By Dr George Venturini
Beyond the ‘Palace Letters’
Traveller would find a constant element through those three events: the Évian Conference, the Kimberley Plan, and the Dunera odyssey.
That element remains the indifference of the population, of the governments and of the institutions of Australia to ‘the Other’, not only the Jews – but anyone who was not British.
On 3 September 1939 Australia entered the second world war with Prime Minister Menzies making a declaration of a state of war in a national radio broadcast: “My fellow Australians. It is my melancholy duty to inform you, officially, that, in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”
All of a sudden, thousands of Australian residents found themselves identified as potential threats to Australia’s national security. The war had triggered a mass fear of invasion of England by Germany and later on of Australia by Japan. Panic gripped the country that tens of thousands of Australian residents of German, Italian or Japanese origin – or simply name – might become saboteurs or spies.
Parliament enacted the National Security Act 1939.
Government regulations required ‘enemy aliens’ to register and limit their travel to between work and home and within a specified distance from the local post office. They had to obtain permission from the authorities to travel further or change residence.
The most dramatic response was the internment of many German, Italian and Japanese residents in camps – overseas and Australian-born, as well as naturalised British subjects. Australia interned some 7,000 residents, including nationals from over thirty other countries.
A further 8,000 people were sent to Australia to be interned after being detained overseas by Australia’s allies. At its peak in 1942 more than 12,000 people – mostly men, but some women and children – were interned in eighteen camps around southern Australia, including Cowra and Hay in New South Wales and Tatura in Victoria.
Australian authorities had established internment camps for three reasons – to prevent residents from assisting Australia’s enemies, to appease public opinion and to house overseas internees sent to Australia for the duration of the war.
Internees were usually separated from their families and tried to find ways to keep themselves occupied. In some cases they set up their own study classes, theatre groups and market gardens, and were issued ‘internment currency’ in order to purchase goods within the camp grounds. Many volunteered to work on Australian farms to help with the manpower shortage and some, later in the war, joined the Australian army. Most made the best of the situation, but it was a traumatic experience which left some internees permanently scarred.
Internment camps were administered by the army and run along military lines, affected by poor education, plagued by misconceptions and overcome by xenophobia – and most dangerous carriers of hate-bags.
The first camps were set up at the Enoggera (Gaythorne) and Liverpool military bases in Queensland and New South Wales and at the Dhurringile Mansion in Victoria.
As the numbers of internees grew, the early camps became too small. The Australian Government organised the construction of purpose-built camps at Cowra and Hay in New South Wales, Tatura in Victoria, Loveday in South Australia and Harvey in Western Australia.
Life for the internees varied between the camps, particularly between those which were temporary camps and those which were purpose-built. The conditions also depended on the geographical location of the camp, its climate, the composition of the camp population and importantly, the personality of the officer in charge. (‘Wartime internment’, National Archives of Australia, and (‘Internment during World War II Australia’, Museums Victoria).
On 10 June 1940, when the Fascist Regime declared war on England and its allies, 5,000 person of Italian origin, provenance or simply name became overnight ‘enemy aliens’. Some 33,000 Italians were residing in Australia at the time. By 1940, around 40 per cent of members of the Italian community in Australia were naturalised and several thousand Australian-born. Fascism had grown very well in several states, particularly in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It had been favoured by the likes of Premier of Victoria, H.S.W. Lawson, Premier of New South Wales, Sir George W. Fuller and Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, who had much admired Mussolini.
As late as 1939 Mussolini was still viewed in Australia and other English-speaking nations as a model of modern leadership. There was therefore some pride associated with being Fascist and Italian. Many migrants with no real understanding of politics joined the Fascist Party in a gesture of national pride. Those who had been forced to escape Mussolini’s Italy made a desperate attempt to draw attention to the looming threat of Fascism.
Fascist success in Australia had been aided by two Jesuits whom Il Duce had personally chosen for ‘mission’ in Australia the assistance by diplomats’ activity, the setting up of Fasci in several states, and the shared belief that Fascism cold be the only bulwark against Communism. The latter ‘conviction’ had aided Australian rulers and those who had been and were financially supporting in keeping a check on the activity of the unions.
