Remembering the War for White Australia

Lest we forget. It is the phrase around which Anzac Day commemorations revolve; the raison d’etre of the entire day. And yet, ironically, it seems we are increasingly expected to forget much of the Anzac legacy, particularly where it intersects with matters of race. Most recently, and perhaps most superficially, this has been evident in attempts to recast the Anzacs themselves as multiracial. Little over a decade ago, then “Australian” Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane raised the question of “whether Anzac Day connects with all Australians” (i.e. non-white foreigners living in Australia). The implication, of course, was not only that it did not (correct) but that that was a negative (incorrect); and, viewed alongside contemporaneous criticism of Anzac Day as jingoistic and imperialistic, it appeared part of a broader campaign to dethrone the day from its near-sacred position atop our national calendar of observances. Evidently, however, Anzac Day has proved more resistant to attack than Australia Day; for, in their efforts to destroy it, the multicultists have been forced to change tack. The “dashes of pluralism” referenced by Soutphommasane, evidently not enough to put a dent in his central thesis, are now considered sufficient support for the opposing claim. In the lead-up to the 2023 commemorations, Jason Yat-sen Li, the ALP’s ethnically Chinese member for Strathfield, felt emboldened enough to declare that “the Anzac legend belongs to all of us, not just white Australia”, due to the presence among the AIF ranks of 241 men with traces of Chinese ancestry – a number that represents approximately 0.05% of the Anzacs.

Even for the typical racially unconscious Australian, such claims, I suspect, will largely be dismissed as nonsense. Though he may bristle at the suggestion that Anzac Day is actively exclusive, he must surely understand that it is a commemoration grounded in traditional White Australian identity. But what is less well understood – where the collective amnesia is more complete – is that the desire to preserve and defend White Australia lay at the heart of the Australian war effort. This is reflected in the attitudes and positions of contemporary military figures and institutions. In an excellent article for the Nativist Herald, ANA National Governor M.K. Grant highlights the examples of Major General Sir Granville de Laune Ryrie and Lieutenant Colonel Burford Sampson. Ryrie, who fought at Gallipoli and in the famous charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba, and who later led the entire AIF, declared that “at all hazards, we ought to preserve our ideal of a White Australia – even if we have to fight and die for that ideal – unless we are content to disappear”. Similarly, Burford, who fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and commanded the 12th and 15th battalions, proclaimed the White Australia Policy “a religion” to our people. And, unlike Yat-sen Li’s 241 functionally white “Chinese Australians”, these men were not exceptions. Grant’s article also notes that, in the years following the Great War, RSL branches across Australia, reflecting the will of their members, repeatedly declared their support for the White Australia Policy.

But the connection between the Anzacs and the desire to maintain a White Australia goes deeper still, for it was not merely a desire they held separate to the conflict in which they were engaged. On the contrary, the defence of White Australia was the very reason for Australia’s involvement in the Great War in the first place. The evidence for this is laid out in painstaking detail in historian Peter Cochrane’s 2018 work Best We Forget: The War for White Australia. A meticulously researched piece of scholarship, the book is one that warrants a full reading for any student of Australian history. Nonetheless, the key points can be summarised as follows: in the years preceding the war, Japan had built its naval strength in the Pacific to the extent that a Japanese invasion of Australia seemed a distinct possibility; Australia politicians through the first decade of the 20th century increasingly came to adopt the view that protection against such a threat from the Empire, at that point allied to Japan through the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, would need to be paid for in blood; and the Great War presented the decisive moment for that transaction to occur. This was the position of Prime Minister Joseph Cook, who oversaw Australia’s entry into the war having previously declared that the “White Australia ideal” required that “we stood up to our responsibility in this matter” by serving as “a buttress to the Empire, instead of a burden upon it”; it was ultimately the position of his successor, Andrew Fisher, prime minister at the time of the Gallipoli landings; and, most notably, it was the position of Fisher’s successor, Billy Hughes. As late as 1909, Hughes, along with Fisher, had chided Cook for suggesting Australia might follow the Empire into war rather than concentrate her efforts on home defence, insisting that, “while it is right to compel a man to fit himself to defend his country, it is not proper to compel him to fight beyond it.” By the beginning of the war, however, he had become the most fanatical supporter of Australia’s involvement in it for the same reasons he had initially opposed the notion of following the UK into battle: because he believed it provided the best defence of White Australia. During the Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates of October 1914, Hughes declared the war to be a “racial war”, one with “its well-springs in the fundamentals of human interests and human nature”; and on the eve of the 1916 conscription referendum, as part of his vigorous campaign in support of the “Yes” vote, he delivered a clear message to the able-bodied men of the nation: “I bid you go to fight for White Australia in France”. As to the nature of the threat to White Australia, his language publicly was veiled, referring only to the “palms of nations inflamed with the lusts of conquest”. Privately, however, he left no doubt as to where he believed the threat lay. In an April 1916 letter to Senator George Pearce, he declared that “Australia would fight to the last ditch rather than allow Japanese to enter Australia”.

Hughes made good on his word. Australia’s crucial involvement in the success on the Western Front bought him a seat at the table during the Paris Peace Conference, which he used to repeatedly vote down a proposed racial equality clause advanced by Japan – ostensibly an agreement to ensuring the just treatment of all alien nationals within the signatory nations, but widely viewed as having the potential to undermine Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act. This achieved, Hughes returned home to a hero’s welcome, upon which he declared that, through Australia’s war effort, “perhaps the greatest thing we have achieved…is the policy of white Australia”.

Cochrane’s efforts to correct the record, redacted within a few short years following the war to obscure the reasons for Australia’s involvement, are admirable. Of course, he has not done so out of any affinity for the cause he reveals. On the contrary, he describes it as “troubling” and suggests the value in revealing it lies in our better understanding of that “which prefigured the nation’s arduous transition to an acceptance that all of us, regardless of race or colour, share a common and equal humanity”. Nevertheless, for us as nationalists, Cochrane’s work is instructive. It should serve as the impetus for us not merely to reclaim Anzac Day for true Australians but to reinvent it into an accurate representation of the conflict it commemorates. The Anzac legacy is not merely the embodiment of mateship, courage, and self-sacrifice on the battlefield, nor is it one of a senseless and bloody slaughter in pursuit of imperial interests far removed from our own (as nationalist critics of Anzac Day have often suggested); it is the legacy of a war for White Australia, and it is this aspect of the legacy we must advance above all else. The irony in doing so, of course, is that we risk alienating the average colourblind Australian from the day far more than any previous efforts of the enemies of the Anzac legacy ever managed to achieve. So be it. Better the day be acknowledged for its true significance by the faithful few than shed of all meaning in the quest for mass appeal. Better that we remember not only the men who served but also what they gave their lives for – lest we forget.

M.J. Brown
Governor – ANA Victoria