The roots of revisionism

As Ros points out in a comments thread below, the starting point for Stephen Barton’s revival of the Brisbane Line appears to be the work of Dr Peter Stanley, Principal Historian, Australian War Memorial, who has denied the ‘myth’ of a Japanese invasion, and criticised Curtin’s rhetoric on the subject. He relies almost exclusively on evidence that “.. there was no invasion plan. The Japanese never planned to make Australia part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere.” His main focus is criticism of statements by the Curtin government suggesting the opposite.

There’s a crucial ambiguity here, both in Curtin’s rhetoric and in Stanley’s response. If Port Moresby had fallen, and the Australian forces in PNG been destroyed or captured (and if the Battle of the Coral Sea had gone the other way), the Japanese would surely have pushed on to occupy ports and airfields in Northern Australia to deny their use to the Allies, and, if possible, knock Australia out of the war altogether. Such a move would have strengthened their position in the Pacific, and freed forces to fight elsewhere. On the other hand, an attempt to conquer the entire country and incorporate it into the Co-Prosperity Sphere would indeed have overstretched the Japanese capacity beyond its limits.

When Curtin referred to Kokoda as saving Australia from invasion, he was certainly justified, but, in motivating the war effort, it didn’t hurt to blur the difference between a partial occupation and a total conquest. By contrast, it’s hard to see how Stanley is serving the cause of historical accuracy by failing to make this crucial distinction.

Stanley can’t be blamed for the use people like Barton are making of his work, but he can certainly be criticised for intellectual sloppiness in his analysis.

11 thoughts on “The roots of revisionism

  1. He relies almost exclusively on evidence that “.. there was no invasion plan. The Japanese never planned to make Australia part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere.�

    This is the same kind of mischievous error practised by Irving and Windschuttle. It leads to a denial of war-criminal activity, which is the case in Barton’s case.

    The absence of documentary proof about a certain historical event does not imply proof of absence, to quote one famous logician. I suggest this methodological fallacy should be christened “documentalism”.

    It is wrong because much more goes on in history than is captured in print. And even printed lines have to be read between.

  2. This is anti-historical history. Japan’s strategic plans were not known to Australia. What was known was that the bulwark on which all reliance had been placed – Singapore – had fallen in double-quick time. Japanese naval activity had extended to the Australian coast. The Americans had been defeated in the Phillipines and the Coral Sea engagement appeared to be a stalemate. The significance of the Midway engagement was yet to be appreciated.

    So what if we now know the Japanese had no plans on the Australian mainland? Would that posture have been maintained if Coral Sea and Midway had been (as was indeed possible) huge Japanese victories?

    There is a mildly interesting intellectual debate to be had on the basis of hypothetical situations. What is not debatable is that Australia very much felt itself to be the next domino to fall in the Japanese advance, which is why Curtin was very much the man of the moment and Kokoda/Milne Bay had such significance for Australians at the time. Australians had no illusions about what awaited them in the event of a successful Japanese invasion.

    These are surely the elements of historical evidence in terms of understanding why Kokod and Curtin hold such sway in the popular historical mythology today. To argue the revisionist argument has as much significance as telling Americans that Gettysburg was irrelevant, given that the Confederacy had no real intention of capturing Washington, nor ability to do so.

    Since all this started with Anzac Day, we ought also to mark the revisionist effort by Gerard Henderson and his ilk to rehabilitate the Gallipoli campaign. The poignancy of the campaign has always been its attraction in Australian mythology. They died in vain in a pointless exercise. To say otherwise is to diminish the loss. If it was about glory, there was plenty of that to be had in the extraordinary victories of 1918 under Monash on the Western Front. But there is a good reason why Australians honour Gallipoli above all other military engagements.

  3. What I find irritating about this whole episode is the insistence on linking the view that there was never any serious threat of invasion with the need to bag John Curtin and suggest that the ‘myth’ of a Japanese invasion was created by some bunch of Labor/left wing, anti-British history warriors.

    Apart from anything else, the insistence on simultaneously bagging Curtin and/or the left makes any sort of objective assessment about the separate thesis of the non-invading Japanese impossible, as the two become intertwined.

    I am not so naive as to suggest that history can be completely apolitical, but it would be nice if people interpreting history could at least try to do so without trying to make the occurence or otherwise of an objective event a matter of ideological faith.

    Interestingly, the only other person I had previously heard argue that there was no real threat of a Japanese invasion was left-wing historian Humphrey McQueen.

    Frankly whatever the facts are that can be interpreted with the benefit of hindsight, given Australia’s history up to the 1940s (and since for that matter), the suggestion that anyone in Australia would see an advancing army coming down through South-East Asia and New Guinea and seriously argue “they won’t really invade and if they do they won’t be able to hold it, so there’s nothing serious happening chaps” is beyond fanciful.

