The war in the Pacific: fighting the good fight, or something else

Australian veterans of the Pacific theatre in WWII attend a VJ Day memorial. AAP

Sometimes an historian will challenge one of the key ideological myths of Australian capitalism.

Henry Reynolds does it in his work on the colonial treatment of Aborigines, a treatment some go so far as to label genocide.

To a lesser extent myth busting is true too of others in debunking the lies of nation building surrounding Gallipoli.

Tom O’Lincoln’s important new book Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth stands in the grand tradition of debunking pervasive myths.

O’Lincoln shows that the Second World War and its Pacific theatre were a consequence of imperialism and the needs of late blooming German and Japanese capitalism to expand and in doing that to challenge the established imperial order of a declining Britain and a surging United States.

Us and them

In the context of this imperialist rivalry, O’Lincoln argues that the reality is that the US viewed war as inevitable and the best strategy was to force Japan to make the first move.

A cornered but hawkish led Japan responded to US and other countries’ provocations and bombed Pearl Harbour. Part of that provocation had been the tightening of supplies to Japan making it necessary from the point of view of Japanese capital to expand southwards for vital material like rubber and especially oil in Indonesia.

Japanese brutality is one of the enduring stories of this war. This demonisation of the Japanese , who in Asia were sometimes welcomed as liberators by local populations keen to escape their brutal white colonial overlords, forgets an important point. The Allies were brutal too.

As O’Lincoln says “In reality the viciousness of camp guards is no more inherent in the Japanese people than dropping atomic bombs is inherently western.”

Prisoners of war were treated horribly, not so much at first, but as the war progressed. As O’Lincoln shows the mistreatment was not something inherent to the Japanese but rather “something specific to how the conflict developed.”

As Japan over-extended itself and its capabilities hunger and starvation spread among its people and soldiers. Prisoners of war were among the first targets and an ideology that those who were captured were weak developed among sections of the Japanese.

“Our” side had similar views and took it to a logical conclusion of sorts. Australians shot prisoners and the wounded. It was “the only safe way.”

O’Lincoln quotes a conservative ex-POW to make the point.

The racial element

The wider Pacific War was bitter, racial and merciless and the cruelties of which the enemy were guilty did not exceed those practised by us.

The racism of empire, and of the white colonial settler state that was Australia were part of the war hysteria and a tool to tie the working class to the war.

The White Australia policy had been one of the foundations of Federation, helping cement workers to the employing class on the basis of skin colour, especially after the defeats of the industrial labour movement in the 1890s.

Ideas of racial superiority, of white civilisation and yellow and black skinned barbarians dominated Australian society from its foundation. So too did anti-Irish and anti-Catholic ideas, ideas reflecting the seeming reality of the dominant Protestant ruling clique as it strangled and repressed Ireland.

O’Lincoln documents overt anti-Japanese racism during and after the war. It is not pretty.

From John Curtin’s exhortation not to forget the principle of a White Australia to Department of Information race hate broadcasts, the Japanese were variously described as sub-human, maniacal, crazed killers, with dwarfed, twisted souls.

Labor Prime Minister John Curtin argued the war was about maintaining the white race’s control of Australia, and in this context he proudly reminded Australians that they were the sons and daughters of Britishers, that is that they were white.

The cement that is racism binding the working class to the ruling class is clear.

A war to maintain empire, not democracy

This war was as much a war for democracy as Iraq and Afghanistan are. Not at all.

Empires that before the war repressed the local populations did the same thing after the war. From Indonesia to Vietnam the imperialist powers sought to re-establish their dictatorial rule over the peoples there.

This was not war for democracy but for imperial domination.

One of the enduring myths surrounding the war in the Pacific is that Japan wanted to and was going to invade Australia.

O’Lincoln points out that even the Japanese army thought that this was “gibberish”. It would divert resources from China and Manchuria. The Japanese navy couldn’t spare the ships. And seizing large parts of the country would mean that “long supply lines and Australia’s industrial capabilities would have beaten them”.

Labor Prime Minister John Curtin knew, probably from April 1942, that the Japanese would not and could not invade Australia.

This invasion threat was an important part of his fear mongering to bolster support for the war. He would continue to use it, despite the fact he knew it was untrue. What this fear did do was produce more and more hard work from the working class, and the economy grew 15 percent.

A defensive war no more

By 1943 it was clear the Japanese could not win. The war was no longer defensive from Australian capitalism’s point of view. It became an expansionist war in which Australian and American forces set out ‘to capture the South Pacific’.

One of the many strengths of O’Lincoln’s book is the reintroduction of class struggle into the analysis of the Australian war effort. He challenges the idea that Australia was a country totally united behind the war effort with class divisions and struggle banished to some backwater of history.

For a start some of the Australian ruling class and its military had pro-fascist sentiments, at least until fascism threatened Empire. More importantly, as O’Lincoln notes, based on Department of Labour and National Service figures:

Industrial disputes spiked in 1940,and were still high in 1941. They fell dramatically in 1942 under the impact of a seeming invasion threat, but revived as the apparent danger receded.

The decline in strikes also had much to do with the Australian Communist Party’s change of attitude to the war after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. That change was dramatic – from a correct as far as it goes depiction of the war as imperialist to it becoming, after the “socialist” fatherland was invaded, the also partially correct war against fascism.

Part of the radical actions can be attributed to women and their lack of union traditions. The war bought millions of women into the workforce. Their lack of work and union experience meant they were less likely to listen to the conservative arguments of the trade union bureaucracy.

The labour market was tight so wages rose higher than prices during the war. However, increased taxation meant that workers were worse off.

The war sacrifices saw many workers long for a better world after the slaughter finished. The groundwork for the upsurge in class war after 1945 and the grand post war welfare state compromise between labour and capital were built during the war by the class struggles that broke out or were lidded during it.

This is a book that challenges all our preconceptions about the war in the Pacific.

Read it.