Girding themselves for the fray

Chapter 7 | Previous | Next

‘One has only to turn to the map, and see how unpeopled our northern lands are, to realize the obligation upon us’. In July 1909, Littleton Groom introduced legislation for the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory. The ‘emptiness’ of Australia’s north was a reproach, a failure of responsibility and imagination, that threatened the ‘welfare of the Commonwealth’. By taking control of the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth could, Groom argued, begin to meet the obligations of nation, empire and race, and justify its ownership of the continent. Urgent action was demanded in the interests both of progress and security. ‘We have in the north a rich, fertile country’, Groom continued, ‘and no matter what means of communication may be determined in the future, that Territory, as it is today, … is a menace to the Commonwealth’. 1

The problem with the Northern Territory was that it remained ‘unmanned’. But ‘manning’ the country was not simply a matter of numbers. What was required, Groom explained, was ‘effective’ occupation: ‘occupation by a people who are applying their energies and industry to developing the resources of the country’. 2 Groom imagined a hardy yeomanry, subduing the land through strength, will and wit. By their efforts, the country’s neglected ‘wastes’ would be redeemed as a place to build homes and families. Science would foster such worthy instincts, with the much hoped for Bureau of Agriculture promising a reinvigorated assault on the vicissitudes of frontier existence. Groom quoted approvingly US President Roosevelt’s assessment, that as well as creating wealth, his own department must aim ‘to foster agriculture for its social results…to assist in bringing about the best kind of life on the farm for the sake of producing the best kind of men’. 3

‘Effective occupation’ of the north would strengthen the nation’s moral and practical claim to ownership of the continent. Envious Asian neighbours would no longer be tempted to ponder the attractions of Australia’s ‘empty’ spaces. But if threats arose, ‘the best kind of men’ would be certain to stand resolute against the invading hordes. A country did not marshal its power by watching soldiers in exercises or drills. The nation’s security could best be assured, Groom maintained, by the ‘intelligent proprietor of the land defending his own country’. Australia ‘did not want a standing army’, he added, ‘but one constituted by every citizen recognising his own responsibility’. 4 ‘Effective occupation’ promised not only to develop the continent, but to secure it by breeding a citizen soldiery wedded to the land and its ideals.

This combination of progress and security was crucial to the liberal idea of ‘protection’. The imposition of tariffs was clearly defensive, delivering control over the marketplace and a limit on foreign competition. But ‘the ideal of protection’, Groom argued, was to enrich society, to ‘bring about ‘a diversity of employment and occupation for all the rising generation’. 5 The talents and abilities of each would be realised in a diverse and decentralised economy that promoted the growth of both individual and nation. Furthermore, by encouraging the ‘conservation of our resources’ and the ‘development of our citizen soldiery’, protection would add to the country’s strength and self-reliance. An independent Australia, Groom insisted, would be best able to aid the mother country in times of crisis, to take its place amongst the nations of the world. 6 ‘Other nations…were girding themselves for the fray’, he noted, pointing to the efforts of Germany and the USA to equip themselves ‘industrially and defensively’. ‘Self-protection’, with all its possible meanings, was a ‘natural instinct’. 7

Prime Minister Billy Hughes also reflected upon the German example while opening discussions on the idea of a national laboratory in January 1916. Germany’s achievements on the battlefield, as well as its ‘amazing industrial development’, were ‘due largely to the fact that the scientist was, if not the captain, at least the pilot of German industry’. Australia had to make a similar effort, he argued, to enlist the power of science in the nation’s push for victory, but also ‘to meet the conditions which would arise after the war’. Progress would be made both on the battlefields of Europe and the farms and factories of Australia. ‘We must rise to this great occasion’, Hughes proclaimed, ‘turning a frightful calamity into a lasting good’. 8

The war provided a potent demonstration of the value of self-reliance. Australia could not afford to remain dependent on overseas sources for essential commodities. This was an important lesson, HW Gepp insisted in 1919, for the nation was about to enter upon a ‘new war…a war for economic existence’. 9 A ‘self-contained’ Australia was one that made efficient use of its own resources, one that created new industries, new opportunities, one that drew heavily upon the expertise of science, and one that sought to develop a people who were ‘strong in their mutual goodwill and confident in their strength’. 10 A ‘self-contained’ Australia was ready to meet the challenges both of war and peace.

Progress is an aggressive, expansionary creed. Space and energy are consumed in its constant, hungry search for new sources of wealth and power. But its expression is shaped by threats as well as opportunities, by boundaries as well as horizons. Effective occupation, protection, and self reliance, all promoted development as a means of bolstering the nation’s defences against the dangers of a hostile world. Progress was to be found both in an expansion of the nation’s capacities and in the fortification of its boundaries. Progress offered strength: the strength to chart an independent future, free of insecurity and doubt. It was both a proud journey, and an anxious escape.

