The forging of Australian imperialism

13 November 2015
Tom O’Lincoln

Tom O’Lincoln gives an overview of Australia’s imperialist history, and explains why governments have been so keen to send the military to overseas conflicts, in extracts from his recently released book, The neighbour from hell: two centuries of Australian imperialism.


“Another Australian expeditionary force” is a familiar phrase to the world. Australians have fought on more battlefronts than any other men since the time of Genghis Khan. Washington Post correspondent Richard Oulahan

When Australia fights an overseas war in, say, Afghanistan alongside the United States, responses on the broad left generally fit a pattern. Critics will point to Australia’s dependence on the US. This is undeniable – most states in the world depend on US power in some way. From that recognition, however, the left generally proceeds to a much more questionable argument, lamenting what it sees as chronic Australian subservience towards the big power ally. The USA is accused of dragging this country into wars that are not in “our” interest.

Yet Australia is an imperialist power in its own right, which has sent troops to distant wars to gain credit with Britain, and more recently America, hoping that these “great and powerful friends” would back up Australia’s interests in our own region. It doesn’t make Canberra a “lapdog” for the Americans. It’s part of a strategy for leveraging power, a sort of boutique imperialism in which Canberra manoeuvres carefully to maximise its clout.

Spoiling for a fight

Across the empire in the second half of the 19th century, conflict was growing. Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, complained in 1887 that the Australian colonials were the “most unreasonable people I have ever heard or dreamed of”. Their offence? Demanding that the empire seize nearby islands (Vanuatu) that to the mother country were “as valueless as the south pole”.

This was part of a wider pattern in which colonists also demanded the seizure of Papua, Fiji and New Guinea. Australian leaders were backed by loud public meetings. They accused Britain of betraying the white race in the Pacific.

For the NSW government, an opportunity arose in 1885, when Britain faced a colonial rebellion in the Sudan. Immediately, NSW premier Dalley offered troops. He had several objectives, but one important one was an informal plan to boost reciprocal British colonial support for Australian colonial ventures in the Pacific. The Victorian premier admitted it was “difficult for us to say what [the merits] of the Sudan expedition are”. But no matter, the point was to score points with the British.

Another opportunity came with the Boer War at the turn of the century. Sixteen thousand young men travelled off to kill or be killed in southern Africa. What did this have to do with Australia? Seemingly nothing, until you remember the underlying aims: to promote British support for the “unreasonable people”.

This imperial drive reached its peak with Gallipoli and the First World War. Australia was never under threat, but joined the invasion of what is now Turkey. Australia suffered almost 30,000 casualties, but nothing like the 250,000 on the Ottomans’ side as they tried to defend their land.

Australia came out of the war in control of former German New Guinea. This had been a long term aspiration. Deputy prime minister Joseph Cook hoped the territory would be full of great resources (hopes that were realised in the enduring plundering of the region by Australian companies). To be sure, Canberra also acknowledged it had responsibilities: in Senator Matthew Reid’s words, Australia must treat local peoples “like grown-up children”.

Papua New Guinea became a stepping stone to claims in West Papua. The latter territory, wrote the Department of External Affairs, was part of New Guinea since West Papua had been “included in the Australian declared Pacific Security Zone in 1944”. To the disappointment of Australia’s elite, West Papua remained in Dutch hands, before later being transferred to Indonesia.

White settlers pioneered a new pattern of imperialism. Britain was the pivotal power, and the relationship was underpinning the independent and aggressive state that Australia became after federation. Over the next several decades, Canberra sought to formalise arrangements. But World War Two sealed Britain’s decline, while opening the way for an “American century”; and at the same time Australia slowly reoriented from London to Washington.


In 1951 Australia deployed troops in Korea, securing in return the Anzus treaty. The invasion was the beginning of a catastrophe for the Korean people, but it created salivating opportunities for the Australian government, and foreign minister Percy Spender eagerly cabled Menzies in London about seizing them:

“I feel very strongly that we must give some immediate response … My appreciation of the military position in Korea is that the US, though not prepared to admit it, is in a very difficult if not desperate position … any additional aid we can give to the US now, small though it may be, will repay us in the future one hundred fold.”

