Australians are frequently reminded of the deep gratitude we should feel to the USA, which ‘saved’ us from Japan in World War Two. The American Alliance, we’re told, is the essential bedrock of our freedom…
USS Essex: a warship America can't afford pissing on a post it doesn't need to foul
Over the last few days, a US warship has been berthed in Cairns, less than 50 kilometres from where I sit. The USS Essex may be bearing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Longstanding US policy is to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether weapons of mass destruction are carried on its military vessels into friendly ports.
Raise any complaint about this, and before too long at least one Australian will venture the standard opinion that “if it wasn’t for the Americans, we’d all be speaking Japanese!” (They never seem to explain why, fond as Australians are of sophisticated Japanese technology and its tasty cuisine, we should consider speaking Japanese a fate literally worse than death.)
Actually, the comfortable official saga of how our genial American cousins preserved Australia from the dreaded “yellow peril” in the 1940s leaves out some rather significant elements of a very complex story. As a reaction against the conformist verities that stultify debate and fresh thinking about contemporary ‘Defense’ policy, here’s another view on Australia and World War Two. I’ll call it the ‘Neutral and Pro-Peace version of events’. I admit it’s selective too. I’ve just selected different facts from those emphasised incessantly in the mainstream narrative…
Was Australia saved by peace-loving Americans?
I’ll frame this version around answers to two rather important questions. Both questions, I believe, receive very unsatisfactory answers in most popular discourse about the period.
Did the USA Save Australia?
First, was Australia really ‘saved’ by America in any meaningful sense?
To answer this question, we surely have to consider why Australia was under threat at all – and from whom. The answer is that no-one seriously threatened Australia in 1941. However, once the USA entered the war, Australia also found itself at war with Japan. Japan did present something of a potential regional threat. So how did America’s war with Japan begin?
The simple version is that the US fleet experienced a savage, wholly unprovoked Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor naval base in the Pacific. Surely this act of aggression was proof positive that Japan had evil intentions to the USA – and by extension to countries such as Australia.
Victory Jobs, washed down with Victory Gin?
Well, not really. Over the years a solid case has accumulated indicating that the Roosevelt Administration – at the very highest level – deliberately sought war with Japan in the early 1940s – and that President Roosevelt had prior warning of the Pearl Harbour attack.
Roosevelt wanted the attack on Pearl Harbor attack to happen, despite the ‘sacrifice’ of several thousand American lives. He was relieved when the Japanese Government finally took the bait. It was the trigger he’d been seeking to draw a deeply reluctant American nation into another huge war, for the second time in a generation.
US trade embargoes – especially imposing blocks on Japan’s vital oil supplies – made it more or less inevitable that eventually Japan’s ‘War Faction’ would gain the upper hand in Tokyo and strike out in an attempt to break free of the encircling boycott.
In short, the very same US allies who supposedly ‘saved’ Australia from Japanese invasion deliberately provoked war with Japan in the first place. That’s like throwing a man in a lake, then fishing him out afterwards. Australians are supposed to be grateful for that?
'Race War' trumps 'Class War' in Australian World War Two Propaganda
Dr Peter Stanley, senior historian at the War Memorial, has written that the Japanese had no actual invasion plan for Australia. According to Stanley, it’s one piece of information to which Australia’s own Prime Minister, John Curtin, was privy. That didn’t stop Mr Curtin from telling his very own war propaganda lies to whip up public hysteria inside Australia and keep the workers hard at it. See Remembering 1942 “He’s Coming South” – not.
Why was Australia at war at all?
The other key question – which chronologically should ahve come first – is how had Australia got involved in an escalating war in the first place?
The answer seems to have been unquestioning clannish loyalty, heightened by alarmist appeals that the British ‘motherland’ was in imminent danger of invasion.
In the words of Prime Minister Menzies, announcing Australia’s entry into the war
“Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”
It would be hard to frame a sentence more redolent of the wholesale abandonment of Australian national sovereignty to an oversees power.
