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RUSI Victoria / (03)9282 5918/ secretary@rusivic.org.au/ © 2019 RUSI Victoria

Best We Forget

The War for White Australia, 1914-18


Peter Cochrane

The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne   2018

Paperback   272pp   RRP: $32.99


Reviewer: Robert Dixon, December 2018


     Towards the end of this work the author describes the words ‘Best We Forget’ in the book’s title as ‘ironic’ and makes it clear that he is not in any way suggesting that we should forget the ordeals and the sacrifices of the soldiers and others involved in the First World War. Rather, he wishes to draw attention to something which has been almost completely erased from popular memory: that, in addition to objectives such as the defeat of Germany, the survival of Britain and the Empire, and the maintenance of those strategic, economic and sentimental ties that most Australians cherished, a significant influence on Australia's involvement in the First World War were concerns with the threat posed to Australia by an ‘awakening Asia’ and opposition to the White Australia Policy on the part of Japan in particular.

     Drawing on the writings of journalist and official war historian, Charles Bean; numerous politicians, including a number of prime ministers; historians and others, Cochrane demonstrates that prior to the First World War Australian politicians were preoccupied with two strategic issues: (i) the threat posed to Australia and to the continuation of the White Australia Policy by the ‘Asiatic Races’, especially Japan, and (ii) the distrust of British assurances about naval support in the event of war in the Pacific.

     The two issues are related, not least because Britain and Japan entered into a defence alliance in 1902 that was renewed in 1905, (in May of that year the Japanese navy demonstrated their prowess by a destroying the Russian Baltic fleet in the Straits of Tsushima). Shortly after the renewal of the alliance in 1905, the British withdrew their capital ships from the Pacific. Alfred Deakin (our second prime minister) responded by inviting US President Theodore Roosevelt to send his ‘Great White Fleet’ to visit Melbourne and Sydney in 1908.

     Cochrane carefully documents Australia’s increasing demands in the early twentieth century for adequate self-defence forces, naval ships under Australian control, and compulsory military service (for home defence). Worries that Britain might not come to the aid of Australia in the event of a Pacific war, (and particularly if Australia and Japan were at war), came on top of disquiet prompted by British requests in the early 1900s that Japan be granted special exemption from the White Australia Policy. Australian government concern increased when, at the outbreak of the First World War, Japan honoured the Anglo–Japanese alliance by entering the conflict as Britain’s ally and occupied many German possessions in the Pacific.

Cochrane shows that by promising total support for Britain, the Australians – especially under the leadership of PM Billy Hughes - hoped in return to secure Britain's unequivocal support for a White Australia. Cochrane points out that in 1916 Hughes made a statement to a closed session of both houses of federal parliament that ‘Japan would challenge the White Australia policy after the war, that Australia would then need the help of the rest of the Empire, and that if she wished to be sure of getting it then she must now throw her full strength into war in Europe’.

     At a pro-conscription rally in Sydney Town Hall in 1916, Hughes said, ‘The spirit of Australia, the spirit of our race, the spirit that has made us free men, that has carved out the Empire and that alone can hold this country a White Australia and a free government ... If Britain wins and we stand with her, the White Australia policy is ever safe.’ He went on to urge men to “fight for White Australia in France” because “every institution we cherish, White Australia, the power of the people, all these things are in deadly peril”.

 At the June 1919 Versailles Peace Conference Hughes was successful in opposing Japan’s proposal of a racial equality clause to be added to the Covenant of the League of Nations, and on his return home, Hughes told Australians that the greatest thing they had achieved in the war was ‘the policy of White Australia’.

The RUSI VIC would like to thank the publishers  for their kindness in providing a review copy.