Science played an increasing role in Australia’s dreams of self-reliance. For the first ten years of its existence CSIR tackled the problems of primary industry. But in the 1930s, the lessons of the Depression, coupled with the growth of international tension, redirected attention towards the expansion of manufacturing. 11 CSIR’s potential contribution to secondary industry was mapped out in a report to government that stressed both the strategic and economic benefits of greater industrial self-sufficiency. With the prospect of renewed global conflict looming, Australia could not afford to remain dependent on overseas sources for manufactured goods, particularly in critical areas such as engine and aircraft production. By the time that war did indeed arrive, CSIR had established a standards laboratory to support efforts at mass production, and had begun research into aeronautics and lubricants. The combination of defence and development was again reflected in scientific priorities.

In Australia as elsewhere, science was willingly recruited into the war effort. 12 Though as scientists struggled to keep ahead of the latest enemy advance, they might have pondered the escalating horror of technological warfare. Science had contributed much to the efficiency of destruction, rendering obsolete many older forms of defence. The threat which science confronted in its pursuit of war-winning wonders was increasingly of its own making. The world was locked in a cycle of power and vulnerability that seemed to reach its zenith in the obliteration of Hiroshima. The war was won, Allied forces had demonstrated their mastery of a vast new source of power, and the world was suddenly more fragile, more insecure than ever before. Many people questioned whether this could really be progress, but the answer to the perils of the Atomic Age was soon accepted to be more of the same. The genie was out of the bottle, the path from the crossroads stretched ahead, science would continue to offer new sources of strength against the terrors it unwittingly spawned in the name of progress.

In July 1946, JJ Dedman, the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, introduced legislation to invest the Commonwealth with control over uranium and any other ‘raw materials’ associated with atomic energy. There was ‘a general realization’, he told the House, ‘that the problem of control of atomic developments and raw materials’ was ‘one of immediate and inescapable urgency’. Just as the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was attempting to define ‘a practical scheme of international control’, so the Commonwealth was acting upon its own responsibility to ensure there were adequate safeguards controlling the use of Australian resources. Power over mining and mineral deposits remained with the states, but this was a matter of ‘security’. ‘That the national development of atomic energy is inextricably bound up with defence no longer requires to be laboriously demonstrated to anyone’, Dedman noted. 13 The Commonwealth’s defence powers were clearly established and conveniently elastic. As well as providing grounds for the control of uranium and the later establishment of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, the defence powers were also invoked in regard to the Snowy Mountains Scheme. 14 Plans for national development offered self-reliance and security.

Dedman hoped, however, that the new legislation would not only serve to protect the nation’s interests, but that it would in the future encourage ‘rapid expansion’ of Australian efforts in the atomic energy field. There was ‘something strangely significant’, he mused, in the fact that he had, in the current session of parliament, introduced both measures to control atomic energy and legislation to establish the Australian National University. One bill represented ‘a broad attempt to ensure public control and development in Australia of potent forces which overshadow our whole future for good or ill’, the other would encourage research in the physical sciences through which atomic energy might be turned ‘to men’s service rather than their extermination’. 15 The coincidence emphasised the challenge of progress.

Australia was keen not to be left behind at the dawning of the Atomic Age. The prospect of a new, seemingly unlimitable, energy supply was attractive to a country pursuing rapid industrialisation, and as yet unsure of its fossil fuel reserves. 16 While ANU attracted the headlines, CSIR had already initiated a modest program of fundamental research into atomic physics in cooperation with Les Martin at the University of Melbourne. 17 But if Australia was to scale up its efforts, it needed information. Fred White, a member of the CSIR executive, had learned of the difficulties in sharing defence-related information when he led Australia’s top secret wartime project to develop radar. 18 Britain, he argued, was only likely to agree to collaboration on atomic development if Australia ‘was actively engaged in research’. If no work were in progress, he added, ‘there was a tendency to deny access to information on the subject’. 19 Australia’s research objectives were thus framed with the hope of courting British favour. Even when the Menzies government created the Australian Atomic Energy Commission to pursue the local development of atomic power, it looked to Britain for ideas and approval, desperate still for a few scraps of information. 20

Australia suffered the consequences of the USA’s atom-powered puffery. Imagining themselves the bearers of a ‘sacred trust’, the Americans became increasingly reluctant to share information, even with their former wartime partners. Australia looked to Britain, Britain looked to the USA, forming an anxious cycle of thwarted ambition, distrust, and misplaced hope. And yet, while it was the bomb that fuelled the prevailing sense of paranoia, it was the military significance of atomic energy that seemed to offer Australia its best chance of sharing the ‘secret’. If Australia could prove itself a useful and willing contributor to the defence plans of Britain and the USA, perhaps the information would at last start to flow. 21

In January 1946, as the USA prepared to flout its atomic monopoly under the guise of ‘Operation Crossroads’, the Australian naval attaché in Washington suggested that a ‘greater share’ in the results of the tests might be gained by offering a disused Australian warship to add to the doomed target fleet. As well as providing an interesting comparison of the effects of the bomb on ‘Australian workmanship’, such an initiative, he noted, would emphasise Australia’s ‘continued desire to collaborate in a practical way towards post war security’. 22 While the suggestion was not pursued, the idea that Australia might prove itself worthy of atomic secrets by supplying things to blow up seemed a popular one. First at Woomera, then at Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga, Australia sought to buy entry into the atomic club by trading land, safety and sovereignty.

