In some popular left-wing versions of history, the Conservative Australian Governments of Lyons and Menzies which governed Australia in the 1930's are depicted as appeasers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Also they are depicted as having subordinated Australia's own national economic and strategic interests to that of the United Kingdom. However historian Andrew Ross in Armed and Ready - the Industrial development and defence of Australia 1900-1945(1995) has shown that this view is borne of the acceptance at face value of the double game that Australian Governments were playing with Great Britain.
In some popular left-wing versions of history, the Conservative Australian Governments of Lyons and Menzies which governed Australia in the 1930's are depicted as appeasers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Also they are depicted as having subordinated Australia's own national economic and strategic interests to that of the United Kingdom.
However, Andrew Ross's Armed and Ready - the Industrial development and defence of Australia 1900-1945 of 1995 shows that, in fact, Australia was a beneficiary of favourable terms with the UK between the two world wars. The UK discriminated in favour of Australian primary exports against those of Argentina.
(In 1932) the Australian meat trade was collapsing under competition from Argentina. The problem was that Australia produced a low quality frozen beef and lamb, whereas the product from Argentina was of a much better quality and generally cheaper. Furthermore, Argentina had perfected the technique of chilling beef which had resulted in a product with much more taste than frozen beef or mutton. The Australians wanted increased duty on Argentinian meat so that Australian meat could be more cost competitive, and they also wanted greater access to the British market. Restrictions on foreign butter and fruit, and other dairy produce, were also demanded so that Australian goods could gain a greater share.
The situation was complicated for Britain which had important trade links with foreigners. Argentina, for example, had borrowed large sums of capital from Britain and looked to her meat trade to pay off her debts. Britain did not wish to encourage her to default. Other foreign nations were important as markets for British goods and paid for them exports of primary products to Britain. Thus Britain could not radically change these relationships in the manner required by the Australians, and whatever Britain conceded had to be balanced by increased exports to Australia to make up for what might be lost in trade elsewhere.(page 80)
Thus efforts by Australia to develop a manufacturing base capable of guaranteeing self-reliance in the event of war with Japan through protective tariffs or directly through government manufacturing enterprises would have run counter to British needs and would have put at risk Australia's favourable trading relationship with Britain. To get around this problem, Australian governments, both Labor and Conservative, played a double game, pretending to favour British manufacturing imports whilst secretly pursuing policies which built up Australia's manufacturing sector at the expense of British exporting manufacturers. It is from this duplicity that some historians have formed the false impression that Australian Governments were sycophantic towards British interests.
Australia had been pursuing a policy of self-reliance since at least 1920 largely under the guidance of the visionary public servant A. E. Leighton. As Ross showed, Leighton's goals were essentially achieved, with the support, more or less, of all Australian governments, by the time of the outbreak of the Pacific war in December 1941, notwithstanding bungles and errors of judgement. The Japanese Army in March 1942, that is before the Battle of the Coral Sea, which had been wrongly held by conventional historians as what saved Australia, vetoed a plan by the Japanese Navy to invade Australia. This was based on the Japanese Army's accurate assessment of the capability of Australian industry to sustain a fighting force capable of successfully resisting the forces it would be able to land on the continent by June 1942 (Ross, p409) which is the earliest possible date on which invasion could have been attempted.
Thus the view of inter-war governments, or at least the Conservative inter-war governments, as short-sighted appeasers is wrong.
However, one surprising omission from "Armed and Ready" is the Pig-Iron dispute of 1939, where the Lyons Government with Menzies as Attorney-General, clashed with waterside workers in order to force them to load a ship bound for Japan whose armed forces were waging a war of aggression against China. Further information about this can be found in the article Pig Iron in the journal of the Maritime Union of Australia. Another online article "Menzies the Appeaser" by Rob Gowland of 25 August 2008 in the archives of the reformed Communist Party of Australia promotes this simplified view of the Lyons and Menzies Governments. The credibility of this article, which attacks Menzies alleged appeasement of Hitler, Mussolini and Japan, is damaged by its silence on the Stalin-Hitler pact which was in force at the same time.
Historians agree that the Pacific war was made inevitable by the curtailment of supplies to Japan by western nations in 1940 and, more so, by the total embargo placed on Japan by the US in July 1942. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Burma and the Australian South Pacific colonies in order to secure Japan's supplies of raw materials was the anticipated response, notwithstanding the spectacular scale of the defeats suffered by the western allies in the early stages of the war.
As morally questionable as Menzies' actions in the Pig Iron dispute were, in the light of his government's capable preparations for the conflict with Japan, it would probably be fairer, in the light of the evidence, to view them as a delaying tactic rather than as being borne of an intention to appease the Japanese militarists at any cost. Wherever the truth lies, it is not as back and white as some like to see it.
See also Online Opinion article "The myth of the Howard Government's defence competence" of 21 Nov 2007 and forum,
Online Opinion forum discussion "Can Australia ever be self-reliant for national defence?" of 27 Jul 2007