The badge of the outsider

Chapter 7 | Previous | Next

The war, when it came, only lasted for a month, but that was long enough. All life was quickly extinguished in the northern hemisphere, and the clouds of deadly radioactive fallout gradually diffused to shroud the whole globe. For the people of Australia, it was a lingering, drawn out journey to oblivion. Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On the Beach presented a new threat from the north, something invisible and unstoppable. ‘It’s going to go on spreading down here, southwards, till it gets to us?’, Moira asks, ‘And they can’t do anything about it?’ ‘Not a thing’, replies Commander Dwight Towers, ‘It’s just too big a matter for mankind to tackle. We’ve just got to take it’. 1 All they can do is wait helplessly for their own death. In this final act of surrender the people of Australia are united with the rest of humanity. One world or none.

In 1945, the Sydney Morning Herald could find ‘no logical reason for setting the atomic weapon apart from other weapons’. The ‘swathe of death’ it cut was wider, but the ‘consequence to the individual victim’ was the same. And yet logic seemed somehow inadequate, the newspaper admitted, for ‘we know in our hearts that something new and terrible has entered into the lives of nations’. 2 A war fought with atomic weapons would not be like any other war, it would bring ‘universal ruin’, perhaps the end of civilisation itself. Where diplomacy, conquest, and religion had failed, technology had made the world as one, united in the prospect of Armageddon. Humanity could not avoid the challenge to ‘co-operate or perish’. 3

‘I am becoming convinced that the only defence of the world against the threat of atomic warfare is a political defence’, declared GV Portus, professor of political science and history at the University of Adelaide. Schemes for international co-operation or control were a useful starting point, but Portus argued that the bomb demanded more. Countries could no longer imagine themselves as independent entities, free to act according to their own desires and ambitions. If the world was to avoid oblivion, it had to abandon the ‘out of date’ concept of ‘national sovereignty’ altogether. 4 The bomb had obliterated boundaries between energy and matter, between civilian and combatant, now it seemed that the boundaries between nations themselves must yield.

Portus quoted extensively from Albert Einstein, who in the aftermath of Hiroshima became a vocal advocate of the idea of ‘world government’. 5 The concept itself was hardly new, but the bomb added a persuasive sense of urgency. 6 In October 1949, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the people of Gosford were to ‘do a little soul-searching on behalf of all Australians’, by taking part in a pilot poll to gauge support for the principles of a ‘World Federal Government’. HN Rhodes, chairman of the NSW division of the World Movement for World Federal Government explained that they aimed ‘to create a federal type of world government, elected by the people of the world, and capable of making and enforcing world law in matters likely to provoke war’. The difficulties were enormous, Rhodes admitted, but ‘nothing less than what we propose can save the world from catastrophe’. 7

While the heyday of the world government movement was brief, proponents remained active well into the 1950s. Basil Buller-Murphy, a barrister married to one of Australia’s wealthiest and most powerful women, Deborah Buller-Murphy, described himself as the country’s most resolute advocate of world federation. 8 Despite his supposed revolutionary leanings, Buller-Murphy remained ‘a sturdy devotee of the Crown’ and ‘an ardent admirer of the Queen’. 9 His concern was less with questions of morality than the importance of the rule of law. ‘If the nations want world peace, they must have world order’, he argued, ‘if they want world order they must have world law’. 10 Buller-Murphy’s priorities were reflected in the fact that office bearers of his World Federation Society were drawn exclusively from the ranks of Queen’s Counsels. 11

Mark Oliphant was also inclined towards the ideals of world government. In April 1954, four thousand people packed the Sydney Town Hall for a discussion of the ‘moral implications of the hydrogen bomb’. 12 Oliphant spoke first, describing the horrific consequences of a conflict involving weapons of ‘unlimited destructive power’: ‘hundreds of millions of people would be killed’ and ‘humanity would return to the middle ages’. ‘The only possible solution’, he declared, was ‘a world body, world government if you like, to deal with all the problems of international difference’. 13 Oliphant’s prescriptions were received enthusiastically by the crowd, and noted carefully by a member of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), monitoring communist opposition to the hydrogen bomb. The operative’s report assessed the overflowing audience as ‘evenly divided between the sort of people who generally attend Communist meetings and the type of people who attend symphony concerts’. Oliphant’s speech attracted most attention, though the comments of other speakers were also summarised. ‘Canon Davidson’, it was reported, ‘delivered a sermon on good and evil but did not deal with anything of security interest’. Remarking that pamphlets from the World Movement for World Federal Government were distributed, the report noted that ‘Professor Oliphant’s support of this movement is of interest’. 14 As Oliphant imagined an end to ‘problems of international difference’, his communist sympathies were being assessed. As world government proponents looked to break down barriers of suspicion and hostility between nations, ASIO’s presence was a reminder that the world was more starkly divided perhaps than ever before.

