Australia was represented at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 by the Prime Minister, the colourful Billy Hughes, whom Woodrow Wilson called “a pestiferous varmint” after their repeated clashes over Australia’s claims to the Pacific Islands its troops had taken from Germany during the War. Professor Carl Bridge is Head of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College, London. He is a regular commentator on British and international television and radio and the author of William Hughes Australia. In a new and exhaustive set of documents from the Versaille Peace Conference of 1918, to be published in the Documents on Australian Foreign Policy series, Carl Bridge and his team have come to a more nuanced account of Hughes’ contribution to the outcome for Australia there. Carl Bridge addressed The Sydney Institute on Monday 19 August 2019 to explain what the new documents have found.

BILLY HUGHES AT VERSAILLES: THE NEW EVIDENCE

CARL BRIDGE

Billy Hughes, Australia’s Prime Minister for most of the First World War, was one of the noisiest and most controversial of the smaller nations’ delegates at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 at the war’s end. He famously crossed swords with United States President Woodrow Wilson over Australian territorial ambitions in the Pacific, war reparations, and the insertion of a “racial equality” clause in the preamble to the League of Nations charter. In his memoirs, Hughes portrays himself as an Antipodean David fighting a lone battle against the American Goliath and winning against almost insurmountable odds. Many historians have chosen to endorse his account, chiming as it does with Australian nationalist mythologising. A comprehensive assessment of the full documentary record for Versailles, however, examining British, American and French material, as well as Australian, such as my team has recently undertaken for an exhaustive volume to be published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its Documents on Australian Foreign Policy series reveals a more interesting and politically believable story.1

Hughes portrays himself as an Antipodean David fighting a lone battle against the American Goliath and winning against almost insurmountable odds.

First, some background. Hughes was in the group of Labor MPs elected to the initial federal parliament in 1901. Among the first acts passed by the Barton Liberal government was the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) which sought to control non-European migration by means of the administering of a 50-word Dictation Test in a European (later “any proscribed”) language other than English; in at least one case the language used which almost guaranteed exclusion was Gaelic. Hughes approved the legislation. His logic was interesting. He argued that “as alien competition aims a blow at the very basis of our industrial system we oppose it” and “not on account of their colour or religion, because that would be absurd”. Rather he feared that the Japanese with their technical skills, strong work ethic and sheer numbers, might swamp the “white” outpost that was Australia and impose their alien culture and way of life. He thought British Australia needed the “White Australia” legislation to protect its very existence.

He thought British Australia needed the “White Australia” legislation to protect its very existence.

II

The crushing Japanese naval victory over a powerful Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima in the Sea of Japan in May 1905 signaled to Australians and the rest of the world that Japan had arrived as a major power. For Australian politicians with a geostrategic sense, such as Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Hughes and Andrew Fisher, the federal Labor leader, it was now clear that, though nominally an ally by virtue of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902, Japan was now also the greatest potential threat to Australia’s security. They were alarmed rather than reassured when, after the renewal of the treaty in 1905 the British withdrew ships from the Pacific in order to better counter German naval growth in the North Sea arguing that Japan could protect British interests in the Far East.

Tsushima triggered a major acceleration of Australian defence preparation. In 1906, Deakin decided to follow Hughes’s earlier advice and initiate plans for a modern, free-standing Australian navy. By 1907, he followed Hughes a step further and also advocated compulsory military training for all male citizens. Hughes, for his part, had this accepted as Labor policy at the 1908 party conference. Two years later, British Field Marshal Lord Kitchener reported on Australia’s defence needs, recommending a home defence force of 80,000 men raised by compulsion.

Two years later, British Field Marshal Lord Kitchener reported on Australia’s defence needs, recommending a home defence force of 80,000 men raised by compulsion.

In the initial debate on Deakin’s defence plans, Hughes was at his cold-eyed, warm-blooded forensic and rhetorical best. Even if they were in Australian waters, and this was not guaranteed, the mostly antiquated vessels of the British Pacific squadron were only fit for the “scrap-heap”. A proper Australian navy was imperative. Furthermore, he put his argument with Bismarckian realism:

By what virtue are we here today, except by brute force? We came here and displaced those who were placed in possession, if any were, by hand of Providence … And we talk about peace! We have arrogantly declared that this is to be a white man’s country. There are 4,200,000 of us, of whom 21,000 bear arms … We debar the coloured nations from entry. To the 400,000,000 Chinese, to the 40,000,000 Japanese, flushed with their triumph over a country that humbled every other country in Europe in its turn, we have said, “You must not come in.” And the weapon with which we propose to keep them out is an act of Parliament … Beyond that … we have no means of making good our boast.