A rough, inexperienced, militantly ignorant police found assistance in well positioned persons of Italian origin, many doctors, lawyers, teachers and officers whom less-educated Italians needed for everyday life. The history of Italian antifascism in Australia is full of names of such informers. Most of them saved their skin by carrying on this way. They joined in tormenting some poorchrist who had thought of coming all the way to Australia to escape from Fascist violence. They would encounter the ignorance and indifference of the police in several states. Some such refugees were herded off to local prisons to be fingerprinted, photographed and numbered. Camp authorities indifferently placed known Fascists and anti-Fascists together in the same barracks.
Internment often resulted in life-long, deep emotional scars, especially for the older men who had families. Many men lost their farms, homes or businesses, whilst other families struggled to survive under extreme conditions including acts of public hatred.
Some internees even lost their lives in Australia’s internment camps or the Civil Alien Corps under successive Australian governments of Menzies and Curtin. Others struggled in forced labour groups in the C.A.C. from 1943 to 1947. Without their breadwinner many families became destitute. Some of these impoverished women and children were even interned at the Tatura Camp in Victoria because they could not survive without an income.
In many military interrogations, Italian internees stated that they would willingly work in non-military essential services to support Australia on the home front, but would not fight. They were simply not fighting men. Most of them were not Fascist. In fact many of the Fascist Italians had succeeded in remaining free, in most cases because regarded with favour by Australians who had favoured and obsequiously visited Mussolini. They were devoted to what they considered ‘law and order’ as imposed by the Fascists in Italy.
Most of the Fascist Italians in Australia were left undisturbed. Similarly many Italians resident in Victoria who were neither pro or against the regime were able to continue to work in the community. To complicate matters, Italian families in Queensland were torn apart in 1942 when the Japanese attacked Darwin. Most of the almost 3,000 Italian cane cutters were sent to Loveday and Cowra internment camps. It was in Loveday that the Australian authorities had not cared to place together Fascist Italians and anti-Fascist Italians. The Loveday camp authorities rendered themselves complicit in the assassination of Francesco Fantin, a mild mannered Anarchist. He was killed by a Fascist thug under the indifferent eyes of the military guards. (M. Spizzica, ‘When ethnicity counts: civilian internment in Australia during WW2’, theconversation.com, 20 September 2012 and V.G.Venturini, ‘Never give in – Three Italian antifascist exiles in Australia 1924-1956‘, Search Foundation, Sydney 2007).
By the end of the second world war the population of Australia was 7,400,000. The closeness of second world war being at Australian shores had a frightening effect upon Australia as a whole with its small population; people realised the need to grow – and quickly.
Therefore, migrants would be provided with government assistance. Europe had been devastated by war: it was easier than salvaging for many to simply uproot and start again – a fresh new start in a fresh new continent. Migrants would come from Italy, Greece, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and a few other European countries.
It all began with the Chifley Government. The government commissioned a report on the subject which found that Australia was in urgent need of a larger population for the purposes of defence and development and it recommended a 1 per cent annual increase in population through increased immigration. In 1945 the government established the federal Department of Immigration to administer the new immigration programme. The first Minister for Immigration was Arthur Calwell. An Assisted Passage Migration Scheme was also established in 1945 to encourage Britons to migrate to Australia. The government’s objective was summarised in the slogan “populate or perish.” To critics of mass immigration from non-British Europe, Calwell replied in 1947: “We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.”
Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans migrated to Australia and over 1,000,000 British subjects immigrated under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, colloquially becoming known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’.
The migration assistance scheme initially targeted citizens of Commonwealth countries; but it was gradually extended to other countries such as Italy and the Netherlands. The qualifications were straightforward: migrants needed to be in sound health and under the age of 45 years. There were initially no skill requirements, although under the White Australia policy, people from ‘mixed-race’ backgrounds found it very difficult to take advantage of the scheme.