In March 1946, Winston Churchill famously declared that an ‘iron curtain’ had descended across the European continent. The expansion of the ‘Soviet sphere’ to encompass much of eastern and central Europe was a threat to ‘unity’, to the very ‘safety of the world’. The world was divided geographically and ideologically. Even outside the Soviet bloc, ‘fifth columns’ were at work furthering the communist agenda, posing ‘a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization’. Strength was the only answer, Churchill asserted, the combined strength of the British and American peoples, expressed in military power, in the development of science and industry, and ‘in moral force’. Only then would ‘the high roads of the future’ be clear. 15 In this new age of oxymorons, war was cold, and the bomb was a weapon of peace.

Australians too were discovering new boundaries and divisions. The mysterious undertakings at Woomera were surrounded by their own ‘iron curtain of security’. 16 Woomera was, one visitor observed, ‘the most closely guarded, most security-minded town of the Empire’. 17 It was the centre of ‘a vast top-secret scientific enterprise’, where ‘the pursuits of peace and war’ seemed ‘oddly in harmony’. Woomera was a ‘closed town’, Ivan Southall explained to his young readers in Rockets in the desert, ‘it is locked up behind big gates, and at each of these gates policemen are on duty night and day all the year round’. You could not drive through the town, or stop for a look. You could not visit without the permission of a security officer. ‘It’s the job of the security officer to protect all the secrets that are hidden at Woomera’, Southall noted, ‘he may let you through the gate if your reason is good enough, but it will have to be a very good reason indeed’. 18

The question of who was let through the gates was a sensitive one in a town where residents were security screened and ‘curiosity’ was ‘the badge of the outsider (in both its meanings)’. 19 In 1953, the Herald was aghast to learn that people with known communist affiliations were living and working within the rocket range. In the recent Senate election, it claimed, five votes had been cast in Woomera for an avowedly communist candidate. Despite government assertions that ‘known political suspects’ had no access to secret information, the newspaper insisted such people should be expelled. ‘There is no such thing as a “safe” suspect in a defence area’, it argued. 20

Fears of communist interference in these vital defence experiments were raised even as the range was being constructed in 1947. Opposition warnings of ‘communist treachery’ seemed justified when the Building Trades Federation recommended a boycott of work at the site. 21 The Labor government was challenged to prove it was willing to take firm action against the mounting communist threat. It responded by passing the Approved Defence Projects Act, which not only outlawed the disruption of defence undertakings, but also threatened with punishment anyone who ‘by speech or writing advocates or encourages the prevention, hindrance or obstruction’ of such projects. 22 Brian Fitzpatrick, secretary of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, argued that this ‘Anti-Sabotage Bill’ constituted ‘the worst threat to basic democratic rights’ that Australia had seen for many years. 23 But the Age warned that ‘in matters of national defence the foolishness of misguided friends can be as dangerous as the machinations of enemies’, and congratulated the government on ‘giving the new measure the widest application and buttressing it well with severe penalties’. 24

In a divided world the maintenance of boundaries was all important. Land was ‘prohibited’ to prevent incursions by ‘tourists, spies, and other troublesome observers’. 25 People were vetted to distinguish friend from foe. Secrets were guarded to protect against ‘leakage’. Security was to be ensured by erecting ever stronger barriers around land, people and ideas. As the British prepared to explode their first atomic bomb in 1952, the Menzies government introduced its own legislation to increase Commonwealth control over access to defence related sites. 26 People could be searched and arrested not only for trespassing upon a prohibited area, but even if it was merely believed they were ‘about to commit’ an offence against the act. ‘The penalties provided for offences are severe’, admitted the Minister of Defence, ‘I make no apology for that’. ‘Public interest and curiosity’ was being excited by plans for the atomic test. ‘Some of this interest may be ascribed to natural inquisitiveness’, he commented, ‘but some is and will be nefarious’. 27 In the battle of boundaries it mattered which side were you on.

Space and distance, which for so long had seemed to threaten the nation’s security, to resist its attempts at progress, now provided an extra barrier against unwelcome attention. The ‘vast wastelands’ of Australia’s interior offered an ideal site for defence developments, ‘far removed from the eyes and ears of a potential enemy’. 28 But this recolonisation of the interior brought unsettling reminders of white Australia’s unfinished conquest. Doug Nicholls, secretary of the Aborigines’ League, called for protest against the rocket range as yet ‘another tragic theft’ of the land from its ‘defenceless’ inhabitants. ‘Central Australian tribes’, he argued, ‘had, so far, escaped the fate of aborigines in other parts of Australia, whose only legacy from contact with the white man was loss of their possessions and free way of life’. 29 As Australia championed human rights in the United Nations, it was accused of a ‘gross act of injustice to a weaker people who have no voice of their own’. ‘It is no use being hypocritical about it’, argued Clive Turnbull in the Herald, ‘if we say “the rocket range is so important that it is worth destroying the natives for”, the world will at least know where we stand, despite all those protestations about the rights of small peoples’. The Herald’s editor sought to distance himself from Turnbull’s comments, noting that ‘logically’ his argument would mean ‘that the European civilisation in Australia should never have come’. 30