If the “White Australia” policy is to be a permanence in this country, there must be behind it a sufficient force of White Australians ready … to make good their claim.

This initiative led in due course to the inauguration by Hughes in 1910, under the Fisher Labor government in which Hughes was Attorney-General, of compulsory military training for youths, aged 11-17 years, and adults, 18-26 years. It was a veritable manpower revolution and between 1911 and 1915 some 636,000 had been trained. This compulsory military training scheme was a significant departure from British practice and unique in the British imperial world.

It was a veritable manpower revolution and between 1911 and 1915 some 636,000 had been trained.

Deakin had failed to legislate for a navy. The first Fisher Government had in 1908 endorsed the plans of Australia’s naval director, Captain W. R. Creswell, for a coastal protection, “brown-water” navy of twenty-three destroyers and a patrol boat. Deakin’s successor administration invited the sixteen battleships of the American “Great White Fleet” to visit Australia later that year, and planned an ocean-going, “blue-water” navy, based around cruisers and submarines. This, too, was enacted finally by Hughes in November 1910 when he was Acting Prime Minister in the second Fisher Government. The result was that the battlecruiser Australia, three light cruisers, six destroyers and three submarines were laid down, designed strategically to act alone or as part of a larger British Pacific Fleet. They sailed into Sydney Heads in October 1913, on which day Australia became the first British dominion to establish its own navy. When these plans were well in train, Hughes announced to parliament with some considerable satisfaction and a little exaggeration that “we have placed a fleet on the water, and an army on the land, the like of which has not been seen in our time”. Should Japan now turn hostile, and Hughes and Fisher were not at all reassured by the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty in 1911, it would now need to send much more than an invading army of a division or two.

They sailed into Sydney Heads in October 1913, on which day Australia became the first British dominion to establish its own navy.

 

Be this as it may, in the Mahanist strategic terms of the day, naval arithmetic was the key measure in the balance of power. In 1914, the RAN outgunned the German Far Eastern Squadron. However, by 1918, British overall strength was 30 capital ships, German 17, and Japanese and United States 16 each. By then, for the British to counter either Japan or the United States in the Pacific, they would always need one as an ally against the other. 

III

Hughes became Prime Minister of Australia in October 1915 and in early 1916 and again in 1918-19 he visited London. There he aimed to press Australia’s case over Japan for annexation of the former German colonies in the Pacific, and to clinch a number of major commodity export deals. “I pass laborious and fretful days, going round and round like a clockwork mouse,” he wrote to the Governor-General. “However, I’ll sell wheat, butter, tallow, hides etc. I must do so for without money we cannot finance the war.”

“I pass laborious and fretful days, going round and round like a clockwork mouse,” he wrote to the Governor-General. 

Hughes sold huge quantities of Australian wool, wheat and minerals, but was less successful over the German Pacific islands. Those islands north of the Equator – the Marianas, Carolines and Marshalls – had been occupied by the Japanese soon after the outbreak of the war. This was despite their having been ceded to the British Empire (in this case, Australia and New Zealand) in November 1914, when the Germans had surrendered to an Australian force at Rabaul, their Pacific capital, in New Guinea. The British had agreed in 1915 to support the Japanese keeping the islands they occupied – formalised in a secret agreement of February 1917 in return for the dispatch of a Japanese destroyer flotilla to the Mediterranean. The British were less than forthcoming about it to Fisher in 1915 and Hughes in 1916-17, who were furious when they later found out. A compromise was reached, however: the Australian government would stay quiet in public during the war but would reserve the right to re-open the question during the peace negotiations.2

A compromise was reached, however: the Australian government would stay quiet in public during the war but would reserve the right to re-open the question during the peace negotiations.

