Inside Story

Australia reconstructs

Books | Stuart Macintyre’s history of Australia in the 1940s is a big book in the best sense

Hannah Forsyth 15 June 2015 1806 words

A new world: members of the crowd in Martin Place, Sydney, during the Victory Pacific celebrations on 15 August 1945. Australian War Memorial

Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s
By Stuart Macintyre | NewSouth | $34.99

“How is it?” a colleague asked, noticing I was reading Australia’s Boldest Experiment. “Great,” I replied. “Though I’m learning a lot more about Winston Churchill than I expected.”

At first I thought I might have accidentally committed myself to reading a “kings and battles” history, a type I generally avoid. If that was the case, though, it was an excellent version of the genre. Take, for example, this quote from the opening pages:

Just as the story of Gallipoli drew on Homer’s epic story of the siege of Troy, so that of Kokoda has taken on the legendary proportions of the battle of Thermopylae, where a band of Spartan warriors sacrificed their lives to prevent conquest by a vast imperial army.

But by the time I was approaching the halfway mark, I had to acknowledge I’d been wrong. For one thing, there is an awful lot about women in Australia’s Boldest Experiment. In fact, this monumental chronicle is a “big” book in the proper sense, with every chapter contributing to Australian history in important ways.

I was surprised by this, just as I had been surprised by the kings and battles in the early pages. Based on the rumours circulating among historians over the past few years, I knew that Stuart Macintyre was writing a history of postwar reconstruction. And it’s true that this is a book about how the new habit of central government planning, developed during the second world war, continued afterwards to construct Australia’s modern welfare state. Which might sound incredibly dull, but isn’t.

In an important sense, postwar reconstruction marks the moment Australia became modern. Sure, it involved lots of bureaucrats in Canberra making lots of decisions. Certainly, our understanding their decisions comes largely from turgid minutes, formal correspondence and file notes. But let’s consider what they were planning – homes and housing, health, education, immigration, the nature and size of farms and food production, the sources of our energy, and the structure and character of the workforce. Pretty much everything we saw and experienced in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century was touched by this 1940s urge to remake.

This aspect of postwar reconstruction – the one I was nerdily anticipating with some excitement – dominates the book. But it is not its only subject. Not only are the chapters devoted to reconstruction planning more expansive than I’d anticipated, but they are also sandwiched by important details of Australia’s participation in the second world war, on the one hand, and the shaping of Australian politics and society on the other.

Commencing Australia’s Boldest Experiment with a “distant war,” as Macintyre does, is important and appropriate, for it was the management and planning of the second world war, here and among our allies, that forged the habits and expertise that infused postwar planning. Macintyre takes the time to fill out previously unexplored details of the war and its politics, reminding readers at every step that wars are not run by faceless systems but by real and complex humans whose relation to one another is nuanced by their beliefs and experiences.

The themes that preoccupied these people – issues such as housing, employment, rural development and social welfare – weave through the rest of the book. They are framed by the reality of war and then of demobilisation. Particular attention is paid to the women involved in reconstruction planning, and to shifts in structures of feeling and experience as women’s worlds changed. As we might expect given Macintyre’s past work, he gives labour conditions before, during and after the war a good and complex telling, showing how history is shaped by the nature and structure of work as much as by the inclinations of political giants.

The political history is the book’s most obvious strength. Curtin and his successor as Labor prime minister, Ben Chifley, come alive in its pages, their work and lives shaping and informing the Australia they hoped for and the one that eventuated. Menzies comes off better than one might expect, for he is given credit where it is due. His decision to continue many of the policies of postwar reconstruction, grounded in Keynesian economics and including the welfare state, is acknowledged, as is his continued use of the talented administrators nurtured by the Labor government.

If there is a hero of the book it is H.C. “Nugget” Coombs. Coombs was the brilliant economist who headed the Department of Post-War Reconstruction and was later the governor of the Commonwealth Bank. He was central to a great deal of government social and economic planning during this period, and participated in the international negotiations leading to the Bretton Woods system that governed the postwar global economy.

In Macintyre’s account, Coombs can sometimes seem superhuman. He was everywhere at once, his value as a public servant evident at many key points. Despite his centrality, though, this is no biography, and Macintyre frequently acknowledges the work of Tim Rowse, whose biography of Coombs appeared in the early 2000s. Moreover, the primary sources that Coombs created are treated in this volume with critical care, taking into account both the fallibility of memory and the perspective built into the evidence Coombs left. Coombs makes for a wonderful hero, for he didn’t see himself in such heroic terms.