Woomera stirred activity along frontiers of science, occupation and defence. The experimental program would launch science into new realms of exploration and understanding; Australia’s troublesome wastelands would at last be brought to productive account; and the security of the nation, the empire, and the free world itself, would be bulwarked by an expanding arsenal of ever more powerful weapons. Frontiers provide a site for transformation and transcendence, a line of advance where progress exchanges old for new, past for future. But they are also sites of confrontation, where the promise of future achievement faces the fear of past mistakes, where the creative power of modern society is revealed in all its destructive horror, and where the image of strength and self-reliance is undermined by questions of legitimacy and integrity. 31 The compelling contrast between old and new blurs into uncertainty and doubt.

Littleton Groom’s yeoman farmers were set to labour not merely for the benefit of nation, but for the welfare of the race. His 1901 election campaign was energised by a detailed and passionate advocacy of the principle of ‘White Australia’. Quoting CH Pearson on the dangers of Asian immigration and the threat of racial degeneracy, he warned his electors ‘we are not fighting the battle of Australia alone, …we are fighting the battle of civilised Europe’. 32 It was in the denial of borders, the negation of boundaries, that Australia’s dissolution threatened. Racial integrity had to be vigorously maintained along battlefronts both personal and national, moral and martial. ‘Can you allow your children to blend their blood with that of the alien races?’, Groom asked, ‘Can you imagine anything more pathetic than sad-looking almond eyes peeping out of the Caucasian faces?’ 33

Degeneration menaced both by a mixing of blood and a denial of natural destiny. Old should yield to new in the fulfilment of progress, as predictably as minute follows minute. But the frontier brought the danger of reversion, the possibility that both body and spirit could be polluted by contact with primitive nature. The flow of destiny could stall as old bled into new, as the boundary between past and future lost its dynamism and clarity. It was a fear that lingered into the Atomic Age, as the latest product of progress paradoxically threatened to reverse the march of civilisation. Mark Oliphant was not alone in believing that an atomic war would drive humanity back to the dark ages or beyond. The bomb also renewed the attack on the integrity of race and heredity. The effects of radioactive fallout might be felt not only in the bodies of the living, but in the illness and deformities of generations unborn.

Fears of infiltration, contamination and degeneration have constantly pricked at the confidence of white Australia. The challenge of nation building has been found not just in the development of land and people, but in the imposition of an effective quarantine regime, and in the battle against ‘alien’ or tropical diseases. 34 Australia could remain strong and healthy by keeping its borders intact against the perils of a diseased and dangerous world. 35 The metaphors of disease were also employed to awaken people to the insidious threat of communism. 36 Like the Chinese before them, Communists were portrayed as ‘vermin’ infecting a dangerously innocent Australia. Communism, argued EJ Hogan in his book What’s wrong with Australia, ‘is a dangerous sickness and more widespread than any epidemic ever experienced’. 37

The Cold War pushed Australia’s defensive frontiers ever northward, as the concept of ‘forward defence’ emerged to contain the threat of communism. 38 ‘We must, by peaceful means extend the frontiers of the human spirit’, Menzies proclaimed, ‘We must, by armed strength, defend the geographical frontiers of those nations whose self-government is based upon the freedom of the spirit’. 39 But even as the frontiers of Australian security expanded, so they rebounded inwards, enclosing hearts and minds in an ever tighter grip. Familiar fears of infiltration were revived, as the boundary between friend and enemy became more difficult to draw with certainty.

Progress was understood as a battle between opposites where attempts to negotiate a cooperative peace can only end in weakness and confusion. Boundaries offered protection, maintaining the country’s integrity and purpose, but this fragile security was won at the cost of tolerance and diversity. Against a world of threats, we cling to the idea that progress can be ensured by determining who belongs and who doesn’t, by erecting barriers to defend the image of who we think we are, by denying the moral ambivalence of our history, and by searching for the certainty to separate right from wrong. The characters in On the beach faced Australia’s ultimate nightmare. From the north it came, a cloud of death and disease that no defensive barrier could stop. There seemed no reason, no sense, only confusion, anger and resignation.


