Marilyn Lake reviews 'Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18' by Peter Cochrane

Marilyn Lake reviews 'Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18' by Peter Cochrane

Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18

by Peter Cochrane

Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781925603750

In pondering the construction of public memory in Ireland, the eminent American historian Richard White insisted on the demythologising work of history as a discipline: ‘History is the enemy of memory. The two stalk each other across the fields of the past, claiming the same terrain. History forges weapons from what memory has forgotten or suppressed.’ In Best We Forget: The war for white Australia, 1914–18, Peter Cochrane wants to jog Australia’s memory by reminding us that the celebrated myth of Anzac obscures a problematic history. But in joining the battle between history and memory, he notes the warning of his friend, the late John Hirst, who wrote: ‘My own view is that history will never beat myth.’ But does this assumed opposition really hold?

Australians rushed to war in 1914, Cochrane argues, not primarily to support the Mother Country in fighting German militarism, but rather to secure the goals of White Australia. To make his case, Cochrane summarises many decades of historical scholarship on the White Australia policy, documenting racial preoccupations that, he asserts, somewhat tendentiously, have been ‘lost to memory’. This is an odd claim in many ways, because perhaps one of the few things most Australians remember from our national history is that among the first measures passed in 1901 by the new Commonwealth was the race-based Immigration Restriction Act, which established the White Australia policy. But in calling on history to challenge popular memory, Cochrane is making a further claim: that behind Australia’s commitment to World War I was intense strategic concern with the threat posed to Australia by the ‘Asiatic Races’, especially Japan.

Drawing on the writings of journalist C.E.W. Bean, and playwright C.J. Dennis, among others, Cochrane documents turn-of-the-century preoccupations with racial virility, national manhood, and the ways in which war journalists – including Bean, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, and Walter Murdoch – eulogised Australians as fighting men. ‘Physically they are the finest men I have ever seen in any part of the world,’ enthused the English correspondent Ashmead-Bartlett. In a private note, Bean recorded his shock at the ‘puny, narrow-chested little men’ who comprised the English armed forces. Clearly they didn’t enjoy the high standard of living enshrined by the White Australia policy, though it was not the institution of a ‘living wage’ that excited upper-class, English-educated Bean. Rather it was the superior type of white manhood he encountered in the outback. The one theme constantly running through Bean’s work is his devotion to manly character.

Cochrane sketches the historical context for the emergence of the White Australia policy with the arrival in the Australian colonies of thousands of Chinese gold seekers, casting them, in the words of alarmist colonists, as undifferentiated swarms, floods, disease-ridden aliens. Liberal political leaders Charles Pearson and his protégé Alfred Deakin began to argue for the necessity of maintaining Australia as a white man’s country, unspoiled by the ‘admixture’ of other races. When Britain entered into a treaty with the new Asian power of Japan, many Australians, rather than feeling reassured, felt more threatened and distrustful. Japan’s historic defeat of Russia in 1905 – the first time in modern history that an Asian power had defeated a European one – deepened their anxieties. Deakin was to the fore in warning fellow Australians about the threat posed by Japan, and as prime minister he bypassed Britain in inviting US President Theodore Roosevelt to send his ‘Great White Fleet’ to visit Melbourne and Sydney, an object lesson, as he thought, at once a demonstration of naval power and racial solidarity. Cochrane documents Australia’s increasing demands in the early twentieth century for adequate self-defence forces, naval ships under Australian control, and compulsory military service (for home defence only), demands that increased imperial tensions. Winston Churchill was unimpressed.

Bulletin 1886 cartoon 685wV2‘The Mongolian Octopus – his grip on Australia’, a cartoon by Phillip May, published in The Bulletin magazine, 1886 (National Museum of Australia)


Fear of Japanese expansionism in the Pacific exacerbated Australians’ simultaneous distrust of, and reliance on Britain. With the outbreak of war, Japan honoured the Anglo–Japanese alliance by entering the conflict as Britain’s ally. To the great consternation of Australians, the Japanese forces occupied the German possessions – the Marshall and Caroline Islands – in the Pacific, and by November 1914, the last German stronghold in China had also surrendered to Japan. The British government assured Australian leaders that all territorial questions would be settled at the end of the war. By that time, the belligerent English-born Billy Hughes was prime minister. At the Versailles Peace Conference, he was vociferous – and successful – in opposing Japan’s proposal of a racial equality clause to be added to the Covenant of the League of Nations. On his triumphant return home, Hughes told Australians that the greatest thing they had achieved in the war was ‘the policy of White Australia’. As he explained to the federal parliament: ‘The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please; but, at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory, and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the Conference.’