The immigration programme of the Chifley Government gave preference to migrants from Great Britain, and initially an ambitious target was set of nine British out of ten immigrants. However, it was soon apparent that even with assisted passage the government target would be impossible to achieve given that Britain’s shipping capacity was quite diminished from pre-war levels. As a consequence, Calwell looked further afield to maintain overall immigration numbers, and this meant relying on the International Refugee Organisation refugees from Eastern Europe, with the United States providing the necessary shipping. Many Eastern Europeans were refugees from area conquered by the Red Army and thus mostly anti-Communist and so politically acceptable.
There were initially no skill restrictions; the qualifications were straightforward: migrants needed to be in sound health and under the age of 45 years, although under the White Australia Policy, people from ‘mixed-race’ backgrounds found it very difficult to take advantage of the scheme.
The 1 per cent annual increase in population target survived a change of government in 1949, when the Menzies Government succeeded Chifley’s. The new Minister of Immigration (1949-1956) was Harold Holt.
The British component remained the largest component of the migrant intake until 1953. Between 1953 and late 1956, migrants from southern Europe outnumbered the British, and this caused some alarm in the Australian government, which was moved to place restrictions on southern Europeans sponsoring newcomers and to commence the “Bring out a Briton” campaign. With the increase in financial assistance to British migrants provided during the 1960s, the British component was restored to the top position in the overall number of new migrants.
Migration brought large numbers of southern and central Europeans to Australia for the first time. A 1958 government leaflet assured voters that unskilled non-British migrants were needed for “labour on rugged projects … work which is not generally acceptable to Australians or British workers.” The Australian economy stood in sharp contrast to war-ravaged Europe, and newly arrived migrants found employment in a booming manufacturing industry and government assisted programmes such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This hydroelectricity and irrigation complex in south-east Australia consisted of sixteen major dams and seven power stations constructed between 1949 and 1974. It remains the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia. Necessitating the employment of 100,000 people from over 30 countries, to many it denotes the birth of multicultural Australia. Should Australians think seriously about a real ‘Australia Day’ that could be the day when Prime Minister Chifley signed the papers for the project to start, or when the construction began: 17 October 1949. Two-thirds of the workers were immigrants from over 40 countries around the world. 121 workers lost their life during construction. The Snowy is a story of social, cultural and political change told through the experiences of those who worked on the Scheme.
During the twenty years of the Snowy Mountains Scheme migration from Europe changed the face of Australian society.
In 1955 the one-millionth post-war immigrant arrived in Australia. Australia’s population reached 10 million between 1959 and 1960, up from 7 million in 1945. (‘Post-war immigration to Australia’, Wikipedia).
In 1949, when Menzies returned to the prime ministership, Harold Holt became Minister for Immigration (1949-1956). He expanded the post-war immigration scheme and relaxed the White Australia policy for the first time.
Menzies was the archetypal Briton-born-in-Australia-by-accident. As Horne put it: “Perhaps when he was a young man making his way in the world those he admired most were the Australian politicians who cherished the English connection. These were the real provincials: Melbourne gentlemen who adopted what they took to be the standards of the far-distant metropolis. Throughout his long career Menzies stressed ‘loyalty’, by which he did not see to mean loyalty to Australia but to the British connection, and to the monarch (when he was not referring to loyalty to himself).” (D. Horne, The lucky country, Penguin Books, Australia, 1964, at 200-201).
He became a successful lawyer and remained an excellent debater. Of course, he was a great actor. But, as Horne observed: “He was lazy in his reading and – the truth is that he was not particularly well-read, as little interested in things of the spirit as his fellow countrymen, and in so far as he did have intellectual or artistic interests they were extremely provincial and old hat. He was essentially arrogant, although courageous, with a scorn for most other men (perhaps all other men). He used his power to little purpose.” (Id., at 198).
