NATIONAL INTEREST: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Australian appeasers, past and present
, May 25, 2013
Long ago I bought my first house. The walls had kalsomine paint which hadn’t been touched for over 50 years. Pulling up some ancient lino, I found a copy of the West Australian, Perth’s daily newspaper, from September 1939.
One article caught my eye. It concerned a German freighter that was in danger of being impounded. Couldn’t something be done to help the poor crew, who stood to be interned, or the poor ship-owners, who would lose their ship? This silly little tiff over Poland would surely be over in days — weeks, at most!
There is an eerie feeling we are entering an “end of days” period similar to that which preceded the world’s last great conflict.
The editors of the West Australian would have been insulted if you called them appeasers. Who were the “appeasers” anyway? A backbench member of Britain’s House of Commons, Winston Churchill, then regarded as a half-drunk old has-been, gave what were widely considered to be ill-considered and provocative speeches about the supposed “German threat”.
Everyone was an appeaser. No-one wanted another war with Germany. Who on earth would?
Churchill, almost alone, castigated British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war,” he told the House.
In the decade preceding the outbreak of World War II broke out, Australians were constantly reassured that increases in defence spending weren’t necessary. In 1929, the Scullin Labor government downgraded militia training from being universal to being voluntary and part time. Most militia units were disbanded.
When they were re-established during World War II, the militia units were pathetically ill-equipped and under-trained. When thrown into the tropical hell of New Guinea, some militia units broke and ran. Fortunately, most held. It was the militia that saved Port Moresby.
Australia during the war was led initially by Robert Menzies, a Melbourne QC who thought he was of more use to the war effort in London than in Canberra. A parliamentary coup on the floor of the House of Representatives brought Labor’s John Curtin to power.
Curtin was born into abject poverty in the town of Creswick, 18 kilometres north of Ballarat in west-central Victoria. He became a self-taught Labor journalist, militant socialist, atheist and pacifist.
His best early years were spent as editor of the Westralian Worker, the official organ of the Western Australian Labor Party. The paper was notable for having the best racing tips in Perth, an attribute which kept Curtin in a job.
Curtin was what we would now call a “recovering alcoholic”.
Sometime during his time in Perth he experienced a conversion of sorts from doctrinaire pacifism and socialism to a more rational assessment of strategy and economics.
This was presumably under the influence of Western Australian figures such as Sir Hal Colebatch, at various times WA premier, a federal senator and the state’s agent-general in London, who worked tirelessly to warn Australia about the Nazi threat, and Claude de Bernales, the gold-mining entrepreneur whose ventures did much to stave off utter ruin in the state during the Great Depression.
Curtin was pathetically ill-equipped intellectually, politically and psychologically for the rigours of wartime leadership. He was almost totally lacking in formal education. He was always on the verge of losing his seat in the WA port city of Fremantle. And he suffered from the long separations from his wife, Elsie, who refused to relocate to Canberra.
It is said Curtin was a good man. He was probably too good. He spent weeks of sleepless nights worrying about the fate of Australia’s 9th Division when it was at sea coming home from the Middle East. No man deserved the gratuitous attacks dished to him out by the loathsome left-winger, Eddie Ward. Curtin was a long-time pacifist until his belated conversion to strategic rationality. It is also likely he experienced a late conversion to Christianity.
What is our situation today? There is no immediate threat to Australia. Defence spending, which was a small 1.55 per cent of GDP in 1939, is now 1.56 per cent of GDP. We have a defence force which has been able to maintain a small deployment in Afghanistan only because some force members have undertaken eight or more tours of duty.
To our north we have a resource-hungry power, China, with demonstrated strategic ambitions that are not congruent with our interests, nor with those of our allies. Our major ally, the United States, is of course not our only ally.
No one in their right mind would want war with China. What will save Australia is the same thing that saved us in World War II: we have some very valuable strategic real estate, and we have time. If we are serious, we can prepare.
As for the appeasers? Money talks, and when it comes to our new billionaires, most whom owe their fortunes to the China boom, China’s money talks very loudly. Most policy-makers can’t see beyond iron ore, coal, wool and international students.
As for our current Labor government, there are more votes in raising wages for childcare workers than there are in maintaining Australia’s military preparedness.
Jeffry Babb was born in Cottesloe, Western Australia, formerly represented by John Curtin MHR, and began writing about China in the Perth Sunday Times almost 40 years ago.