In telling this story, Cochrane relies on what he calls the ‘core historiography’. As he points out, this history has been accessible to researchers, pundits, and politicians through the publications of numerous scholars working in the fields of race relations, immigration, foreign policy, and defence, yet, he notes in frustration, it has had little influence on popular memory or the official commemoration of Australia’s participation in World War I. Rather, ‘misplaced patriotism’ rules. Indeed, one of the effects of the militarisation of Australian history in recent times has been the simplification of accounts of Australians at war, prompting an increasing number of historians to interrogate the fraught processes of national memory-making, and to point out what’s wrong with Anzac. In Best We Forget, Cochrane suggests that the main thing wrong with the Anzac legend is that it pays no heed to the racial obsessions that drove Australian participation in the war, that it ignores the ‘race fear’ that encouraged Australians to take up arms for the empire and sustained them in the fight for victory.

Peter Cochrane (photograph by Jason McCormack)Peter Cochrane (photograph by Jason McCormack)But of course it was not just, or even primarily, ‘race fear’ that persuaded Australians to enlist, it was also ‘race pride’. We have the evidence of hundreds of war memorials and monuments that tell us that young Australian men volunteered to fight for king and country, God and empire (if not ‘freedom and democracy’, as school children are taught). It was an imperial as well as a racial war. Significantly, of those who rushed to enlist in the first months of war, the English-born were over-represented. And many thousands of other men simply sought adventure abroad, or escape from the complications – or boredom – of life at home. Even then, despite unremitting official pressure and Billy Hughes’s relentless scaremongering, only one in two eligible Australian men chose to enlist at all. That would seem to be another historical fact lost to popular memory.

In his concluding chapter on the politics of memory, Cochrane, the embattled historian, seems to concede defeat in the face of popular ‘storylines’. Contemporary politics, he laments, plays a larger part than scholarly history, a ‘decisive’ part, in shaping popular memory. But perhaps it is the conceptual opposition drawn between history and memory – or history and myth – that is part of the problem, as it disavows the complicity of so many historians, in the present as well as the past, in ceaselessly shoring up, in the author’s final words, the ‘perpetual commemoration of the Anzacs’.

Published in August 2018, no. 403
Marilyn Lake

Marilyn Lake

Marilyn Lake is Professor in History and ARC Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her first book, based on her MA thesis, was A Divided Society: Tasmania during World War I (1975). It was followed by The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria 1915–38 (1987). Her current research focuses on the international history of Australian democracy.

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Comments (2)

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    I'll read the book. Prof. Lake's review is helpful in giving a glimpse of the content. In reference to the ANZAC story it's important to acknowledge the politicisation of Gallipoli by the Howard government. My view is that ANZAC/Gallipoli was actively transformed by recent elites, Liberals, the Bureaucracy and finally the people into a story of sacrificial national birth. It's been crafted into a spiritual sacrifice that is a fabric woven tightly with 19th century notions of manhood, twentieth century conceptions of nation, with a touch of authoritarianism to counter any lingering critique.

    Wednesday, 20 March 2019 22:02 posted by  Harry Spratt
  • Leave a comment

    Australians followed Britain into its Empire wars both before and after the supposed nationhood of Federation, and has followed the US into wars since WW2 [has Australia ever gone to war without following either? Perhaps supporting the emerging Indonesia from its colonial power, Holland was the first and last time?]. The British Empire has widened to the 'Anglo-sphere' led by America, and Australia remains on the side of the British-European heritage rather than growing closer [in all but trade] to the rest of the world. Though 'white Australia' is thankfully long dead, the history and the allegiances remain.

    Monday, 08 October 2018 09:01 posted by  Bob James

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