Cultural shifts, changing relationships: australia and the united states

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The ‘Americanisation’ of global culture after 1945 has been widely understood as a vital precursor of the triumph of the United States in the Cold War. America’s global reach was, and is, underpinned by its cultural ascendancy – by the appeal of its so-called ‘soft power’.1 Writing of Australia during the Cold War, Richard White suggested that it ‘could possibly be argued that the “Americanisation of popular culture created the conditions in which American investment and military alliances were accepted without popular opposition”’.2 Given its modern Anglophone culture, Australia, Geoffrey Serle claimed, was more vulnerable to Americanisation than were other Western nations.3

In the wake of Vietnam, a growing number of Australian scholars explored the complex ‘web of dependence’ that it was claimed underpinned the expanding post-war relationship between their nation and the US. ‘No examination of the Australian-American connection, however general, would be complete’, Joseph Camilleri argued in 1980, ‘…without at least passing reference to the pervasive influence which the US came to exert over Australian culture and politics.’ Several other studies also attempted to detail the level of Australia’s post-war ‘dependency’ on the dominant power of capitalist America. Although essentially concerned with economics or ‘political economy’, some of these analysed culture, media, and ideology. To cite Camilleri again: ‘The phenomenon of dependence in Australia’s external relations, though most conspicuous in the diplomatic and military alignment with the US, has also had a critical economic and cultural component.’ His work accepted that ‘American values, institutions and policies have come to dominate not only Australia’s external conduct but its economic and political life.’4

While some commentators were reluctant to speak of the US as imperialist or Australia as a satellite, most of a left-nationalist persuasion accepted that these terms accurately summarised the post-war bilateral relationship. And if this had special qualities they implied these lay not in generous reciprocity but in the extent to which Australia’s sovereignty, interests and national identity have been compromised by American power and influence. Since the mid-1980s, as Australia has sought engagement with Asia and remained unwilling or unable to break its constitutional links with the UK, such claims have receded in scholarly debates – but not in the popular imagination.

In the mass media, especially, Australia has been variously interpreted as a ‘satellite society’ of metropolitan America; an American satellite’; the ideological and economic victim of Americanisation or American cultural imperialism; or as a ‘client state’ of the US. At the same time, journalistic clichés frequently characterise Australia as the ‘51st state’ or, to cite Phillip Adams, as ‘the ventriloquist’s dummy on the American knee’. Whether the issue is freeways or footwear, delinquency or divorce, the Ku Klux Klan or Calvin Klein, America’s present is seen as Australia’s future, with cultural and consumer products painted as everyday affects of American economic power. Australia is seen as a part of America’s informal empire, or at the very least as the future America – a smaller and slightly retarded nation pursuing the American path to modernity.5

Not all of those who have written of Australia’s transition from ‘British colony to American province’ have argued that this was the result of American intention. A combination of regional insecurity and cultural deference, some argue, made Australia willing to surrender its sovereignty to US interests and policies. ‘[Not] only are we determined to be a satellite for strategic reasons, and cannot resist, even if we wanted to, American command of key sectors of the economy, but we lack an existing strong sense of nationality and any language barrier’, Serle claimed as early as 1967: ‘Britain, France, Mexico, Canada, are all to some extent insulated from Americanisation in ways we are not. What is there which might stop us going all the way?’6

Cultural processes are deeply intertwined with the exercise of power internationally. Yet attempts by historians to trace the role of cultural interactions on relations between states are bedevilled by the infinite complexity of ‘culture’ and the difficulty of defining the nature or effects of cross-cultural interactions. Cultural influences or inferences are frustratingly difficult to demonstrate. Thus, in the field of international relations, power has largely been understood in conventional strategic ‘or economic’ terms, and as an expression of identifiable national interests. Nonetheless, as the triumph of the so-called American Century has merged into discourses about globalisation, ‘culture’ or ‘soft power’ have surfaced as analytical tools in international relations. As Uta G. Poiger notes in Diplomatic History, ‘[r]ecent scholarship on [US] foreign relations focuses increasingly on its cultural dimensions.’7

It might be accepted that today America’s overwhelming cultural influence and technological strength helps maintain its ubiquitous power abroad. Yet this is not to argue that earlier US cultural exports ‘Americanised’ its Western allies, including Australia, and conditioned the soil in which post-war US foreign policy flourished. Nonetheless, given American’s pre-eminent military power in the post-war world, and the incessant presence of American popular culture abroad, it is hardly surprising that diplomatic historians have belatedly discovered culture. A recognition of British and Australian cultural interactions and shared histories is fundamental to an understanding of Anglo-Australian relations. And it is not extravagant to claim that cultural forces have played important roles in shaping – or symbiotically revealing – Australia’s changing relationships with its other great and powerful friend, the US.

The reorientation of Australia’s international relationships after World War II, including its formal strategic alliances, was embedded in very broad processes of cultural change flowing from modernisation and globalisation – processes that were substantially American in form and content. Yet Australia’s distinctive post-colonial history obviously cannot be reduced to one which implies that the smaller society simply, if reluctantly, exchanged one imperial relationship for another. Furthermore, while culture is a crucial dimension of relations within and between nations, as well as between social groups and individuals, it is seldom, if ever, simply imposed from abroad or from above on a powerless subject.

