The day before Anzac Day might not seem the best time to publish a piece claiming that the significance of the Australian victory at Kokoda was a myth propagated by the Labor party, but that’s what we got from Stephen Barton, a political scientist and former Liberal apparatchik.

The second part of the claim is both the most offensive and the most easily demolished. I got the full Kokoda legend taught to me at school in South Australia in the early 1960s, straight after saluting the flag and reciting our loyalty to the Queen at Assembly. That was about thirty years into the premiership of Sir Thomas Playford. The idea that the Labor party, or radical historians, managed to sneak the story into the school curriculum as propaganda is as unbelievable as it is offensive.

Now let’s turn to the substantive claim. I’m not an expert on military strategy, but neither is Barton, and he doesn’t cite anyone who is. He defends Churchill’s strategy of fighting Germany first and Japan second, and claims that

Japanese supply lines were overextended, their best troops were in China and their southern thrust had run out of steam


Had the Japanese driven south to Port Moresby it would have been a grim setback, but not a decisive blow.

This argument sounds plausible, but it would sound even more plausible if you crossed out “Port Moresby” and substituted “Townsville” or “Rockhampton”. The lines would have been extended even further then and the Japanese occupiers could have been left, as Barton suggests, to “wither on the vine” until the war was over. In effect, Barton has reinvented the Brisbane Line.*

* There’s no reason to believe the claim made by Eddie Ward that the Menzies government adopted, or even considered, a “Brisbane Line” plan. But it’s an obvious corollary of reasoning like Barton’s and there’s little doubt that such ideas were discussed.

69 thoughts on “Kokoda

  1. Ah, the endless splitting of straws.

    Either German victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein was the key to the Thousand Year Reich, or it would not have been.

    If you don’t believe it would have been, stop quibbling.

  2. “So the outcome of El Alamein was significant.”

    Given the materiel advantage of Montgomery, only criminal negligence would have altered the outcome of Second Alamein. The Battle was a turkey shoot.

    But let us imagine the almost unimaginable. Rommel wins and seizes the Suez Canal.

    Psychological shock? Certainly. But greater than Dunkirk or Singapore? Certainly not. The British didn’t cave in a wave the white flag under much more taxing circumstances.

    Let us imagine that Rommel’s unlikely victory at El Alamein lengthened the war by six months.

    The only possible outcomes of this would have been:

    1. A delay on D-Day, which sees the victorious Soviet Army in Paris.

    2. The A-Bomb is dropped on a German target, for which it was being developed in the first place.

    Rommel’s hypothetical and unlikely victory at El Alamein would have been strategically important for the Cold War, not WWII.

  3. “Further if America had not come into WW11 as a result of Pearl Harbor who knows what the outcome of the war in Europe would have been.�

    Given that by the time the US landed troops in Europe, the Russians had already rolled the Nazis back into Poland, and given that 4 out of every 5 German soldiers were on the Eastern Front, the answer is quite obvious:

    The Soviets would have “liberated” Europe, just like in the 1810’s

  4. Katz,

    I hear you.

    For the record, I doubt that El Alamein was the single most strategic battle of WWII.

    I would suggest that the destruction of von Paulus’ 6th Army at Stalingrad sealed the fate of the Axis.

    And for those that consider Japan’s refusal to attack the USSR as an outcome-changing decision, I would further suggest that Japan was quite incapable of conducting such a campaign given how stretched it was at that time.

  5. My apologies Katz – I see you already arrived at the same conclusion re: hammer and sickle hoisted on the Eiffel tower

  6. jquiggin Says: April 26th, 2006 at 8:58 am

    If the Liberals want to make Kokoda a Labor party issue, I guess that’s their call, but I think they’ll pay a high price for it.

    The LN/P are barking mad to play this revisionist game about Kokoda, which actually is a caricature of the old Left wing stereotype of conservatives as lap-dogs of British imperialism. The Old Left should make them pay for playing this wicked game. This is a splendid opportunity for “bomber Gough” to get up on his hind legs and give the revisionists a tremendous thrashing.

    It is possible to be pro-internationalist (eg pro-UK and US) and still an Australian nationalist. As was Menzies and Curtin.

    But to suggest that Curtin’s overt nationalism at a time of maximum national security threat was somehow parochial is false, offensive and goes against the grain of several centuries worth of realist strategic thinking.

    The Chockos (and Curtin) were heros to most Australians, right or left wing. The war killed Curtin as certainly as a Japanese bullet. To denigrate the Chockos and belittle Curtin’s strategic nous in this spiteful and mischievous way is to spit on the grave of “better men”.

  7. jquiggin Says: April 26th, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    Barton makes it pretty clear that the real point is that we should send troops wherever Washington wants them, rather than worrying about defending ourselves.

    This may be the wish of some lapdogs of US imperialism in the coalition, and caricaturists thereof amongst the Broad Left, but it is not the case now.

