The title of this little series is a nod to David Walker's Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939. 1 As the title suggests, Walker argues that Australia's relationship with Asia in the decades before and after Federation was largely characterised by fear about immigration, imports and invasion. Peter Stanley, in Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942, fleshes out the last of these fears through a discussion of novels and books from the 1930s which discussed the prospect of war with Japan (or at least an unnamed or Ruritanian Asian enemy). 2 For example, in Erle Cox's Fool's Harvest (1938/1939), Australia is attacked and invaded by 'Cambasia' in September 1939, beginning with a massive air raid on Sydney which causes 200,000 civilian casualties. Britain is unable to help, as it has been attacked by Germany, Italy and France; a British fleet at Singapore is sunk. The Australian armed forces are ill-equipped to defend the nation, and after a month Cambasia is victorious at the last battle of the war, at Seymour in central Victoria. A resistance movement is eventually suppressed after increasingly brutal reprisals. The south-eastern part of Australia eventually regains a limited independence in 1966, but the majority of the population still labours under the Cambasian yoke.
But I've also been reading Augustine Meaher's The Australian Road to Singapore: The Myth of British Betrayal. 3 Meaher argues that Australians were not in fact particularly concerned about Japan in the 1930s. The few attempts at warning the public and the elites were confused and ineffectual; the armed forces were too busy fighting with each other to seriously think about fighting Japan. Even the start of the Sino-Japanese war and events like the Nanking Massacre didn't seem to cause any great alarm. And it must be said that Walker's account of the 1930s doesn't do much to contradict this. He focuses on the increasing interest of Australian elites in closer ties with Asia and the Pacific, rather than the fears which had preoccupied earlier generations. At the risk of caricature, Meaher's thesis is that Australians weren't too worried about the Japanese threat; and Stanley's is that they were too worried.
Meaher is convincing on his core argument: that Britain never promised it would be able to defend Australia under all circumstances and that Australia misunderstood the consequent need to invest in its own defences. But I do wonder if he is too quick to dismiss those efforts which were made to warn Australians of the Japanese threat, though. For example, I don't think he discusses the famous refusal of dock workers in 1938 to load iron onto ships bound for Japan, explicitly for the reason that it might come back in the form of bombs. This idea must have come from somewhere. He argues persuasively that the press and the ruling elites were ill-equipped to provide cogent analyses of Australia's strategic situation; the few attempts which were made were usually simplistic where they weren't plain silly. 4 The depth of debate about strategic affairs does seem very poor when compared with Britain. 5
Still, that doesn't mean such debate as existed was without effect. Stanley describes Fool's Harvest as 'hugely popular' and notes that it was first serialised in the Melbourne Argus, one of the nation's leading newspapers. 6 It also seems to be a good example of a novelist popularising the ideas of more serious thinkers, as Thomas Blamey advised Cox on the military side of things. 7 Blamey had been Monash's chief of staff in France during the last war and at this time was in charge of recruitment for the Citizen Military Force (i.e. the Militia) and a regular commentator for the ABC on military and foreign affairs. 8 The same sort of nexus between next-war novelists, military intellectuals and the press could be found in Britain, though by this time such blatant le Queux-like propagandising was no longer common. It looks to me like there was at least a nascent next-war literature by the late 1930s.
On the other hand, I put that that question mark in the title of these posts before I read Meaher's book. That's because I was concerned that I was projecting forwards my (not particularly deep) knowledge of the fear of Japan in the first decades after Federation, and backwards my (also not particularly deep) knowledge of the fear of Japanese invasion in 1942, as exemplified by the wonderful piece of scaremongering at the start of this post. 9 But it's also because it didn't look like the mystery aeroplane sightings I'm looking at here can simply be put down to fear of Japan. I'll tackle that in a final post in this series.
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- David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999).
- Peter Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942 (Camberwell: Viking, 2008), 43-54.
- Augustine Meaher, The Australian Road to Singapore: The Myth of British Betrayal (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010).
- Meaher doesn't cite this in his book, but if memory serves I've heard him talk about one Tasmanian senator who calculated that approximately one squadron of aeroplanes would be enough to guard Australia's entire coastline. All 34,000km of it.
- Actually, I'd be surprised if British military intellectuals didn't have some impact in Australia; for a start, I know that the State Library of Victoria obtained copies of at least four out of every five books published in London on my topic -- very conveniently for me, I must say.
- Beginning with Argus, 5 November 1938, 34.
- Stanley, Invading Australia, 50.
- In the next war Blamey was commander in chief of the Australian army in the Pacific and personally took charge of the Kokoda campaign; in 1950 he was promoted to field marshal, the only Australian to ever hold that rank.
- See Walker, Anxious Nation, 98-126; Stanley, Invading Australia; Kate Darian-Smith, On the Home Front: Melbourne in Wartime: 1939-1945 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009). I'm also indebted to Richard Waterhouse of the University of Sydney for letting me see some of his ongoing work on home front reactions to the Japanese offensive.