His appeal to the home and family, promoted through reassuring radio talks, matched the national mood as the economy grew and middle-class values prevailed. “But for the most part ordinary Australians have held him in little regard: … he was widely considered old-fashioned and had always been considered insincere.” (Ibid., 198) In return, “he seemed to prefer to frustrate talent, to surround himself with a firebreak of mediocrity.” (Ibid., 200).
To his good fortune the Labor Party was being bitterly divided by the threat of the anti-Communist wing, reinforced by Catholic propaganda. So, after 1955, and ‘the split’ Menzies was able to rely on the support from the Democratic Labor Party, a splinter-group from the Labor Party. Menzies won seven consecutive elections during his second term, eventually retiring as prime minister on 26 January 1966.
Menzies expanded post-war immigration scheme, higher education, and the national security policies.
He was forever on the stage. If he should be remembered for anything, that should begin with the farce of his public love declaration to young Queen Elizabeth II who was visit Australia in 1963. The occasion was a formal dinner at Parliament House.
Menzies took the last two lines of the first stanza of a poem by an obscure English composer, lutenist, viol player and poet of the English seventeenth century: Thomas Ford (1580? – 1648). To the visible surprise of the monarch, during a Canberra dinner in her honour, he told her: “I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die.”
Sir William Heseltine, Private Secretary to H.M. the Queen 1986-1990, would comment: “It was one of the very few occasions I think Sir Robert misjudged his audience. And I can remember that there was a frisson of embarrassment and this was perhaps reflected on the Queen’s own look on that occasion.” And the occasion might have been squeamish.
Menzies, like most Australians, fondly believed that timely help to ‘our great and powerful ally’ would ensure American protection of Australian interests in the future. In 1962, when President Sukarno of Indonesia annexed Netherlands-now-West New Guinea in the teeth of anguished Dutch – and Australian – protests, Menzies sought America’s diplomatic support. The Americans unblushingly gave it to Sukarno, but even such painful experience did nothing to shake the faith of Australian conservatives in American care for and loyalty to Australia.
Concerned Australians will remember Menzies for the ease with which he committed troops to the Korean war (1950-1953), to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), to the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation (1962-1966), and to the Vietnam war (1965-1975).
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war began with a small commitment of 30 military advisers in 1962, and increased over the following decade to a peak of 7,672 Australian personnel following the Menzies Government’s April 1965 decision to upgrade its military commitment to South Vietnam‘s security.
He did that upon a phantomatic request from the Saigon Regime which had been installed in February 1965, resulting in Air Marshall Nguyễn Cao Kỳ becoming prime minister and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu becoming nominal head of state. No trace of such communication was ever found – anywhere.
Here is Menzies’s monument and inheritance.
Part of the United States strategy against the Viet Cong, blindly followed by the Menzies Government and executed the Australian command, was to deny them cover and food. Knowing that the area of Vietnam which borders Laos and Cambodia was a key transport route used to move troops and supplies from the north to the south of Vietnam, the United States planned to defoliate large areas of jungle to hamper these movements. The Mekong delta was also marked for defoliation, as were areas used by the Viet Cong for food growing.
The defoliant of choice was a compound of two herbicides: 24-D and 245-T mixed with kerosene or diesel fuel and containing the extremely toxic substance, dioxin. It was known as Agent Orange for the orange stripe on the 55 gallon drums in which it was transported to Vietnam. The chemicals were sprayed from aircraft to kill jungle growth and the thick canopy.
Spraying began as early as 1961 in a campaign coordinated by America’s Central Intelligence Agency. By late 1964 the defoliation campaign gathered momentum, peaking between 1965 and 1967.
Between 1962 and 1971 the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons (76,000,000 litres) of various chemicals – the ‘rainbow herbicides’ and defoliants – in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of the aerial defoliation programme known as Operation Ranch Hand, reaching its peak from 1967 to 1969. For comparison purposes, an Olympic size pool holds approximately 660,000 U.S. gallons (250,000,000 litres).
Australian troops were also involved in the use of herbicides and insecticides, the latter being widely sprayed in Phuoc Tuy province, particularly at Nui Dat. Even during the war herbicide use attracted growing criticism in the United States with the first reports of birth defects in children born in areas subject to aerial spraying appearing in 1965.
Nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people have been exposed to the defoliant, causing 400,000 deaths. The government of Vietnam says as many as 3 million people have suffered illnesses because of Agent Orange. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people, 100,000 of whom are children, are disabled or have health problems as a result of Agent Orange contamination. The chemical is capable of damaging genes, resulting in deformities among the offspring of exposed victims.
The associated illnesses include cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases. Fifty years after the plague continues.
Concerns about the use of chemical sprays and its effect on people emerged in Australia during the 1970s. Veterans began reporting high incidences of cancer while abnormalities in their offspring were also blamed on Agent Orange. The debate in Australia about links between chemical sprays and veterans’ ill health was reported in the media as growing numbers of veterans came forward claiming Agent Orange had affected their health or that of their children.
Unsurprisingly, the Menzies Government at first denied that Australian troops had been exposed to chemical defoliants, but later retracted that in the face of contrary evidence. The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, V.V.A.A. lobbied hard on behalf of their members but the material on which they relied to press their case was sometimes anecdotal and lacking in the kind of rigour necessary to prove a case. In 1982 the V.V.A.A. published a list of symptoms by which a veteran might recognise the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. The list was sufficiently broad that many people could point to at least one sign of illness. Repatriation clinics reported a high incidence of veterans presenting with one or more of the identified symptoms not long after the list was published.
Further studies followed, some commissioned by the government, until, under pressure from the V.V.A.A., a royal commission was established in 1983. The commission’s nine volume report, issued in 1985, admitted the existence of health problems, but found no link to the use of defoliants in Vietnam. It said that Australian exposure to chemicals had been very small, and that it had not affected the soldiers adversely. The commission’s report said the chemicals had prevented health problems “which may have otherwise been a problem in the Vietnam environment.”
It did, however, acknowledge that certain chemicals may cause cancer and that a connection to illness in veterans was unlikely but ‘not fanciful’.
The V.V.A.A. rejected the royal commission report and fought to have the findings overturned. Further reports, including a major study published by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, suggested that veterans’ health was indeed affected by their war service and that in certain types of cancer, links with exposure to dioxin and other chemicals used in Vietnam did exist.
It was not until 1994 that the Labor Government acknowledged that Agent Orange was responsible for the cancers and other illnesses suffered by Australian veterans of the Vietnam war. American veterans had to fight a similar battle for recognition of their symptoms – they eventually won a legal action against seven chemical companies and received a multi-million-dollar compensation payment. In Australia the government began a compensation scheme for those who had cancer caused by their service in Vietnam and for the widows of those who had died from cancer. (‘Agent Orange – The Anzac Portal’, anzacportal.dva.gov.au; see also: J. Bird, ‘In the matter of Agent Orange: Vietnam veterans versus the Australian War Memorial’, honesthistory.net.au, 15 March 2016).
By the time the last Australian personnel were withdrawn in 1972, the Vietnam war had become Australia’s longest war. That was actually the Second Indochina War, the conflict which occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
The withdrawal of Australia’s forces from South Vietnam would begin in November 1970, under the Gorton Government, when 8 R.A.R. completed its tour of duty and was not replaced. A phased withdrawal followed, and by 11 January 1973 Australian involvement in hostilities in Vietnam had ceased by initiative of the Whitlam government.
Approximately 60,000 Australians served in the war; 521 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded. Remains of Australians sent to die against ‘guerrillas’ near the border between Malaysia and Thailand in 1964 were returned last year.
Menzies won seven consecutive elections during his second term, eventually retiring as prime minister in 26 January 1966. At Horne wrote: “It was a feature of Menzies’ long rule that little of what he did seems to matter much. His great talent was to preside over events and look as if he knew what they were all about. His few active interventions proved mainly failures.” (Id. at 195) And again: “The positive characteristics of his ‘Age’ – the spread of affluence, the considerable relaxation in social styles, the increased in national self-assurance, the continued migration programme, the beginning of an interest in Asia and the growing intolerance of Asians residents in Australia, the demands of technology, the increasing power of overseas investment in Australia, were none of them the kind of thing that Menzies had ‘stood for’ and some of them are the opposite of what he said he hoped for before he came to power.” (Ibid., at 196).
