[Marxism] Aussie imperialism in two World Wars

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sun Feb 1 00:43:34 MST 2004

This summary is part of a larger article I'm working on about the history
of Australian imperialism, from the colonial era to the present day. Anyone
interested in the sources is welcome to e-mail me. I should note that much
of it follows an article by Phil Griffiths: "Australian Perceptions of
Japan: The History of a Racist Phobia", Socialist Review 3, Summer 1990.


Australia joined World War I primarily because Britain and the empire were
its chief export markets and must be preserved. yet at the same time, war
was an opportunity to renew local expansionist designs.

It was finally time to take New Guinea from the Germans. "The Age"

"We have long since realised that we have a Pacific Ocean destiny 
virtue of the European war an unexpected path has been opened to the
furtherance of our amibtion [to lay down] the foundations of a solid
Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean."

The New Hebrides were another natural target. Australia postponed
endorsement of the 1914 Anglo-French protocol on administration of the
islands, hoping that by the end of the war it might be possible to force
the French out. General Assemblies of Presbyterian churches in NSW and
Victoria in 1915 called on the government to use the war to do this, as did
the Victorian chapters of the Australian Natives. This at a time when
France was an ally against Germany.

Under Fisher's successor Billy Hughes, the push for the New Hebrides
subsided because he had something else on his mind. Hughes spoke of an
"Australasian Monroe Doctrine", but said this was only viable with help
from powerful allies against the menace of Japan. Accordingly "we rejoice
that France has interests in the South Pacific".  

The tactics shifted but the core objectives remained the same: to enlist
great power support for its ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. The emerging
threat to these interests was Japan. 

The Japanese were allies, but Australia didn't let that obscure strategic
interests; in fact Tokyo's entry into the war against Germany created
tensions, after Japan seized a number of German islands north of the
equator. Hughes remarked that "Australia greatly dreads Japan's future
aims," and apparently told a closed parliamentary session that conscription
was necessary because "Japan would challenge the White Australia policy
after the war 
Australia would need the help of the rest of the Empire, and

 if she wishes to be sure of getting it she must now throw her full
strength into the war in Europe." 

The diggers at far away Gallipoli died to bolster Australian imperialism
closer to home. 

Having invested so many Australian lives in the European carnage, Hughes
arrived at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference determined to extract the
maximum gains for Australia's rulers, demanding control of all the South
Pacific islands taken from Germany. This was about both territory and race.
Hughes fought to secure a special "C-class" League of Nations mandate to
cover what is now Namibia and certain Pacific islands. The occupying power
would be able to impose its own laws, most importantly "White Australia"
immigration controls. 

Australian rule was also a backward step in other ways:

"Whereas the Germans had 
 allowed New Guineans to engage in cash cropping,
the new Australian administration moved to either restrict or ban it.
Whereas Germany, with its strong industrial economy, wanted to develop New
Guinea's raw material exports, Australia 
  discouraged any production that
could compete with Australia's. And the maximum flogging allowed for
breaches of labour discipline on the plantations was promptly doubled

When Japan proposed an anti-racist motion at Versailles, Hughes
belligerently opposed it. The road to World War II was open.

Again Australia's involvement stemmed partly from the economic importance
of the Empire, but now antagonism to Japan was foremost from the start.
Japan is always portrayed as the aggressor - why just look at Pearl
Harbour! - and Australia as directly threatened. Thus David Horner calls
the war unique because "for the first time since European settlement the
nation faced the imminent threat of invasion." 

In reality both the United States and Australia bear considerably
responsibility. Roosevelt wanted to enter the war, but needed Pearl Harbour
to win over a sceptical American public. So not long before Pearl Harbour,
US War Secretary Stimson, wrote: "the question is how we should manoeuver
[Japan] into the position of firing the first shot", and later told a
Congressional committee that "to have the full support of the American
people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do

Significant sections of the Australian ruling class wanted war too. As
early as 1933 the Sydney Dailey Telegraph ran a major article headlined
"War with Japan is inevitable", the Government began raising military
spending from 1933-34, and in 1936 Canberra announced a "trade diversion"
policy which set off a major trade war with the Japanese. Jack Shepherd
later concluded that Australian policy "helped confirm Japan in her
conviction that her dependence upon foreign sources of essential supplies
constituted a weakness 
 which must at all cost be remedied". It was in
fact remedied by seizing China. The war was fought over colonies and
economic resources amidst economic pressures created by the 1930s

Contrary to popular myth, the Japanese had no plans to invade this country;
they lacked the military capacity to control such a large continent,
especially as an intense industrialisation drive in the 1930s had given
Australia a much increased ability to fight. 

While Australia entered the war as a junior partner of British imperialism,
Britain's defeat at Singapore led to the start of a famous realignment.
America became the great-power backer for Australia's local imperialist
interests; for example the two countries' joint efforts restored Australian
control of New Guinea. But Australia wanted to push further than the
Americans liked. Foreign Minister H.V. Evatt suggested in late 1943 that
"the two nations should divide control of the Pacific between them" and in
early 1944 the US Ambassador to Canberra conveyed reports that Evatt wanted
"soveregnty over all Solomons, Hebrides, and Fiji groups" and intended "to
bargain for Australian ownership or domination up to the equator." 
Evatt sought to draw the Americans into a post-war alliance and yet
maximise the specifically Australian sphere of control, whether Washington
liked it or not. 

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