Yet more revisionism

The Oz runs yet another piece of anti-Curtin revisionism, though from the line has shifted 180 degrees. Whereas Stephen Barton argues that Curtin, as PM, should have allowed the Japanese to take Port Moresby and Northern Queensland, in order to fight in Europe, Bob Wurth counts Curtin as an appeaser of Japan. His story is incoherent to put it mildly, since he quotes generic statements of desire for peace in 1939 as appeasement, while noting that by 1941 Curtin was among the leaders in warning of war.

The main focus of the story is on Curtin’s friendly relationship with the Japanese ambassador (who became a prominent pacifist after the war) and an alleged agreement over Western Australian iron ore, reported by ambassador Kawai. Wurth’s story suffers from the fact that Curtin took office a few months after Kawai reported the supposed agreement, and that no such agreement was implemented. All in all, this sounds more like Curtin manipulating Kawai in the hope of assisting the peace faction in Japan than the other way around.

One feature that seems to pop up regularly in all of this is the name of Alexander Downer, who’s cited in the Wurth piece. He’s led the attack on Curtin in the past and he seems to be linked fairly closely to Barton, who wrote a full-length piece in Online Opinion to defend him against claims of draft-dodging. Certainly, if Downer disagrees with the latest attacks, and the Barton line that an invasion of Australia is a reasonable price to pay for alliances with the great and powerful, he ought to say so now.

41 thoughts on “Yet more revisionism

  1. Following Katz,
    You want reckless contempt for the safety and dignity of working Australians? Try Workchoices

    You want elitist contempt for rights of the electorate to be told the truth about the reasons for risking young Australian lives in an illegal war? Try the invasion of Iraq

    You want to see out of touch, red wine quaffing, elitist ratbags dealing with the needs of women in paid employment? Try Bronwyn Bishops proposals to make nannies tax deductable.

    Want to know what liberal MPs really think of the ‘battlers’ they purport to represent? Try the remarks of Ms Kelly (MP for Lindsay) on the lack of interest the ‘pram pushers’ of her electorate have in tertiary education.

  2. Hal9000, “… the sacrificial insertion of troops into both Dutch and Portuguese Timor, with the object merely of buying some time” is wrong. First of all, there is never any “merely” about it; it depends what that currency “time” is used for, or if it is merely wasted. As Napoleon told his marshals, “ask me for anything but time”. The Alamo bought time for the Texan rebels to retire, regroup, and win.

    Second of all, that wasn’t all it did. They weren’t sacrificed – although many were lost, not all were – and they served the direct purpose of intelligence as well as the indirect one of tying up forces, threatening flanks and so on. I have Bernard Callinan’s memoirs “Independent Company” of what happened in East Timor – see if you can find a copy.

    As for “I doubt even the Right sees his [Churchill’s] earlier roles as instigator of the Gallipoli campaign and champion of the gold standard as heroic”, well, those were actually very good ideas very imperfectly executed – and the execution very largely wasn’t Churchill’s in each case. Instigating Gallipoli was a very good idea, and the trouble came with reinforcing defeat. After all the Germans had already done the very same trick, successfully, with the Goeben, thus getting Turkey into the war on their own side.

    The gold problems were just too big to be dealt with all at once, but the objective was sound (to rebuild the British position in the world’s finances). This rebuilding had after all been done before. What was missing was flexibility due to haste, in turn imposed by outside factors. Had this, too, had an off switch (for a pause rather than for cancellation), there would have been no failure. Of course, without generational peace in Europe war would have overtaken those developments too.

    By the way, Churchill was regarded as at best untrustworthy and at worst a crypto-lefty at the time. Any right wing support of his actions then is an attempt at glory by association. Oh, and he was right about India too – provided you remember that we are commenting on his predictions and not his values. Not that most Indians were beneficiaries of independence, falling instead under the power of an Indian elite (also pretty much as predicted by some).

  3. Stephen Barton,

    If you are still lurking about this site, you may be motivated to address Greg Sheridan’s comment on your recent public performances.

    In the Weekend Australian, 29-30 April, Sheridan opines that you made a hash of your espousal of the “broader point” that Sheridan believes should be the thrust of the Right Wing chatterati:

    “Perhaps Barton could have expressed himself a little better but he was making the broader point that the Australian Left has always been profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that our military contributions far from our shores have been not only honourable but served our security interests.”

    Do you accept this as fatherly advice Stephen, or do you think that Greg feels that you threaten him in some way?

