Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

Until almost the beginning of the present century Australians and New Zealanders could pursue their political and social ambitions without any thought of external danger. The British navy was their sure shield, and they need give little attention to defense. When Germany entered the western Pacific and annexed the northeast part of New Guinea and some adjacent islands in 1884, this sense of security was slightly jolted. Some of the Australian states pleaded with Britain to do something, and the upshot was that southeastern New Guinea was made a British protectorate and then a crown colony. When the Commonwealth was created, this colony was handed over to Australia as the “Dependency of Papua.”

To that dependency Australia applied a virtually new principle in colonial administration. White settlers could come if they wished, but the welfare of the natives was to be the first and all-important consideration. These primitive peoples, instead of being wiped out, downtrodden, or degraded, were to be helped and guided out of their Stone-Age conditions, intertribal wars, head-hunting, and sorcery toward modern ideas of peace and justice. If they worked for white planters, their wages, food, clothing, and housing must be safeguarded, and they were to labor only fifty hours a week. If they worked on their own land, they were to be helped to become efficient well-equipped farmers.

Patiently the administrator, Mr. Justice Murray, pursued this policy from 1907 to his death in 1940, peacefully persuading, inspiring faith rather than fear, winning cooperation instead of forcing surrender. His labors had their reward when the time of testing came in 1942-43. As the Japs advanced toward Port Moresby, the capital of Papua, and were pushed back over the Owen Stanley range, the Australians had the unstinted support of the natives. There was no fifth column in Papua.


The last war and after

In the early days of World War I Australia and New Zealand quickly captured the German outposts in New Guinea, Samoa, and elsewhere. Then they threw their weight into the war in Europe and the Near East. About 420,000 Australians volunteered, or one-eleventh of the whole population, and 330,000 went overseas. They suffered 320,000 casualties and 60,000 of them died. Australia lost one in every 93 of her people; New Zealand lost one in every 66; we lost one in every 2,000.

For such a costly contribution, Australia and New Zealand, like the other dominions, sought direct representation at the peace table. They also fought to retain the ex-German possessions and to obtain larger reparations than President Wilson had intended Germany should pay. The territories were mandated to them under the League of Nations, and Australia therefore controlled the northeastern part of New Guinea as well as Papua.

With the German menace removed and then with Japan apparently satisfied by the terms of the Washington Conference of 1921–22, Australia turned her back on world affairs. The Pacific seemed safe once more. The navy’s flagship was scuttled in 1924 under the terms of the Washington disarmament agreement, and compulsory military training was suspended in 1929. Expenditure on defense was down to about $5 a head by that year and during the depression the amount fell still lower. Like ourselves, Australians did not want to be worried by unpleasant events that were taking place far away. It was hard enough work to nurse the country back to prosperity without having to be diverted by external troubles.

New Zealand under its new Labor government urged strong League action against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and against other aggressors. But Australia was unconcerned and willing to accept appeasement if peace could be preserved thereby. Not till 1936 or 1937 was there any awakening to the need for vigorous rearmament, and little had been accomplished when World War II began.

When this war came

Australia and New Zealand flung themselves of their own will into the war against Germany. Their divisions were in the grim and sometimes hopeless fight in North Africa, Greece, Crete, and Syria. The Australian navy worked in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. Their airmen flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, bombers over Germany, and patrol planes over the Atlantic.

After the fall of France, the Australian government obtained power to require citizens to place themselves, their services, and their property at the disposal of the Commonwealth, and to supplement the enormous voluntary enlistment by reviving compulsory military service for home defense. The whole speed of preparation became faster and the scope wider. For while Anzacs fought beyond Suez, they could not forget that Japan was not, as in 1914, an ally of Britain, but a member of the Axis. They hoped to conciliate her, and in 1940 sent the chief justice of the High Court of Australia as the first minister to Tokyo. If the worst came, Singapore might protect them, and perhaps we should be provoked to action.

The worst came, and was far worse than anyone expected. By early 1942 the situation for Australia was as grave as was that of Britain after Dunkirk. The Japs rimmed round the north coast and got to within thirty-two air miles of Port Moresby. Zeros played havoc with the defenses at Port Darwin. Over 18,000 Australians had been killed or captured in Malaya, and much of the rest of the army was far away in the Mediterranean zone. The little, scattered navy was suffering loss after loss, and the sea lanes to the outer world were in danger of being cut.

Work or fight

All this called for help from without and for a heroic effort within. Prime Minister Curtin’s slogan “Work, fight, or perish!” ranks with Mr. Churchill’s “Blood, sweat, and tears,” and it was as readily accepted as the only way to salvation. Every available person was mobilized, and by the end of 1942, 70 per cent of the people between 14 and 65 years were in uniform or in war work. Nonessential occupations were cut down: the stock exchanges were closed, except for the sale of bonds; engagement rings were no longer to be made; women under forty-five years were forbidden to work as chorus girls; men were forbidden to work in bars; the number of race meetings was reduced four-fifths and the output of beer one-third. Clothing was rationed, and shirts were shortened five inches. Men were transferred from white-collar jobs to factories, and a mobile labor force of fifty thousand volunteers and draftees who were unfit for military service was swung from place to place constructing the roads, dry docks, munitions plants, airdromes, hospitals, etc., needed by Australian and American forces.

