A turning point in Australian foreign relations

Was the Second World War as a turning point in Australian foreign relations, or did changes occur more gradually throughout the 1950s and 1960s?

14th August 2009

Only recently has Australia begun to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy. The Second World War vastly impacted Australia and its people stimulating many of the changes that occurred, and the evolution and implementation of the policies developed during this time created a turning point in Australian International relations and foreign policy.

The Second World War held enough significant in itself to perpetuate change in most developed countries, Australia was no different whose participation was in part due to the alliance maintained with Britain. On 3 September 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland, Prime Minister Menzies on behalf of Australia declared simply that as Britain was at war, Australia was also at war. Four months later the first convoy set off with 20,000 Australian troops. This forever changed Australia’s perceptions of international relations, culture, foreign policy and immigration.

Australian Foreign Policy, since colonization in 1788, had been reliant on Great Britain, history dominated by British outlooks and interests, reflecting a population that was of British decent. Australia – outpost of the Empire. Lieutenant General John Sanderson remarked that, “Despite the pervasive anxiety about its isolation, Australia really didn’t have a distinguishable foreign policy prior to the Second World War. It was represented essentially by Great Britain in its strategic dealings, having no diplomatic representation outside London”(Sanderson J. 2005). Until this point many characterized themselves as British and although half a world away felt that they were still ‘part of the empire’. The Second World War and the pending threat of Japanese invasion attained a prompt change in foreign policy, from Great Britain to the United States of America.

In December 1941 the Pacific War broke out, and in February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese, most of the British SE Asian fleet was lost, leaving Australia exposed. Churchill and the British were thought to view the war in the Pacific as a side issue to the European conflict making evident to the Australian Government that new ways of ensuring regional and national security were needed. Joan Beaumont writes that, “the shattering of the myth of British imperial protection with the fall of Singapore in 1942 forced a reassessment of Australian strategic and diplomatic options”(Beaumont 2003:3). Curtin, in contrast to Churchill who wanted Australian troops to stay in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, felt it was vital to Australia’s security to recall troops home to secure its own borders from possible attack by Japan. Curtin overruled Churchill and British- Australian ties again weakened.
Australia’s relations with Britain had become strained, Australia however required firm support if they were to engage Japan and defeat them. Curtin looked to the United States to partner the campaign against the Japanese in defending Australia and protecting the Pacific from imperialist expansion, a turning point in which Australia’s foreign policy shifted from its reliance on Britain as protector, to dependence on the US (Smith 1996) The US was the only power with the resources to repel the Japanese in the Pacific, and a coincidence of overlapping interests in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ensured US involvement and protection for Australia.[1]

In his speech on 27 December 1941 Curtin stated, “Without any inhabitations of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional link or kinship with the United Kingdom” (Samuels G. 2001). In retrospect, Britain had been declining economically for many years before the Second World War barely recovering after the First World War. The gradual decline of Britain as a world power, and the emergence of the USA, and later Japan, as major world economic and/or military powers, forced Australia to re-think its foreign policy.

In the period towards the end of the Second World War Australia completed its first major independent foreign policy action. The Australian government made an agreement with New Zealand in 1944 which dealt with the security and welfare of the people of the independent territories of the Pacific, known as the ANZAC pact.
Post Second World War was a time of intense foreign relations activity for Australia, mainly due to the efforts of Foreign Minister Dr HV Evatt [2] promoting the government to develop a renewed interest in world affairs. Evatt whilst simultaneously pledging his loyalty to Britain, the Empire and to the Western Alliance, was frequently critical of the UK and the US on many issues. For the perhaps the first time Australia was seen to project herself as a sovereign power, and Evatt, was responsible for lifting Australia onto the world stage, particularly through the United Nations. The principal tenant of Evatt’s foreign policy was that ‘Australia’s voice must be heard’ (Edwards PG. 1981:45).

Along with dealing with Japan and supporting Indonesian independence during the colonial revolt (1945-49), Australia was also involved in the founding of the United Nations 1945 and was a founding members of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), established in 1946 as a special agency of the UN.
During this period that Australia also began to act independently in relations with her Asian neighbors. The relationship between Australia and United States was not only of togetherness and gratitude, their arrival, government; military methods and way of life were all critically assessed. In 1951, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States signed a security treaty known as the ANZUS treaty, which set in place a military alliance binding the three countries. This was a major step forward into positive postwar relationship. ANZUS formally attached the United States and Australia in long-term security and provided Australia with access to the highest American political and military councils (Mediansky 1992:183). The pact was accepted by the US as a way of securing a regional balance of power in the Pacific.

