Unlike the First World War which caused large social divisions within society over conflicting issues, Australia’s involvement in the Second World War served to create a sense of cohesion rather than division. There was a sense of national unity to provide support for Britain at the beginning of the war and as the threat of a Japanese invasion increased, so did this sense of unity. However as the war progressed, Australia became more independent from Britain and was prepared to act in its own interests to protect Australia. The general sense of cohesion was challenged by divisive elements such as the treatment of aliens, increase in federal power and the presence of the United States and Americans in Australia. However the inspiring leadership of John Curtin, public perception towards the war and the influence of government propaganda created stronger cohesion and unity despite the divisive factors. Australia’s initial involvement in the war was due to a sense of loyalty to Great Britain as a member of the British Empire.
Therefore when Great Britain declared war upon Germany on September 1st 1939, so too would Australia two days later. Supporting Britain in the war was viewed as Australia’s ‘melancholy duty’ and although it helped Australia’s economy and provided jobs for many as well as uniting many patriots including former and current soldiers, it also caused divisions in public opinion in regards to the war, especially those concerning conscription and opposition to the war. These members of society believed that the war was constitutionally wrong. Many of these divisive opinions were only present during the ‘phoney war’ period when Australia was not directly threatened by the war. However the fall and occupation of Singapore by the Japanese in 1942 as well as the failure of the Singapore Strategy, coupled with the bombing of Darwin destroyed any significant opposition towards the war and was a major turning point for Australia.
The fall of Singapore and the threat of the Japanese invasion showed Australia the reality of the war and silenced many of the voices which previously spoke out against it; voices which now recognised the necessity of conscription and the war effort in order to defend Australia. Prior to the war, there was a constant debate and split opinions over the issue of conscription in the government. The new threat of the Japanese enabled John Curtin to convince the various government parties, along with the majority of Australia’s population to accept limited conscription with an ease that would have been impossible during the First World War in order to defend Australia against the direct threat of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Curtin’s moderation and leadership served to unite Australians in a way which previous governments had failed in this time of crisis ‘It is now work and fight as we have never worked and fought before.’- John Curtin 1942.
The threat of the Japanese also helped Australia realise how isolated it was in the pacific region and the marginal extent of Britain’s capacity to defend it given their preoccupation with the war in Europe. Curtin thus decided that Australia needed to place its own safety and defence first, putting Curtin at loggerheads with Churchill. Churchill wanted Australian soldiers to continue fighting in the war but Curtin insisted on their return to Australia, succeeding after much resistance from Churchill. Australia took one step further and accepted the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act in 1942 which enabled them to adopt their own foreign policy. Australia would then rely heavily on America instead of Britain because of how more readily equipped they were to deal with the growing tensions in the pacific region, resulting in a strained relationship between Great Britain and Australia. However this new alliance with America would cause strains and divisions in Australian society as the American presence increased in Australia.
Australia’s new dependence on America resulted in a large influx of American soldiers to Australia and while Australian society was initially accepting and welcoming of their unorthodox culture, behaviours and morals, this quickly turned to contempt and created an unsavoury relationship between Australians and Americans whom they saw as being a bad influence on the women and youth of Australia. Australians regarded Americans as being, “overpaid, oversexed and over-here”. However, while this had the possibility to cause influential divides in society, Australians realised the necessity for the American presence in their country and the security they had provided, overruling any irritation felt towards them. The Australian war effort in the pacific regions had also served to amplify and fuel the ‘Anzac legend’ creating a national sense of pride and unity during the war.
Australia’s involvement in the Second World War thus served to create a more independent Australia, in charge of its own policies and decisions in foreign affairs, creating cohesion within society. Along with the American presence, Australia’s treatment of aliens also had the potential to cause considerable divisions. When war broke out, many foreigners, mostly Germans, and other ‘dangerous persons were made to prove their identity and placed under strict rules which they had to adhere to in order to live in Australia. However it was not the government, but the Australian opinion towards foreigners which threatened social divide. Come 1939 and the War, Australia still had a strong racist tinge and there was widespread unease and hostility towards many foreigners. The groups most subject to this racism were German Jews, others escaping the Nazi regime and Asian immigrants. Australians did not trust them and questioned their motives.
