Whitlam, Keating, Anzac, and the drums of wars past

May 13, 2021
Anzac memorial feature
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“I think the war against Hitler was justified. I don’t know whether the war against Wilhelm II was.” Thus spoke Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in a BBC TV interview with Lord Chalfont recorded in September 1973, and aired in December. It was screened in Australia in early January 1974. The transcript is in the Whitlam Papers.

By any measure, this was an astonishing statement. An Australian Prime Minister had wondered aloud if the Great War against Germany – the war of the Anzacs – had been justified.

Context is important. Whitlam’s remark came as he discussed “liberation movements” in southern Africa. Was it “justifiable”, asked Lord Chalfont, if these movements were to “take up arms against an intolerable oppression?” Whitlam replied: “I think the rulers of Rhodesia or South Africa are as bad as Hitler. I think the war against Hitler was justified.” So declared Whitlam, a former RAAF flying officer during World War II. It was then he added: “I don’t know whether the war against Wilhelm II was.”

Remarkably, Whitlam’s expression of doubt about the justice of the Great War attracted little attention. Instead, red flags fluttered over other issues. Whitlam had compared the authoritarian and racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia to Hitler. Whitlam’s opponents alleged he was inciting terrorists. Whitlam had also asserted that both ‘God Save the Queen’ and the British honours system should be dumped in Australia. In passing, he described himself not as a Christian but rather “a fellow traveller of Christianity”. Controversy swirled.

But the remark on war was not a throwaway line. Soon after, on Australia Day 1974, Whitlam returned to the theme: “Let us resolve that we never again be thought of as a racist nation and that we will never again be involved in futile foreign wars or intervention.”

Forty years later, in November 2013, former Prime Minister Paul Keating gave the Remembrance Day address in Canberra. Keating was vehement. He denounced the industrialized killing of the Great War. That war was “devoid of any virtue.” He lamented that Australia in 1914 had been “dragged to a European holocaust” by “loyalty to imperial Britain.” The conflict should have been settled “by foresight and statecraft.” He rejoiced that young Australians “can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety.” The rising generation was “fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became: young innocents who had little or no choice.”

In contrast to Whitlam’s experience, Keating faced a cascade of criticism. Liberal Senator Dean Smith set the tone. He immediately roasted Keating for supposedly seeking “to reduce the heroes of Gallipoli to the status of simpletons who were marched off to fight Britain’s wars.” The court historian at Quadrant penned a diatribe entitled “How Paul Keating Betrayed the Anzacs”. The indignation gushers on the conservative side of politics blared a blunt warning: no questioning of the Anzacs’ Great War would be tolerated during the lavishly funded ‘Anzac Centenary’.

Outraged defenders of Anzac – as they imagine themselves to be – adopted then, and still adopt, the same standard tactics: conflate support for the troops with support for the war; depict all criticism of our political leaders’ choices for war as disrespecting the troops; take cover in the cult of the fallen and repel all the truly hard questions about our wars.

Both Whitlam and Keating had expressed doubts over the purity of the purposes for which Australians fought during the Great War? Were they right?

The evils of the imperial German elite are well known. But let us quickly survey the awkward truths that are usually veiled on our own side.

Was it a just war in 1914? Australian troops certainly believed they were volunteering to save France and neutral Belgium from the German invaders – and nothing more. But the Entente’s war aims grew at tropical speed. Britain made promises to Serbia to double her territory. The war widened. In November, Britain annexed Cyprus, and declared a “protectorate” over Egypt, while France secured Morocco in return. Britain cooperated with Japan in the capture of the German port of Qingdao and the Shandong peninsula in neutral China, an area the size of England. In Africa and the Pacific, most German colonies were swiftly grabbed. Did Australia have an interest in all of this?

Was it a just war in 1915? In March, Britain and France did a secret deal with Russia, the ‘Straits and Persia Agreement’, gifting the spoils of the imminent Gallipoli campaign to Tsarist Russia: the Straits, and Constantinople, to be rechristened ‘Tsargrad’. In return, Russia offered support for an Anglo-French carve-up of the Ottoman Empire – bounty beyond counting – and a bonus for Britain, a doubling of her share of Persia, an area about twenty-five times the size of Belgium. The oil in Persia, under the control of Anglo-Persian Oil, was secured.

