Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 16:33 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Oct 2020 | 16:33 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Australia in World War II

29 September 2011 15:47

Anton Kuruc writes:

It is difficult to know what to make of Raoul Heinrichs' latest post on Australia's long-term strategic culture of alliances. Whilst it is true that 'dependence' is a choice, he should have at least considered what the other choice implies.

Heinrichs asserts: 'If anything, then, Andrew's post reinforces the fact that culture and tradition do not always play a beneficial role in the making of strategy, and in many cases may be at odds with the optimal calculation of policy.' The counter-factual can never be known, but it might be useful to consider the alternative to supporting the Singapore Strategy and Imperial defence between the wars.

Let's assume Australia did not participate in Imperial defence prior to WWII. That choice would probably have partially or totally locked Australia out of the preferential Commonwealth trade arrangements. That choice would likely have made Australia economically poorer. Furthermore, a 'neutral' Australia might have encouraged Japanese aggression towards the British Empire and the US. It seems unlikely that a choice to be non-aligned would have served the best interests of the Australian people prior to WWII.

It is also worth pondering, in the spirit of 'optimal calculation of policy', how Japan would have treated Australia once it had gone to war with the UK and USA. I suppose there are three broad Japanese policy options, if we discount an unlikely Japanese invasion of Australia. By my reckoning Japan could have:

  1. Effectively made Australia a vassal state, prohibiting any trade with Japan's enemies and forcing extremely unfavourable trade requirements on Australia to support the Japanese war effort – effectively extending the Japanese Co Prosperity Sphere to include Australia. Japan would also likely demand military basing rights and Australian industrial support for her Navy and other forces stationed and or fighting in the vicinity of Australia.
  2. Forced unfavourable trade with Australia and prohibit any relationship or trade with her enemies but in all other ways respected Australia's neutrality.
  3. Respected Australia's neutrality.

Options 1 and 2 seem most likely and both would have been economically disastrous for Australia during the war. That setback would have cascaded into an even worse diplomatic and economic debacle once the Allies defeated the Japanese. A short-term commitment to independence would likely have been viewed as neutrality or worse in London and Washington.

It is difficult to see how Australia would have retained any diplomatic leverage in the aftermath of WWII. This would almost certainly have had a very serious negative economic impacts on Australia and removed any influence we had in the emerging post WWII international system. As a way of atoning for our WWII shame it is quite likely that Australia would have made even greater contributions to the Malayan Emergency, Korea, Borneo and Vietnam to try and recover our good name and standing with the victors of WWII.

As it stands, Australia's contribution to the Singapore Strategy was always well below what was requested and foreseen. So whilst we might have made a choice to be an ally of Britain we did not contribute as much as we might have. A weak economy, the political ascendancy of the Reserve military culture and the dominance of the Defence of Australia school of strategy ensured that Australia was very poorly prepared for WWII and the Japanese threat.

As it was, the strength of culture cannot be underestimated. It is a sentiment on full parade in Curtin's telegram to Roosevelt requesting US assistance after the fall of Singapore: ‘We are now, with small population in the only white man's territory south of the equator, beset grievously.' The racial, or if you like cultural, overtones in this telegram scream out.

Just as easily as Heinrichs suggests Australia was abandoned at Singapore, others can just as readily argue that Australia abandoned the Empire by never living up to its commitments to the Imperial defence of South East Asia. Australia, it could be argued, abandoned its commitments to a collective defence of South East Asia until we panicked after the fall of Singapore.

In a great irony for a government that maintained the 'White Australia' policy, it fell to the Indian Army to make the greatest commitment to the defence of Singapore. More Indians were committed to and died in that campaign than Australians, which is not to denigrate the sacrifices of anyone involved in this tough but unsuccessful campaign.