    Whatever, I wish to address Sheridan’s arguments about honour and security interests. Sheridan knows that he can’t conflate these two criteria for justifying war because he knows that it is possible to fight an honourable war that doesn’t serve security interests. And it is possible to fight a dishonourable war that does serve security interests, at least in the short term.

    Does the commitment of the 1st AIF, 1914-1919, satisfy either, or both, of those criteria? This is vital to the question of the degree to which soldiers were sacrificed in pursuit of a morally defensible and intelligent set of goals.

    1. In 1914, Australia was legally bound to bellicosity by our constitutional ties with the Crown. The stated aims of the war: the protection of the independence of small nations, convinced many Australian volunteers who had not already decided that fighting in a war, any war, was an exciting thing to do. Australians embraced the war with enthusiasm.

    2. This enthusiasm survived the military catastrophe of Gallipoli. The stated purposes of the war remained popular and unchallenged.

    3. However, between the retreat from the Dardenelles and the “big push” of the Somme, the British Empire brutally repressed the Irish uprising. British soldiers were redeployed away from the Western Front to garrison a restive Ireland. Australian troops replaced them. A minority of Australian soldiers began to question how British actions could be construed as “protecting the independence of small nations”. Meanwhile, back in Australia, recruitment collapsed. Part of the reason for this collapse was that Australians began to question the sincerity of Britain’s attachment to its war aims. A majority of voters, and a majority of soldier-voters, twice rejected conscription plebicites.

    4. In early 1918 the victorious Bolsheviks publicised the secret treaties signed between Tsarist Russia and its allies. Lo and behold, the British had agreed to carve up the post-war world. The “independence of small nations” was nowhere to be found. Soldiers of the Empire, including Australian soldiers, had been encouraged to fight under false pretenses. Very embarrassing.

    These commitments drove:

    1. The punitive peace imposed on Germany.

    2. The rise of Nazism.

    3. The upsurge in US isolationism. Americans were infuriated that their government had been duped into achieving these war aims.

    4. An upsurge in pacificism in the West among people who were appalled by the mendacity of their governments. This pacificism compelled appeasment of Germany and Japan.

    These outcomes were driven by Imperial decisions that were either dishonourable, or were inimical to the security of the world in general and Australia in particular, or both.

    Australians and Australian soldiers had been duped. There is no such thing as an honourable patsy.

    Citizens of democracies began to demand greater transparency in diplomacy and war. Formal institutions were established.

    But these institutions and procedures of democratic oversight have been abolished or subverted.

    And especially since 9/11 governments have returned to the supposition that they know better than their citizens and it it therefore right and proper to lie to them in order to achieve the greater good.

    This arrogance caused disaster during and after the Great War.

    But it seems that the world needs to be reminded of this fact, because the lessons have been forgotten.

  4. Is it paranoid of me to wonder if News Corp has a financial interest in the new Kokoda movie?

  5. An elegant argument, Katz. You might add that the map of the middle east was drawn up under just such a secret treaty signed during the Great War, and that Australians have twice fought to maintain the Sykes-Picot status quo.

    Another interesting parallel with the present was the imposition by Hughes of draconian sedition laws. Similarly the unity of the mainstream media of the day behind Hughes and the war.

    Your remarks about the role of the Irish rebellion remind me again of Gerard Hendo’s repeated attempts to rehabilitate Gallipoli as a military triumph gone wrong.

    PML runs the same line up above. I’m wondering whether, in the same vein, I ought to propose that Napoleon’s Peninsula campaign and the Crusades were strokes of strategic genius brought undone by a few silly decisions. And PML, I am truly mystified as to how the gift of a warship on the one hand and a full-scale amphibious invasion on the other qualify to be labelled ‘the same thing’.

    Furher, PML, your criticisms of my remarks about the Timor insertions are quibbles intended to distract. My point was to illustrate the seriousness with which Australia regarded the Japanese threat. To say the forces were ‘sacrificed merely to buy time’ is to say no more than the truth. I do not deny the heroism or military contribution of those forces, and to paint me as doing so is being needlessly provocative.

  6. “And PML, I am truly mystified as to how the gift of a warship on the one hand and a full-scale amphibious invasion on the other qualify to be labelled ‘the same thing’. ”

    They wouldn’t be, of course – but that wasn’t what the Goeben did. The Goeben forced the Dardanelles when Turkey was still neutral, and forced the Turks to sign up by threatening to bombard Constantinople. Pretty much the same military objective that the Gallipoli campaign aimed at.

    My comments on East Timor were not aimed at distracting but at refocussing. What happened there was not “mere” buying of time, but buying of time aimed at using it to good effect – not what people generally mean by “buying time”.

