WWII ended in the Pacific 75 years ago. Here’s how it still shapes us today

Actress Carmen Miranda dances on a car in Hollywood in celebration of the end of WWII.(Getty: Bettman)

ABC Radio National / By Kym Middleton

Posted Thursday 13 August 2020 at 11:00am, updated Thursday 13 AugAugust 2020 at 3:20pm

August 15 marks 75 years since World War II ended in the Pacific with Japan’s surrender to a group of countries that included Australia and its new superpower ally, the United States.

As we get further away from those events, both culturally and through time, even a milestone anniversary like this can easily slip by.

But the outcomes of the war in the Pacific can still be seen and felt today.

When Japan took Britain’s port in Singapore and 15,000 Australians as prisoners of war with it, it was clear the empire could no longer protect its Asia-Pacific dominions.

In just a few days, Japan invaded Pacific islands, attacked more parts of Asia, and bombed the Australian mainland.

WWII events that led to the ANZUS alliance

  • December 7, 1941: Japan bombs US fleets in Pearl Harbour
  • February 8-15, 1942: The fall of Singapore to Japan
  • February 16-19, 1942: Japan attacks the Philippines, Malaya, Thailand, Guam, the Gilbert Islands and Hong Kong
  • February 19, 1942: Japan bombs Darwin
  • May 31, 1942: Japanese submarines enter Sydney Harbour
  • August 6 and 9, 1945: US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • August 15, 1945: Japan announces its surrender, ending WWII in the Pacific
  • September 1, 1951: Australia, US and NZ sign ANZUS alliance

These events help explain why we followed the US into conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, why we pay such close attention to what China is doing, how our economy transformed since the 1940s, and even the make-up of our multicultural population.

We asked three Australian foreign policy experts why this anniversary matters and how World War II continues to shape Australia. Here’s what they said.

‘The US alliance is part of our DNA’

“Right this moment in Australia, with the many rolling disasters that we’ve experienced from bushfires to COVID-19, Australians have never felt so unsafe,” says Natasha Kassam, who measures national public opinion through the annual Lowy Institute Poll.

“If you were to consider a point of national insecurity comparable to today, I think you would go as far back as World War II.

“So this anniversary is even more important than maybe it has been in the past.”

Portrait of a woman with glasses and long black hair.
Natasha Kassam says the alliance with the United States is a part of Australia’s DNA.(Supplied:)

Ms Kassam has contributed to Australia’s foreign policies and served as a diplomat in China and the Solomon Islands.

While she has seen our sense of insecurity circle back to World War II levels, she says one sentiment has remained steady: most Australians view our alliance with the US positively.

“If you look at the annual Lowy polls, it has been consistent even when Australians have been deeply cynical about whoever is in charge at the White House,” she says.

“The alliance is a part of our foreign policy DNA and that is not easily shaken by the whims of different leaders.”

Black and white photo of crowd in times square celebrating and kissing at the announcement.
Crowds in Times Square went wild after a radio broadcast announced Japan had surrendered, ending WWII.(Getty: Paul Bernius)

She says today the ANZUS alliance — signed by Australia, the US and New Zealand after the war — attracts a “more mixed reaction”.

That’s partly, she says, because in more recent history it “led to Australian troops being deployed overseas in support of that relationship”.

“There’s a lot more scepticism amongst young Australians who didn’t live through the Cold War, whose lived experience of the alliance is the war in Iraq and the dysfunction of the United States today,” Ms Kassam says.

“Older Australians by contrast remember the existential threats at the end of the war. They remember the Cold War and the alliances caught up in the protection of Australia from those external threats.”

‘The alliance gives us a voice and balances military power’

John Lee of the United States Studies Centre was a senior adviser to former foreign minister Julie Bishop.

He says our alliance with the US “gives us a far more powerful standing and influence than we otherwise would have in the region, because after all, we are not a major power in the Pacific”.

He says that after World War II, “the US realised that it needed to have a far more active and constant presence” in the Pacific.

“And because of the advance of military technology — I’m talking about long range bombers, missiles, nuclear weapons — the US needed the capacity to be what we now call ‘forward deployed’, essentially being present on a permanent basis,” he says.

“This is the foundation of the decision to form the alliance.”

John Lee, United States Studies Centre.
John Lee says the alliance with United States gives us a “foot in the door” for shaping the region.(Supplied)

But having a superpower ally can be difficult, Dr Lee says, “because there’s always a power imbalance”.

“It’s not so much that we disagree with the end objectives that the United States want. We disagree with their tactics or the approaches,” he says.

“I would contrast that with China. Yes, we want to have a good relationship with China but ultimately we quite fundamentally disagree with the objectives and the outcomes that China wants.”

He points to the Belt and Road and South China Sea developments as examples — these initiatives, he says, are designed by China for only China’s interests, rather than the benefit of the region.

Dr Lee says the Australia-US alliance that came from World War II provides a military balance in the Pacific today.

“China now spends more on its military each year than the whole of East Asia, South-East Asia and South Asia,” he says.

“So essentially without the United States, there is no balance.

“It also means that China will think twice before actually carrying out physical threats against Australia, which is not the case with a lot of South-East Asian countries.”

‘New alliance, new confidence’

Former Army chief Peter Leahy sees many positive social and economic impacts emanating from World War II and the US alliance.

“First of all, with the change of prime ministers from Menzies to Curtin, there was a change from being aligned with Britain to the United States,” he says.

“That breakaway from old world Britain gave Australia a new confidence to engage internationally, especially in the Pacific, as its own player.”

Professor Leahy was chief of Army from 2002 to 2008 and a soldier for 37 years. He is now the director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

More than emerging from World War II as a more independent nation with the greatest superpower as a military ally, he says Australia has enjoyed economic and cultural benefits brought by the war’s end.

“Being more confident meant we opened up economically. We moved away from food production and into manufacturing and began trading with the region and beyond,” he explains.

“World War II also made Australia a more multicultural country. The post-war years brought new waves of migrants, first from European countries destroyed in the war, and then later from Asian countries like Vietnam and Korea.

“Australia has greatly benefited from this.”

He says Australians have also greatly benefited from the efforts of “the greatest generation” — those who fought in World War II.

“Germany and Japan were serious threats to liberty across the world and that generation fought for those principles and the liberties we enjoy today,” he says.

And while he acknowledges the huge influence the war had on Australia, he cautions: “I think it’s OK not to look back as if this was the only thing to shape Australia.”

“It’s good to look back, but there are many other things that shape us too. It is all connected,” he says.


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