The military impact might be slight, he added, but it could have considerable political impact. On the other hand, to hold back could cost “an opportunity of cementing friendship with the US which may not easily present itself again”. Menzies was overseas, hard to reach, and known to oppose any such ventures.

Neither did he share Spender’s enthusiasm for a formal alliance with the US. But when it became clear that Britain would send troops to Korea, acting PM Artie Faddden agreed to do the same, making a point of dispatching forces before London did. US president Harry Truman and secretary of state Dean Acheson signalled their pleasure by facilitating a large World Bank loan to build infrastructure in Australia. This sounds like surprising generosity from Uncle Sam, but the infrastructure would enhance Australian military power, contributing to a stronger alliance.

A secret 1963 memorandum between Washington and Canberra said key passages in the Anzus treaty “related only to overt attacks and not to subversion, guerrilla warfare or indirect aggression”. This was not particularly helpful, seeing as Australia was the aggressor in the region. Every Australian military scheme was for “defence”. But a key element was “forward defence”, sending troops far to the north to fight people who had never dreamed of invading us. Key documents show there was no meaningful threat to Australia. That is, while there were threats to Australia’s ability to exploit the world market, there was no military threat to people living on this continent.

An internal government analysis of Australia’s strategic position from 1946 dismissed the major powers as being benign or lacking the power to attack. Russia was a “potential enemy of the future”, but even that country couldn’t mount more than raids on the Australian continent. Likewise, a 1953 document dismissed actual defence of the Australian continent as presenting “a comparatively small problem”.

When Australian strategists spoke of defence, they meant protecting “Australia’s interests”, which tended to mean overseas investments, assets, revenues, trade links. A military raised only to defend Australia, Menzies jibed, would be like a “wooden gun”. It was in this context that Canberra desired to “take responsibility” for a strategic zone to the north and east.

A balancing act

American strategy had prioritised Europe and the Middle East, with the Korean conflict seen as an anomaly. Canberra offered the “Australian territory” of Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea) to the Americans as a military base, but this aroused little interest, and at first Washington also showed little enthusiasm for an Asia-Pacific security pact.

However, Communist successes in Asia began to focus minds in both Washington and Canberra. Since British power was clearly in decline east of Suez, entrenching Australian interests in Asia required a strengthened US alliance; and with France losing an Asian empire at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in 1954, there was realistically no way the Americans would hold back from trying to pacify south-east Asia.

Canberra scrapped commitments in the Middle East in favour of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve Centres in Malaya, and became a founder of the US-oriented South East Asia Treaty Organisation. Both the centres and SEATO were ineffectual; their importance lay in signalling a change in orientation.

There was, of course, a substantial common ideology between Washington and Canberra. The Americans were immersed in anti-Communist scares, and Menzies promoted his own. Australia’s 1955 dispatch of troops to Malaya to suppress Communist insurgents came within the same two years or so as the French defeat at Vietnamese Communist hands, the aftermath of the Petrov spy scandal and the anti-Communist split in the ALP.

But common ground didn’t prevent tensions. The Americans complained of a maddening Australian aggressiveness. The US State Department thought Percy Spender’s early 1950s interest in a Pacific treaty was less about a guarantee of Australian security than access to allied decision-making machinery, while Acheson thought that the Australians’ most cherished idea was to have a “direct and permanent relationship between their chiefs of staff and ours”, a fixation which became an “embarrassing problem”.

When a subsequent secretary of state, Dean Rusk, visited Canberra in May 1962, foreign minister Garfield Barwick “interrogated” him in a way that “visibly irritated the American and startled the New Zealanders present”. Far from being slave to Washington, Canberra jostled for an expanded influence.