Distinctions were eventually made between ‘refugee’ aliens and ‘enemy’ foreigners but their reaction to the arrival of foreigners in their country threatened the cohesion and peace in society by creating a divide between immigrants and Australians. Australia’s involvement in the war also affected the economy domestically with the need for rationing being introduced, as well as an increased female work force. As the war progressed, the governments control on the activity of Australians increased as the demands for the war increased. Queues began to form for commodities and shortages began to develop. The amount of fuel to be consumed by the public and business were also stringently controlled and the rationing of household commodities would begin in 1942. However Curtin and his government believed that the effects of the rationing would only serve to increase the resolve and discipline of Australians during this period of conflict, uniting them to work together as a nation to overcome these difficulties, deepening the cohesion within society and encouraging a more thorough commitment to the war effort.
“The great challenge today is to each individual – not to the other fellow – to forget self and order his or her life for the welfare of the nation.” – John Curtin However there were some divisive elements to the rationing as black market goods such as liquor and other luxury goods flourished. Few Australians did not frequent the black market and to the trade union movement this fuelled their belief that sacrifices were not being made equally. Despite this, there was an overall sense of unity through the rationing as Australians banded together to overcome the tumultuous times. The increased female work force was due to the ever growing amount of men being drafted into the military, creating vacant positions in various industries, with thousands working in factories making munitions. Others joined the Women’s Land Army which aided in overcoming serious labour shortages around the nation. These women played an important role in agriculture and other industries, allowing many men to be available for active service.
The presence of the women at work showed a strong ‘team-spirit’ in Australia to work together to support the nation creating a strong sense of cohesion. There was also possible division over the issue of the Federal government being granted more power to control the affairs of the nation. The demands of the war would affect every sector of the economy and it became necessary for the government to take more control with the most significant change being the taxes. In order to fund the war, the Federal government had to impose various taxes which would have been unheard of during times of peace. The number of taxpayers increased considerably from 800 000 to two million, which meant people with extremely low incomes were required to pay taxes.
However the surprising part of this change was the lack of opposition to it. Under the National Security Act of 1939, the government was allowed to pass regulations without the government which allowed them to have significant control over Australian industry and the activities of Australians during the war. In normal circumstances there would be great resentment and resistance to the Federal governments increase in power but because of the war, Australians understood the unavoidable need for such a step to be taken. There was a growing public sense of the Federal government’s importance and in this way; it created an expanding sense of national identity with the Federal parliament becoming an important symbol of national unity. Therefore any divisions caused by the increase in power were merely superficial and insignificant when compared to the cohesion created because of it. Government propaganda also played a vital role in creating cohesion within Australia’s society during the war. Groups which opposed the war effort were banned such as Communists and Jehovah Witnesses in order to convince the public of the necessity for war.
The internment of people of certain nationalities also helped to quash anti-war views. There were also many ‘anti-Japanese’ and ‘anti-German’ campaigns and posters. Such censorship and propaganda served to unite the public to support the government’s war effort, exploiting the patriotic nature of Australians and sense of duty in order to garner support. Finally, Australia’s overall sense of unity and cohesion can be credited to the immense work of John Curtin during his tenure as Prime Minister of Australia during the Second World War. His decisiveness and inspirational leadership were the driving factors behind Australia’s war effort and the transition made from being Britain’s subordinate to becoming an independent nation.
His changes in foreign policy and decision to bring the troops home united Australians and provided them with a new sense of identity and pride and he quickly gained support from a united nation. Australia’s involvement in the Second World War was a journey filled with many potentially divisive elements. However they were ultimately outweighed by the more cohesive ones. Australia was united through a sense of patriotism and national pride to support the war that was unseen during the First World War. The fear of the Japanese invasion created a more independent nation with a stronger international presence. The war also sparked the beginning for an influx of refugees into Australia, transforming it into a more multicultural nation. Australia’s involvement in the Second World War ultimately resulted in unifying Australians with a new and dynamic national identity.