While politics stands out in Macintyre’s account of this period, there are chapters that focus on what we would call social history. We learn about living conditions in Australia and the movements to improve them; we begin to understand why the architecture of our cities looks the way it does, reflecting successive building regimes; and we learn about work conditions, from both legislative and structural perspectives, and from real-world experience. These themes are woven into the complex decisions of political leaders, both Labor and conservative, to enable us to see the interplay between economic management and economic activity, grounded in labour.

We learn about the leaders of military and domestic “manpower” planning, but Macintyre also gives a vivid sense of how this planning was experienced in “every corner of national life.” Women, for example, were attracted to war work by pay rates closer to men’s than they had been at any other time, and often as much as 90 per cent of the male rate.

Whether he is offering details of postwar reconstruction minister John Dedman’s intentions for women after the war, examining the motives of labour organisations or explaining the origins of government policies, one of Macintyre’s important contributions in this book is to challenge historians’ long-held beliefs. He is a kindly mythbuster, but his masterly use of archival evidence makes this both an enlightening and a bracing read.

In the introduction, for instance, we find that postwar reconstruction was far larger than a mere exercise in social engineering; in chapter three Macintyre debunks our tendency to see Curtin’s attempt to forge closer links with the United States as clumsy and offensive to Britain; in chapter four we see that Menzies’s famous “forgotten people” had not really been forgotten at all by other politicians. I won’t try to list them all, but the gentle corrections continue all the way to the last chapter, where I learned that I had been mistaken in some of my own work on the origins of Commonwealth Scholarships.

Australia’s Boldest Experiment is more than a useful collection of facts for historians, however: it is also an entertaining read. I often found myself able to see and feel the world as Macintyre evoked it, with the chapter on demobilisation a particular highlight in this respect. I found that I could just as readily relate to impatient soldiers, waiting months to return home as the war ended, as I could to the immensity of the list of tasks that Coombs set his team the day after the peace was declared: “demobilisation, protection against immediate displacement consequences, training and retraining, expediting readaption of factory production, restoration of infrastructure and housing, capital issues control, monetary and fiscal measures to cope with the expected inflationary pressures.”

As well as becoming immersed in the experience of what in other hands might be a mundane account of administrative procedures, I laughed out loud at Macintyre’s astute judgements on historical characters and the significance of their quirks to the development of postwar Australia, and at his revelation of often telling details, such as the suggested naming of a public service bureau in order to use “bunyip” as its telegraph address.

As well as correcting many small misconceptions, Macintyre offers a gentle rebuke to Australian historiography by insisting on a more diverse set of methodological considerations than is common in our field. Extending the materialist framework that has characterised his labour history, this book may well also be the most important work of economic history Australia has seen in recent years, not least because Macintyre takes pains to explain economic history so that non-specialists will be able to understand it. Transformations in the global currency system and banking, the changing role of tariffs, and the risks associated with the rapid growth of consumption as the war ended are all dealt with in the context of the debates among those seeking to influence the direction of policy. In so doing, Macintyre brings a transnational perspective to this history of a national program of change. Drawing on a very wide range of sources, from meeting minutes to the mass media, he exposes shifts that were simultaneously global and structural, and personal and specific.

The economic assumptions of the book are sometimes a little strained, however, as Macintyre seeks both to demonstrate the diversity of economic thinking and to show the real-world effect of economic decisions. As a result, there are moments in the book when the economic assumptions of the 1940s appear as ahistorical truths. In the introduction, for example, Macintyre describes prewar Australia as “undeveloped” and lacking in plans to “direct the use of all its resources,” an assumption that reflects the ideology of progress that prevailed at the time instead of taking into account the environmental consequences of developmentalism that we can see in hindsight.

The selection of the timeframe itself might reinforce this tendency. Historians and political polemicists are often tempted to look back at the postwar period internationally as an exemplar of fairer economic management than is in current vogue in many states. Macintyre rarely falls into this trap, though his unashamed admiration for Curtin and Chifley suggests something of it.

It would be churlish, however, to criticise this book for not covering a longer period. Australia’s Boldest Experiment will be correcting and feeding our interpretations of Australia in the 1940s – and indeed the twentieth century as a whole – for a good while yet. •