Was Britain really threatened with invasion? By October 1940, and possibly even earlier, Churchill knew that German plans to invade Britain were on hold.
The British Prime Minister enjoyed access to the ‘ultra-secret’ Enigma intercepts and knew very well that the attention of Germany had turned east. He was also in receit of peace offers from Germany that even American insiders at the time considered astonishingly generous. And lest we forget…it was Britain after all that declared war on Germany back in 1939 – not the other way round.
Winston Churchill: defending truth with a bodyguard of lies
Churchill didn’t even tell the British Foreign Minister about the ultra-secret intercepts – let alone ‘colonials from down-under such as Menzies’. So soon after Australia’s leadership allowed itself to be dragged into a war in Europe to defend Britain, it found Churchill diverted most Australian troops to North Africa, for reasons that just didn’t seem to make sense.
Meanwhile, Churchill and Roosevelt plotted successfully to get the USA directly involved in the war, despite massive opposition at the time from the US public and repeated pledges from Roosevelt to his electorate that he’d keep America at peace.
Roosevelt pulled off this trick with Pearl Harbour, the trigger for Congressional support to declare war on Japan. Germany immediately honored a mutual defense pact with Japan – and suddenly, for the first time in the conflict, Australia found its own territory under potential threat. Yet by then, most Australian troops were halfway round the planet, doing Churchill only knew what…
It’s not hard to mount the argument that Australia’s World War Two policy is a case study in how to be duped, used and spat out. This is exactly what an indepndent nation’s foreign policy should NOT look like. (Cynics might object that as the USA and Britain didn’t fire-bomb Australian cities, alliances do have some benefits!)
Fool on Australia for getting used like a pawn in a violent game we barely understood. And fool on contemporary Australians for being so blinded by war time propaganda, propaganda with a greatly-extended shelf-life of more than 65 years, that we fail to draw the real lessons of World War Two and thus continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.
In August 1939, Britain chose to declare war on Germany (but not the USSR) over an invasion of Poland. Germany’s invasion had been occasioned by Poland’s quite reckless and provocative behaviour; it was Poland, after all, that mobilized first. The Polish Government, in turn, had been emboldened by Britain’s strategically insane guarantee of unconditional military support.
Robert Menzies: kept in the dark by Churchill
Menzies’ grovelling radio announcement that Australia would appease its old imperial master by locking its fate to Britain, in a war wholly out of Australia’s control, was the act of a colonial puppet. A truly independent Australian Prime Minister might have announced to his nation:
“Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that Great Britain has decided to declare war on Germany – and we wish her the very best of British luck!”
Likewise, when the USA subsequently decided it wanted to throttle Japan and then beat the hell out of it, a more appropriate Australian Government response would have been to withhold approval for this murderous activity.
Had we taken a neutral, war-opposing course in our foreign policy, it’s unlikely that Australians would be ‘speaking Japanese’ today. We might well be speaking more Japanese – and other languages too. We’d most likely have a nice, cheap civil defense strategy to deter invaders. We’d have no Pine Gap or permanent US military presence of any kind, clinging to our neck like the Old Man of the Sea. No visiting warships that won’t deign to tell us whether or not they’re carrying nuclear bombs. We’d probably be friends with just about everybody – a real ‘Lucky Country’ without the scars of war.
The official Anglo-American narrative is that they alone saved Australia from perdition in the 20th Century. But it’s easy to make a case that the reverse is true.
Today’s political leadership in Canberra is probably even more subservient to overseas war-mongering mythologizers than the generation of Menzies and Curtin. Hope for real change lies in a major shift in public opinion. Correcting the bias of official history is a key catalyst. There’s more than one reason why the history of World War Two is such a touchy subject.
Eisenhower: an old warrior who warned about the growing Warfare State
I’ll leave the concluding comments to that old American war horse President Eisenhower, a man knew a thing or two about lies that rationalize wars, who also had a habit of making memorable remarks. His farewell speech, in which he warned of the growing power of the Military Industrial Complex, is well known. Here are three more of his famous quotations:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953
“I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower