One winter’s day at the end of the ’50s, in the Melbourne suburbs of my childhood, I received in the mail an official-looking certificate on thick paper with impressive calligraphy announcing, grandly, that I had been accepted as a member of the National Geographic Society. It was signed by “Melville Bell Grosvenor, President and Editor”.
The main (indeed the only practical) benefit of my membership was that I was eligible to receive each month, in its familiar black and yellow binding, the National Geographic magazine. My grandfather, the author of this birthday gift, believed firmly in the educational benefits of exposure to the wonders of the planet.
But, as each new issue arrived, it was soon clear that what really fired my imagination were not the exotic descriptions of “My Life with Africa’s Little People”, or “Deep Diving by Bathyscape off Japan”, or even “Russia as I Saw it by Vice President Richard M. Nixon” (also a member of the National Geographic Society). No - sadly, shallowly - the pages to which I turned as soon as the magazine hit the letterbox, the landscape in which my mind mostly wandered, were the advertisements framing the articles.
In that pre-globalised world, these showed astonishing wonders: the finned glories of the Lincoln Continentals, the Cadillacs and the Ford Thunderbirds (so much more desirable than our family’s black FJ Holden); refrigerators that made their own ice; 23-inch Picture Window Zenith Colour Televisions, shown in elegant apartments that looked out at New York skyscrapers; Frigidaire Dishwashers (who had heard of such a thing? “New for 1960 to sparkle, wash and sanitise your dishes”); and the Bell Telephones that were available, unimaginably, not just in black but in pink, blue, white and red.
These advertisements reinforced a new image of America seeping into my pre-adolescent mind from the recently arrived television shows - Leave it to Beaver, the Mickey Mouse Club - and edging out the primal images of cowboys and Indians from the radio serials of a few years before. The people depicted were more or less like us, but they lived in a world that was bigger, brighter and much more generously endowed - a world, in other words, like paradise. Paradise was clearly different from heaven (or certainly from the heaven of my Summerhill Road Methodist Sunday School theology).
Heaven was calm, pensive, slightly tedious, shrouded in a pale mist. But paradise was like us, only more so. On a grander scale, and in richer abundance. The idea of paradise always has a foundation in reality, and America was sufficiently like us to qualify. So my first America was not the America of Lincoln or FDR, but the America of postwar plenitude. The America of the Springfield Ride-on Mower (“Makes Mowing Fun!” I could only dream).
Mine was probably the last generation of Australians for whom the vision of the United States as a paradise in this sense was possible. Never again would America so dominate the global economy. Soon enough I was a teenager, and reality intervened. The ’60s were upon us, and with them the world of the civil rights movement and assassinations and the Vietnam War.
Serpents had entered the garden. My views of the United States became more complicated. You could admire the people, be energised by the music and envy the society that delivered such dynamism, but it was no longer paradise. And the complications continued - as they always will for anyone who looks carefully at the United States. I didn’t get to America for many years, but then I lived in Washington, at the heart of it all, and experienced how much more complex the reality was from the imagined America of the Australian mind.
I loved the openness and friendliness of the people (even in the tightly buttoned Washington suburbs), the dynamism and optimism of the country and the expansive freedom of the debate. But an Australian friend who lives in the United States comments perceptively that the reason Americans are so friendly to foreigners is that they assume that the rest of the world is in the process of becoming American. That’s true - and it is, of course, precisely part of the problem for the rest of us.
The history of Australia’s relations with America reflects these complications. It has by no means been smooth sailing - misjudgments, misunderstandings and misreadings have been part of it from the beginning. (A fine short history of the relationship can be found in Peter Edwards’ Lowy Institute Paper “Permanent friends: historical reflections on the Australia-American alliance”, available at www.lowyinstitute.org.)
Early European settlers arrived on this continent expecting their experience to mirror that of the United States - with a fertile continent opening up in profusion before them. But it wasn’t like that. Instead of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains, they found the Great Sandy Desert. One result was to ensure that there was no room in our national character for the “romantic”, establishing the central cultural difference between our two societies.
But our uncertainty about our capacity to hold the continent to which we staked claim gave us a great interest from the beginning in what the United States could do for us.