Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 44: Australia: Our Neighbor Down Under (1944)

In the last war a new word—ANZAC—was hatched from the initials of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. From the Allied operations in the South and Southwest Pacific some such word as AMANZAC ought to emerge. In the dark days of late 1942 General MacArthur voiced his appreciation of the unanimous and complete support we were receiving, of the harmony and cooperation, and of the “magnificent spirit of friendship and understanding, without which it would have been difficult to go on.” The harmony and cooperation have paid dividends in freeing Australia and New Zealand from fear of invasion, in converting these countries from a defensive base into a “formidably armed bastion of attack,” and in rolling back the Japanese from their farthest outposts in New Guinea.


Getting acquainted

Cooperation will continue down the long road ahead to the end the war. And then what? What will be the relations between ourselves and the Anzac peoples? No one can guess the whole answer; but no one would deny that our relations will be far more intimate in every field—economic, political, and cultural—than they were before 1942. We and the Australians and New Zealanders alike are Pacific powers, with interests in or around that ocean. To Americans these interests may perhaps be of secondary rank, but to the Anzacs they are major, first-rate, vital. In any case, they, are common interests and in pursuing them we can help or we can hurt each other in the postwar years.

If we are to do the former, it is well to try to know each other. Australians were formerly far more aware of us than we were of them; yet their knowledge was patchy and specialized in those seamy sides of our life of which we were not very proud. They now know that one does not get a complete picture of us from muckrakers and movies. We can return the compliment by learning something of the Australian’s way of life, his problems and policies, and the things he is trying to do with himself and his country.

How are we alike?

Much of Australian life is easily understood because it is like our own. This is true in at least four respects.

In the first place the two countries are about the same size—3,000,000 square miles. Both are vast compact land masses. Both enjoy the assets and bear the liabilities that accompany bigness—they have a wide range of climate, resources, products, and occupations; their transportation systems have to cover long distances; and any effort to achieve national unity has had to struggle against the strong pull of local or sectional interests.

In the second place, the central theme in the history of each country has been the settling of a vast area by people of immigrant stock. It is a story of discovery and exploration; of immigration, free or forced; and of contact, sometimes happy but usually otherwise, with a native population which was eventually wiped out or pushed out of the way.

Then began the settlement on ranches or farms; the working out of policies by which the public domain could pass into private hands; and the construction of highways and railroads. Problems of production had to be faced, conflicts with climate and struggles against pests—Australians used to say they had only two, rabbits and Scotsmen, but the list rapidly lengthened. Gradually mining and manufacturing industries were developed, currency and banking systems evolved, markets were found, and the business curve went up and down.

The history is thus mostly economic, and the politics have been largely concerned with economic problems. This has made the domestic story of Australia much more humdrum than our own. No war comparable to that with the French and Indians, or to the Revolution, the Mexican or Civil wars disturbed the peace. From the day when the first colony was founded in 1788 until the Japs bombed Port Darwin in early 1942, the only conflict worthy of note was a small scrap between some gold diggers and a few troops in 1854. From such a story it is hard to discover where the Australian gets his superb fighting qualities.

Comparisons and Contrasts

United StatesAustralia
Area2,977,000 sq. mi.2,975,000 sq. mi.
HistoryAbout 360 years, since 1565About 156 years, since 1788
Political SystemFederation of 48 statesFederation of 6 states
Form of GovernmentIndependent executive and legislatureExecutive cabinet responsible to legislature
Economic FeaturesMature on all sidesMature agriculturally but in process of development industrially
World’s largest cotton producerWorld’s largest wool producer
Exports perhaps one-sixth of land productsExports half of land products


What about aims and outlook?

In the third place, the two nations are democratic in the broadest sense of that word. This is embodied in the forms of government; in the belief in equality of rights and of opportunity in political, legal, educational, and economic affairs; and in freedom of speech, press, worship, and organization. In each land there are wide gaps between the democratic ideal and the reality; and there are marked differences in the political methods, the party labels, and even the concepts of what a democracy should do. Yet these do not change the fact that they are alike in aim and outlook.

Finally, both lands enjoy a sense of self-confidence, of optimism, and of manifest destiny. We in the United States seemed to have got a bit beyond that when the greatest boom in our history blew up in our faces and plunged us into the worst depression the world has ever known; but our confidence in ourselves has been restored. We are in good company. If we were to ask an Australian, a New Zealander, a Canadian, and an American “Which is God’s Own Country?” we should get four different answers. To Australian after-dinner speakers the “unlimited potentialities” of their country and its similarity in size to ours have long served to “prove” that some day there would be 100,000,000 people living under their flag. This year we have seen the appearance of a book called America Unlimited. A volume entitled Australia Unlimited was published in 1918 and was as large as a family Bible.

This stalwart pride makes up for the lack of a long past by consciousness of a great present and certainty of a glorious future. In all parts of the New World it has strengthened the determination to pass from colony to nation, to secure self-government, to gain economic maturity by developing factories as well as farms, and to foster a national school of art, letters, music, and the like. We have got through these transitions from childhood to manhood. The Australians have completed some of them and are moving as fast as they can on the rest.

Thus the American finds much that is familiar in the Australian scene. Yet even in the basic similarities there have emerged differences, as a result of history, geography, policies, and ideals. An analysis of these will not merely help us to understand the Australian, but may make us understand ourselves better.

