In the shadow of war

26 November 2012


Seventy years after 1942, Australia is still feeling the impact of a tumultuous year which witnessed the greatest threat to the nation’s security ever and the birth of sovereignty, writes PETER DEAN.

The 70th anniversary of the epic events of 1942 started earlier this year with great fanfare and significant political support. The anniversary of the bombing of Darwin drew together the full resources of both the Northern Territory and Federal governments, as well as the national media. However, the rest of the anniversaries from this year have largely passed us by.

On 19 February the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and senior representatives of the NT and Federal governments, the opposition and the United States, gathered in Darwin to remember the anniversary of the first time that modern warfare had scarred Australia’s shores. Breakfast TV and the twenty-four hour news shows were on hand to report the PM’s call for (yet another) national day of remembrance. The bombing of Darwin must be remembered, and school children must be taught its importance, we were told. It seemed like this was going to be the first strike in a series of events to mark the importance of 1942.

However, the anniversaries of the battle of the Coral Sea, the attack on Sydney harbour, the fall and recapture of Kokoda, and the victory at Milne Bay passed us by, receiving little recognition. Most significantly after the Darwin anniversary there has been hardly any involvement from politicians or government departments in marking these significant dates; a major surprise given how the year kicked off.

In the end, the anniversary of the bombing of Darwin was both the beginning and the conclusion of large scale commemoration this year. A few academic conferences have been held and the odd media interview has been done, a bit of controversy about Kokoda and the possibility of a Japanese invasion occurred, but other than that there seems to have been little interest. This has felt strangely out of step with the avalanche of commemorative activities that Australia has recognised over the last two decades. Perhaps 70th anniversaries are only really allowed to throw up one significant event for the nation to focus on? Or perhaps we in are saving ourselves for the epic that the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli will bring.

The most surprising thing of all is that while the bombing of Darwin may be a highly symbolic event, in particular to the residents of northern Australia, it is only the beginning of some of the most significant milestones in Australian history that year. It is a beginning rather than an end point. Concentrating on this one event plasters over the importance of the broader events of 1942 to the nation’s history. The bombing of Darwin that fateful February day is only one episode in a range of significant events and reforms that makes 1942 a ‘pivotal’ year in Australian history.

While 1915 and Gallipoli might reverberate as the birthplace of the Anzac legend, or even Australian national identity, it did so in the shadow of Australia’s relationship with Great Britain. In contrast, 1942, as Professor David Horner notes, is the year in which, devoid of the traditional reliance on Great Britain, Australia faced the threat of invasion for the first and only time since European settlement. In response the Labor government demanded, against the opposition of Great Britain and the United States, the return of Australia’s forces from the Middle East and later in the year ratified the Statute of Westminster (1931), declaring to the world that Australia was a sovereign nation.

It was a sovereignty that, at the time, was under threat. While we have long known that the Japanese high command declared in early 1942 that an invasion of Australia was neither desirable nor feasible, the threat did not end there. The campaigns for Papua and Guadalcanal were fought to stop the Japanese from establishing a defensive ring around the country and isolating it from the United States. These were battles that help achieve the security of Australia and laid the platform for the country to become a major Allied base for the defeat of Japan.

Beyond the battles, other events of 1942 have had a profound effect on modern Australia. In response to the threat to our national security a fledgling, minority government led by the pacifist and anti-conscription activist from the First World War, John Curtin mobilised the nation; undertook a massive program of industrialisation; shifted power to the Commonwealth through legislative and taxation reform; forged a relationship with the United States of America, and set the stage for post-war migration. Other than being the birthplace of Anzac, 1915, as a year, pales in comparison to the influence of these events and reforms on Australia’s history.

1942 is about much more than what the bombing of Darwin signifies, and while it does not seem to resonate with the Australian public, it should hold a more important place in the already crowded space that is the history of Australia at war.

Dr Peter J Dean is a Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is the editor a new book Australia 1942: In the Shadow of War, which will be launched by the Minster for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, on Tuesday 27 November at Parliament House.


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