It was regarded as a betrayal of Australia by its British mother country

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

World War Two had immediate consequences for Australia’s immigration policy, Jared Diamond notes (in Upheaval):

But Australia’s main contribution to World War One was to contribute a huge volunteer force—400,000 soldiers, constituting more than half of all Australian men eligible to serve, out of a total Australian population under 5 million—to defend British interests half-way around the world from Australia, in France and the Mideast.


More than 300,000 were sent overseas, of whom two-thirds ended up wounded or killed.


Almost every small rural Australian town still has a cenotaph in the town center, listing the names of local men killed in the war.


Australia abolished the draft in 1930 and built only a small air force and navy.


On February 15, 1942, the British general in command at Singapore surrendered to the Japanese army, sending 100,000 British and Empire troops into prisoner-of-war camps—the most severe military defeat that Britain has suffered in its history (Plate 7.7).


Sadly, those troops surrendering included 2,000 Australian soldiers who had arrived in Singapore only three weeks earlier, on January 24, in order to serve in the hopeless task of its defense.


In the absence of British ships to protect Australia, the same Japanese aircraft carriers that had bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor heavily bombed the Australian city of Darwin on February 19, 1942 (Plate 7.8).


To Australians, the fall of Singapore was not just a shock and a frightening military setback: it was regarded as a betrayal of Australia by its British mother country.


As a result, although Australia was attacked directly in World War Two but not in World War One, Australia’s casualties in World War Two were paradoxically less than half of those in World War One.


After World War Two there unfolded a gradual loosening of Australia’s ties to Britain and a shift in Australians’ self-identification as “loyal British in Australia,” resulting in a dismantling of the White Australia policy.


World War Two had immediate consequences for Australia’s immigration policy. Already in 1943, Australia’s prime minister concluded that the tiny population of Australians (less than 8 million in 1945) could not hold their huge continent against threats from Japan (population then over 100 million), Indonesia (just 200 miles away) with a population approaching 200 million, and China (population 1 billion).


All of Japan and Java is wet and fertile, and much of the area of those islands is suitable for highly productive agriculture. But most of Australia’s area is barren desert, and only a tiny fraction is productive farmland.


But Australia’s prime ministers in the 1940’s were neither ecologists nor economists, and so post-war Australia did embark on a crash program of encouraging immigration.


As a first step in that direction, Italian and German prisoners of war who had been brought to Australia were permitted to remain.


Australia’s minister for immigration from 1945 to 1949, Arthur Calwell, was an outspoken racist. He even refused to allow Australian men who had been so unpatriotic as to marry Japanese, Chinese, or Indonesian women to bring their war-brides or children into Australia. Calwell wrote, “No Japanese women, or any half-castes either, will be admitted to Australia; they are simply not wanted and are permanently undesirable… a mongrel Australia is impossible.”


In 1947 Calwell toured refugee camps in post-war Europe, found that they offered “splendid human material,” and noted approvingly of the Baltic Republics, “Many of their people were red-headed and blue-eyed. There were also a number of natural platinum blonds of both sexes.” The result of that selective encouragement of immigration was that, from 1945 to 1950, Australia received about 700,000 immigrants (a number nearly equal to 10% of its 1945 population), half of them reassuringly British, the rest from other European countries.


The undermining of the White Australia policy that produced the Asian immigrants and Asian restaurants awaiting me in Brisbane in 2008 resulted from five considerations: military protection, political developments in Asia, shifts of Australian trade, the immigrants themselves, and British policy.


To the shock of Australians, in 1967 Britain announced its intent to withdraw all of its military forces east of the Suez Canal. That marked the official end to Britain’s long-standing role as Australia’s protector.


By the 1980’s Australia’s leading trade partner was—Japan!—followed by the U.S., with Britain far behind.


Hence Britain applied to join the EEC. That application and its sequels constituted a shock to Australia’s and Britain’s relationship even more fundamental than had been the fall of Singapore, although the latter was more dramatic and symbolic, and lingers today as a bigger cause of festering resentment to Australians.


Britain’s Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, actually aimed at halting Commonwealth immigration from the West Indies and Pakistan, avoided appearances of racism by ending the automatic right of all Commonwealth citizens (including Australians) to enter and reside in Britain.


Britain’s 1968 Immigration Act barred automatic right of entry into Britain for all FOREIGNERS (Australians were now declared to be foreigners!) without at least one British-born grandparent, thereby excluding a large fraction of Australians at that time.


In 1972 Britain declared Australians to be ALIENS (!).


