“On 27 December , with his government a mere 12 weeks old, [Prime Minister John] Curtin stood Australian foreign policy on its head by declaring that the country now ‘looked to America’ for protection from the Japanese. Until this ringing pronouncement, Australia, in truth, barely had a foreign policy. . . . Its foreign policy amounted to little more than adding a squeaky ‘me too’ to whatever Britain decided.”
This quote, from Peter Grose’s “An Awkward Truth” (Allen & Unwin; 2009) succinctly characterizes the reality of Australia’s place in the world, not only in the years leading up to World War II, but also since. In many senses, Australia, following the United States unquestioningly into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has simply substituted one “me too-ism” for another.
The overriding belief in Australia is that the U.S. saved Australia from Japanese attack and occupation, and that this symbolizes a special relationship, similar to the one that Washington presumably courts with London. In effect, however, this special Australia-U.S. relationship is one of deference on the part of the distant and ever-obliging little partner.
The U.S. did not save Australia from the Japanese in World War II. Though the northern city of Darwin did come under attack by Japanese bombers, and ships in the harbor of Australia’s most populous city, Sydney, were torpedoed by midget submarines, the Japanese had no serious intent to occupy the vast Antipodean continent. What would they do with it once they had it?
“An Awkward Truth” is about the air raid on Darwin on Feb. 19, 1942. As Grose tells us, “More bombs fell on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor. More ships were sunk in Darwin than in Pearl Harbor.” (The loss of life was far greater at Pearl Harbor, owing to the fact that the ships there were more heavily manned.)
Less than a month after the attack on Darwin, the Commander of U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, fled the Philippines. Barely stopping in Darwin, he went to Alice Springs in the center of Australia, then on to Adelaide and Melbourne by train. It was on the train that he penned what is perhaps his most famous pledge — “I shall return” — referring to his forced eviction from the Philippines.
The Japanese raid on Darwin in February 1942 was carried out by 242 aircraft. The town had a multinational population of less than 6,000 at the time, consisting, among others, of Aboriginal and white Australians, Europeans, Malays, Filipinos, and even a few Japanese. The primary goal of the attack was to knock out and neutralize Darwin as a possible Allied military hub.
What is astounding about the timing of the attack was that it took the Japanese only a little over two months from Pearl Harbor to repaint the map of Asia and the Pacific — all the way to Australia — in the red and white of the Rising Sun.
With the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, only four days before the Darwin air raid, it certainly looked as though the days of British rule in the Far East were numbered as it reeled from what is still to this day its biggest-ever miliary defeat and surrender in terms of prisoners taken.
Australia’s best fighting forces were far away from home, defending the Empire in the Middle East. Prime Minister Curtin cabled British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He wanted those divisions returned. After all, wasn’t it their duty to defend their homeland?
But to Churchill, there was no Australian homeland, only the Empire. Churchill refused and further stated that Australian forces would be sent no further east than Burma, where they were to be thrown into the (successful) effort to prevent the Japanese from extirpating the jewel out of the British imperial crown, namely India.
This proved to Curtin that the British commitment to Australia was only that of a master to a servant. As a result, Australia’s loyalties were then transferred to what the nation saw as its new savior, the United States of America.
The truth of the first attack on Darwin (there were to be 62 raids in all) is not only awkward; it is bizarre.
Not a single Australian newspaper carried a report of the bombing. The War Cabinet meeting that took place later that day did not even mention the event. If you forego control of your sovereignty to a superior protector, be it Britain or the U.S., it is natural that you are unprepared for either a breach of that sovereignty or a proper response to its compromise.
Grose’s book about the attack on Sydney Harbour by Japanese midget submarines, “A Very Rude Awakening” (Allen & Unwin; 2007), tells a similar story of a lack of preparation, both psychological and logistical. By the end of the attack by three midget submarines on May 31, 1942, 27 men were dead, including the six Japanese crew of the submarines.
I was deeply moved by the passage in “A Very Rude Awakening” describing the funeral, with a three-volley salute, given the Japanese sailors whose bodies were recovered. Bear in mind that this took place in June 1942, only a month before Australian and Japanese forces were literally at each other throats in Papua. The ashes of the sailors were returned to Japan via the Swiss diplomatic mission. Rear-Admiral Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould spoke at the funeral in praise of the courage of the Japanese, and subsequently defended his stance in this way . . .
” . . . Should we not accord full honours to such brave men as these? . . . Theirs was a courage which was not the property or the tradition or the heritage of any one nation . . . . However horrible war and its results may be, it is a courage which is recognized and universally admired.”
The admiral noted that these were “such honors as we hope may be accorded to our own comrades who have died in enemy hands . . . “
The attacks on the remote city of Darwin in Australia’s north, and on the ships in Sydney Harbour, are of pale significance when compared to what was to follow in Asia and the Pacific.
MacArthur moved his headquarters from Melbourne to Brisbane, then on to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. His disdain for the safety of Australian troops is legendary. In the bloody battle of Buna in New Guinea that lasted for over two months from November 1942, he used Australian troops as cannon fodder in order to claim an “American” victory against the Japanese — yet mentioned only American casualties in his reports to Washington, to show how he achieved victory with so few dead and injured. Such was the U.S. commitment to their special partners down under.
With Australia overidentifying with American interests and participating enthusiastically in every major U.S. military action since World War II, it is clear that there are still many “awkward truths” and “rude awakenings” for Australians to confront and overcome before they can appear to the world as a people who understand their own instincts and know how to trust them.
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