  7. I wish I could remember which one, but I have seen a doco where a senior Japanese pol or officer said that Japan’s push to Port Moresby was for exactly the reasons Prof Q postulates, ie secure strategically important parts of north Australia. This was said, from memory, discussing the Brisbane line. His point was that they didn’t intend to push that far south.

    Assuming that we are a sovereign nation for a second, wouldn’t it be a fundamental failure of the first duty of government to allow our troops to be fighting for Ceylon while Far North Queensland citizen subjects were abandoned to conquest?

    Is this argument really happening? You should file the whole thing under “World’s Gone Mad”, Professor.

    As for Churchill, one of the things I like about him is that after Gallipoli he sought to redeem himself by active service on the western front. Mr Cheney, your M-16 awaits.

  8. “The Goeben forced the Dardanelles when Turkey was still neutral, and forced the Turks to sign up by threatening to bombard Constantinople. Pretty much the same military objective that the Gallipoli campaign aimed at.”

    Er, not according to my references, PML. The standard histories report her and Breslau as being welcomed, particularly by the ascendant young Turks. There was also the little matter of the secret treaty with Germany signed on 2 August, prior to Goeben’s arrival.

    See and (a nice Turkish site).

    Perhaps an alternate universe?

  9. Thanks Hal9000.

    The history of those infamous secret treaties in the Western Democracies is interesting.

    The “Manchester Guardian” published them in full. They were offered to the London “Times”.

    According to Philip Knightley in “The First Casualty”, the “Times” published a brief summary of the treaties but made the amazing decision “not to inconvenience the British, French and Italian Governments, and to maintain silence about the Secret Treaties; also, as far as possible, to curtail its Petrograd correspondent’s despatches on the subject… As the governments themselves were bound by the Treaties to be silent, The Times decided it could only follow their example.”

    I don’t at present have access to infro about how the Australian press handled this embarrassing topic.

    However, it is worthwhile to note that Trotsky was unable to achieve his desired object of mutiny and revolution in the imperialist armies. The citizens of the British Empire and France decided to “stay the course” and to not quit “until the job was done”.

    The majority of these populations, it seems, favoured a Carthegian solution to the Great War.

    This fact may gratify Right Wingers. But don’t forget that the successful prosecution of serious and protracted wars requires a much wider consensus than the customary 50% + 1 formula of majoritarianism.

    And don’t forget that much emotional investment had been expended on the Great War before the Great Lie was discovered. This wasn’t the case for Vietnam and it isn’t the case for Iraq.

  10. I see Alexander Downer has an article running the Curtin revisionist line in a particularly virulent form in the Oz today. Bearing in mind he was also almost certainly the source of the classified material leaked to Andrew Bolt to discredit Wilke, we can see the character of the man in all its ugliness. It comes as no surprise that Chris ‘Order of Lenin’ Mitchell has been the eager agent of the campaign.

  11. Yeah,

    This’ll be the pay off article for all the prep work of the Oz’s stable of Right Wing hacks.

    Downer doesn’t really care about the history the ALP in war. His comments on this topic are just cheap shots.

    But here’s Downer’s money shot. This is what all the fuss had been about:

    “Kim Beazley sits squarely in this Labor tradition of weakness. Whereas Curtin said that it didn’t matter if Germany was run by Nazis, Beazley thought that we should have left Saddam Hussein in power; we were wrong to help our allies get rid of him. “We are a small country in a world of giants,” Beazley says. Can you hear Curtin’s echo?

    “Beazley and his predecessors happily take the protection offered by others (particularly the US) in dealing with the tough issues and guaranteeing our freedom. But they feel no compulsion for Australia to do its part. They even try to convince the Australian public that they are in favour of the US alliance. Yet, at the same time, they snipe at the US at every opportunity and they fail to acknowledge that allies stick by one another.”

    Some facts that Downer has overlooked:

    1. NATO is the most important alliance of the US. Most NATO members opposed the Iraq War.

    2. WWII was a legal, defensive war under international law. The legal status of the Iraq War is highly dubious.

    3. The best allies, like the best friends, tell friends and allies unwelcome truths. Sycophants tell their pretended friends what they want to hear. True friends of the US told them that their Mesopotamian adventure would end in tears. Little Johnnie Howard, on the other hand, pranced round the edges of the pack screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” while Downer held his coat.

  12. Thanks to recent developments, we now know that “dealing with the tough issues and guaranteeing our freedom” included handing over West Papua to the genocidal generals through the ludicrously labelled ‘Act of Free Choice’ contrary to Australia’s pleas, in order to focus on the glorious defence of the Saigon regime. Strangely, Alexander seems to have forgotten issues so close to home.