The discovery of ample uranium deposits brought further hopes of cooperation. Needing raw materials to fuel its expanding atomic arsenal, the USA sought an agreement over the supply of uranium from the Rum Jungle mine. Australian authorities pressed for an exchange of technology and information, but in the end were forced to content themselves with the knowledge that Australian uranium would be on the front lines of the battle against communism. 23 The opening of the treatment plant at Rum Jungle in September 1954 was, TAG Hungerford observed, ‘a solemn occasion for Australia’, placing in the nation’s hands ‘a source of power and wealth undreamed of a decade ago’. But the event was equally momentous for the whole of the ‘free world’, as Rum Jungle added to ‘the assured supply of the terrible element which now dominates so surely the thought and action of our times’. 24 Speaking at the opening, Prime Minister Menzies stressed that Australia’s uranium deposits made it ‘a powerful contributor to the defence of the free world’. Eventually, though, ‘this phase of insanity’ in world history would come to an end, he added, and uranium would bring ‘power, light, and the amenities of life to the producers, consumers and housewives of the entire continent’. 25

Australia was both aiding in the protection of the free world and building the basis for future prosperity, it was securing the nation’s defence by strengthening the alliance with its ‘great and powerful friends’ and seeking information that would enable it to pursue independent atomic development, it was supplying the engines of destruction and imagining the glorious vistas of a world without peril. Development and defence remained entwined as the nation strode out along the path to progress.

Rum Jungle was also celebrated as a victory at last over the ‘empty’ north. It was, Menzies argued, ‘merely the forerunner’ of major enterprises that would build in the Northern Territory one of Australia’s ‘great communities’. 26 Instead of yeoman farmers, it seemed, the north’s progress would be won by wage-earners working for large international corporations. Rather than the challenge of taming the land, these new pioneers would be lured by the provision of modern, suburban amenities. Australia’s defence would be assured not by a citizen soldiery standing resolute over their own patch of earth, but through the security wrought by the mysterious metal they laboured to extract from the ground.


  1. CPD vol. 50, 30 July 1909, pp. 1878-91.
  2. CPD vol. 50, 30 July 1909, p. 1880
  3. CPD vol. 50, 3 August 1909, p. 1929
  4. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 November 1906, p. 3. For more on ‘citizen soldiering’ in Australia see Craig Wilcox, For hearths and homes: citizen soldiering in Australia, 1854-1945, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998.
  5. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 November 1906.
  6. ibid.
  7. Toowoomba Chronicle, 15 November 1906, p. 3.
  8. Argus, 6 January 1916, p. 8.
  9. HW Gepp, ‘Australia self-contained’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1919, p. 147.
  10. HW Gepp, ‘Australia self-contained’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 4, August 1919, p. 225.
  11. C B Schedvin, Shaping science and industry: a history of Australia’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926-49, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987, ch. 5; RW Home, ‘Science on service, 1939-1945’, in RW Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 222-7.
  12. Home, ‘Science on service’; David Paver Mellor, The role of science and industry, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 4 (civil), vol. 5, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958.
  13. CPD, vol. 187, 12 July 1946, pp. 2476-7.
  14. For a discussion of the elastic nature of the defence powers see RD Lumb, and GA Moens, The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia – Annotated, 5th ed., Butterworths, Sydney, 1995.
  15. CPD, vol. 187, 12 July 1946, pp. 2476-7.
  16. Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1992, ch. 2; Tim Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience: Australian scientists at the British atomic weapons test, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 1985, pp. 137-52.
  17. See ‘Proposal to set up an atomic physics laboratory at the Physics Department, Melbourne University, under the aegis of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’, 7 February 1945, and related correspondence in CSIRO Archives: series 3, KA5/17/1.
  18. HC Minnett, and Rutherford Robertson, ‘Frederick William George White’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 2, 1996, pp. 239-58.
  19. CSIR Consultative Committee on Nuclear Physics Research, Minutes of first meeting, 26 November 1945, CSIRO Archives: series 3, KA10/2/2. See also Dedman’s coments to Cabinet quoted in Cawte, Atomic Australia, p. 11.
  20. Cawte, Atomic Australia, pp. 60-3, 97-101.
  21. The politics of information have been the major focus of works relating to Australia’s nuclear history, see: Cawte, Atomic Australia; Sherratt, ‘A political inconvenience’; Sherratt, ‘A physicist would be best out of it’; Robert Milliken, No conceivable injury: the story of Britain and Australia’s atomic cover-up, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986; Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000.
  22. Secret cable from Australian legation, Washington to Department of Defence, 19 January 1946, NAA: A5954, box 1384/3.
  23. Cawte, Atomic Australia, pp. 49-53.
  24. TAG Hungerford, ‘Uranium refinery plant opens at Rum Jungle’, National Development, no. 9, September 1954, p. 3.
  25. SMH, 18 September 1954, p. 3. See also: ‘Rum Jungle uranium project opened’, Chemical Engineering and Mining Review, vol. 47, 11 October 1954, pp. 3-6, Cawte, Atomic Australia, pp. 80-1.
  26. SMH, 18 September 1954, p. 3.

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