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Anzac legend overshadows our quest for ‘racial purity’

4 August 2018 148 views No Comment

Review : ‘Best We Forget: The War for White Australia, 1914-18’

By Peter Cochrane

Text, 264pp, $32.99


Peter Cochrane’s ‘Best We Forget’ is unsettling and revelatory in how it connects the Anzac legend with the White Australia policy.

As Cochrane makes clear, while collective memory about the Great War recalls a rallying to the imperial cause against Germany, the underside to the story is that before 1914 Australian governments were primarily concerned with perils in the Pacific, particularly the burgeoning power of Japan.

Hence the belief that our national security and what the popular press often termed “our racial purity and cleanliness” had to be bought on the battlefields with Australian blood. Yet despite our deep and abiding anxieties about an awakening Asia, we found ourselves fighting for the empire on the other side of the world.

In October 1916, prime minister Billy Hughes spoke of this paradox when he urged his countrymen: “I bid you go and fight for white Australia in France.” He thought the same rationale applied to military engagements in Belgium, Palestine and Turkey.

Like other leading Australian politicians at the time, Hughes was concerned that our racial purity was threatened by the “yellow peril”. This took the form of hordes of “leprous Chinese” and of the “more advanced and seemingly civilised Japanese”, who Hughes increasingly feared could invade Australia. This was despite the fact Japan supported the imperial forces throughout World War I, especially helping Britain against the German navy.

Indeed, in the year of Federation, 1901, in which the pivotal Immigration Restriction Act was passed in the new commonwealth parliament with the support of all three major parties, Hughes declared: “We want a white Australia, and are we to be denied it because we shall ­offend the Japanese or embarrass His Majesty’s ministers? I think not.”

In 1905, a Japanese flotilla unexpectedly ­destroyed Russia’s Baltic fleet. This led West Australian Labor senator (and later defence minister) George Pearce to say: “Japan has shown she is an aggressive nation. What has always been the effect of ­victory and conquest upon nations? Do we not know that it stimulates them to further ­conflict? To obtain fresh territories? Has not that been the ­history of our own race? Is there any other country that offers such a temptation to Japan as Australia does?” This denunciation is counterpointed by the fact that, also in 1905, the Anglo-Japanese alliance was formally renewed.

The primary purpose of Cochrane’s fascinating book is to alert readers to the racial dimension of Australia’s participation in World War I. It also addresses the key historiographical question of what is remembered and what is forgotten, and why. Hence the final chapter focuses on the politics of popular memory and of ­national forgetting.

Cochrane examines in particular how the ­racial preoccupations that shaped Australia’s preparation for and commitment to World War I have been lost to our collective memory. In so doing, he grapples with a key question: Why has our national obsession with the Pacific and race purity, and with Japan in particular — an obsession stretching from colonial times to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20 and ­beyond — escaped recall?

The concept behind the ironically titled ‘Best We Forget’ is simple. Cochrane saw the need for a concise volume that “could act as a conduit between the general reader and a hefty body of scholarship about our racial preoccupations that was unknown beyond a small number of independent scholars and academic specialists”. With that in mind he embarked on a short history based on these vital works, along with his own findings from various sources. He has succeeded admirably in this illuminating book.

The book is dedicated to Cochrane’s mentor, John Hirst, who was of the view that national myths hold up despite the work of historians. In terms of popular perception Hirst may well have been right, but this fine book is rather more hopeful. And anyway, as Cochrane puts it, “the historian’s primary job is to keep at it”.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, August 4-5, 2018, review, Books, p 26.

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