  1. Nevil Shute, On the beach, Heinemann, London, 1957, pp. 39-40.
  2. SMH, 11 August 1945, p. 2.
  3. SMH, 9 August 1945, p. 2.
  4. GV Portus, ‘The atom bomb and the world’, in Kerr Grant and GV Portus (eds), The atomic age, United Nations Association, SA Division, Adelaide, 1946, pp. 14-27.
  5. Albert Einstein, ‘World government or atomic war, says Einstein’, SMH, 29 October 1945, p. 2. See also Paul Boyer, By the bomb’s early light : American thought and culture at the dawn of the Atomic Age, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985, pp. 36-45.
  6. John F Bantell, ‘The origins of the world government movement: the Dublin conference and after’, Research Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, March 1974, pp. 20–35.
  7. SMH, 4 October 1949, p. 2. In a letter a few months later, Rhodes reported that 72 per cent of Gosford electors support this approach, SMH 31 March 1950, p. 2.
  8. Buller-Murphy published a collection of his articles and speeches under the title Safety of our future: world federation, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1957.
  9. Herald, 28 July 1962.
  10. Buller-Murphy, Safety of our future, p. 181.
  11. ibid., p. 16. Buller-Murphy, not himself a QC, was given the special position of ‘Founder and Honorary Director’.
  12. Daily Telegraph, 9 April 1954, p. 12.
  13. ibid.; MLE Oliphant, ‘Peace or destruction’, Voice, vol. 3, no. 7, April 1954, pp. 12-13. The proceedings of the meeting were included in Voice under the heading ‘The H-Bomb: a challenge to humanity’.
  14. Memorandum for ASIO Headquarters, ‘Agitation against the atomic bomb’, 14 April 1954, NAA: A6122/XR1, 216.
  15. Winston Churchill, ‘Sinews of peace’, in Randolph Churchill (ed.), The sinews of peace: post-war speeches by Winston S Churchill, Cassell, London, 1948.
  16. Herald, 12 October 1953, p. 3.
  17. Herald, 15 March 1952, p. 13.
  18. Ivan Southall, Rockets in the desert, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964, pp. 3-4.
  19. Herald, 15 March 1952, p. 13. For a description of the security system at Woomera, see Peter Morton, Fire across the desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946-1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1989, ch. 7.
  20. Herald, 14 August 1953, p. 4.
  21. Age, 8 March 1947, p. 16. See also Morton, Fire across the desert, pp. 117-22
  22. Quoted in Morton, Fire across the desert, p. 120.
  23. Press release entitled ‘The Approved Defence Projects  Protection Bill’, Brian Fitzpatrick papers, NLA: MS4965, series 1c, folder 93. See also, Don Watson, Brian Fitzpatrick: a radical life, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1979, pp. 210-1.
  24. Age, 2 June 1947, p. 2.
  25. Ivan Southall, Woomera, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, p. 21.
  26. This was the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952.
  27. CPD, vol. 217, 4 June 1952, pp. 1375-6.
  28. Charles H Holmes, ‘Half-way round the world to test atomic weapons’, Walkabout, vol. 18, no. 7, 1 July 1952, p. 12.
  29. Herald, 4 October 1946, p. 9.
  30. Herald, 29 March 1947, p. 4.
  31. For some of the complexity of the Australian frontier(s) see: Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Hard times: an Australian study’, in Klaus Neumann, Nicholas Thomas and Hilary Ericksen (eds), Quicksands: foundational histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1999, esp. p. 12; Brigid Hains, The ice and the inlad: Mawson, Flynn and the myth of the frontier, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002, esp. p. 5, 103, 127-8; Brigid Hains, ‘Mawson of the Antarctic, Flynn of the Inland: Progressive heroes on Australia’s ecological frontiers’, in Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), Ecology and empire: Environmental history of settler societies, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 154-66.
  32. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901.
  33. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901. For anxieties relating to the mixing of races, see David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999, ch. 14.
  34. Alison Bashford, ‘Quarantine and the imagining of the Australian nation’, Health, vol. 2, no. 4, October 1998, pp. 387-402; see also Walker, Anxious nation, ch. 11; Warwick Anderson, ‘Geography, race and nation: remapping ‘tropical’ Australia, 1890-1930’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 4, 1997, pp. 457-68.
  35. For images of a bounded Australia, particularly in relation to communism, see Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ forgotten people, Sun, Sydney, 1993, pp. 87-92.
  36. Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Hellier Donna, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Australia’s first Cold War, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, pp. 10-11.
  37. Quoted in ibid., pp. 10-11.
  38. Lachlan Strahan, ‘The dread frontier in Australian defence thinking’, in Graeme Cheeseman and Robert H. Bruce (eds), Discourses of danger & dread frontiers : Australian defence and security thinking after the Cold War, Allen & Unwin, Canberra, 1996, pp. 150-75.
  39. Quoted in ibid., p. 162.

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