    The LN/P is still overwhelmingly committed to the bipartisan policy of focusing on Australia’s national and regional defence ie border protection and failed state prevention. Most of the ADF’s recent global military committments have been in the service of UN-sponsored or approved expeditions esp. peace-keeping/enforcing.

    But it occasionally makes globalistic noises in deference to US imperialists. This kind of “talking loudly carrying a small stick” will dwindle as the US retrenches its overseas committements in the wake of its defeat in Iraq.

    Dibb’s “concentric circles” defence strategy does allow for the ADF to make some token contributions to US military adventures. As we see in Iraq. This kind of low-level assistance is useful as payback for US military support in our region. As we saw in Timor. Its called “the favour bank”.

    But anything beyond that is a betrayal of Australia’s national interests. Particularly with the current US admin in the military saddle. Certain members of which may find themselves facing indictments for serious breaches of national security should the DEM’s win back the White House or Congress.

  8. jquiggin Says: April 26th, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    BTW, my father was also in New Guinea, but has never been willing to talk about it.

    One can hardly blame him. My (part-time) bosses father was in NG (“Z” force) and, to my knowledge, could bring himself to mention only one hair-raising aspect of that conflict. This was regarding Japanese cannibalism, which seems to have been a major a reason for the taboo on war stories. You cant talk about these things in front of children.

    My father was proud of his wounds but was mortified by his experiences with a partisan firing squad which he was pressed into. Fortunately the one bloke he thought he had to execute was left off at the last minute. It seems that for some it is easier to be shot at than to shoot.

    Dad was dead-set against US involvement in the Vietnam War and I dareay he would have found the Iraq War a no-brainer. Veterans are probably better judges of these things than academics out to make a name for themselves as contrarians.

  9. I certainly appreciate Ros’ attempt at expanding my argument. He has captured the thrust of what I was saying.
    I guess I’d just like to reiterate my point- given the odd things some critics have been trying to read into my arguments.
    Kokoda was an important battle, but it did not save Australia. We were engaged in a world war, and events beyond our control were going to ultimately going to ‘save’ Australia.
    There were two underlying themes I was trying to get across. The first is that I am uncomfortable with the way in which Kokoda has been cast as the defining Australian battle. Not least at the expense of some very important battles in the Middle East, including El Alamein. I think it’s a rather limited and blinkered approach to Australia’s involvement in the war. I do happen to think it a tad unfair to elevate the 39th Bn above all other battalions and formations in that war.
    I’m will freely admit I’m a little uncomfortable with what I see as the parochial nationalistic embrace and elevation of Kokoda. I don’t care if it’s from the left or right.
    By the same token, I don’t think it should be earth shatteringly controversial to point out that many on the Left have been uncomfortable with the tradition of the AIF, and are more comfortable with Kokoda. Hence it is the campign of choice.
    Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Prof Quiggan took the view that the 1st and 2nd AIF were used in wars to secure British interests not Australian, and that perhaps our troops should never have been deployed. That’s fine; you’re entitled to that view.
    I don’t think it should be a matter of huge controversy that Curtin was less forceful with McArthur than he should have been. There were things that happened from 42-45 that don’t reflect well on Australia’s political leadership. Just as events in 30s don’t reflect well on the political leaders then.
    That these points generate such an emotive and in some cases vicious response is a little disturbing. But that’s fine; I’m very comfortable with my knowledge of the subject matter.
    And my second theme is that Australia’s security is secured beyond our borders. And yes, I happen to agree with Australia’s deployment to Iraq. I happen to think that building democracy in the Middle East is important, not least in the war against Islamofascism. Kennedy observed in 1940 that Americans were willing to fight for liberty to the last Englishman. Equally I think it could be said that the world is now willing to fight for democracy to the last American. Now, of course not everyone will agree with that point, but that’s fine.
    And thank you Professor Quiggan for the description of me as a Liberal Party apparatchik- it certainly added to the debate.

  10. Since you’re here, Stephen, would you like to defend your primary claim, that Kokoda was “a myth invented by Labor”? As I and others have pointed out, this is ludicrously false.

    And feel free to spell out your concern with my observation that you are a former Liberal Party apparatchik – do you think this fact, not acknowledged in your tagline, is irrelevant?

    Finally, if you’re going to get into historical debates you might take the trouble to copy my name correctly from the top of the page into the comments threads. Not that I mind, but it gives an impression of sloppiness that might carry over into other things.

