In the context of the intensification of the Cold War in Europe, Communist insurgency and success in South-East Asia, and the declaration of war in Korea, the Menzies government sponsored the National Service Act 1951. The legislation provided for the compulsory call-up of males turning 18 on or after 1 November 1950, for service training of 176 days. Trainees were required to remain on the Reserve of the Commonwealth Military Forces (CMF) for five years from initial call up. Men could nominate the service in which they wished to be trained. Those nominating the Navy or the Air Force were considered only if they volunteered for service outside Australia. The first call-up notice was issued on 12 April 1951.
Between 1951 and 1959 over 500,000 men registered, 52 intakes were organised and some 227,000 men were trained.
In 1957 National Service with the Navy and the Air Force was discontinued. Registration remained compulsory but the intake to the Army was cut to almost a third (12,000 trainees) by instituting a ballot for selection. On 24 November 1959 Cabinet decided that National Service call-ups should be terminated and that arrangements for the January 1960 intake would be cancelled.
National Service, 1965–72
A scheme of selective National Service
On 5 November 1964, Cabinet decided to introduce a compulsory selective National Service scheme. In announcing this decision to Parliament, Prime Minister Robert Menzies referred to ‘aggressive Communism’ developments in Asia, such as ‘recent Indonesian policies and actions’ and a ‘deterioration in our strategic position’, as being influential in the decision being reached (see Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 25th Parliament, 1st Session, pp. 2517–2724). The Government had concluded that Australia had inadequate Defence manpower and aimed to increase the strength of the Army to 33,000 by the end of 1966 by introducing national service.
The National Service Act 1964, passed on 24 November, required 20 year old males, if selected, to serve in the Army for a period of twenty four months of continuous service (reduced to eighteen months in 1971), followed by three years in the Reserve. The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that conscripts could be obliged to serve overseas, and in March 1966, Prime Minister Holt announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army.
Between 1965 and December 1972 over 800,000 men registered for National Service. Some 63,000 were conscripted and over 19,000 served in Vietnam. Although registration was compulsory a process of selection by ballot determined who would be called up. Two ballots were conducted each year. The ballots selected several dates in the selected period and all males with corresponding birthdays were called up for national service. The ballot was conducted using a lottery barrel and marbles representing birthdays. The barrel and marbles are held in the National Office, Canberra, in series MP1357/63.
Opposition to conscription
From 1966 opposition to conscription swelled and was often enmeshed with opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Evasion of national service was not uncommon. Some cases were prosecuted harshly leading to much publicity. National Service was a significant issue in the Federal election campaigns of 1966, 1969 and 1972. The Australian Labor Party consistently opposed it and was committed to recalling troops from Vietnam.
With the election of an ALP government in December 1972, Prime Minister Whitlam announced the end of peace time conscription as one of his government’s first administrative decisions. Those National Servicemen who did not wish to complete their term of service were discharged immediately. The National Service Act was amended in 1973 to abolish the obligation to undertake National Service.
Courtesy of National Archives of Australia Canberra