In May 1918, en route to Britain via the United States, Hughes was taken by Lord Reading, the British Ambassador, to meet the American President Woodrow Wilson, whose country had joined the war on the allied side in 1917.  Reading reported to London:

Mr Hughes impressed upon the President that it was vital to the security of Australia that Germany should never be allowed to take any part of New Guinea or the Islands of the Pacific. Mr Hughes made plain that Australia was not seeking all these islands for herself that she had sufficient territory but that her life would be menaced if Germany with her predatory designs held any of these Islands and he emphasised the necessity of these belonging only to the British Empire and friendly Powers.

Wilson’s reply was totally non-committal, though he knew as well as Hughes did that Hughes was really referring to delimiting Japanese influence in the Pacific. Hughes’ account in his memoirs is more graphic than Reading’s:

President Wilson received me courteously and when after a few non-committal words I ventured to set out the views of the Government of the Commonwealth [of Australia] on the future of the islands of the Pacific, he heard me in silence, listening intently to all I said, but remaining as unresponsive as the Sphinx in the desert.

Keith Murdoch, the Australian journalist and Hughes’ unofficial go-between in London, had told Hughes, who did not need telling, that he “would have trouble with Wilson over the German Pacific islands if there is no propaganda”. This advice Hughes would act on to great effect.  He soon made two tub-thumping speeches in the United States calling for an Australasian Monroe Doctrine for the South Pacific and for a full indemnity from Germany to pay for the war – both elements flying completely in the face of the liberal internationalism of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Apoplectic, Wilson, we now know, asked his Secretary of State to investigate banning Hughes from returning from Europe via the United States. As it would turn out, however, Hughes stayed in Europe to work his mischief from there.

Wilson, we now know, asked his Secretary of State to investigate banning Hughes from returning from Europe via the United States. As it would turn out, however, Hughes stayed in Europe to work his mischief from there. 

IV

In London from June 1918 until the end of the year, Hughes met in the Imperial War Cabinet with his peers from Britain and the self-governing Dominions (Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa). He argued for an increase in technology (aeroplanes, tanks and artillery) as a means of winning the war and of compensating for declining imperial manpower (though Britain’s Prime Minister, Lloyd George, pointed out that the United States promised 120 Divisions). General Monash’s copybook all-arms victory at Hamel on 4 July bore this out, as did the rolling back of the German offensive more widely leading to the “Black Day” of the German Army at the Battle of Amiens on 8 August. Hughes supported calls for direct access to the British Prime Minister by the Dominion Prime Ministers but opposed South African representative Jan Smuts’ plans for imperial federation. Australia’s parliament had to remain sovereign, in Hughes’ view.

On the Pacific Islands, prompted by a Japanese official statement claiming the islands north of the Equator, Hughes wrote confidentially to Lloyd George outlining in detail the strategic reasons why the Japanese should be denied. The main base at Truk in the Carolines was closer to Townsville than to Yokohama. Sailing time from Japan to Australia would be more than halved and with it the potential military threat doubled. In the Imperial War Cabinet meetings Lloyd George reiterated that it was the Empire’s policy to hold on to the former German territories it had occupied, but that it had to honour its 1915 understanding, reaffirmed in 1917, with Japan to allow the Japanese to occupy those territories it had taken north of the Equator. Hughes said that Australia had never accepted that position and reserved his right to argue the point for Australia at the Peace Conference.

Sailing time from Japan to Australia would be more than halved and with it the potential military threat doubled.

V

All of these matters came to a head at the Paris Peace Conference. The modus operandi of the conference was that the old Supreme War Council of principal allies continued as the conference’s Council of Ten (the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Japan and their foreign ministers); a sort of cabinet body. There were also occasional plenary sessions, and a range of Commissions, set up to report on specific issues, such as the League of Nations and reparations.

Prior to the Armistice, Wilson’s Fourteen Points had prescribed a policy of “no annexations”. Despite this, among similar claims from many nations, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand wished to keep the strategically important German colonial territories close to their borders which they had occupied early in the war, New Guinea, South-West Africa, and Samoa. (And Japan had a similar case over the Pacific islands north of the Equator and in Shandong on the Chinese mainland.) In Paris Wilson was attracted to an idea first canvassed by Smuts in a paper written before the conference which suggested that the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East should be held in trust by member states as “mandates” of the proposed new League of Nations, reporting to it regularly on progress towards self-government. Smuts was horrified, however, when the Americans suggested that South-West Africa and the Pacific islands should also be mandated. He believed countries such as Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine were sufficiently civilised to become democracies in time, but much of Africa and the Pacific were too primitive to countenance this outcome.

