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Best We Forget is a remarkable piece of scholarship which brings much to the existing historiography. It is one of the best books on Australia’s First World War to have been published during the centenary, and a highly readable one at that. It is a work of pedagogy which I hope will find its place in classrooms and libraries across the country.
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The (Great) War for White Australia
Romain Fathi
To cite this article: Romain Fathi (2019) The (Great) War for White Australia, History Australia,
16:1, 218-219, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2019.1582444
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Published online: 02 Apr 2019.
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The (Great) War for White Australia
Romain Fathi
Flinders University, Australia
Best We Forget. The War for White Australia, 1914-1918, edited by Peter
Cochrane, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2018, 272pp., $A32.99 ISBN
Peter Cochrane is not a scholar who accepts the platitudes and fabrications of a self-
aggrandising Anzac legend. Cochrane has demonstrated several times that much historical
understanding can be gained by scratching below the varnish of the legend in order to
comprehend what was truly at stake in Australias Great War. After his remarkable
Simpson and the Donkey: the Making of a Legend (1992), Cochrane once again confronts
the incoherence and omissions of one of Australias most sacred cows. The main conten-
tion of his new book Best We Forget is simple: Australia went to war in 1914 to protect
and defend White Australia.
White Australia and race politics are topics well covered in Australian historiography.
What is less charted though is the role they played in Australias decision to commit to
the First World War. Through that contribution alone, Cochranes work is a new land-
mark in Australian First World War historiography.
Cochrane opens his book with a study of the racial epic that the Anzac legend is: a
celebration of the physical and moral perfection of White Australia. This first chapter sets
the scene for a deeper exploration as to why such a racial epic was constructed and the
underlying fears behind its creation. Naturally, Cochrane goes back in time to survey pre-
war Australia in the following chapter. He pays particular attention to the panic generated
by Britain and Japansrapprochement in the decades preceding the First World War.
Cochrane then reviews Australias foreign policy and geopolitical situation before and
after Federation, which saw a growing distrust of Britain, and the will to seal off the new
Commonwealth from non-white peoples. At the time, the anguish prompted by
Australias isolation and Japans colonial ambitions framed the debate over the new
nations social, economic, military and racial policies.
The book then turns to how Britain secured Australias commitment to raise a contin-
gent that could be deployed overseas to defend Britain, previously a significant point of
contention between the two countries. In doing so, Cochrane reveals Australias increasing
drift away from Britain on geopolitical matters, as it attempted to defend its own interests
rather than acting as an outpost of the empire. But paradoxically, the only way for
Australia to overcome this divergence was to commit to the defence of Britain and the
empire. At its simplest level, Australias commitment to the First World War is depicted
CONTACT Romain Fathi
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2019, VOL. 16, NO. 1, 218219
by Cochrane as a means for Australia to show that it would defend Britain and the
empire to receive, in return and in the fullness of time, their protection against what was
then perceived as hordes of potential invaders from Asia. Put simply, the Great War was
Australias insurance policy; and no matter what the size of the premium was, it ought to
be paid to sustain White Australia in the long run.
Cochrane paints a political class committed to a level of ingrained racism which will,
perhaps, be confronting for todays readers; leaders obsessed with racial purity fuelled by
abandonment anxietyand the apprehension that Australia could be seized by an Asian
people, just as the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race they represented had dispossessed Indigenous
peoples of their lands in the past. Best We Forget masterfully complicates our understand-
ing of Australias motivations to join the war. Australia was not just a mere follower help-
ing the mother country by sheer generosity and kindness. On the contrary, Australia was
motivated by its own interests: it was desperate to retain the White Australia policy, pro-
mote its own colonial agenda in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, and ensure the future
of the vital economic umbilical cord that tied it to Britain.
Peter Cochrane then takes the reader to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and
Hughess reckless and restless fight to secure the future of White Australia. Hughes
rejected any clause of racial equality to be included in the Treaty of Versailles, an attitude
that ultimately fuelled anti-colonialism, self-determination movements and Japans humili-
ation, all of which would have dire consequences in the following decades. While it is not
Hughes and little Australia which precluded this clause from being adopted this was the
deed of the United States and large European colonial powers Cochranes analysis
proves once more that the ideologies underpinning White Australia and racial superiority
were absolutely central to Australias engagement in the First World War.
The book closes on a chapter pertaining to Australias popular memory of the First
World War and why the main reason behind Australias commitment to the war (namely,
the defence of White Australia and the countrys obsession with racial purity) remains, to
this day, absent from Australias popular understanding of the First World War. Cochrane
points to Beans obfuscation enterprise and its consequences, and calls for Australians to
wake up to the historical reality that racist motives underpinned Australias commitment to
the First World War. In that light, a major exhibition on race as a prime catalyst for
Australias contribution to the Great War could do much to correct popular memory.
Best We Forget is rooted in political, diplomatic and top-downhistory. Statesmen
such as Andrew Fisher, Alfred Deakin, William Morris Hughes, George Pearce, Joseph
Cook and Edmund Barton are the main actors of this play. The book thus calls for fur-
ther research which would take up the opposing approach: bottom-up. While
Cochranes case is compelling and skilfully illustrated yes, the elites saw the Great War
as a way to fight for and preserve the future of White Australia how did the average
digger make sense of his own commitment to the war? Further research is needed to
establish if fighting for White Australia was a key element which motivated the Anzacs,
thus restoring their agency in committing to the war effort.
Best We Forget is a remarkable piece of scholarship which brings much to the existing
historiography. It is one of the best books on Australias First World War to have been
published during the centenary, and a highly readable one at that. It is a work of peda-
gogy which I hope will find its place in classrooms and libraries across the country.
Romain Fathi
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