Profits were limited to 4 per cent on the capital invested instead of 4 per cent of the turnover. Labor cooperated eagerly and fully, abandoning its traditional hard-won rights. Management rivaled labor in its readiness to achieve results. Prices were strictly controlled and in 1943 were pegged at about 23 per cent above prewar levels. The freezing of wages automatically followed. When some strikes occurred, the government decided that strikers, or employers who provoked a strike, were to lose their deferred or protected status and be called up instantly by the draft officials. “Work or fight!” became the policy of a Labor government.

Lend-lease in reverse

In addition to meeting its own needs, Australia met many of those of the United States, India, New Zealand, and distant Britain. About one-sixth of the war expenditure—and therefore one-twelfth of the national income in 1943 went into this, reverse lend-lease or “reciprocal aid.” It included every possible contribution, from nine-tenths of the food for American troops to a hospital with room for 4,250 beds for our Army. In order to supply this “reciprocal need,” civilians were put on short rations, especially of meat and clothing, and were deprived entirely of canned goods, pork, citrus fruits, and candies.

Such a record stands as high in duality and relative quantity as that of any of the uninvaded United Nations. What does the Aussie hope to get in return? His own answer is, “World conditions in which we may secure peace, national development, and prosperity for our people in accordance with our ideals of a democratic way of life.” That involves thinking as well as fighting, and the blueprints are already being made, both domestic and international.

The domestic plans include efforts to increase the continent’s population by stimulating immigration to the utmost. It is now frankly recognized that Australia cannot hope to hold indefinitely a large continent with a small population and a declining birth rate. When the worst has been said about the badlands, there is room in the country for 20,000,000 people at Australian standards of living, and Australians admit that the sooner this figure is approached the better. Other plans include vast housing schemes, the fullest possible use of labor, capital, and resources, the continuance of the war-stimulated industries where possible, a large program of public works, and far-reaching developments in social security from the cradle to the grave.

In the international sphere, the Anzacs, without ceasing to be aware of the extent to which their fate is wrapped up with that of Britain and Europe, have become strongly Pacific-conscious. To them the Far East is now the Near North. As one of their historians said in 1941, “We in Australia and New Zealand are European in our traditions and outlook. Still we do live in the Pacific. We have the double task of understanding both our European background and our Pacific surroundings. Our lives will be influenced not only by what happens in London or Berlin, but more and more by what happens in Chungking or Tokyo, Honolulu or Washington.” Since 1939 Australia has established legations in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and the Netherlands—all Pacific countries or empires. She also has “high commissioners,” the equivalent of ambassadors, in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and India-fellow members of the British Commonwealth.

Cooperation in the future

The future, as Australians and New Zealanders see it, calls for three kinds of collaboration. The first is between their two dominions in all matters of common concern, such as defense, civil aviation, commerce, foreign policy, and industrial develop­ment. Until the Japs struck, the two countries rarely worked together or even talked together.

The second is a larger measure of consultation between all the members of the British Commonwealth, so that the views of each dominion can be expressed, and perhaps a common policy for the whole group may emerge. In the past, Australian labor has been very suspicious of any plan which might look like “binding the Empire together”; but now its leaders stoutly proclaim that “the evolution of the British Commonwealth has exemplified the manner in which autonomous nations can cooperate on matters of mutual interest” and “has given the world a notable demonstration of the working of an international democracy” (Prime Minister Curtin). They want more consultation and collaboration.

The third is collaboration for the maintenance of “international peace and security” pending “the re-establishment of law and order” and the setting up of a “general international organization.” (The quoted words are from the Moscow Declaration, signed by the four great powers in November 1943.) Inside the temporary and permanent systems of world security, the Anzac governments propose that a “regional zone of defense” be marked out in the South and Southwest Pacific, based on Australia and New Zealand and stretching through the arc of islands north and northeast of the two dominions. They offer to assume full responsibility for policing or sharing in the policing of the area, and to cooperate with the Dutch, Portuguese, and French, whose colonies they expect to see restored when the Japanese have been evicted.

Enemy territories

In deciding about enemy territories in the Pacific, the Anzacs insist that they must play a part and have a voice; and they ask that “no change in the sovereignty or system of control of any of the islands of the Pacific should be effected except as a result of an agreement to which they are parties or in the terms of which they have both concurred.”

For these islands, and indeed for all the territories held by white men in the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand urge that the “doctrine of trusteeship” be applied, and that “the main purpose of the trust is the welfare of the native peoples and their social, economic and political development.” They propose that “a regional organization with advisory powers” be set up to collaborate in devising plans for health services, native education, assistance in native production, and material developments generally. All this, like the wider problems of security, should be worked out, they suggest, by conference and the frank exchange of views between representatives of the Australian, New Zealand, British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and United States governments.

Thus two valiant small nations pin their hopes on international cooperation for security and on trusteeship for the solution of the problems of the Pacific. In the war they have shown their capacity for cooperation; and in their treatment of native peoples such as the Maoris in New Zealand and the Papuans in New Guinea they have demonstrated that trusteeship is not impracticable dreaming.

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