the blood 
and rubble. 

In 1986, in an attempt to overcome the US-led embargo, the 6th Congress of 
the Communist Party of Vietnam adopted "Doi Moi or a free market policy, a 
controversial reform overseen by the World Bank and the IMF, which opened 
their offices in Hanoi. 

In less than a decade, it almost destroyed the high quality of equity that 
Vietnam had achieved by 1975. A sad irony that the aspirations of an entire 
nation were being undone, not by napalm, steel pellets and toxic chemicals, 
but by the new economic and social agenda. Some saw it as one of the great 
tragedies of modern history. 

Many of the signs were clearly evident during our visit, the deep-seated 
poverty and struggle to survive and the ugly intrusions by foreign 
investors. Hanoi is still a beautiful city, but developers like Alfonso 
DeMatteis from Brooklyn behave like cultural imperialists  which they are 
 without giving a toss for local sensitivities. 

But I saw other more heartening signs. There is an amazing regeneration of 
land which was thought to have "died. Every village planted a forest and 
every child planted a tree and millions of acres of poisoned land have been 
reclaimed. Birds and wildlife are slowly returning. 

And although Ho Chi Minh also died and lies in state inside the Mausoleum 
in Hanoi, his writings and his influence remain a potent force. 

There is a grass-roots resilience and generosity of spirit in Vietnam that 
Americans, in particular, find difficult to comprehend. When asked how they 
can possibly forgive the abominations inflicted by the United States war 
machine, more often than not Vietnamese will reply "We lost materially, but 
spiritually we won.

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