  4. “Interestingly, the only other person I had previously heard argue that there was no real threat of a Japanese invasion was left-wing historian Humphrey McQueen.”

    The whole tenor of revisionist history reminds me of the Marxists I used to deal with thirty years ago. The most ludicrous, and mutually contradictory, propositions are advanced with an air of certainty vouchsafed to someone who has access to a higher truth.,

    This is scarcely surprising since Windschuttle learned in that school, as did many comparable figures in the US. Once you’ve learned the correct way of looking at things, facts become irrelevant.

  5. i lived in darwin for a few years and they have a war museum there. they have maps of australia that were taken from shot down japanese planes from the bombing of darwin. they were amazing in there detail and contained towns and places of natural resources. apparently they were drawn with the help of the many pearlers on the n.t. coast pre war.

    which reminds me of the yolngu people’s amazement regards white australia’s attitude to the japanese. when a yolngu man killed a japanese pearler for raping and murdering a yolngu women the n.t. police shot him in the back after telling him he could go home. then a few years later when the war was on the yolngu were promised money for any japanese they killed (if any landed in arnhem land).

    the japanese were definately interested in gaining australia .prior to the midway engagement america had planned that if it lost (which was likely as they were outnumbered by one aircraft carrier) it was goin to sue for peace. they were goin to offer all of australia west of the dividing range. that way japan could have access to our iron without bob menzies help.

  6. I’m not sure that “revisionist” is the right term to be bandying about in your effort to discredit Barton et al, JQ, given that it was the term of abuse applied by Lenin and his little claque to Eduard Bernstein, after the latter had looked at the facts of the world and come to his senses.

    I don’t know whether you are a follower of Bernstein or not, but I would think that the life and work of John Curtin suggests that he probably would have been, in spirit at least.

    The point is that the “revisionsists” turned out to be right, at least to the extent that anyone on the Left can ever be right about anything.

  7. Revisionism is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, Craig. Certainly Bernstein was right as against Lenin, and against his laissez-faire opponents as well.

    (Of course, both Leninists and advocates of laissez-faire have has their hopes for a comeback at various times, so we can never have finality on these things).

  8. I watched the Lateline interview and it certainly put me in mind of History Wars where the actions of a Labor Prime Minister were denigrated based on a “World ” view.

    It seems that in this case we are expected to believe that because there was no plan written down – which may or may not be true as documents are easily destroyed – that Australians should have not been concerned about their own futures.

    What I do know however is that actions are often far more believable than words. My father believed the same when he signed up to fight in World War 2 as a result of the bombing of Darwin which put my grandfather and grandmother in real danger. Noone knew what the result would be but the threat was very real and to rewrite history in a naive fashion to belt the left is to abuse those who risked and lost their lives in many instances.

    The nation was pulling together for a common cause and to protect the Australian way of life. We are not a satellite of Britain or America and we had and have an obligation to protect ourselves first before we seek assistance from others. That Australians managed to be the first to defeat the Japanese in battle is of great worth and should not be derided by an ignorant pup who can’t see beyond his loathing of half of the nation.

  9. Been an interesting and informative discussion. Not persuaded of conspiracies however, rather emergent issues. But left with the feeling that Prof Q’s “the job of the ADF should be recognised as defending Australia (with a subsidiary role in providing aid to policing efforts in our immediate neighbourhood).’ and Razor’s “We have a responsibility as a world citizen to contribute as effectively as we can� are the propositions being debated. Curtin maybe scored the role of current shuttlecock

    And that Labour and the Coalition have a different perspective still. It will be interesting therefore to see how Beazley and the party respond to the considerations within NATO to invite Australia to become a member, or associate member, or something. Interesting also that it is the “big European states� that don’t approve rather than the New Europe states. News reports blame the US for the proposal, however former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is putting the idea out there.

    And not just NATO, the Barcelona report of the Study Group on Europe’s Security Capabilities� 2004 said of Australia

    “In South East Asia Australia may be willing to shoulder more of the burden, “

    We could be the EU’s deputy Sheriff? Defending the free world in the Asian sector? Japan doesn’t score a mention in the Barcelona report.

  10. Interesting Ros,
    It seems that we are being invited to particpate in the 21st century version of the 19th century ‘white man’s burden’. All freedom loving democracies to be on permanent ‘alert’ against the threats posed by the great unwashed that make up 75% of the worlds people’s. Will the burden of global policing never fall from the shoulders of those that are called to rule over the world?

  11. Australians in marvellous victories at Milne Bay and Kokoda.

    History, as written by the victors (at the time an ALP government), says “Australia saved”.

    Revisionist view: they would say that, wouldn’t they. It didn’t really matter.

    Revionist reaction to revisionists: Who are these revisionists reviling Curtin? Aha! An ex-Lib staffer with associations to Downer, and his world views. They would say that wouldn’t they.

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