Launch of Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds

Melbourne, 29 February 2008

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds deserve our congratulations for their new book Drawing the Global Colour Line. It is a scholarly work, meticulously researched. It is largely factual in content with the minimum of comment. The facts, perhaps unfortunately, speak for themselves.

It is a story of white power, of white domination, of racist policies covering those parts of the world governed, or sought to be governed by white nations.

It is a story of tensions between Britain, who theoretically sought to apply policies of racial equality, throughout the empire and the colonists and later the dominions, who were determined to maintain absolute sovereignty and the whiteness of their new states. For example in 1860 Britain negotiated a treaty with China designed to achieve reciprocal, fair and equal treatment for all foreign nationals in their respective domains. Emerging Australian states largely ignored its provisions.

A similar treaty was negotiated with Japan in 1894, but that treaty contained an escape clause which allowed colonial states to escape its provisions. That change on the part of Britain came largely as a result of opposition to racial equality in the emerging Australian states. Similar attitudes were being expressed strongly in South Africa, Canada and on the west coast of the United States, especially in California.

Many Australians may be surprised to learn that the first major restrictions on immigration to this country related to Chinese who worked in and around the goldfields. Chinese immigrants were energetic and highly intelligent. At one point I am advised, 13,000 of 17,000 goldminers in Queensland were Chinese. That was regarded as a challenge that had to be met and so restrictive policies of various kinds were introduced.

The experience of the 1800s made Australian politicians absolutely determined to pursue white Australia and to construct laws that would enable them to maintain it. As a result of argument from Joseph Chamberlain, the racist purpose of the laws was not overtly stated, literacy tests, dictation tests were to be used.

California was the centre of the most virulent anti-immigration arguments in the United States. Their attitudes were shaped by Japanese immigration. Restrictive measures were put in place. Theodore Roosevelt at one point negotiated a reciprocal agreement with Japan, which Japan may not have liked but was prepared to accept. At a later point the United States unilaterally abrogated that agreement.

The book is especially valuable because it links the racist attitudes and policies expressed strongly in Australia, Canada, on the west coast of America and in South Africa and demonstrates clearly that there was much interchange of ideas of method in applying policies of exclusion. The communication and cross fertilization of those arguing for white dominance and of policies of exclusion were substantial.

The book demonstrates how the idealism of President Woodrow Wilson foundered on the politics of race. He had dreamt of equality, of a League of Nations that would prevent world wars, that would work for justice and achieve world peace. He probably had a dream of racial equality, but the hard fact of American domestic politics, restrained him on that issue. He did not want to alienate the west coast, California in particular.

I had been unaware of the extent to which the Japanese had sought to advance argument for racial equality. At one point Japan had believed that the white based exclusionary policies applied through the British Empire and in the United States were based on a belief that white people were better ordered, more highly educated with a growing industry and scientific base and substantial military power. Japan bitterly resented being lumped in with non-white races, with other excluded groups whom others regarded as inferior. It was only later that they came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a question of education or sophistication, it was a question of colour and of power. Japan had believed that Japan should be accorded equal status because they regarded themselves as the equal of whites in these respects especially after the war against Russia in 1904/1905. Rather than advancing a case for equality that war alerted white races to growing military power of Japan and would have led to increased concern.

The book explains in some detail the disillusion of the Japanese and the growing realisation that their exclusion was based purely on colour and that would not be overcome by demonstrating equality with white races in all other respects. Japan’s experience in the negotiations over the League of Nations had a profound effect on their future conduct. It argued reasonably, cogently, accurately for a racial equality clause in the preamble of the League of Nations (p. 289):

The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree that concerning the treatment and rights to be accorded to aliens in their territories, they will not discriminate, either in law or in fact, against any person or persons on account of his or her race or nationality.

Woodrow Wilson was sympathetic but the pressure of domestic politics made him cautious. Debates over the League of Nations demonstrated how completely Britain had discarded the high principle of racial equality to maintain the agreement and support of the new states, of the dominions within the Empire.

Lord Robert Cecil and Arthur Balfour, as the book relates, gave the Japanese some encouragement, but was that real or merely diplomacy? They knew that the dominions and W.M. Hughes in particular would not have a bar of it. The majority of states present in the negotiations of the League, almost certainly would have accepted a racial equality clause. I had not realised that Australia’s role was pre-eminent in achieving its rejection. The Japanese persisted in their objective for some time. They put forward a second draft which read:

The equality of nations, being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to endorse the principle of equal and just treatment to be accorded to all alien nationals of State members of the League.