Australian English

The first marked difference is in speech. For some reason, on which the experts cannot agree, Australians manhandle their vowels. The “a” is sounded almost like an “i”: “paper” sounds like “piper,” “race” like the staple food of China and Japan, and “day” is either a coloring material or the act which bring life to an end. The vowel “u” flattens into an “a” so that “butter” is almost “batter.” “Australia” sometimes sounds to an American ear as if it were spelled “Orstrylier.”

The words themselves are often different, as for example “tram” for streetcar, “lift” for elevator, and “petrol” or “benzine” for gasoline. Some words have different meanings on the two sides of the Pacific. If an Australian calls you a “grafter” he is bestowing high praise on your competent discharge of a hard thankless task. But if you offer to provide him with transportation, his brow may lower, for “transportation” was the term used during the early decades of Australian history to describe what happened when a judge sentenced you to be shipped out there for a period of years or for “the term of your natural life.” Finally, many words are pure creations of Australian speech. Many began as the slang of the ranch, the mine, or the town; some have passed into respectable use, but others are still not quite acceptable in the living room.

Australian Slang

  • drogo—rookie
  • cobber—a pal
  • tea—supper
  • boko—nose
  • crook—to feel lousy
  • diggers—Australians
  • sheila—a babe
  • cow—it stinks
  • Buckley’s chance—a long shot
  • joes—the blues or the d.t.’s
  • fair cow—a louse or heel
  • dinkum oil—Gospel truth
  • tucker—food, chow
  • grafter—a good worker
  • shivoo—a party
  • ding dong—swell
  • cooee—yoo-hoo
  • bush—the sticks
  • push—a mob or gang
  • squatter—rancher

Only seven millions

The second difference is in the number of people occupying the two great land masses. We have over 130,000,000 people on our 3,000,000 square miles, and there is only one state, Nevada, with fewer than two and a half people to the square mile. The Australians have only about 7,100,000, or less than the population of Illinois or of New York City, on theirs.

Further, over 6,500,000 of them reside on a crescent-shaped expanse, ranging in depth from a few miles to about 350 miles, running down most of the east coast and then to about the middle of the south coast; or they live on the extreme southwest corner, or in the lovely little island of Tasmania, which lies an overnight sea journey from Melbourne on the south coast. In all, this inhabited area covers about a million square miles; another million carries less than 500,000 people; and the third million is so useless that not more than 10,000 persons dwell there in peacetime.

Finally, about 47 per cent of the population live in the six capital cities, 17 per cent in other towns, thus leaving only 36 per cent—about 2,500,000—to occupy the whole countryside.

These three features—small population, concentration in the east, south, and southwest, and a high degree of town life—call for some explanation. Most of that explanation is found in the climate. Little land is wasted in mountains, and most of the continent is almost as level as the valley of the Mississippi or even the prairies. It is the climate that decides how many people can live in Australia, where they can live, and what sort of work they can do.

It’s either too hot or too dry

The climate is determined by the country’s position on the globe. The mainland lies between 10° and 40° south latitude. In the northern hemisphere it would reach from Washington, D. C., almost to the Panama Canal, covering the Gulf of Mexico and overlapping the coast of Venezuela. Hence its temperature ranges from warm to hot. In the southern regions it rarely gets below 40° F. in winter, with little or no frost or snow; in summer it may hang around 80° and at times dash over 100°. But 1,150,000 square miles, nearly 40 per cent of the country, lie in the tropics. Port Darwin and other places on the north coast, with all-year averages of over 80°, rank with Timbuktu and the tip of India as the hottest places in the world; and since they get their heaviest rains in the summer they stand alongside the mouth of the Congo or Calcutta as the most humidly uncomfortable places on earth.

In addition to being too hot, much of Australia is too dry. The southern settled areas enjoy the sort of climate known in California or the Mediterranean—hot dry summers and cool, occasionally wet, winter clays. But the northern half lies in that belt of the globe swept by the trade winds which blow from the southeast to the equator. If these winds start over water and blow onto land they bring rain, and the northeast part of the Australian coast is therefore well watered. If, however, they start over land and blow out to sea they may dry up whatever water is there and take it where it is not wanted.

This is what happens in all northern Australia except the eastern belt. There is little rain and much evaporation, and consequently much of this area is a “trade wind desert,” like the Sahara and Arabia. If the trade winds could be turned round, or if Australia could be pushed ten or fifteen degrees farther away from the equator, much of its dead heart might become a rival to our Mississippi Valley. Pending that miracle, more than a third of the continent will, get less than 10 inches of rain a year, less than a third will get 10 to 20, and less than a third will receive more than 20 inches. In addition, the semiarid areas may get their rain at the wrong time; or they may get a lot one year and very little the next year.

Gamblers all

Finally, since most of the continent is subject to periodical droughts, such as those which reduced the flocks and herds by nearly half between 1890 and 1902, regions which seem safe in good years are deathtraps when the rains fail to come. Australians have a reputation for being incorrigible gamblers; but for many of them existence itself is a gamble on the weather.

Taking all these factors into account, Australia has one-fifth the area of good land that we possess, and three times as much poor or waste land. In parts of the dry lands a ranch may cover hundreds or even thousands of square miles. The next-door neighbors may be fifty to a hundred miles away. Large areas do not contain a single human being, and even rabbits cannot live there. In some places subterranean water has been tapped to supplement the rainfall, and the River Murray, the only large river in the whole continent, has been used to irrigate some of the land along its banks.

But nothing can render two-thirds of the country capable of sustaining a large population. Most of the future growth will take place in those more favored regions of the east, south, and southwest, where work can be done without too much discomfort, where the yield can be abundant, and where leisure can be enjoyed to the full.

Next section: What Do They Do for a Living?