The challenges of peace
26 Jun 2015|


The human, economic and political consequences of going to war are familiar and terrible. Hardly less onerous, but much less familiar, are the problems of restoring a nation when the guns fall silent.

How to manage returning troops when the parades end and the bands and the bunting disappear? How to heal the physical and psychic wounds of warfare? How to return a society to peace and tranquillity after the killing stops? How to shift an economy from a wartime to a peacetime footing? How to satisfy the pent up desires and demands of people suddenly liberated from wartime austerity and discipline?

These aren’t priority questions for strategic studies, but they’re critical policy questions and they’re the central theme in Stuart Macintyre’s new book Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and reconstruction in the 1940s. It’s a complex and multi-layered story of national renewal and renovation by far-sighted politicians and bureaucrats who planned and established the foundations of modern Australia.

It was no easy task: there were no formulas, no precedents, and onrushing post-war strategic and economic challenges—including the Cold War and militant communism—helped to frustrate efforts to create a freer, fairer domestic society and international order.

Mcintyre shows how political leaders like Chifley, Evatt, Dedman and Menzies, and officials like Coombs, Wilson, Downing, Copland and the formidable Trevor Swan, often rose above their own limitations to preside over the historic tasks of demobilisation and reconstruction after World War II.

They set in train social, political, economic and eventually cultural changes that eventually transformed what was a stolid white provincial Anglo-Celtic society mired in myths of male mateship and democracy. Pre-war Australia today looks remote and distant, its development somehow arrested by recurring hardship and the limited vision of its leaders.

Macintyre shows how the groundwork for reconstruction was laid by John Curtin in 1942 while the war was still raging. He was persuaded to establish the Department of Post-War Reconstruction under Chifley and staffed with the best and most far-sighted officials.

Chifley’s overarching vision was of a heavily planned and managed social democracy which would ameliorate the effects of poverty and unemployment. Australia would become a benign, caring and redistributive State in which poorer workers would be protected (although, as Macintyre points out, indigenous Australians remained invisible).

Much pioneering work was done: there was Coombs’ famous white paper on full employment. Great efforts were made to assist farmers. Health, education, child support and pharmaceutical benefits were all expanded—although conservative and other special interest resistance forced compromises.

The return of hundreds of thousands of demobilised troops imposed huge pressure on resources; as did the pent-up demand that had mounted during six years of war. Macintyre details the demand for housing, health care, education, retraining, employment and other benefits that prompted publication of the free booklet ‘Return To Civil Life’.

Macintyre concludes that demobilisation went ‘remarkably smoothly’. But the national economic and the foreign policy environments were unremittingly rough and threatening. Labour shortages led to pressure for wage rises and to damaging strikes by public transport workers, stevedores and coal-miners. The rise and influence of communist officials in trade unions coincided with what Macintyre calls the pernicious effects of the Cold War.

Australia’s alliances were strained when Chifley opposed the US policy of containment of Communist power. In 1946 Australia agreed to collaborate with the UK to set up the Woomera rocket range to develop and test long-range missiles. Breaches of security in Australia prompted the Americans in 1948 to suspend the flow of classified information to Australia. Chifley responded by setting up the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

The election of the Menzies government and the ANZUS treaty finally brought Australia firmly into the American orbit as the political and ideological outlines of modern Australia came into clearer focus.

The point is that wars don’t end when hostilities end and the instruments of surrender are signed. Wars transform societies that fight them; they transform leaders and followers for good and ill. For winners and losers they create the immense problems and immense opportunities involved in defining the content and quality of the peace.

Australia’s post-war leaders responded to these challenges by pursuing visionary principles with pragmatic policies. The pivot, as Macintrye admiringly calls him, was Chifley who ‘set terms of political legitimacy that lasted until the 1980s’. It was a remarkable achievement and well worth Macintyre’s elegant and detailed retelling.