Specific causal relationships are impossible goals of historical enquiry. (And in a post-modernist age which eschews teleological neatness such a quest is as meaningless as it is flawed.) Even very traditional historians now concede that it is difficult to discern, let alone demonstrate interconnections that go beyond a surface description of ‘background causes’.8 Nonetheless this paper seeks to move beyond generalisations which view Australia’s deepening links to the US as reflections of shared language, heritage, culture, values and destiny. It is impossible to sustain an image of post-war Australia as a uniquely receptive and docile society transformed by American cultural forces. Furthermore, US cultural interests in Australia were rooted in changes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even if they grew dramatically from the 1960s. At most American influences consolidated local cultural formations and discursive practices that were built on persistent geopolitical insecurities and sharpened by war against Japan, decolonisation and Cold War in Asia and by Britain’s phased withdrawal from the turbulent region. The pursuit of national interests, not foreign cultural power, and certainly not so-called ‘Americanisation’, stimulated Australia’s strategic reorientation after World War II. Furthermore, Anglo-Australian ties of language, sentiment, society, kinship, migration, ‘race’ patriotism, political culture and popular pastimes persisted in the face of Australia’s strategic realignment and its putative ‘Americanisation’.

Over more than a century before Curtin’s December 1941 appeal to the US, many influential Australians had looked across the Pacific seeking political guidance, cultural stimulation and strategic reassurance. Australia, a much younger and smaller colonial fragment than its North American cousins, was influenced not only by Europe but by examples drawn from the US – by that unique model of a successful democracy which had rejected its colonial status and established an independent liberal republic.

Ideas, people and commodities flowed incessantly between the two societies even before Federation. US political influences centred on republicanism, federalism, immigration restriction, eugenics and the quest for racial purity, rural and urban reform, regulation of labour and industry, women’s suffrage, temperance and radical trade unionism. The ‘other America’ was increasingly invoked as the disparate colonies moved towards Federation and struggled to define themselves as a ‘white nation’ located precariously on the edge of Asia. Against this background some leaders spoke warmly of their ‘kindred in America’ and appealed to common ties of ‘race’, language, traditions, and institutions that made the two Pacific nations natural friends. Alfred Deakin went further, advising London that: ‘the closer the alliance’ between Australia and the US ‘the better, for although I am fully alive to the many objectionable features of their political life, after all they are nearest to us in blood and in social, religious and even political developments.’9

Newly federated Australia clung politically, economically and militarily to mother England while proclaiming its new status as an independent dominion. Within a decade of Federation, however, Australia had to address external realities which challenged its survival in a potentially hostile geopolitical environment. Traditional ties to Great Britain were no longer adequate to compensate for regional isolation and vulnerability. Its attempts to promote new ties in the Pacific through a symbolic visit by the American Navy, and calls for a regional security agreement with Washington, initiated a pattern for responses that became a familiar ritual in its international behaviour throughout the twentieth century. In the long interval before America accepted that its own national interests demanded a formal security association with Australia, the dominion remained tethered to Great Britain. Even before World War I, however, Australian leaders were not fully satisfied by these connections. As the limits to British interests and authority in the Far East became progressively more apparent, the dominion looked increasingly across the Pacific for guarantees of its national survival.

In 1908 the Great White [US] Fleet was welcomed by the press in headlines that underscored the fusion of ‘racial’ ideas and regional vulnerability in the outlook of many in the new nation. The Brisbane Courier concluded prophetically: ‘The presence of the United States fleet gives the opportunity for the peaceful development of the interests of the white race in the Pacific which will inevitably be brought closer for mutual protection.’ It noted gravely, ‘[w]ere Japan to turn her naval arm against what lies in Australian waters, we should go down.’ The naval visit was a tangible symbol of ‘the brotherhood of the Anglo-Saxon race’, The Sydney Morning Herald asserted, and evidence that ‘America maybe the first line of defence against Asia’. At the same time, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin sought cover for Australia under an expanded US Monroe Doctrine. Deakin claimed his ‘proposition’ was ‘of the highest international importance’, but was careful to add that it implied no weakening of imperial ties.10 This quest for closer strategic ties with America did not dent Australia’s affection for Britain and the Empire. Nor were the contrasting colours of a sometimes strident nationalism rendered less distinct by the search for American protection. Indeed, fear of so-called ‘American’ values and products sharpened local nationalism through the interwar years, as it did well beyond the war.

A curious alliance of conservative Anglo-Australians and left-nationalist politicians and pundits has warned against the encroaching evils of Americanisation. Jill Julius Matthews has observed of the inter-war years that many Australians feared Americanisation, not because it was understood as a form of cultural imperialism, but rather because ‘one’s own people were being seduced away from their own true national values. They were being corrupted and the source of corruption was America’. (Not surprisingly, metaphors of seduction and the corrupting evils of mass culture still dominate much local resistance to putative Americanisation.) Fearing a loosening of older hierarchical values, opponents of ‘Americanisation’ denounced it as responsible for ‘a democratisation of values, an individual “cosmopolitanisation”, a subjective “modernisation”’.11 At the same time most Anglo-Australians eagerly consumed imported popular culture, especially films and welcomed visits by the US Navy as tangible sinews of ‘racial’ and social accord, while some, like Billy Hughes revived a nineteenth century rhetoric which portrayed the new nation as ‘the future America.’12

Later, in the 1930s, against the background of Japan’s invasion of China and new tensions in Europe and the Pacific, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons proposed a Pacific Pact very like that sought thirty years earlier by Deakin. Such appeals to Washington, like Hughes’ softened views on the US, overwhelmingly reflected narrow strategic insecurities and disillusion with Imperial defences.