Next, the day after the Gallipoli landings of 25 April, Britain struck a secret deal with Italy, the Treaty of London. Thus, Australian troops unknowingly helped Britain jockey Italy into the war, because their landing tempted Italian negotiators to accept quickly Britain’s promises: annexations for Italy on the Adriatic, a share in the plunder in the Middle East, and a promise to shut down any Vatican peace initiatives. Did Australians need to die for Russian or Italian ambitions?

Was it a just war in 1916, the year when the Anzacs advanced into ‘the abattoir’ on the Western Front? In May, the British, French and Russians, struck the secret ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’, their blue and red pens gobbling up great hunks of the Middle East. In June, Britain orchestrated plans for an economic war after the war, to imperialize trade and shut down German commerce. The British blockade began to starve Germany. Rumania was lured into the Entente’s war in August, with promises of big annexations in Transylvania. Was any of this crucial for Australia?

Was it a just war in 1917, the year of the Russian revolutions, American entry, and Passchendaele? In March, the Tsarist regime struck a last deal with France, confirming that France aimed not only to detach Alsace-Lorraine but also the Rhineland from Germany. That aim underpinned the killing on the Western Front. Meanwhile, various British cabinet committees parceled up the colonial world: including the German Cameroon, the size of Germany, German South-West Africa, one and a half times the size of Germany, and German East Africa, twice the size of Germany. Britain, France, and Japan struck bargains to seize and swap territories in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. New conferences in France and Britain drew Italy into the ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’. Meanwhile, Australians suffered disastrous casualties at Passchendaele. Did the guardians of Australian life and treasure carefully weigh these costs against these objectives?

And 1918? In March, the Germans imposed the Brest-Litovsk peace on Russia and then struck out toward Paris. The Western Powers raged against Germany for splitting off the Baltic States and the Ukraine from Russia, under the cover of ‘independence’ for subject peoples, while actually bringing these territories under German tutelage. But, of course, none of the Western Powers really wanted these territories returned to Bolshevik Russia. Moreover, with Japan, the Western Powers were beginning a disastrous intervention in Russia, to restore the Tsarist clique to power. At the same time, Britain, France, and Italy, under the cover of ‘independence’ for subject peoples, planned to bring vast stretches of the Middle East under their tutelage. And they did.

So, disastrously, the Great War was resolved in late 1918 by high explosive and starvation blockades. Inevitable? During the preceding three years, Britain, France, and Italy had repelled every effort to negotiate peace – the German and American Peace Notes of December 1916, multiple American offers to mediate up to April 1917, the Russian Provisional Government’s calls in mid-1917 for conferences to revise war aims, the Pope’s Peace Note of August 1917, and multiple offers to mediate from the Spanish, Dutch, and Scandinavian nations. Supposedly, it had to be war to the bitter end, if “a lasting peace” was to be created. Lasting?

All through this protracted catastrophe, the Australian government played the role of a quiet, consenting “bitter-end” ally – and was mostly taken for granted, and often kept in the dark. So too the Australian people, and the Australian troops.

Over a hundred years later, our latest expeditionary deployment to Afghanistan is winding down, and another against China is being talked up, by drums-of-war peril-mongers. Straining credibility, nationalist conservatives now claim a special affinity with the original ‘Anzac spirit’ – ferociously democratic, fiercely hostile to privilege, and fervently egalitarian, as might be expected in a force dominated by trade unionists. We must prepare to send such “warriors” again, we are told.

But the conservative view of Anzac is naïve. The fixed gaze is always upon battle. It turns its face away from purposes. It is a callous blind eye. The biggest questions of all should still gnaw at our consciences. What are the true purposes for which we deploy our mostly young working-class men and women – those with the least to defend? Should we not be supremely cautious in deployment, and steadfastly caring when the forces return?

These are the questions that are truly respectful of our troops, dead and living. Both Whitlam and Keating showed us the way.

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