Nationalist myths of Australia’s war in the Pacific

Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth
By Tom O’Lincoln, Interventions $20.00

As Tom O’Lincoln’s new book points out, WWII is held up as a “good war”, when Australia fought alongside the US for democracy and liberation. The example has been constantly cited to justify more recent Australian military adventures, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tom aims to focus on Australia’s part in the Pacific War against Japan, unearthing the real aims of Australia’s rulers in the war and the racism and war crimes of the Australian military. He has done us a great service in providing material to combat the nationalist myths about Australia’s part in the war.
Tom, a lifelong socialist, chronicles the racism that imbues Australian ruling class thought and how it was directed against Japan many years prior to WWII.
To understand the Australian ruling class’s aims in the war, as Tom points out, you not only have to understand Australia’s role in WWII, but also its origins and history as a British colonial settler state: “Having built a nation by dispossessing Indigenous people, many white Australians feared someone might dispossess them in turn”.
Australia’s rulers have their own interests, separate and distinct from Britain and the US. Their prime concern has been to secure their own control of both the Australian continent and the immediate region. Their strategy for doing so has been to lock a larger imperial power into asserting their interests.
Reliance on Britain before WWII was never based solely on loyalty to the “mother country”. This explains why PM John Curtin quickly moved from relying on Britain, even though he regarded himself and Australians as “sons and daughters of Britishers”, to relying on the US in December 1941.
“Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom,” he proclaimed.
Australia’s rulers were pursuing their own “sub-imperial” designs in the Pacific. Tom cites The Age arguing even in 1914 that New Guinea should be taken from Germany, “We have long since realised that we have a Pacific Ocean destiny.” The Age wanted “the foundations of a solid Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean.”
In the 19th century, there was recurrent hysteria about possible invasion from Russia, France, China, Germany and Japan, without a shred of evidence to support such fantasies.
This produced vicious racism—particularly aimed at first the Chinese then the Japanese.
When Australian troops were assigned the occupation of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, one Australian army publication greeted the news by saying, “Australia Takes the Ashes.”
No Japanese brides who married Australian soldiers during their time in Japan were initially allowed into Australia. In 1948, Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell thought, “It would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit a Japanese of either sex to pollute Australian shores.”
With such a focus on challenging the myths of the war, Tom has taken care with footnotes, and substantial bibliographical references, to back up what will be an unpopular argument. The 30 pages of works cited to make his case are an indication of how well-documented all this is. But we are not taught any of this at school and the mass media perpetuates an incessant, dumbed-down story about “heroic diggers at Kokoda.”
Unfortunately, the Australian left has a poor record of standing up to this racism. Tom rightly argues that, “World War II played a major role in… drawing the bulk of the left into the national project. That Australia Communists simultaneously acquired a track record for racism highlights the dangers posed by nationalist politics for the Left.”
The Communist Party paper Tribune welcomed the atomic nightmares of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a racist cartoon of a Japanese man being struck by bombs, with the unselfconscious caption “Jappy Ending”.
As a teenager in the mid-1970s, I gravitated to “left nationalism” as the only left alternative I knew of at the time to a rightward-marching Labor Party. This “left nationalism” has its roots in the Communist Party’s move to the right in the mid-1930s, intensifying after WWII started.
Even today Greens like Bob Brown and many on the Labor Left are uncritical supporters of Australian nationalism. But as WWII shows there is nothing progressive about this.
Tom’s book is great read, compelling and disturbing as to just how racist Australia’s rulers have been.
It is a pity a more well-known publisher’s deal for Tom’s book fell through. Thankfully it could still be published with help from the Jeff Goldhar project.
Its wealth of detail will be an asset in the struggle against Australian militarism and war.
Tom Orsag


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