For some Australians, if not Americans, war against Japan initiated a lasting ‘special relationship’ between the two nations – a relationship confirmed by close military partnership and cultural interaction during the Cold War. Although ultimately victorious, the bilateral wartime alliance was characterised by significant conflict as well as co-operation. It was always uncertain and tense, even before the immediate threat of Japanese invasion receded in early 1943. Later, claims that the relationship was successful because it was built on a ‘special’ understanding between two broadly similar Pacific societies, and that it embodied a happy convergence of ‘sentiment and self-interest’, became a part of Australia’s historical mythology. Prime Minister John Curtin’s very public ‘turning to America’ after Pearl Harbor has been widely interpreted as a watershed in the history of Australia’s place in the world: war in the Pacific was the crisis that severed the umbilical cord to Mother England and pointed Australia permanently towards a new future with the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Part of this mythology is the belief that the ‘wartime embrace’ of Australia’s new protector was unconditional and enduring, surviving the defeat of Japan and shaping the Cold War alliance under ANZUS.13

It does not follow that close international accord necessarily resulted from deep cultural integration. Nonetheless, it has been often asserted that with ‘Friends in High Places’, Australia has successfully protected its national interests through wars, both hot and cold, since 1941. When seen in this narrow, if comforting, way, Australia’s relationship with the US has provoked little controversy among historians. The small Pacific state, as textbooks and the press routinely asserted, had scurried from under the umbrella of the British Empire to the sheltering mantle of the US – cosy (and dry) history of protection by great and powerful friends.14

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, with Singapore’s collapse imminent, Curtin’s famous appeal made it quite clear that:

Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces. We know the dangers of dispersal of strength. But we know, too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on. We are, therefore, determined that Australia shall not go and shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the US as its keystone, which will give our country some confidence of being able to hold out until the tide of battle swings against the enemy.
While acknowledging the primary importance of future American aid, Curtin did not underestimate the significant, but essentially complementary, military role which Britain, China, the Netherlands or the Soviet Union could play in the Pacific.15

Yet enduring affection for Britain and Empire was evident even in Australia’s darkest hours. Curtin’s statement was aimed realistically at promoting immediate and substantial American assistance. Being directed essentially towards America during a critical phase of the Pacific war, the appeal exaggerated Australia’s willingness to break its traditional links. Moreover, Curtin’s suggestion that Australia would not compromise its own security by dispersing its military resources to support war-time Britain did not imply that Australia was anxious to alter permanently the Dominion’s associations with Britain or the Empire. Nonetheless, Curtin accepted implicitly that Britain was no longer capable of protecting the South Pacific Dominions.

Curtin’s statement was also an unprecedented public assertion of Dominion autonomy. It provoked some criticism locally. Menzies described the statement as a ‘great blunder’. In a series of critical editorials, The Sydney Morning Herald described Curtin’s words as ‘deplorable’. The former Prime Minister Billy Hughes interpreted Curtin’s apparent willingness to deprecate the military value of the Imperial connection as ‘suicidal’. In response, Curtin asserted that despite its support for closer Australian-American relations, his government did not regard Australia as ‘anything but an integral part of the British Empire’.16 Later, at the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference in 1944 Curtin ‘made no apologies for asking for American assistance in the days when Australia was seriously threatened’. He argued that the decision ‘in no way affected Australia’s deep sense of oneness with the United Kingdom’, or implied any reduction in Australia’s traditional loyalty to the British Commonwealth or Crown.17

As conservative Australian governments reluctantly rebalanced the nation’s ‘great and powerful’ friendships in the 1950s and 1960s the myth of a ‘special relationship’ with its ‘new protector’ the United States, was routinely asserted. This powerful myth was underpinned by cultural assumptions and assertions: by narratives of a shared triumph in the Pacific War; by discourses of a shared Anglo-European history, by implied ‘racial’ and historical similarities as new world settler societies in the Pacific; by shared language; by American influences on popular culture; and by common political cultures centred ostensibly on democracy, openness and freedom. Yet such claims to cultural convergence were overwhelmingly rationalisations justifying pragmatic bilateral linkages established through ANZUS, war in Korea, concern over China, intelligence-sharing and expanding trade and investment. The myth of a special relationship retrospectively sanctioned Australia’s formal alliance under ANZUS as it conveniently reinterpreted the nation’s wartime relationships with both the US and the UK. Not only did it erase nationalist Australian narratives of discord and frustrated military inequality as a minor ally during conflicts in both Europe and the Pacific, but also it celebrated Australian-American strategic relationships born in a uniquely successful alliance, not as a pragmatic postwar reaction to decolonisation and rural communism in East and South East Asia. As the reassuring ties of Empire unravelled, the myth implied, they were replaced by special links to another protector, the US.