From an Australian perspective, it may seem that Australian identity changed suddenly and comprehensively in 1972, when Australia’s Labour Party under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to power for the first time in 23 years. In his first 19 days in office, even before he had appointed a new cabinet, Whitlam and his deputy embarked on a crash program of selective change in Australia, for which there are few parallels in the modern world in its speed and comprehensiveness. The changes introduced in those 19 days included: end of the military draft (national conscription); withdrawal of all Australian troops from Vietnam; recognition of the People’s Republic of China; announced independence for Papua New Guinea, which Australia had been administering for over half-a-century under a mandate from the League of Nations and then from the United Nations; banning visits by racially selected overseas athletic teams (a rule aimed especially at all-white South African teams); abolishing the nomination of Australians for Britain’s system of honors (knighthoods, OBEs, KCMGs, and so on) and replacing them with a new system of Australian honors; and—officially repudiating the White Australia policy.


Once Whitlam’s whole cabinet had been approved, it then adopted more steps in the crash program: reduction of the voting age to 18; increase in the minimum wage; giving representation to both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in the federal Senate; granting legislative councils to both of those territories; requiring environmental impact statements for industrial developments; increased spending on Aborigines; equal pay for women; no-fault divorce; a comprehensive medical insurance scheme; and big changes in education that included abolishing university fees, boosts in financial aid for schools, and transfer from the states to the Australian Commonwealth of the responsibility for funding tertiary education.


Whitlam correctly described his reforms as a “recognition of what has already happened” rather than as a revolution arising out of nothing.


In 1954 the first visit to Australia by a reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, was greeted by an enormous outpouring of pro-British sentiment: over 75% of all Australians turned out on the streets to cheer her (Plate 7.9). But—by the time that Queen Elizabeth visited Australia again in 1963, two years after Britain’s first EEC application, Australians were much less interested in her and in Britain.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    It’s never comfortable to feel dependent on distant others for your very survival.

    In Taiwan there’s a train whose name can be translated as the Toughen Up Express. It came into existence shortly after the Taipei government lost out to Beijing for international recognition. The sense was the, uh, country needed to look out for itself because no one else really had their back. An overreaction, given the strong US support, but an understandable one.

  2. TRX says:

    “On February 15, 1942, the British general in command at Singapore surrendered to the Japanese army, sending 100,000 British and Empire troops into prisoner-of-war camps—the most severe military defeat that Britain has suffered in its history”

    Yeah, pretty standard slap at Arthur Percival there.

    Percival got handed command at the last moment, long after anything useful could be done. The idiots who had mounted all the naval guns had bricked them in so they couldn’t be turned to face the city; the Japanese simply landed on the other side and marched in while the engineers were trying to modify the gun emplacements.

    Percival’s direct orders from Churchill were to fight to the last man. Which he disobeyed, since it would only result in the deaths of both his command and the civilians he was supposed to be protecting.

    Type “surrender signing Missouri” into your favorite search engine. Find one of the pictures of MacArthur signing the surrender documents.

    In front, there are the Japanese. Standing on either side behind him, there are two men. One of them is Arthur Percival, who surrendered Singapore. The other is Jonathan Wainwright, who surrendered at Bataan, against Roosevelt’s direct orders.

    They’d spent the war in Japanese prison camps. And the liberators found them, hosed them off, put uniforms on them, and flew them to the ceremony, where they stand behind Dugout Doug like exemplars of Death in medieval paintings.

    A lot of people know how badly they had been shafted, and it took a fair amount of organization to get them the ship in time, and then to juggle the entire ceremony to put them in that photo. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill were in power by then, but Percival and Wainwright were there to show that the new bosses that the officer corps knew what had happened and didn’t like it at all.

  3. Adar says:

    1. Battle of the Coral Sea. A national holiday in Australia still? Australian combat units their participation minor if nil.

    2. Percival perhaps that # 1 officer most qualified to command in Singapore. Had been Chief of Staff for the garrison before the war and was highly regarded.

    All the prominent English and Australian leadership at Singapore seem to have given a poor performance. Then too, it was probably a case of the Japanese were good more than the British forces [including British Indian army units and Australians] were so bad.

  4. Kirk says:

    I don’t know that I’d be that charitable towards Percival, TBH. There was a lot of stuff he should have done, to include taking charge over his subordinate generals, which would have done a lot to at least make Japan’s conquest a hell of a lot more expensive.

