Challenging Australian myths about the war in the Pacific

Philip Ferguson of Redline recently talked to Melbourne-based longtime Marxist activist Tom O’Lincoln about his new book Australia’s Pacific War: challenging a national myth

Philip Ferguson: You usually write about Australian working class history, so what brought you to write about Australian involvement in the Pacific War?

Tom O’Lincoln

Tom O’Lincoln: Well actually, I tend to write on two things: labour history and Australian imperialism. This book fits with the latter, but at the same time, the war is tremendously important for the labour movement, in Australia and I would surmise also in New Zealand. Firstly because it profoundly affected the lives of millions of workers, but also because the war gave rise to a new kind of nationalism. Where once the left had looked on nationalism as, in historian Ian Turner’s words, “the last refuge of the munitions maker”, in World War II Communists and many other left-of-centre workers and activists embraced what today one can call “left nationalism”. This is quite important in Australia: all those leftists who hate Anzac Day are much more open to a patriotism associated with the Kokoda Trail. Or should I call it the “Kokoda Track” – that term is now dominant, making the trail as ‘Aussie’ as possible.

PF: Could you summarise what the key myths are in Australia about the Australian role in the war?

TO’L: The central myth tells us the Japanese planned to invade and occupy the country. Associated with this idea is the concept of a “Battle for Australia” similar to the Battle of Britain.  This assumption makes it virtually impossible to raise doubts about supporting the war. In fact I myself make clear that I would have fought against a Japanese occupation, but actually the Japanese didn’t plan to invade. The war effort wasn’t about “saving Australia” but about saving its (and the west’s) imperial position in the region. I guess the second most important myth is the idea that Australia had a democratic army. In reality it was as authoritarian and class-ridden as other armies.

In using the term ‘myth’ in the book title, I meant mythology in a more profound sense, somewhat as used by Sorel, to mean a misleading collective ideology.

PF: One of the things I found most interesting and useful was how you demystified the dominant ideology regarding the Japanese – for instance, ideas such as kamikazes being representative of some kind of mass fanaticism in Japan and ideas about the alleged inherent brutality of Japanese towards prisoners.  Could you say something about those?

TO’L: The idea of the fanatical kamikaze has an amazing grip even on the left. Me too, until fairly recently.  But why should Japanese youth be any keener on dying than westerners? – here our unconscious racism affects us all perhaps. When I came across a kamikaze who had studied Marxism, and another who told a reporter he was not dying for the emperor, I knew this was an important point to bring out.

The POW camp guards are a very different story. I am not saying the camp treatment wasn’t brutal – often it was, horrendously so. There is no way we should let Japanese imperialism off the hook on this. But if we can understand it, instead of just saying how terrible it was, then we avoid the dehumanisation of an entire nation which so commonly occurs. And the abuses have much to do with famine, along with the brutalisation of guards by their superiors.

PF: There’s a solid chunk in the book about racial views towards the Japanese.  How much was this a factor in the foreign policy of Australian governments in the 1930s and 1940s?

TO’L: Well I would say the key factor was imperialism. Racism is the ideological structure that assisted with imperial conquest. That said, it was very important. Labor Party leader Billy Hughes spoke at the 1913 laying of the foundation stone for Canberra, the new capital. He said bluntly that white people had conquered the continent by force, and white people would have to fight to hold it. The threat was seen as coming from Japan. Under Hughes’ leadership the Australian state invested heavily in World War I to get enough clout at the eventual peace congress to defeat critics (especially Japan) of the White Australia policy. The reaction to this outrage sharply polarised Japanese domestic opinion in favour of the Tokyo war-mongers.

When World War II came broke out, the Australian leaders told their troops that “one Australian is worth six Japs”. Next thing you know, Japan had conquered half of Asia.

PF: Where did the anti-Japanese racism come from and what impact do you think it had among white workers in Australia?

TO’L: This is a good question and I have never really gone into specifically anti-Japanese sentiment. I tend to think of it as an extension of the Chinese exclusion policy, and in mass consciousness I would say it’s much the same thing: Yellow Peril, White Australia. It emerges as a kind of national state ideology by default. You want to establish a national identity, you need some kind of enemy to define yourself against. Who could Australians hate? Aborigines were no longer enough of a threat. Whereas racist agitation on the goldfields had given the Chinese a certain profile as scapegoats.

After the great strikes of the 1890s, workers felt little identification with the new federal state, but White Australia provided a certain basis for national identity; There was a flourishing of invasion-fantasy fiction. So when Japanese troops did actually appear near our northern border, racist thinking fell logically in behind the war effort.

PF: You look at popular, especially working class, attitudes to the war and I think some people might be a bit surprised at what those attitudes were.  Could you say something about attitudes to the war while it was being fought?

TO’L: There is a huge difference between the war in Europe and the Pacific. Around 1940 large sections of the labour movement were anti-war. Europe was far away, there were very bad memories of World War I, the Communists were against the war until the Soviet Union was invaded in mid-1940.  On the home front there was immense bitterness among workers about the experience of the Depression, directed against employers and governments.

Pearl Harbor and the fall of Singapore changed most of that. People thought survival was at stake, plus the enemy was now the Yellow Peril. By this time too, the Soviet Union was engaged and the Communist Party was immersed in the war effort. The prime minister told people the Japanese threat remained into 1943, which wasn’t true. He used this to call for a “season of austerity”.

