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Review: Independent Nation

Review: Independent Nation
Published: Nov 23, 2010

A new book sees Australia’s engagement with the Indonesian struggle for independence as a turning point in the history of its own nationhood

J.D. Legge

The gradual emergence of Australia from colony through dominion status to what might be called independent nationhood has attracted the attention of many observers over the years. Each has placed different emphases on different aspects of the process. Adam Hughes Henry’s account is a further, and indeed distinctive, contribution to that discussion with particular emphasis on Australia’s part in resolving the conflict between the Dutch and the Indonesian Republic in 1945-6.

In dealing with the first 45 years of the twentieth century, Henry is concerned with the strategic realities of the period and with Australian perceptions of those realities. From both angles his argument is that from federation to the outbreak of World War II Australia operated – and saw itself as operating – firmly within an imperial framework. During those years, according to Henry, Australia was ‘isolated from any direct involvement in its own region, and ‘It was only at the onset of the Pacific War against the Japanese that the pro-imperial mentality evaporated.’

This analysis makes for too simple a periodisation. There were fluctuations and more signs of change before 1940 than Henry allows. He speaks of Australia’s attempt to persuade Britain to take over south-eastern New Guinea, something he says was not changed by Britain’s interests or even the eventual transfer to Australia of administrative responsibility for Papua in 1906. He mentions the performance of Billy Hughes at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, describing his vigorous demand for the establishment of a C Class Mandate for Australia over former German New Guinea, but attributes these actions to Hughes’ irritation at British policies rather than as reflecting an emerging nationalism on Hughes’ part.

Even Australia’s participation in the war itself is seen as an example of ‘expeditionary valour on the imperial battlefield’ rather than as foreshadowing an independent defence role. Similarly, Henry does not see the gradual development of an Australian naval capacity as disturbing the basic character of the imperial framework. By this account the imperial ideological context remains unchanged even by the invasion of German New Guinea, Gallipoli and the conflict with Turkey.

It is hardly correct to say that between 1901 and 1945 independent defence and foreign policy initiatives had been rejected by waves of Australian elites

Henry’s strict adherence to his over-arching theme leads him to ignore many other developments which might tell against it. Only passing reference is made to the Australian reaction to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and Korea. Nothing is said about Australian participation in the Institute of Pacific Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs leading to the formation, in 1933, of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Sir John Latham’s visit to Japan in 1934 and the reconstitution in 1935 of the Department of External Affairs (formerly merely a section of Prime Minister and Cabinet) go unnoticed, as do the opening of legations in Washington, Tokyo and Chung King, China a few years later. The establishment by the AIIA of the journal, The Austral-Asiatic Bulletin, in 1936 would also seem to reflect the emergence of an Australian perspective on the region, at variance with a passive acceptance of Imperial dominance. It is also surprising that Henry does not make any reference to the magisterial contribution to the discussion of problems of nationality made by W.K. Hancock, in the first volume of his Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs (1937).

So it is hardly correct to say that between 1901 and 1945 ‘the capacity for independent defence and foreign policy initiatives had been rejected by waves of Australian elites’. Certainly the outbreak of the Second World War brought fundamental changes. Australia once again played her part in the British campaign in Africa. But with Pearl Harbour, the Japanese southward advance and the fall of Singapore there begins a period of clear ascendancy by the United States, which left little room for an independent role for Australia. There were signs of a more assertive stance: Henry points to Curtin’s appeal to America in December 1941 for example. But in fact there was little part for Australia to play in determining wartime strategies. Henry refers to Australia’s General Blamey’s dissatisfaction with the limited role allowed to him as ‘Commander, Allied Land Forces’. The United States’ General Macarthur was the effective Commander and the government’s principal strategic adviser. The opportunity for Australia came later with Evatt’s role at San Francisco in the planning for a new United Nations in 1945.

Moreover, not insignificantly, at Australia’s door was Indonesia. Australia’s part in helping to resolve the conflict between the Dutch and the newly proclaimed Republic is seen by Henry as marking decisively the collapse of the old imperial framework. To demonstrate this he takes the reader through the pre-war policies of the colonial regime and the emergence in the twentieth century of various strands of Indonesian nationalism. The Japanese invasion and occupation of the archipelago make a clear break. Then in August 1945 comes Sukarno’s Proclamation of the Republic. There follows the Dutch expectation that they would be able to resume control of their former colony. Henry describes, in considerable detail, the beginning of negotiations with the Republic.

Australia’s part in helping to resolve the conflict between the Dutch and the newly proclaimed Republic marks the beginning of Australia’s new world outlook

Australia is drawn into the situation first with the dockworkers’ strike of 1945 then while observing the interim role of the British Southeast Asia Command. Initial negotiations with the Dutch in 1946 seemed to promise a compromise solution with a federal Indonesia within the framework of a Netherlands Indonesian Union. The Dutch resort to force in the so-called Police Action in July 1947 ended that and led to an Australian appeal to the United Nations. The United Nations called for a cease-fire, and then established a Good Offices Committee on which Australia sat as Indonesia’s nominee. After that, Australia’s part in subsequent negotiations was direct and important.

It is a complicated story. Henry tells it comprehensively and, for him, it marks the clear collapse of the old imperial framework and the beginning of a new period in Australia’s outlook on the world. It is, however, too sharp a division given the attention already given to the region within and outside government before 1945. And insofar as the Indonesian situation did make an important change, one may wonder whether that involvement requires as detailed a treatment as Henry gives in Chapters 9 to 19. It is almost as though he has written two books, one dealing with this pro-imperial period and one dealing with Indonesia.  

Adam Hughes Henry, Independent Nation: the Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy, 1901-1946, Charles Darwin University Press, 2010.

J.D. Legge is former Professor of History and founder of the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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