    Japan got lucky in all too many ways–MacArthur in the Philippines, for example? That silly bastard did so much stupid crap that it’s not even funny. Had he actually had the sense he was attributed to have, most of his supplies and ammunition wouldn’t have still been on docks in Manila when the Japanese took the place, and his defense plans for the Philippines wouldn’t have looked like some fantastic mirage, which was what they really looked like, in retrospect. That whole thing was an exercise in sycophancy and incompetence, with MacArthur keeping men like Brereton in command, after their incompetence lost them the Army Air Corps assets they’d been entrusted with. Same with Sutherland, who should have been fired, but since he was a “yes man”, he stayed on, to cost God knows how many lives.

    Percival was not the man they needed in Singapore. Had someone like Slim been in command, I suspect that the Japanese would have found Malaya a much harder nut to crack. As it was, his lack of energy and command discipline over his subordinate division commanders lost the battle before it properly began.

    Percival had over a month to prepare Singapore for defense; when the Japanese arrived, so little had been done that they didn’t even have enough water to last out a short siege. I honestly don’t think the man deserves the least credit for anything, aside from inadvertently giving a massive assist to the Japanese Army in their conquest of Asia.

    Had they put someone like Montgomery or Slim into command, I think things would have at least had a bit more spine to them…

  5. Graham says:

    The premises on which the Singapore defences had been built were not unlike those of French prewar planning in the sense of “Who could possibly move an army through the Ardennes/Jungles of Malaya?”

    Guess they got schooled. Prewar foolishness and it put commanders like Percival in difficult positions. That doesn’t take anything away from Kirk’s analysis though- there’s always the difference between being in a tough to manage, maybe irretrievable situation, and not doing all you can to maximize performance in that situation.

    The distinction occurs all the time in everyday life, too. I’m a self-taught scholar of both creating untenable situations and then underperforming in response. They are both sobering.

    So the Australians had the right to remark on this abysmal performance. “Betrayal” always seemed a bit much, though. Getting your ass handed to you through weakness and poor handling is embarrassing, but it’s not a deliberate act of betrayal. I’m sure the British would have preferred not to lose at Singapore.

    The stuff the British did after the war was more hypocritical, reflective of their moralizing and gutlessness. If they had had any nerve they would have just made entry exception for the Australians and Kiwis, excluded everyone else, and defended their position by also excluding white South Africans and daring anyone to complain it wasn’t a neutral policy. As though they had such an obligation. South Africans took part disproportionately in the war too, but by the 1960s they were out of the Commonwealth.

    Sure, everyone would have seen through that, but it should have been enough.

    Anyway, as a Canadian I always try to have some sympathy for the Aussies.

    We were culturally pulling away from the Brits, especially at the level of our WASP governing elites, already in the interwar years at a much faster clip than the Aussies were. Those leaders still disdained the US, but the US was exerting a huge pull on us, and geography, defence and economics had started to pull us that way. Our leaders hoped for a middle course, but they definitely spoke and wrote ambivalently about the british empire. Still some pro-empire rhetoric, but a lot more language about the League and about steering our own course. Usually pushing for things like the Statute of Westminster, disdaining imperial military cooperation in peacetime, and so on. Even in 1939 aiming for a low-manpower contribution to the war effort. Mackenzie King hoped the air training plan would be the bulk of our contribution although a division was equipped to go to the UK and arrived summer 1940. Only the fall of France changed the game for us.

    So I can see where the Aussies would feel more alarmed than us, what with having been a good deal more loyal and a great deal more out on the geographic limb. But still, Singapore’s loss a “betrayal”? No.

    The weakness of the British fleet sent east certainly reflected Eurocentric priorities, and this concern was already apparent even in prewar planning and the Australian governments had an idea it could play out this way. There was no getting around the idea that in a second European war, Britain would again be fighting for its life and probably incapable of seriously opposing Japan as well. Certainly not capable of defeating Japan.

    Considering what ultimately proved necessary to defeat Japan, I’m not sure all Britain’s power in 1939 could have managed it, if Germany had stayed at peace.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Yep, Percival cannot be seen other than a failure.

    The guns that cannot fire towards land is just a detail in overall land combat that went to the Japanese in Malaysia despite no obvious superiority.

    Colonial armies tend to get the mindset of police forces; to change that is usually very difficult.

  7. Sam J. says:

    TRX says, “Type ‘surrender signing Missouri’ into your favorite search engine. Find one of the pictures of MacArthur signing the surrender documents.”

    Thanks. That’s a very cool slice of history I had no idea about.

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