PF: In NZ, we had the first Labour government and there are still a lot of illusions, even among parts of the far left, about how good that government was.  In reality it was gung ho for the war and organised a big increase in the rate of exploitation of the working class.  When Labour went out of power here in 1949 the rich had a greater share of national wealth than when they came into office in 1935 and the gap between productivity rises and pay rises had expanded significantly.  Australia had a wartime Labor government; can you tell us a bit about how it operated, both in terms of Australian foreign policy and in relation to the working class?

TO’L: Much of this applies to Australia. On my calculation the Labor government achieved a 15% rise in GDP in one year out of the invasion scare. I also went looking for evidence of a transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich, and I didn’t find it. I eventually concluded that the Australian state was driving capital accumulation during the war, and that the state was extracting resources from all classes. I realise this isn’t our standard narrative, but if a war is really serious, profits can become less important than the survival of the state.

PF: How did the position of women and Aboriginals change during the war and its immediate aftermath?

Both were better off, for the simple reason that war created jobs, both military and non-military. At the same time both faced continuing oppression, which generated resistance both direct and indirect. In terms of indigenous struggle the most important single case of resistance is a strike which succeeded in pushing up wages in the Torres Strait Islanders’ detachments to about 2/3 of white rates. Among women there were important strikes waged independently of the union officials. Here I relied partly on a chapter by Janey Stone in the book Rebel Women.

War jobs brought in money but also built confidence and assertiveness, leading to inchoate rebelliousness among young women and a certain confidence among lesbians and gay men. Finally, war brought new horizons, turned the world upside down. At the end of the war, some of this confidence remained; women were not just shoved back into the home, as people say. There was resistance to that too.

PF: What relevance do you think the book has to Australian imperialism – and building opposition to it – today?

TO’L: Not long after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, US President George Bush made a targeted and insidious speech. On the deck of the USS Enterprise, known as a launch pad for American bombing raids in Afghanistan, he told a crowd including 25 witnesses of the battle of Pearl Harbor that the Pacific War had given rise to America’s ‘great calling [which] continues…as the brave men and women of our military fight the forces of terror in Afghanistan and around the world.’ This sort of thing is the problem I want to fight.

I didn’t write the book to convince people not to fight on the Kokoda Trail. I don’t have a time machine to go back there. I wrote it to show people that the war was not a “noble endeavour” as one historian puts it. This is vital because the aura of World War II is used to legitimise imperial wars of today.


  1. Why do you get so hot under the collar about ‘Australian imperialism’, Tom? You’re an American (US) aren’t you? I’m a Pom, and I must say that by now (after having lived in Australia for well over forty years) I have a great affection for Australia, and I don’t take the country’s imperialist pretensions all that seriously.

    – Graham Milner

  2. Graham, this all seems kind of trivialising. I’m from the States, so that means I shouldn’t take Australian political issues seriously? Actually I have a “great affection” for the USA, but should that mean I don’t campaign against American imperialism?

    But the real difference between us seems to be about whether Australian imperialism belongs in quotation marks, or whether it’s real. Can I suggest you read the book before declaring that one?

    • I shall probably buy a copy of your book in time. But I am already familiar with your views on the Asia-Pacific theatre in World War Two from our exchanges during the debate on the Marxmail mailing list over ‘Socialist Policy in World War Two’ a couple of years ago.

      I understand that you are a leading member of the Socialist Alternative grouping in Australia, an organisation that has for several years, in Perth where I live, practised a policy of excluding me from their publicly-advertised meetings. The organisation’s policy in Perth has made it difficult for me to engage with its members in debate over the central theoretical shibboleth that it holds ie. the doctrine of ‘state capitalism’ developed by the Palestinian/British theorist Tony Cliff.

      I maintain that Cliff’s ‘state capitalism’ doctrine has had a pernicious influence on the politics of what is now the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, and on the politics of the various affiliates and offshoots of what goes under the broad name of the ‘International Socialist Tendency’, including Socialist Alternative in Australia. The sooner this useless and pernicious ideological baggage is discarded by the groupings loosely connected under the Cliffite standard the better, in my opinion.

      Cliff’s compendium, ‘State Capitalism in Russia’, written after World War Two, and the same author’s later writings on the question of the class nature of the Soviet state, compare dismally with the classic positions reached by Leon Trotsky, the great Russian Marxist revolutionary, in such essays as ‘The Class Nature of the Soviet State’ (1933) and ‘The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism’ (1935), as well as in his synthesis of the question ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ (1937).

      Years ago, back in the 1980s, I read a cyclostyled pamphlet written by you entitled ‘State Capitalism and Marxist Theory’, as part of the research I undertook for a thesis on Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of the Soviet State under Stalin. After I’d read your pamphlet I must say I had been hoping for something more substantial. I suggest strongly to you that a theoretical abandonment of this ‘state capitalist’ position is long overdue, and that in fact Tony Cliff and his ilk have achieved nothing more than to spread confusion and disorder within the ranks of the revolutionary Marxist movement with this revisionist and completely untenable notion, which flies in the face of the classical positions developed by Trotsky in the 1930s.

      – Graham Milner

      • I’m not a supporter of state cap theory, but can I suggest Graham that you confine your comments here to a discussion of Tom’s book and the contents of the interview. Whatever differences you have with Socialist Alternative are best taken up with them directly; that’s not the point of the Redline blog or of the interview.

        You obviously differ with Tom on the substantive issue of whether Australia is imperialist or not. That might be a more relevant issue to take up in the conext of discussing the book and the interview than the merits or otherwise of state cap theory, which is not what the book or the interview is about.

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