Queen Elizabeth II had already honoured him with an exclusive knighthood, the Order of the Thistle – Australians treated such ‘elevation’ as ludicrous. To this was soon added the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports: New Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich. Back 700 years!
In 1973, long after his retirement, the imperial Japanese government conferred on him the Order of the Rising Sun (First Class) for his services to Japanese-Australian friendship. Critics and admirers agreed. It was only fitting that the erstwhile “Pig-Iron Bob” should end his days loaded with overseas honours.
An air of Gilbert & Sullivan surrounded the man born in Jeparit, Victoria. Or would one go to The Government Inspector, also known as The Inspector General, which is a satirical play by the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol?
Under the name The Inspector General Warner Bros. produced a film, very loosely based on Gogol’s play. The plot is re-located from the Russian Empire into an unspecified corrupted region of a country which suddenly finds itself under the supervision of the First French Empire. The film is dated 1949, the year of the second ascension of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, K.T., A.K., C.H., Q.C., F.A.A., F.R.S. As Danny Kaye, who impersonates The Inspector, might have said: et cetera, et cetera …
Having succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister (1966-1967), Harold Holt also expanded Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and maintained close ties with the United States under President Lyndon B. Johnson. While visiting the White House, Holt proclaimed that he was “all the way with L.B.J.”, a remark which was poorly received at home, but which had become – if any was necessary – the evidence of the shift of Australia from the ‘protection’ of the United Kingdom to that of the United States. The majority of Australians were unconcerned about the change of ‘loyalty’.
On the disappearance of Holt while swimming, John McEwen served as Prime Minister from 19 December 1967 to 10 January 1968 in a caretaker capacity. McEwen ceded power to John Gorton after 23 days in office, and in recognition of his service was appointed deputy prime minister, the first time that position had been formally set up.
The new Prime Minister, John Gorton, held power from 1968 to 1971. Not much of a distinguished career may be remembered for Gorton continuing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, although he began withdrawing troops amid growing public discontent. Gorton’s domestic policies, which emphasised centralisation and economic nationalism, were often controversial in his own party, and his individualistic style alienated many of his cabinet members. He resigned as Liberal leader in 1971 after a confidence motion in his leadership was tied, and was replaced by William McMahon.
A long period of ‘Liberal’ – that is to say ‘anti-Labor Coalition’ government would come to an end with William McMahon. He became prime minister at the age of 63 – the oldest non-interim prime minister to take office. His government (1971-1972) has been described, quite generously, as “a blend of cautious innovation and fundamental orthodoxy”, although one would be justified in comparing him with some classical character which originated in commedia dell’arte of the 17th century. McMahon continued many of the policies of its immediate predecessors, such as Gorton’s phased withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. Toward the end of his tenure of office Australia was faced with high inflation and unemployment.
Twenty-three years of reaction, inertia and ultimately bumbling on the part of the Coalition had given its members the arrogant feeling so clearly expressed by Western Australia Senator Reginald Greive Withers in moving an amendment to the Address-in-Reply critical of the government on 8 March 1973. Withers – who had earned the moniker of ‘the toe-cutter’ – said that he repudiated the idea that the Labor Party had a mandate based on what he referred to as ‘temporary electoral insanity’ in two states at the December 1972 federal election, and warned that “the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers.” Behind those words one could easily perceive the anti-Labor ethos: win-at-all-cost, always. The Address, as amended, was finally agreed to on 30 August 1973, and delivered to the Governor-General on 30 September, in a ceremony which no government senator attended.
But Withers had been an easy prophet, as already seen in the initial part of this essay.
Continued Saturday – Beyond the ‘Palace Letters’ (part 2)
Previous instalment – The HMT Dunera scandal
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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