Cecil explained to the Japanese that he personally favoured the proposals, but couldn’t give a definite reply because it was really an Australian question. As Cecil knew, from Hughes point of view it was not only the wording of the proposal but ‘the underlying idea itself which ninety-five out of a hundred Australians rejected.’ At one point Hughes walked out of a meeting when he was pressed to find a solution and a compromise.

And so the idea of a racial equality clause in the League of Nations was put aside. Without Hughes, a strong argument could be made that a compromise proposal would have been accepted.

Debates over the League demonstrated clearly the extent to which Britain bowed to Dominion pressure. A facade of earlier times was dropped. The earlier restrictive legislation, including literacy or dictation tests were touched in terms designed to protect the facade, the pretence that the policies being applied were not racist. From the time of the debates over the League, no such pretence was possible.

The book serves an admiral purpose in demonstrating that the ideas and policies relating to colour flowed across state boundaries and around the world, that the ideas and in many cases the policies of exclusion were similar.

These issues achieved a great deal of publicity in Japan. After the peace conference, Konoe Fumimaro wrote of his impressions of the Paris Peace Conference. He argued that he was fully justified in arguing that power alone determined the course of international affairs.

There is no doubt that the failure of the League to accept one of the Japanese drafts concerning racial equality had a profound effect on future years. Race-based policies were dominant in the 1920s. As militarism gained strength in Japan, the racist attitudes of the white races was clearly one of the arguments used to give the military dominance over those with a more liberal attitude.

In 1923 and 1924, Congress by substantial majorities in both chambers, as the book relates, prohibited future Japanese migration. Unilaterally the United States tore up an earlier agreement with Japan. The President, Calvin Coolidge, foresaw some of the dangers and attempted but failed to persuade Congress to negotiate a new agreement with Japan.

The Secretary of State, Hayes, underlined the deep resentment that was felt in Japan. Japan would believe that Japanese migrants had been singled out for exclusion. The enactment, he said, would be regarded as a deep insult.

In its conclusion the book underlines that Japanese scholars confirm the importance of the immigration question in determining Japanese foreign policy, a foreign policy that led ultimately to Pearl Harbour. We should not be all that surprised.

I believe the book demonstrates that if the West, or if the United States had wanted to construct a basis of policy designed to force Japan into alliance with Hitler, it could hardly have done so more effectively.

The book ends on a note of optimism. The United Nations with totally different attitudes being dominant, substantial leadership from the United States, and the acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all sought to create a different world.

However, I wish the book did not end there. I would like suggest that the politics of the 1990s and of the first decade of this century carries many terrible similarities to the politics of race so dominantly and effectively described in the book. The mistakes then made, the division of the world into those accepted and those rejected are not dissimilar from what has happened since 9/11. The comments made by Bush and Blair on terrorist issues, on Islam, the absolutism of the British, American and Australian policies of the time have done much to alienate millions of Muslims. The politics of race, of fear of the unknown, of fear of difference, have played too great a role in Australia in recent years. If we had the wit we could take lessons from the book, learn a little from history and seek to avoid making the old mistakes.

So far there is not much evidence that these lessons have been learnt. Before reading the book I had understood the role that Prime Minister Billy Hughes had played in entrenching a dangerous and damaging sectarianism between Catholic and Protestant in Australia which so bitterly divided this nation for over 50 years. I had not understood adequately the role he had played in relation to the League of Nations on the question of race. He returned to Australia after those debates claiming total victory. When he was out of office he lectured in the United States saying how important it was to maintain the white race and white supremacy.

We need greater evidence from the great powers that they understand that allowing either race or religion to influence foreign policy and through it the course of history, leads to disaster. We should have learnt that the politics of fear of those who are different for whatever reason is dangerous politics which should be avoided. We should have learnt that exclusionary policies have failed. We should ponder to what extent are policies pursued by America, Britain and Australia in recent times, similar in concept and outline to the policies of whiteness, to the policies and attitudes described so eloquently in this book.

There is a role Australia could play and one entirely consistent with existing alliances, a role of moral leadership with other like minded countries, in the Commonwealth of Nations and in the United Nations in particular and its instrumentalities. Prime Minister Hughes influenced policies relating to the League with evil results. We could garner allies amongst other middle-ranking countries, Canada, Sweden and many others from every region and every continent who would argue for policies based on justice and equality. Such a leadership would contribute enormously to the establishment of a more peaceful world. It is a role Australia could play.

We should be indebted to our joint authors for so emphatically underlying the global consequences of the policies of whiteness, hopefully prompting us to move in better directions for future years. The role is waiting.