Australia History: WW II and Postwar Australia

In the years before WW II Australia became increasingly fearful of Japan. When war did break out, Australian troops fought beside the British in Europe but after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Australia's own national security finally began to take priority.

Singapore fell, the northern Australian towns of Darwin and Broome and the New Guinean town of Port Moresby were bombed, the Japanese advanced southward, and still Britain called for more Australian troops. This time the Australian prime minister, John Curtin, refused.

Australian soldiers were needed to fight the Japanese advancing over the mountainous Kokoda Trail towards Port Moresby. In appalling conditions Australian soldiers confronted and defeated the Japanese at Milne Bay, east of Port Moresby, and began the long struggle to push them from the Pacific.

Ultimately it was the USA, not Britain, that helped protect Australia from the Japanese, defeating them in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This event was to mark the beginning of a profound shift in Australia's allegiance away from Britain and towards the USA. Although Australia continued to support Britain in the war in Europe, its appreciation of its own vulnerability had been sharpened immeasurably by the Japanese advance.

One result of this was the postwar immigration programme, which offered assisted passage not only to the British but also to refugees from eastern Europe in the hope that the increase in population would strengthen Australia's economy and its ability to defend itself. 'Populate or Perish' became the catch phrase. Between 1947 and 1968 more than 800,000 non-British European migrants came to live in Australia. They have since made an enormous contribution to the country, enlivening its culture and broadening its vision.

The standard of living improved rapidly after the war (due largely to rapid increase in the demand for Australian raw materials), and the Labor government of Ben Chifley put in place a reconstruction programme, which saw, among other things, the establishment of the massive Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme.

Postwar Australia came to accept the American view that it was not so much Asia but communism in Asia that threatened the increasingly Americanized Australian way of life. Accordingly Australia, again under Menzies by this stage, followed the USA into the Korean War and joined it as a signatory to the treaties of ANZUS and the anticommunist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

During the 1950s Australia also provided aid to South-East Asian nations under the Colombo Plan of 1950, a scheme initiated by Australia but subscribed to by many other countries (including the USA, Britain, Canada and Japan) as a means to prevent the spread of communism throughout the region.

In the light of Australia's willingness to join SEATO, it is not surprising that the Menzies government applauded the USA's entry into the Vietnam War and, in 1965, committed troops to the struggle. Support for involvement was far from absolute, however.

Arthur Calwell, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, for example, believed the Vietnam conflict to be a civil war in which Australia had no part. Still more troubling for many young Australian men was the fact that conscription had been introduced in 1964 and those undertaking national service could now be sent overseas. By 1967 as many as 40% of Australians serving in Vietnam were conscripts.