Tom Orsag looks at Australia’s rotten role in the Versailles Peace Conference 100 years on
Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles imposed ruthless terms on Germany including crippling reparations. It laid the basis for renewed world war a few decades later.
Australia played a major role at the 1919 Peace Conference that devised the treaty.
Prime Minister William Hughes attended in person. Carl Bridge, in a recent biography, called it his “finest hour”. Defence think-tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute similarly published an article in April by Ann Moyal entitled “1919: the triumph of Billy Hughes”.
But Hughes’ “triumph” was only a victory for militarism, colonial domination, and vicious anti-Japanese racism. He was a strong supporter of imposing crushing economic sanctions on Germany to meet the full cost of the war.
Hughes was initially a Labor Prime Minister, but was expelled from the party in 1916 over conscription, before forming a coalition with the conservatives. Arriving in Britain a few months before the war ended in 1918, he spoke widely, drumming up support for the war effort with rabid pro-Empire nationalism, demanding ruthless indemnity payments from Germany.
Hughes was also the loudest voice against Japan’s proposal for a clause affirming racial equality in the Covenant of the new League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations.
Japan felt the US and European nations didn’t regard it as an equal. Hughes refused even to accept a watered down version of the clause, leaving the Japanese deeply humiliated.
This strengthened the hand of Japanese nationalists who wanted a more aggressive military policy. Privately, Hughes’ director of military intelligence, Major Edmund L. Piesse, wrote that, “We have been perhaps the chief factor in consolidating the whole Japanese nation behind the imperialists”.
For Hughes, the whole war against Germany had been fought with an eye to the supposed threat from Japan—Britain and Australia’s wartime ally. As he put it in a 1916 speech full of racist paranoia, “We have lifted up on our topmost minaret the badge of white Australia, but we are… a drop in a coloured ocean ringed around with a thousand millions of the coloured races.”
Hughes’ main objective at the Peace Conference, however, was to secure Australian control of the German colonies in the Pacific it had seized in September 1914 at the outbreak of war.
They included the northern half of New Guinea and all the main islands to its east—Manus, New Ireland, New Britain, and Bougainville—as well as the guano-laden island of Nauru.
This produced a clash with US President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted on the right of self-determination for small nations and wanted former German colonies to be administered by the League of Nations. This reflected not a commitment to democracy, but the US desire to break up the old European empires.
Wilson argued Australia was a small country of five million people. Hughes, relying on estimates that Australia suffered more casualties in the war than the US, replied unabashedly, “I speak for 60,000 dead. For how many do you speak?”
Hughes wanted the outright annexation of the German colonies Australia had seized. He told the Peace Conference, “Strategically the northern islands (such as New Guinea) encompass Australia like fortresses. They are as necessary to Australia as water to a city.”
Germany had also surrendered its colonies north of the Equator—the Carolinas, the Marianas (except Guam), the Marshall Islands and Palau. But Australia never occupied them.
The Japanese navy, entering the war as Britain’s ally, took control there. It was “understood” in Australia that the Japanese had gone into occupation, “only until Australia could assume control”. However Hughes accepted Britain’s decision giving Japan control there on the proviso that Australia received those south of the Equator.
Although Australia was part of the British Empire, Hughes had won separate representation at the peace conference along with other Dominions including New Zealand and South Africa. The Australian ruling class was determined to assert its own distinct interests over-and-above loyalty to Britain.
Australia had already begun to assert its own local imperialist interests in the late 19th century, and was determined to dominate the islands to its north. Queensland attempted to occupy part of New Guinea for the British Empire in 1883. There was also a clamour in the Australian colonies demanding the seizure of the New Hebrides in 1886.
1905 racist reaction
With Japan’s defeat of Russia in their war in 1905, Hughes and a section of the Australian ruling class became obsessed with Japan as a possible future imperial rival.
Hughes’ adviser Major Edmund L. Piesse, wrote, “In no country did the success of Japan against Russia in 1905 produce a greater impression than in Australia.”
Fitzghardinge, a favourable biographer of Hughes, admitted bluntly that Japan’s victory established it, “in place of China as the main embodiment of the ‘Yellow Peril’.”
Behind Hughes’ actions, he concluded, “lay his conviction that sooner or later, population pressure must drive Japan towards the open spaces of Australia.” In April 1916, Hughes wrote to Senator George Pearce, the acting Prime Minister, after talks with the British Foreign office which to him confirmed, “all our fears—or conjectures—that Japan was and is most keenly interested in Australia.”
This had no basis in reality. It ran counter to Japan’s main imperial desires for control of areas much closer to home in Korea, Manchuria and China, and later in the 1920s and 1930s for control of rubber in British-run Malaya and oil in Dutch-run Indonesia.
Even during its push southward during the Second World War Japan rejected the idea of invading Australia, a fact the Australian government knew by mid-1942.A
In 1919 it took a legal compromise at the Versailles conference to break the deadlock with US President Wilson.
A system of “mandates” to control territory from the League of Nations was proposed. Australia would receive a “C-class” mandate where all its laws would apply to its mandated territory—including the White Australia policy. It was, “the equivalent of a 999 years’ lease as compared with freehold”, Britain’s Cabinet Secretary declared. Hughes had what he wanted. Australian control of Papua New Guinea lasted until 1975. And the imperialist effort to dominate the south Pacific continues today.