  11. It is a shame that Kokoda seems to have become a bit of a political football. The bravery and sheer hard work of the men (and a few women) who were out there fighting in terrain with which they were not familiar against an army that; outnumbered them, had better logistics, had trained in similar terrain and were equipped properly for it to me at least means this campaign would have been significant even if a side show.
    No, it most probably did not affect the outcome of the war. Stalingrad and Midway were respectively possibly the most important battles. However, for Australia, this had huge significance, just as (say) the battle of Britain had for the UK.
    If Japan had succeeded in New Guinea and then launched systematic attacks on the north and carrier attacks further south the possibility is that Australia could have been taken out of the war, to become a semi-occupied country, like France, which at no stage was fully occupied but had tributary status. The communist influenced parts of the union movement on the left and the fascist right were already campaigning to get out of the war.
    IMHO, this would not have affected the ultimate outcome, which was determined elsewhere, but it was important for Australia. To me, this is reason enough to remember their achievements, honour their memory and work to ensure that we never have this situation again.

  12. “Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Prof Quiggan (sic) took the view that the 1st and 2nd AIF were used in wars to secure British interests not Australian, and that perhaps our troops should never have been deployed. That’s fine; you’re entitled to that view.”

    Barton seems to be equally adept as a mind reader as he is as an historian.

    To elaborate on that very left-hand compliment, allow me to point out the debater’s trick in the above.

    By lumping the 1st and 2nd AIF together Barton is trying to imply that Australia fought the First and Second World Wars under same legal and constitutional aegis, i.e., as an integral part of the British Empire.

    This was certainly the case between 1914 an 1918. But it plainly ceased to be the legal case when Australia ratified the Statute of Westminster in October 1942.

    And as Barton has so assiduously insisted during his recent eruption into the public eye, Curtin began following a foreign policy through his deployment of elements of the 2nd AIF that was at odds with Imperial policy even before the ratification of the Statute of Westminster.

    Knowing all this, is it any motive besides mendacity that would cause Barton to lump the 1st and 2nd AIF together in his startling attempts at clairvoyancy?

  13. I would gather that most of the posters here have never been to Far North Queensland. If they had they would know that it would take a miracle to get an invading force into Australia from Port Moresby.

    Assuming the Japanese had managed to get ashore somewhere (unlikely) they’d then have to contend with the Bruce Highway which is often impassable during the wet season to people with less far less evil intent . When it’s not flooded it just dissolves in the rain and he potholes need filling on a daily basis. The road improvement money from Canberra still hasn’t arrived despite all the promises and several surveys.

    Then there’s the caravan-towing “grey nomads” from south of the NSW border to get past. Every winter the roads become a local driver’s nightmare just as the wet season finishes. The Japs wouldn’t have stood a chance…

  14. So,Steven Barton still hasn’t answered Prof Quiggan’s remarks about “Liberal apparatchnik”…Was he , a staffer to Alexander Downer…?????It would tell us something of inmportance..come on,Steven..don’t be shy !!!

  15. FNQ, you’re forgetting that the Japanese had a crucial advantage. One the numerous one-lane bridges, northbound traffic has to give way to southbound. This fact (in the context of a possible invasion) was the subject of a good deal of sardonic humour when I lived there.

  16. John, the bridges have improved somewhat since then (two lanes now) but the moment the Japanese saw the price of property up here (thanks to the so-called Seachangers who have priced the locals out of the market) they would have headed directly to somewhere cheaper…like New York, London or even Sydney.

  17. A mea culpa for spelling your name wrong- and I’ll certainly refrain from citing moments of your sloppiness. I’d prefer to play the ball here.
    As to the notion that Kokoda was a myth generated by the ALP, that’s certainly the line the Oz has given it. If you look at the piece again you’ll see that I’m arguing that Kokoda has been embraced because it can fit the preferred narrative of the Left. This has elevated the battle above some of the other campaigns of the war. Because after all, I think the Left has helped fashion how we see the whole Australian story. I think that it would be difficult to argue against this, they have been very successful in doing so.
    And again, I’ll stress that the battle was important and the conduct of that fighting withdrawal was amazing.
    This point notwithstanding, I’ve always taken the view that it is the role of the historian/political scientist to question myths. It appears one may question some and not others.
    As to the Liberal staffer thing, I don’t see it as relevant. I worked for a couple of them when I finished my post-grad. And I was a pretty junior staffer at that. I’m not a party member, and if you see from some Op-eds I’ve joint authored with a colleague here, I have been, on occasion, quite critical of the Govt and elements of the Liberal Party.
    Your obsession with that angle, with all due respect, reflects more on you than me. But I suspect something like that is always going to be an issue for you and some of your readers. Fine, whatever.
    I don’t have time to address some of the other criticisms you made, I got a few classes to teach. But suffice to say, I more than happy to debate these issues with you, or where, any time.

  18. I was in the 32nd. American in the battle for Buna & Ataipe. I was a witness in viewing the remains of a human being used in cannibalism on the Sanananda beach in New Guinea. I had to sign a document that I was a witness. There was a container cooking with meat in it. It wa taken off of a leg of a dead body nearby. I will never forget it. I am 88yrs. old.

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