The common ground rubbed against differing desires. Each time the Americans pressed Australia to commit more forces to US adventures, Canberra performed a balancing act. As described in former senior diplomat and cabinet minister Richard Casey’s memoirs, there was a desire to minimise the drain on resources, but also a desire not to appear to be penny-pinching or stalling.

Casey felt that Washington was aware of what a small military Australia maintained. For an ally constantly pestering the Americans to do things, the Australian imperialists didn’t contribute much themselves, which was embarrassing. Perhaps one ought to do more, Casey thought. Yet in cabinet, he stood against those who would follow the Americans “whatever they did”. He thought the pros and cons must all be carefully calculated even if some of them counted against Washington.

Here we have neither a conventional picture of the Americans charging headlong into war, nor one of Australian politicians crawling to the Americans. Instead there was cynical calculation on both sides, and not for the last time.


At the fringe of empire, things were tense. The 1954 Geneva conference following the French defeat had called for a temporary division of Vietnam, with elections to be held in 1956. But the Americans blocked the elections because the Communists would have won them. Bullets would decide.

While dispatching a battalion to Vietnam, Menzies declared the US invasion of that country was “one of the greatest manifestations of justice and principle ever made”. The core objective was locking the Americans firmly into Asia. Winning in Vietnam was secondary, and the pretence of safeguarding democracy came a dismal last. General John Wilton, chair of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, as if answering the standard leftist critique, said, “[I]t wasn’t a question of us being dragged in by the USA, it was us wanting to have the USA dragged in”.

Australian efforts to deepen Washington’s engagement in Asia went slowly. The only way seemed to be persuading the Americans to escalate, and then win, the Vietnam war; and Australia would have to provide troops to be credible in American eyes. Canberra prepared a diplomatic offensive around this agenda. Phase one, code-named Barrel Roll, was a brief intensification planned to run for a month. It would be followed by Phase two, code-named Rolling Thunder. But Johnson was so nervous that Phase One dragged on.

At this point a secret inter-departmental meeting recommended Australia should press the Americans to move to Phase two. Lobbying politicians from Canberra blitzed Washington. For perhaps the first time, the Australian government decided to attempt openly to change the direction of America’s Vietnam policy. “In point of fact,” writes diplomat Malcolm Booker, “it was the Australian government which in the early part of 1965 pressed on the American government the need for strong military action in Vietnam”.

One way to present Australia’s imperialism as superior is to suggest its record is free of war crimes. It is not. To begin with, the main culprits of wartime atrocities are not the soldiers at the front line, but the Australian leaders who encouraged and apologised for the genocidal American war effort.

And even where the Australians behaved better towards the local people, it didn’t change the reactionary logic of the war. Paul Ham records how the Australian commanders drafted a new mission statement that amounted to protecting the people from the enemy. The trouble, as he discovered, was that the people were the enemy. And so when private Paul Murphy later recalled another relocation exercise, he could say: “They hated us … Old ladies were crying and wailing; they’d just been thrown out of their ancestral homes”. Yet he could add that “militarily there was a justification for it”. The abuses of war were not an optional extra.

Who wins?

The war was a nightmare for the Vietnamese, a horror for the soldiers, a bleak torment for many Australians – and for whose benefit? Australian editor-at-large Paul Kelly wrote in 2002:

“For half a century the Australian way of war has been obvious: it is a clever, cynical, calculated, modest series of contributions as part of US-led coalitions in which Americans bore the main burden. This technique reveals a junior partner skilled in utilising the great and powerful in its own interest while imposing firm limits upon its own sacrifices.”

The Vietnam War ended in defeat for the West. In the aftermath, Australia shared America’s fear of waging imperialist war (the “Vietnam Syndrome”), but the hesitancy didn’t last long. The 1999 Timor intervention, led by the “Vietnam War hero” Peter Cosgrove, put the gloss on a new round of aggression in the South Pacific.

That experience opened several routes back to the front lines of blood for oil, via Afghanistan and the Gulf. And if we blink another moment, Australian boots may tramp through Syria.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.