The so-called wartime ‘look to America’, like ANZUS a decade later, pre-dated both significant Americanisation of Australian life, significant loss of Anglo-Australian identity and significant economic linkages between the two Pacific states. Developments in World War II did foreshadow Britain’s retreat from its vast imperial reach. Yet the end of conflict did not immediately precipitate a rupture in its relationships with its ‘white’ dominions. As a surprising number of scholars have demonstrated during ‘the initial post-1945 period, Australia’s external relations remained overwhelmingly oriented towards Britain.’ War in the Pacific did not constitute a decisive turning point in Australia’s external relationships.18

Nonetheless, after revolution in China in 1949, relationships with the US assumed centre stage. American influences challenged many of those associated with the UK, its empire, or Western Europe. The rhetoric and symbols of traditional ties to the ‘mother country’ were not extinguished, but the realignment of Australia towards the US continued. Against the background of an allegedly new ‘Asian’ threat to its security, centred on communism in China and war in Korea, Australia accommodated itself to American authority in the Asia-Pacific. This political and strategic adjustment was crystallised by self-interest. It did not flow directly from special ties of sentiment or cultural empathy. Furthermore, a broad analysis of Australia-America relationships in the post-war years demonstrates that cultural processes were not directly or causally linked to the political and strategic decisions which marked Australia’s increasing embrace of American power as the focus of the Cold War shifted to Asia in the late 1940s and 1950s. Anglo-Australia’s affections for Mother England long survived its recognition that traditional ties could not sustain the small nation in war and upheaval in the Asia-Pacific.

During the Menzies years Australia’s relationships with the US remained uneven and ambivalent. As ANZUS was negotiated in 1950-51, Australia’s perceptions of China and Japan differed from those of Washington. The US agreed to the alliance because it paved the way for a ‘soft’ peace settlement with Japan, and provided another link in a broad anti-communist network in Asia. In contrast, Australia initially viewed ANZUS as a guarantee against a resurgent Japan. Four years later, during the Suez crisis, the two nations also acted from very different perceptions and pursued very different policies. Menzies’ effort in support of British and French aggression against Egypt led to a sharp exchange with Eisenhower, who condemned the attack as a debacle that merely accelerated the decline of Anglo-French prestige in the Middle East and paved the way for expanded Soviet influence. Under Menzies, Australia sometimes distanced itself from America’s Cold War policies, especially if these challenged British interests. Australia was not yet an uncritical follower of America. However, the Dominion’s refusal to recognise the communist government of China, its willingness to fight in Korea under American leadership, and its anxious promotion of ANZUS and SEATO were portents of the new direction in its foreign policy.

In the early Cold War years, Australia’s commitment to the United States was ‘not unqualified’. In Pemberton’s words, ‘Menzies and the majority of Cabinet maintained their first loyalty towards Britain’. Despite Menzies’ embarrassing intervention on behalf of Britain in the Suez crisis, Pemberton has correctly judged that throughout the 1950s the Australian government remained ‘sympathetic to Britain, but not to the extent [that] it would risk straining relations with America.’19 At the same time the conservative elites which dominated Australian political life remained ambivalent about the United Sates, viewing it as the crucial factor in national security while remaining wedded to Britain and Britishness, the Monarchy and high Anglo-European culture. As The Sydney Morning Herald commented, in greeting the Queen in 1954 amidst an unprecedented outpouring of Anglo-Australian sentiment: ‘Australia is still and always will be a British nation whose greatest strength lies in the tradition she has inherited from England.’ For Protestant Australia, at least, the Queen and Empire still expressed the ‘supreme achievement of the British race.’20

The tenor and direction of Australia’s policies in the period framed by wars in Korea and Vietnam were expressed by Menzies in discussions with his cabinet in 1958. Australia must not disagree publicly with the US, he stated, and Australia’s defence forces must be geared to fight alongside those of its great and powerful friends. Independence in policy formulation, or military-strategic activity, was rejected. ‘The greatest practical fact of life for Australia is that we are in no danger of conquest, either directly or indirectly, except from Communist aggression,’ Menzies observed. ‘[O]ur doctrine at a time of crisis should be ‘Great Britain and the United States right or wrong’…The simple truth, therefore, is that we cannot afford to run counter to their policies at a time when a crisis has arisen.’21 Surprisingly, this observation came after the Suez crisis of 1956 had exposed the impossibility of simultaneously courting two great and powerful friends in the event of a disagreement between them. This crisis, along with events in Malaya, South Africa, and Indonesia, confronted Australia with additional difficulties as it attempted to pursue its particular material interests, embrace British imperial interests and not alienate its powerful new Cold War partner in the Pacific.

Despite ANZUS and SEATO the Menzies government was slow to recognise Britain’s decline. In its own limited way, it attempted to hold back the tide of decolonisation that symbolised this decline. As mentioned above, in the Suez conflict of 1956 Australia’s support for British and French colonial policies left it isolated from the US as well as from nations in the process of decolonising. Again in the late 1950s, Menzies’ clumsy attempts to keep White South Africa within the Empire (Commonwealth) signalled his nation’s isolation in the climate of rapid international change that accompanied the drive for decolonisation and racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. Events in Malaya and Indo-China eventually convinced even Anglophile Australia that its physical security, if not its demographic character, depended on events in the region rather than traditional ties to the Old World. Britain’s application to join the European Union in 1963, and its decision of 1967 to gradually withdraw its forces from Malaya and Singapore, obliged even the most conservative Australians to recognise that their future lay in developing regional security and closer ties with the US.

