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 threat. 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- known. 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 surprised. 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 direction. 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 installed. 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 charade. "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.