Between Australia and Japan International Relations had always been turbulent. Betraying fears of both economic competition and racial contamination, Australia’s government endeavored to make a ‘White Australia’. The Immigration Restriction Act, of 1901, restricting immigration by racial exclusion (Gare 2008:260), was directed against Asians and Pacific Islanders. Japan tried to enact similar mandates through the League of Nations over the former German islands, but Australia’s Prime Minister Hughes forced the League to drop the clause based on racial inequality (Castle 1979:161). Australia racially discriminated against the Japanese people as well as trade imports, by placing massive duties on Japanese goods entering Australia. In recent years the relations between the two countries have evened out, mainly due to allied association and trade connections.

In addition to the changes in international relations, the Second World War influenced Australian culture. The Second World War was considered a total war meaning entire societies were on a militant footing. For Australians the threat of war brought them together, encouraging them to work in unity and harmony (McKernan 1995:135) against a common enemy. Women played an important role in the war which helped shape Australia’s culture. Women were encouraged to leave the home entering into factories, commerce and other jobs that were traditionally male dominated. Even though women were permitted to join the armed forces, positions were non-combat orientated. Women during the Second World War facilitated the breakdown of gender stereotypes. Although setbacks in gender equality occurred after the war, this period of time showed society that women could work successfully, both inside and outside of the home. This was a major stepping stone into the equality and liberation movements of the 1960s.

Australia was a relatively large country with a low population. Threatened with invasion by the Japanese, Australia needed more people to defend their country and to ensure that further threat of invasion would never occur. Arthur Calwell coined the term ‘populate or perish’ maintaining that the Australian war population of seven million would not be enough for the future (McKernan 1995:260). Australia needed to expand and develop its economy to support the numbers they required. Immediately post-war the slogan ‘populate or perish’ gained widespread acceptance and the massive immigration program that would double Australia’s population within one generation began. Many people throughout Australia did not fully accept this new policy. They wanted to exclude cheap labor in an attempt to keep up wage rates and they did not like the idea that non-British immigrants might arrive in Australia. (Castle 1979:107) Australia knew for its industry and country to expand and become a major world player, its population needed to increase. McKernan wrote, “The program required great expansion of employment and this was achieved by building on the industrial base created by the war” (McKernan 1995:262, Gillespie 2008:5) The country was ready for the fast pace industries that had begun because of the war, they now just needed more manpower to keep up. Cities and towns continued to grow and expand the thought of war, quickly forgotten. (McKernan 1995:271) Australia’s culture was greatly changed by the immigration program and the slogan ‘populate or perish’ because of World War Two.

The Second World War brought about significant changes around the world; Australia’s international relations with Britain, the United States, and Japan were greatly affected. Although World War Two ended in 1945 its changes to Australia’s culture political opinions have continued. The affects of women in the war, the rationing of goods and the massive immigration drive was all a part of Australia’s changing culture and each had its foundations laid during the Second World War era.


[1] Although the Australian government had extended military connections to the US as far back as 1908, it was only in the era of WWII that the US came to be seen as a principal ally of Australia.
[2] Dr HV Evatt was also appointed to the office of President of the General assemble of the United Nations in 1948. He is to date still the only Australian ever to receive this appointment.


Beaumont J, Awters C, Lowe D, Woodard G. Ministers Mandarins and Diplomats: Australian Foreign Policy Making 1941-1969. Melbourne University Press 2003

Edwards, PG (1981) ‘Historical Reconsiderations II: on assessing HV Evatt’, Historical Studies, vol 21:83, October 1981

Gare, Deborah and Ritter, David. Making Australian History: Perspectives on the past since 1788. Victoria: Thomson, 2008

Gillespie K. (2008) Australian Army Chief Lt-Gen, SPEECH, VP Day Commemoration, Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, Concord, NSW, August 22, 2008 [online: Accessed August 2 2009] pp5 http://www.defence.gov.au/army/docs/ca_speech-vp_day-22_aug_08.pdf

McKernan, Michael. All In! Fighting the War at Home. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Mediansky, F.A. Australian in a Changing World: New Foreign Policy Directions. New South Wales: Maxwell Macmillan, 1992

Sanderson J. (2005) His Excellency Lieutenant General, SPEECH, Official opening of the major exhibition ‘The art of the possible: Creating an independent Australian foreign policy’, at Curtin University of Technology, [online: Accessed August 2 2009] http://www.parkesfoundation.org.au/Projects_oration2001.htm





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