Australia had traditionally displayed what Bruce Grant has labelled ‘loyalty to the protector’,22 and in the 1960s it belatedly accepted that its old protector had to be discarded. So more than twenty years after the shock of Pearl Harbor and Singapore, Curtin’s claim that Australia would look to America, free of guilt about its ties to Great Britain, had come to fruition. Anticipating Britain’s retreat into Empire, Menzies’ successor, Harold Holt observed that it made the American alliance ‘even more important for us.’23 Australia now encouraged its new protector to commit ground forces to Asia and to expand its permanent military presence in the region. As Gregory Pemberton has bluntly observed:
Close political and military relations were forged between the two countries only because after 1949, and especially after 1961 American became more deeply involved in Vietnam…with the steady decline of European interest and capacity in that region, Australia eventually became America’s only reliable ally. This new situation created greater opportunities for Australia to exploit American power for its own purposes.24
The formal reaction to communism in Asia revealed Australia as an enthusiastic ally but reluctant friend of the US. Anglophile Australians were drawn to America as a protector, but remained anxious to retain ties of monarchy, ‘race’, culture and history that bound them to England and Empire. As The Sydney Morning Herald stated on the eve of ANZUS: ‘Australia’s relations with America are often imperfectly understood abroad…They imply no weakening of the Commonwealth bond, nor any turning away from Britain.’25

Until the late 1960s, at least, Protestant Australians, in particular, continued to share what Russell Ward and others have described as a ‘dual identity’: ‘For most, but not all people, national and imperial patriotism were complementary, not contradictory.’26 The lessons of Singapore and Darwin, and later the decolonisation of Asia, dented but did not destroy the illusion of an imperial umbrella under which White Australia could shelter. ‘We draw our main strength not from eight million of our own population,’ Richard Casey claimed, ‘but from the fact that we are a member of a great cooperative society: the British race, of which the senior partner is our mother country Great Britain.’ Significantly, he added: ‘We also have the very great potential asset of the friendship of the greatest single nation in the world, the United States of America.’27 Although Australian conservatives were anxious to negotiate a formal alliance, royal visits, royal honours, and celebrations of Empire remained linchpins of public life in the Menzies years. Even in the late 1960s, while Australian troops fought alongside Americans in Vietnam, it was not uncommon for prominent Australians to announce, as did former Ambassador to Washington, Sir James Plimsoll, that ‘we do not see our United States relationship as a threat to British relationships’. Such assertions could not conceal the drift away from Great Britain28 – a gradual realignment confirmed by Britain’s anticipated withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971.

In his recent study Menzies and the Great World Struggle, David Lowe suggests that while Australia’s Cold War rhetoric derived in part from London and Washington it was also ‘Australianised’. A broadly similar argument dominates recent work on so-called ‘Americanisation’ of Australia. The language of Menzies and most of his colleagues ‘drew on familiar allusions and shared hopes and fears which had a particular resonance for Australians’, Lowe argues: ‘amidst the most rhetorical and the most matter-of-fact descriptions of the state of Cold War were core hopes and fears, visions of white racial progress and rapid development, anxieties about decolonising Asia, and nervousness about Australian’s tenuous proprietary hold on a vast continent and about the future of European civilisation’. Australian political culture was not swamped by American preoccupations or language during World War II or the early Cold War. If events in the Pacific and distrust of British policy in the Far East had ‘fractured the Imperial imagination’ in wartime Australia, these events also sharpened local nationalism, encouraging greater international assertiveness under Labor and efforts to define and defend ‘the Australian way of life’ during the decades of post-war reconstruction.’ In wars both hot and cold in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Australian identities were more sharply defined and confirmed while, as Lowe suggests, the Menzies years proved ‘a great rejuvenating force for Australian identification with the British Empire.29 Although less stridently asserted, Geoffrey Bolton’s The Middle Way builds a broadly similar argument emphasising the adaptive features of Anglo-Australian identity in a national paradoxically able to transform imported culture even as it behaved, in Robin Boyd’s words, as ‘the constant sponge lying in the Pacific’. The modest level of US cultural incursions is unwittingly reflected in a special edition of Australian Historical Studies published in 1997 on ‘The Forgotten Fifties’.30 Suburbia, rock’n’roll, and youth culture are the few American importations noted, and these are judged of little consequence in comparison to Australia’s complacent Britishness and local traditions which were beginning to be shaken by mass migration and modernisation.

The first decade of Liberal Party government under Prime Minister Robert Menzies has often been portrayed as a static era – ‘a frozen decade’ – marked by a sentimental attachment to Britain, comfortable affluence, ideological consensus, and Cold War suspicions. However, beneath this bland surface new forces and tensions were transforming local society and culture. Wider access to consumer credit, the expansion of mass advertising, and a revolution in consumer expectations drew Australia’s growing middle class towards a real or imagined American model. Material abundance became associated with the ‘Australian Way of Life’, and was sustained increasingly by borrowing US products and advertising models, as well as by protection for local industry.31 The Menzies regime sought to hold the line against the cultural extravagances, superficiality, and moral decadence that conservatives identifies as ‘American’. At the same time, however, its economic policies, rhetorical assaults on state intervention, disdain for ‘socialism’, as well as its strategic dependence on ANZUS and the American alliance, paved the way for incursions by the very ‘American’ values and symbols it seemed to fear and resent. Australia’s emergence as a modern industrial society, which John Docker and others have argues ‘meant in effect moving from a British to an American model’, was a ‘complex and contradictory process’.32

The paradox of cultural resistance in the face of pervasive social change and political accommodation was apparent from the early post-war years. At least at the level of public utterance, Americanisation could be denied even when it could not be delayed. To borrow Max Lerner’s observation on Europe in the post-war decades, Australia was ‘caught between the need for America and the recoil from it’.33 Indeed elements of this cultural schizophrenia were evident as early as the nineteenth century. Modern Australia was obviously the product of complex, contending forces. Australia’s own traditions and identities, British legacies, its deepening multi-cultural complexion since the 1950s, as well as distinct religious, class and regional characteristics formed the social grid into which American pressures were incorporated and adapted.

