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National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: Australia's Bid for the Atomic Bomb

by Wayne Reynolds

Melbourne University Press, $29.95

Whether or not one thinks, to borrow a phrase from 1066 and All That, that the nuclear bomb is a Good Thing, this book vaporises a number of historical myths about Australia and the bomb.

If our many politically-correct historians ever notice things that conflict with their pre-conceived mythologies, the fallout from this book should cause them a good deal of discomfort.

Historians of alleged Australian "independence" or lack of it, who claim Australia turned from Britain to America after the fall of Singapore, have overlooked the fact that Australia then helped challenge the U.S. nuclear monopoly, both in conjunction with Britain and on its own. Further, it was Australian Labor and British Labour Governments that were largely responsible

Australian Labor Prime Minister John Curtin told Parliament in December 1943, that he looked to a "Fourth [British] Empire" more tightly organised for defence and other purposes than its predecessor: a self-contained military unit. In May 1944, he directed that all the resources needed were to be put into uranium mining — at a time when nobody but a handful of nuclear physicists knew what uranium would be needed for.

British Labour leaders like Clement Attlee, and A.L.P. leaders Chifley, Calwell and even Evatt, were at least as enthusiastic as conservative leaders about developing independent nuclear forces, and planned to turn the British Empire into a kind of fortress, initially with the hydroelectric resources of Canada and New Zealand supplying heavy water, and the mines of Australia and South Africa supplying uranium. South Africa indeed pressed on and later secretly produced a number of bombs. I have read elsewhere that it was suggested Africa would replace India as a supplier of troops.

British Labour Prime Minister Attlee, who as a pacifist before World War II wanted British armed forces disbanded or put under League of Nations control, thundered in 1945: "The answer to an atomic bomb on London is an atomic bomb on another great city!" A.L.P. Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell told the British High Commissioner that a migration programme to Australia would disperse the British population in the event of a nuclear war.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme was not merely to do with irrigation and hydroelectricity to light towns: it was the projected centre of an independent Australian nuclear weapons capability. Although it is recorded in Hansard, many historians have quietly buried the fact that the Chifley Labor Government's Minister for Works, Nelson Lemmon, told Parliament this plainly when moving the Bill to set the Snowy Scheme in motion. The idea apparently went back as far as 1943, two years before the first American bomb was exploded. It hardly appears to be co-incidence that so many of the crucial parts of the Snowy Scheme are underground.

It was no accident, either, that the Chifley Government located the Australian National University at Canberra, "with political, military and administrative centres, sheltered inland, and close to the Snowy Mountains Scheme." All previous Australian universities had been established by State governments and the Commonwealth Government did not control their research. The Government saw the A.N.U. as a centre of research into nuclear physics which it could finance, direct and control. Here, Reynolds identifies the germ of an Australian Manhattan Project.

In 1946 the U.S. MacMahon Act reduced British and other allied access to atomic research: the effect was to push Britain and Australia closer together in looking to build their own atomic weapons, and Australia, as well as co-operating with Britain, was laying the foundations to build its own bombs from the ground up.

It has been both stated and taken for granted that the Anglophile Liberal Robert Menzies offered the Maralinga site to the British for atomic testing in the 1950s. In fact the offer was made by an eager Australian Labor Government a decade earlier, well before the British bomb was complete, and Menzies, Reynolds says, was carrying on a long-term plan to build an infrastructure to support independent Australian nuclear defence.

Australian aircraft construction made a quantum jump to a nuclear-capable bomber force, going from Boomerangs and Beauforts to the state-of-the-art Canberra bomber, an aircraft so good that the Americans, who had initially opposed an independent Australian bomber force, bought it themselves (I think there were some in use to the end of the last century, and there may still be some even today).

These schemes came to an end with the restoration of Anglo-American nuclear co-operation in 1957. American facilities were made available for British testing at Nevada, and Maralinga fell into disuse. Britain after about 1957 abandoned ideas of a "Fourth Empire." America also moved to squash the independent Australian initiative.

This book is original, well-argued, thought-provoking and well-researched, its often surprising and even sensational statements meticulously documented. It casts new light on much recent history and is a fine piece of scholarship.

Hal G.P. Colebatch


National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003