Interview with Brian Ross Vietnam War conscientious objector

This is a sound recording of an interview with Brian James Ross, the first non-complier to be jailed for refusing to abide by the National Service Act 1964, on his release from Sale prison on 21 September 1970. The interview was made during the Vietnam War (1962–75) and broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Interviewer Stephen Taylor questions Ross about his time in prison and objections to the Act. He asks if Ross sticks by his beliefs; if he feels any grievance against the government; what he will do in the future and if he sees himself as an example to others.

Educational value

  • The case of Brian Ross is an example of the direct non-violent action taken by many young men who refused to comply with their call-up notices under the National Service Act 1964 during the Vietnam War. Ross's stance was representative of a growing dissatisfaction amongst the population with Australia’s role in Vietnam. There were strong civic efforts to either repeal the National Service Act or to avoid obeying it.

  • The National Service Act, in force from 1965 to 1972, required 20-year-old men – men too young to vote – to serve two years continuous full-time service in the Australian Regular Army, followed by three years part-time service in the army reserve. The government then amended the legislation in 1965 so that conscripts were also obliged to serve overseas if required. This requirement became a contentious public issue.

  • Ross was one of hundreds of men who objected to military service in certain circumstances, or in conflicts that they did not feel were morally defensible (such as Vietnam), but who were not legally exempt from service under the National Service Act as ‘conscientious objectors’. Under the Act, the lack of provision for non-compliers on the grounds of objection to conscription or ‘selective’ conscientious beliefs proved an administrative challenge for the government.

  • Ross’s grounds for non-compliance, as described in the interview, were his strong opposition to conscription and a belief in the rights of individuals to exercise choice. At his court hearing, Ross also voiced a moral objection to killing and to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, which he believed was an unjust war. The Vietnam War was the first conflict to be extensively reported live on television and the impact of its coverage contributed to the strong civic action against the war.

  • Ross was sentenced to two years jail under the Commonwealth Crimes Act, but released after mounting public pressure and press coverage prompted an ACT Supreme Court enquiry into his case. Justice Smithers found Ross to be exempt from military service under section 29A (1) of the National Service Act and he was released after the Governor-General granted him mercy, possibly alleviating some of the political pressure on the Government to soften its stance.

  • Under section 29A(1) of the National Service Act, a ‘conscientious objector’ is a person who sincerely believes that it is wrong to engage in any form of military service. Between 1965 and 1971, just over 1000 men applied for this status. Of the 1052 applicants, 733 were granted total exemption from any military service, 142 were exempted from combat duties and 137 had their applications rejected.