Over more than a century, Australia’s anxious search for security was paralleled by its increasing economic and cultural links with the United States. Like much of the modern world, especially English-speaking societies, Australia was increasingly influenced by American products, ideas and practices as it was joined inextricably to the ‘American Century’. From the 1920s especially, US political culture, business culture and popular culture increasingly infused Australian society, challenging British influences and re-shaping local practices and values. The new nation’s constitution, advertising, marketing and shopping, housing design, suburban culture, consumerism, anti-communism, ideas on ‘race’ masculinity or individualism, Hollywood, television, and popular music were some of the many areas significantly influenced by American importations and American models. Australia became an increasing target of US investment capital and trade. Yet as a number of authors have separately observed, it was not until the late 1960s – a generation after Pearl Harbor and a decade after the Suez crisis – that economic links along with ‘American ideas, values and information had made substantial inroads into the traditionally British cultural and ideological hegemony in Australia’.34 And, at the same time as Britain’s empire and influence retreated after World War II, fears bred of the evils of the ‘air-conditioned [American] nightmare’ were voiced increasingly.

Cultural resistance, often expressed simply in anti-American slogans, resurfaced as Australia was joined to American interventions abroad during the Cold War. Many Australian commentators and scholars – anxious since the 1960s to identify and protect an emerging national identity – were convinced of the transforming power of America and Americanisation on receiving cultures. As US cultural influences grew and a conservative Australian government went ‘all the way’ with Washington in Vietnam, cultural and political resistance to putative Americanisation strengthened. From the mid-1960s, as in the 1920s, US culture was widely decried as vulgar and concern was expressed at the ‘steadily growing…Americanisation of this country.’35 Left nationalist attacks against the incursions of American popular culture and political ideology intensified after the war. ‘Coca-Cola colonisation’ became a symbol of unacceptable American modernity and excessive consumerism. A curious alliance of Anglophile conservative, British ‘race’ patriots and left-nationalists expressed concern with the barbarism of mass-culture and its levelling effects on Anglo-Australian values and pastimes. As Geoffrey Serle’s much-quoted claim implied, a substantial cross-section of educated Australians lamented what they understood as a sudden shift from traditional British cultural associations to corrupt or vacuous American importations – even if most welcomed the protection of the US against the tide of change in decolonising Asia and watched their children consume American film, music and television with alacrity. Political cartoons from the late 1960s were equally convinced of the implications of American power and cultural imperialism for Australian independence and identity. In The Sydney Morning Herald, for example Molnar’s much-reproduced cartoon of 1966 depicted the Australian flag with the stars and stripes replacing the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner. Two decades later, Moir used a now familiar image of a satellite controlled from Washington to suggest Australia’s uncontested dependence on its great powerful ally. Yet if such representations were judgements about Australia’s putative Americanisation, they were also appealing popular statements of anti-Americanism which symbolised the limits of cultural subservience to Australia’s so-called protector.36 Similarly, Australia’s involvement in Vietnam gave rise to contradictory expressions of bilateral commitment and anti-Americanism.

Throughout much of the Cold War, ambivalence about America and fear of ‘Americanisation’ continued, giving voice to both local nationalist discourses and residual British traditions. In short, British political culture and popular culture remained significant even as American influences increased. And if culture is carried in the baggage of immigrants, Britain and Europe, not the US, remained at the centre of Australia’s cultural practices and ideas – even as a more independent nation celebrated its multicultural complexion and embrace of Asia. Further, if trade and investment are rough yardsticks of the extent of foreign borrowings, Australia’s cultural links were not significantly reoriented towards the US until the late 1960s – after the strategic importance of the US had been demonstrated in World War II, formalised under ANZUS and deepened by decolonisation and subsequent regional conflicts.37

Complaints about so-called Americanisation have, since, the end of the Cold War, largely shifted from the political to the cultural sphere – from alarm over Australia’s subservience to American power and interests, to fears over the erosion of national identity and local cultural authority. ‘Imported’ ‘Americanising’ language, dress, drugs, screenagers, sport, fast food, film, television, music, tabloid journalism, crime and punishment, fashion and ‘lifestyle’ have largely displaced foreign policy and the Pentagon as the focus of Australian concern. Yet close strategic and economic links do not necessarily reflect, or serve as precursors of cultural imitation or subservience. As in the past, Canberra’s current willingness to play ‘deputy sheriff’ to Washington reflects perceived national interests, not persuasive Americanisation. Indeed many Anglo-Australians, from Menzies to John Howard, have been happy to seek an intimate alliance with the United States, even as they longed nostalgically for the Mother Country and sought to reinvent ‘core’ national values centred on a British-Australian past or the nation’s independent exploits in wars abroad.

Like much of Western Europe and Canada, Australia has a long love-hate relationship with US exports, whether these be material or ideological. These continue to be both welcomed as the glittering promise of modernity, capitalism and democracy and resisted as a hegemonic threat to national differences and diversity in an increasingly globalised/Americanised world. This contradictory understanding and reception of America abroad implicitly suggests flaws in the claim that unequal societies are simply vulnerable to the Great Power’s influences, unable to resist the homogenising consequences of its ‘soft power’. Yet the Australian example – like that of say, France, Germany or the UK – indicates that American influences have been variously effective and unpredictable within different national cultures. Cultural resistance, negotiation, adaptation, modification, and outright rejection as well as different or varied levels of acceptance or accommodation, are everywhere apparent. From within an allegedly imitative culture, like Australia, particular local responses are generated by distinct historical legacies, unique social forces and particular cultural forms. (For example, in the field of television – an apparent spearhead of Americanisation – local programs and productions have flourished despite the popularity of some US sitcoms, big budget movies and transplanted current affairs formats. Over fifty years of viewing, a vernacular Australian voice, local accents and Australian stories have not been swamped or indeed diminished by television product made for the US market.)

