Joan Beaumont

The Gallipoli campaign has a peculiar fascination for historians of World War I. This new book, by British historian Nicholas A. Lambert, is concerned not so much with the conduct of the campaign as with the reasons for its being launched. The chances for its success were known at the time to be low, so why was this gamble, which cost perhaps 130,000 Allied and Ottoman lives, taken?

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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The resurgence of the Anzac legend in the last quarter of the twentieth century took many Australians by surprise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it seemed that the rituals of Anzac Day would wither and fade away as the generations who fought the two world wars died. It proved not to be so. ‘Anzac’, to use the common shorthand, now dominates the national memory of war as strongly as it ever did, although it is not the same legend as it was 100 years ago. Many commentators see this ‘return’ of Anzac as a spontaneous upwelling of national sentiment, a natural and appropriate honouring of those who have died in Australia’s defence. Critics, however, discern a more deliberate orchestration of public sentiment by successive governments, which, for a variety of political purposes, have ‘militarised’ Australian history and sidelined other competing narratives of Australia’s development.

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In a year sure to be glutted with military commemorations, leading historian Joan Beaumont highlights the commodification and triviliasation of the Anzac legend.

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Ministers, Mandarins and Diplomats: Australian foreign policy making 1941–1969 by Joan Beaumont, Christopher Waters, and David Lowe, with Garry Woodard

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May 2003, no. 251

Important political issues sometimes cut across traditional party lines, making it harder for us to confront and debate them. The ‘children overboard’ affair, for example, raised important questions about the relationship between public servants and their ministers. Some of these questions were blurred in the subsequent debate, however, for a simple reason. Since the 1970s, governments from both sides of politics have had, in effect, a common policy of restricting the independence of the public service, especially of heads of departments, in the name of accountability and responsiveness. Ministers now have departmental secretaries who can be dismissed for no stronger reason than that they have lost the minister’s confidence. The powerful mandarins who, it used to be said, ruled Australia from the lunch tables of the Commonwealth Club in Canberra are a distant memory. Political influence now affects appointments down to middle managers in ways that those mandarins would have thought totally improper.­­­

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