  13. I am a bit taken aback that so many commentators and letter writers in recent days can make such insightful comments and reach conclusions on my research without having read the book.

    Am I saying that John Curtin and the first Japanese Minister to Australia, Tatsuo Kawai, had a friendly relationship while Curtin was Leader of the Opposition? Yes I am.

    Am I saying that Curtin while Leader of the Opposition in April 1941 made an agreement with Kawai to support Japanese access to iron ore at Yampi Sound in Western Australia in return for a guarantee of Australia’s safety from Japanese attack? I am saying that a paper written in Japanese in 1962 by Kawai reveals that agreement.

    Did that agreement last long? As Japanese aggression strengthened, such an agreement was probably dead by July or August 1941.

    Was Curtin an appeaser? Most certainly, like the rest. But he was among the first in Parliament in 1941 on either side who ended the appeasement of Japan and that occurred before he became Prime Minister in October 1941. While recognising the seriousness of the Japanese threat though, Curtin left the door open for discussions with Kawai. The contact with Kawai was then left primarily to Herbert Evatt, as Minister for External Affairs and Attorney General. Evatt was highly sympatheric to the pre-war plight of Japan.

    My research in Japan and Australia took five years to discover and assemble. It was and is a hugely complicated subject bringing together the Japanese and Australian versions of events. Of key importance in understanding the complexity is the timing of events and that opinions – especially John Curtin’s – were constantly shifting ground. Curtin the pacifist gradually became Curtin the war leader. So it is really a bit of a nonsese for anyone to say “Curtin was an appeaser” or argue the reverse and just leave it at that.

    Is my book “Saving Australia, Curtin’s secret peace with Japan” (Lothian Books, just out this week) “yet more revisionism”? Well I would have thought that revisionist history was about revising the historical facts that have been presented. What I am doing is introducing an entirely new set of facts to the equation and primarily but not exclusively this new information comes from previously unpublished Japanese sources.

    That Kawai loved of Australia and devoted his life to the memory of Curtin and to Japan-Australia trade and friendship to my mind is beyond doubt.
    Did Curtin feel the same about Kawai? Well his son John Francis Curtin told me that his father and Kawai had a close relationship. But Curtin didn’t leave much of an indication, other than that it was Tatsuo Kawai on November 29, 1941, who tipped him off that the momentum for war in Japan was too great. Curtin was hardly likely to say anything in praise of Kawai during the war and of course he died just months before the Japanese surrender. What is clear is that the Kawai and Curtin families maintained a friendly association in the period from the end of the war until 2001 when the Curtins’ daughter Elsie went into a nursing home. This ended her contact with Kawai’s son Masumi in Japan (who incidentally began huge iron ore mines in Western Australia as chief of Mitsui Australia.)

    I admit that it does not assist clarity in understanding the Curtin-Kawai relationship when you hear that Tatsuo Kawai was a fascist and ardent expansionist before the war, that on return to Japan he worked to end the war, that he became vice minister for Foreign Affairs immediately after the war and that he harbored in 1949 one of the worst war criminals to go unpunlished in Japan.

    By all means challenge and criticise the conclusions I have made in the book if I am wrong about Curtin or Kawai or anything else. I welcome that debate.

    I intend to expand on the above at the national launch of the book at the Curtin University in Perth on May 12.

    Bob Wurth,

  14. Bob, I hope that your book conveys the balanced message above. Unfortunately, if you write an opinion piece you can’t expect people to wait for the associated book to come out before responding.

    In the present case, your article appeared in a run of scurrilous attacks on John Curtin, and was presented in that light. Note in particular the piece by Alexander Downer which quotes you in support of one of the most disgusting attacks on Curtin I’ve seen – and I’ve seen plenty from his Communist opponents in the labour movement.

    The reactions you’re getting reflect this. If you’re unhappy about this, I suggest you write to The Australian to clarify your position.

  15. Hal9000, if you were in a precarious position like the Young Turks, and had their approach to things, wouldn’t you try to make out that things were developing according to your plan? As it happens, the Goeben ending up there wasn’t a result of any prior cunning on the part of either the Germans or the Turks, but a serendipitous consequence of the Germans managing to get away from British pursuit in what became an allied lake on the outbreak of war.

    I suggest you consult a copy of “An Enemy Then Flying”. Things are as I said; in fact, everybody had earlier expected Turkey to be “neutral on Britain’s side”, following the patterns of current realpolitik – until the Goeben arrived.

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