Obviously the United States remains a powerful social model and cultural precursor which other states find difficult to ignore. However, in a variety of studies of Americanisation published from the early 1990s, interpretations built on ideas of unilateral domination or cultural imperialism have been rejected. Rob Kroes, a leading European scholar in this field, summarises these arguments perceptively: ‘America’s culture has become an unavoidable presence’ globally, but its ‘reception knows many voices: there is a resilience in other cultures that refuses to be washed away’.38

Recent studies also agree that so-called Americanisation cannot be separated from even broader processes or modernisation, consumerism and globalisation – processes of which America is a part but for which it is not separately responsible. Writing of France, Richard Kuisel argues that Americanisation has ‘become increasingly disconnected from America’, is confused with global changes affecting much of the post-war world, and might best be identified as ‘the coming of consumer society’.39 Writing of how Australia was ‘implicated’ in America and Americanisation, Bell and Bell have suggested that broadly parallel developments in different modern societies – from suburbanisation to fashion or economic rationalism – should not be interpreted as caused by the United States, imposing its own image on other willing, or unwilling imitative cultures. It is appropriate to view Australia as following the US along a broadly similar if somewhat retarded road towards post-industrial status, passing through stages of modernisation that characterise most capitalist or mixed economies this century. Thus, in this interpretation, the suburbs, freeways and mass culture were not symptomatic of the Americanisation of Australia but of the modernisation of both the US and Australia.

Exaggerated fears of external threat and cultural loss have characterised Australian history since the mid-nineteenth century. Australia has long struggled to reconcile the forces of its European past with the imperatives of its geographic location. Even if it is argued that domestic Australia has been overwhelmed by Americanisation, its foreign relations continue to be shaped fundamentally by national interests not cultural integration with another state. While US culture has been deeply and variously implicated in Australia’s modern history, it does not necessarily follow that American cultural power has reoriented Australia’s insecure international gaze from Britain and Europe. Realpolitik, not cultural or social similarity, shaped Australia’s quest for American strategic assurances. In peace, as in war, national interests not shared values or pastimes, determined fundamental shifts in Australia’s diplomacy and foreign policy.

Americanisation, real or imagined, did not serve as a Trojan horse making Anglo-Australia receptive to new military alliances or Cold War ideology. Such a view oversimplifies and distorts the transforming influence of imported culture. It is also built on exaggerated estimates of Australia’s compliance with the wishes of the policies of the US in international affairs. To argue that the alleged Americanisation of Australian life has conditioned its drift from the UK, shaped the ANZUS alliance, and tied the Pacific nation to the US during the Cold War, is to ignore the fundamental and rational exercise of perceived national interests in Australia’s behaviour. Additionally, this view ignores the complex receptions given by local communities to imported cultural forms and ideas. Post-war Australia has not moved either willingly or unwillingly from imperial appendage to American satellite – except in the eyes of those who continue to confuse so-called Americanisation with the smaller nation’s increasingly distinctive incorporation into a modern, globalised world, and who continue to ignore the way cultural influences are resisted, adapted and transformed by receiving national cultures. Generations of intimate ties to the UK did not, ultimately, transform pre-war Australia into a ‘new Britannia’. Nor have alliances in war and peace reflected the transformation of Australia into the ‘other America’ that was both welcomed and resisted from the late-nineteenth century.

1. J. Nye, ‘Popular Culture: Images and Issues’, Dialogue, No. 99, January 1993, p. 52.

2. R. White, ‘“Americanization’ and Popular Culture in Australia’, Teaching History, 12, August 1978, pp. 3, 21. See also, Albinski, ‘Australia and the United States’, Daedalus, 114: 1, Winter 1985, pp. 394-98.

3. G. Serle, ‘Godzone: Austerica Unlimited’, Meanjin Quarterly, xxvi, iii, 1967, pp. 240-49.

4. J. Camilleri, Australian-American Relations: The Web of Dependence, Sydney, 1980, pp. Preface, 16-17, 44-75, 120-29.

5. P. Adams, ‘Dolls on the American Knee’, The Weekend Australian, 12-13 September 1993, p. 2 and ‘United States of Desire’, The Weekend Australian, 9-10 September 1995, p. 2. Letters to the Editor pages of major Australian newspapers routinely reflect fears of cultural ‘loss’ and compromised national identity as a result of ‘Americanization’. For more scholarly debates and hints of cultural imperialism, see M. McNain, ‘From Imperial Appendage to American Satellite’, ANU History Journal, 14, 1977-80, pp. 73ff; D. Philips, Ambivalent Allies: Myth and Reality in the Australian-American Relationship, Ringwood, 1988, esp. p. ix; S. Alomes, ‘The Satellite Society’, Journal of Australian Studies, 9, November 1981, esp. pp. 2-11; Camilleri, op. cit.

