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Understanding the invasion myth

By Peter Stanley - posted Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Since 2002 I’ve written a succession of historical pieces exploring the question of whether Japan intended to invade Australia in 1942, and reflecting on the meaning of the way Australians look at their wartime history. In Invading Australia: Japan and the Battle for Australia, 1942 (published by Penguin in July, 2008) I summarise and elaborate upon my research.

In this book, I place the idea of a Japanese invasion into the context of the fear of Asian aggression that Australians entertained, I looked at what actually happened in 1942, and I looked at the changing history of the way the Japanese threat has been interpreted.

In a nutshell, early in 1942, Japan’s wartime leaders thought about invading Australia. They weighed up the costs and the possible results, and decided not to. Thank goodness their fortunes changed in the course of 1942, and they never got a chance to change their minds.

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Australians not unreasonably thought that having conquered most of South-East Asia the Japanese would simply keep going. It was logical - and they’d been fearful of Japanese aggression for 50 years, fears evoked by novels, plays and films. The Curtin government understandably warned Australians to prepare for attack or even invasion - as the notorious poster put it “He’s Coming South”!

In fact, “He” was not, but John Curtin and the Allied Supreme Commander in the South West Pacific, Douglas MacArthur, only understood this by about the middle of 1942. (Intercepted Japanese signals - using codes the Japanese thought were unbreakable - disclosed that Japan had decided not to invade.) By then the message had been spelled out so loudly that the Australian government could not resile from the claim that invasion was likely. In fact, Curtin did not publicly admit that the threat had been removed until mid-1943, a full year after he disclosed as much to his War Cabinet.

The legacy of wartime propaganda left most Australians pretty sure that the Japanese had planned to invade except they had been stopped at Kokoda - or was it the Coral Sea? Veterans returning with Japanese occupation currency printed in shillings for use in New Guinea - none was printed for use in Australia - seemed to buttress this popular delusion.

For 50 years after 1945 the story of the Pacific war was told pretty well uniformly across the histories of the combatant powers. No one recorded that Japan had planned to invade Australia. Then from the miid-1990s, a new interpretation arose; the “Battle for Australia” idea.

In this interpretation Japan’s intention becomes to invade Australia. Various unrelated actions around Australia’s perimeter- the bombing of Darwin, the fighting in Papua; the submarine raid on Sydney harbour - are stitched together to look like one broad operation - the Battle for Australia. This name is taken from a speech Curtin made following the fall of Singapore in February 1942, in which he anticipated that the fall of the great British base in Asia opened a “Battle for Australia”. The phrase is not history, it was a prediction - one that did not actually come to pass.

There was to be no battle for Australia. The revisionist veterans and nationalist partisans who became attracted to the Battle for Australia idea turned Curtin’s prediction into a new historical interpretation, one that has culminated in the Rudd Government announcing that September 3 is to be “Battle for Australia Day”.

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We are now commemorating a battle that never actually happened. (No historian I know of agrees that there was actually a Battle for Australia: the government seems to have been persuaded in defiance of historical opinion.)

So what’s going on here? Why have Australians become so susceptible to aggrandising a battle that did not occur? What should we think about Australia’s part in World War II?

The Battle for Australia idea has taken root partly because it has been sold by a single-minded group with a shaky grasp of history but with an entirely laudable feeling that those who fought World War II should be acknowledged and respected. Sadly, they’ve sought to use unworthy means (essentially, “inventing” a battle) to achieve very understandable aims.

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About the Author

Prof Peter Stanley, of the University of NSW, Canberra, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians. His book Bad Characters jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2011.

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