2 May 2024

I Was There When: Wellington students did or did not help the Viet Cong buy a tank

From Nights, 9:15 pm on 2 May 2024

1972. Anti Vietnam War demonstrators outside the American Embassy on The Terrace, Wellington. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1972/6154/10. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22877198 Photo:

New Zealand has a storied history of student activism, from rallies for a nuclear-free Pacific to the 1996 occupation of the University of Otago clocktower building over increases to course fees.

Though one story about campus politics needs closer examination.

Back in 1972, at the height of the counter-culture in New Zealand, the Victoria University Students Association (VUWSA) donated $2000 to the Vietnam War.

Reportedly, the money, they said, was to buy a tank.

But did that really happen?

Did a student union buy a tank?

VUWSA listed the donation on the history page of its website when describing student activism in the 1970s.

"As many as 3000 of Victoria's 6000 students marched in protest on one occasion; and 2000 participated in a general meeting to confirm the donation of $2000 to the Viet Minh for them to purchase a tank."

The Reserve Bank's inflation calculator suggests the sum raised would be equivalent to $32,579.07 today.

The story of the donation, said to have taken place in 1972, has been repeated in mainstream news articles.

This is despite the Viet Minh, named as the recipient of the donation, being a Vietnamese independence movement that dissolved in 1951.

Theoretically, a 1972 donation could have been made instead to the Viet Cong, the guerrilla movement which fought alongside the North Vietnamese army against the United States and South Vietnam.

When approached, a spokesperson for VUWSA said they were unsure where the story came from, or when it was added to the organisation's webpage.

'Students would have been in an uproar'

Peter wears a suit and grins at the camera.

Peter Cullen is a Wellington-based lawyer, but in his youth, he served as president of his student union. Photo: Supplied

Now a Wellington lawyer, Peter Cullen in 1972 was a law student and the president of VUWSA.

He told Nights that while it was true that $2000 was raised, the money did not go towards purchasing a tank.

"[VUWSA would] never have done that. Students would have been in an uproar if there was a suggestion of it."

He said the money was given to the Vietnam War's medical aid appeal.

"The controversial part of the money was that it was to go to both sides."

He recalled the university hall filling with people who were riled up.

VUWSA had initially put out a notice saying it was only $500 they intended to send overseas, and the meeting to approve the spending only attracted a few hundred interested listeners.

When the sum was increased to $2000 from the association's coffers, a group of disgruntled students enlisted law firm Watson Patterson to send an injunction to VUWSA, saying the meeting was "misleading".

Some students believed VUWSA should not be "giving money to the communists" through an aid payment, while others objected to student money being spent on any political cause.

"We said, 'look, we will call a special general meeting, you go out and campaign and the people that want the money to go can do the same'.

Two weeks later, on 3 July 1972, a "huge crowd of maybe 2000 students" turned out to debate and ultimately confirm the donation.

Student life in 1972

Cullen said there was a strong counter-culture among New Zealand students in the 70s, and a "sense of deep disappointment" about the justification for the Vietnam War.

"I wasn't just a narrow law student, I was in a group called the Student Christian Movement, and a lot of the people there were active in protests.

"And it was a sort of dreamy time with [James K] Baxter, and the dream of a different world where people are much more kind to one another, and there were communes about."

James K. Baxter, Curious Cove, 1970.

James K. Baxter, Curious Cove, 1970. Photo: Nick Bollinger photograph, private collection

On one occasion, students marched to the police station to chant in support of visiting Australian feminist Germaine Greer, who was prosecuted for obscene language over saying the word "bullshit" at an Auckland Town Hall meeting.

Campus life was home to a range of political stances on the Vietnam War.

A 1966 story from the Victoria University student magazine, Salient, refers to an anonymous pamphlet being circulated on campus, soliciting money from students "to buy guns, food and medicine for the Viet Cong".

While there were communist groups on the Wellington campus, such as the Workers' Communist League and the Socialist Action League, Cullen says they were small, and "never took off".

Several months before VUWSA voted to send aid money to Vietnam, two enrolled students, "Messrs R Banks [and] GD Biggs" were publicly accused of being NZSIS agents, planted at the university to spy on student political groups.

"We caught them, and we made a big fuss," Cullen said.

Student political power returning

Cullen said it was a good thing to have students involved with politics.

"It was a cultural movement ... people were passionately concerned with what was happening in the country."

Cullen said he saw student activism returning now because of the scale of global conflict, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China's growing influence, and the war in Gaza.

University students across the world have been staging sit-ins to protest Israel's actions in the Gaza strip, including a recent demonstration at the University of Auckland.

Myth busted?

Cullen said he delivered the $2000 cheque to the medical aid appeal office in Wellington personally after the 1972 student meeting.

While he was unsure where the idea that VUWSA funded a Viet Cong tank came from, he said the claim did not stand up to scrutiny.

"It wouldn't have been much of a tank," Cullen said, referring to the $2000 sum.

The VUWSA webpage has since been updated.