6. Serle, op. cit., pp. 248-49.

7. G. Poiger, ‘Beyond “Modernization” and “Colonization”, Commentary,’ Diplomatic History, 23:1, 1999, pp. 45-48.

8. See C. Thorne, Border Crossings: Studies in International History, Oxford, 1988, p. 42.

9. Deakin, quoted in N. Harper, ed., Australia and the United States, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 53-56. See also R. Megaw, ‘Some Aspects of the United States Impact on Australia 1901-1925’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1966, esp. pp. 18, 359.

10. See generally, N. Meaney, ‘A Proposition of the Highest International Importance’, Journal of Commonwealth Studies, 5, 1967, pp. 200-13.

11. J. Matthews, ‘Which America?’ in P. Bell and R. Bell, eds., Americanization and Australia, Sydney, 1998, esp. pp. 16-17.

12. J.D. Lang, The Moral and Religious Aspects of the Future America of the Southern Hemisphere, New York, 1840; Hughes quoted in F. Crowley, ed., Modern Australia in Documents, Vol. I, Melbourne, p. 592.

13. See R. Bell, Unequal Allies: Australian-American Relations and the Pacific War, Melbourne, 1977, pp. 226-232, and ‘The Myth of a Special Relationship’, The National Times, 10-15 October, 1977, pp. 12-14. Responding to the recent terror attacks on New York, Kim Beazley invoked – as have other Australian leaders in times of crisis – a familiar version of the special relationship. ‘We in Australia owe our freedom to the US. In our darkest hour in 1941 our wartime prime minister called on the Americans and they did not let us down.’ Beazley in The Australian, 19 September 2001, p. 11.

14. See generally G. Barclay, Friends in High Places: Australian-American Diplomatic Relations Since 1945, Melbourne, 1985.

15. Curtin, quoted Melbourne Herald, 27 December 1941, p. 1.

16. Menzies, in Harper, ed., op. cit., p. 141; The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 1941, p. 2, Hobart Mercury, 30 December 1941, p. 3.

17. Curtin, 3 May 1944, cited Bell, Unequal Allies, p. 47.

18. G. Pemberton, All the Way: Australia’s Road to Vietnam, Sydney, 1987, pp. 20, 1-2; See D. Day, Reluctant Nation, Oxford, 1992. Like Bell (1977), Day (1992) argues that the significance of Curtin’s December 1941 statement has been ‘overrated by writers who have, with the benefit of hindsight, claimed it as the point at which Australia switched her allegiance from Britain to the US. This simply did not happen. The Dominion regarded the close relationship with America as a temporary measure. In 1945 Australia attempted to reconstruct the imperial framework…‘It is worth repeating that the experience of war did not propel Australia from the protective British bosom into the arms of America, as popular mythology would have it,’ pp. 314-16.

19. Pemberton, op. cit., pp. 21, 33.

20. The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February, 1954, editorial.

21. Menzies, Australian Cabinet Documents, 1958, quoted The Australian, 2 January 1988.

22. B. Grant, cited H. Gelber, ‘Australia and the Great Powers’, Asian Survey, 15: 3, March 1975, p. 189.

23. Prime Minister Harold Holt, 2 November 1967, in Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, HR 57, 2/11/67, p. 2686. Responding to the UK plan to withdraw completely from East of Suez by late 1971, Holt stated that the US-Australia relationship ‘vital to us before the British decision…is even more important to us today.’

24. Pemberton, op. cit. p. 332.

25. The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 1949, editorial.

26. R. Ward, History of Australia, Melbourne, 1958, pp. 51-52.

27. R. Casey in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 1949, p. 1.

28. Harper, ed., op. cit, pp. 135ff; Serle, op. cit., pp. 259-42.

29. D. Lowe, Menzies and the Great World Struggle, Sydney, 1999, pp. 7-8, 182-83.

30. See G. Bolton, The Middle Way, 1942-1988, The Oxford History of Australia, Vol. 5, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 119-123. See generally, J. Murphy and J. Smart, eds., ‘The Forgotten Fifties’, Australian Historical Studies, 109, October 1997.

31. See, especially, M. Rolfe, ‘Suburbia’, in Bell and Bell, Americanization, op. cit, pp. 61-80.

32. J. Docker, in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1987, Review of The 1950s: How Australia Became a Modern Society….

33. M. Lerner, America as a Civilization, New York, 1957, p. 929.

34. Pemberton, op. cit, p. 331. See also P. Bell and R. Bell, Implicated: The United States in Australia, Melbourne, 1993, Part II.

35. Matthews, esp. in Bell and Bell, eds., Americanization, op. cit, pp. 15-28.

36. These cartoons are reproduced in Bell and Bell, Implicated, op. cit, pp. 188-89 (prints).

37. Not until 1992-1995, after the end of the Cold War, did the US displace the UK/EU as the principal source of direct or portfolio investment in Australia. For trends, by region and country, in Australia trade relations from 1949-1990, see tables in R. Bell, ‘Anticipating the Pacific Century: Australia’s Response to the Realignments in the Asia-Pacific’, in M. Berger and D. Borer, eds., The Rise of East Asia…, New York, 1997, pp. 208-10.

38. R. Kroes, ‘Americanization: What are we talking about?’ in R. Kroes, R. Rydell and D. Bosscher, eds., Cultural Transmissions and Receptions: American Mass Culture in Europe, Amsterdam, 1993, pp. 302-20.

39. R. Kuisel, Seducing the French…, Berkeley, 1993, pp. 1-4. For a broader interpretation of American influences on post-war Europe, see R. Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture Since World War II, New York, 1997; and Kroes et al., eds., ibid.; see also., Bell and Bell, Implicated, op. cit.








































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