Prior to the Armistice, Wilson’s Fourteen Points had prescribed a policy of “no annexations”.

On 24 and 25 January 1919, by invitation, Hughes addressed the Council of Ten on Australia’s territorial claims. Using a large map of the Pacific which had Australia at its centre, he pointed out that “the islands encompassed Australia like fortresses” and that “As Ireland is to the United Kingdom, as Mexico is to the United States, as Alsace-Lorraine is to France, so is New Guinea to Australia”. Wilson replied on 27 January with a story about a man who kept buying real estate because he could not bear the thought of anyone owning land adjacent to his own and said the attitude was “based on a fundamental lack of faith in the League of Nations”. Any attack on a mandate and the League would retaliate, “with the United States in the lead”. This was the famous occasion when Hughes told Wilson he would defy “the whole civilised world” for the sake of annexing New Guinea. Wilson had said that 6 million Australians and New Zealanders were opposing the views of the other 1,200 million represented at the conference. Hughes replied devastatingly that he stood for “60,000 Australian war dead” which was more than Wilson’s US had sacrificed.3 No wonder Wilson later called Hughes “a pestiferous varmint”.

Using a large map of the Pacific which had Australia at its centre, he pointed out that “the islands encompassed Australia like fortresses”

Wilson’s private thinking, however, was less altruistic. In a pencilled note on a memorandum supplied by his principal adviser, Colonel Edward House, for the meeting Wilson had written: “My difficulty is with the demands of men like Hughes and the certain difficulties with Japan. The latter loom large. A line of islands in her possession would be very dangerous to the U.S.” Clearly Wilson was keen to have mandates imposed more as a means of circumventing the Japanese than of controlling the activities of the Dominions. In subsequent meetings France, saying that they agreed with Hughes, wanted to annex the Cameroons and Togoland, and Japan and Italy put their claims. A split with the United States was imminent. Lord Eustace Percy, of the British Empire Delegation, noted that the mandates idea “seemed in danger of splitting on the rock of South African and Australian nationalism”. He should have added French, Italian and Japanese nationalism to boot.In subsequent meetings France, saying that they agreed with Hughes, wanted to annex the Cameroons and Togoland, and Japan and Italy put their claims.

In subsequent meetings France, saying that they agreed with Hughes, wanted to annex the Cameroons and Togoland, and Japan and Italy put their claims.

According to an article by Murdoch in the Melbourne Herald, not an unimpeachable source but this time with more than a grain of truth, French President Georges Clemenceau whispered to Hughes after he spoke: “You made a strong case”, and Vittorio Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, added: “You made out our case for Dalmatia.” Hughes “is being used as a catspaw by the French,” one of his advisers Frederic Eggleston fulminated in his private diary, but he did not also observe that Hughes knew this full well and it was to his and his allies’ mutual advantage. Perhaps, at another level, it was ultimately to Wilson’s too.

As the official record described them, “C” class mandates:

… owing to the sparseness of their population and small size, or their remoteness from the centres of civilisation, or their geographical contiguity to the mandatory State, and other circumstances, can be best administered under the laws of the Mandatory State as integral portions thereof, subject to the safeguards above mentioned [reporting to the League] in the interests of the indigenous population.

This was crucial for Hughes as it gave Australia control of immigration into New Guinea, thereby allowing him to keep the Japanese out, and also of tariffs, wages and so on, thereby annexing New Guinea to the Australian economy. Mandatories would also be prohibited from fortifying the mandates, which meant that in return for Australia’s not fortifying its islands Japan, crucially, would not fortify its. The British Empire Delegation Secretary, Major Maurice Hankey, mollified Hughes, who alone had been holding out for annexation, by reassuring him that the “C” class mandate was “the equivalent of a 999 years’ lease”.

In subsequent meetings France, saying that they agreed with Hughes, wanted to annex the Cameroons and Togoland, and Japan and Italy put their claims.

In the heated debate within the British Empire Delegation, Lloyd George is reported to have lost his temper with Hughes, saying that he “would not quarrel with the United States for the Solomon Islands” and that he would not send the Royal Navy in Hughes’ defence if he persisted in his views. Hughes replied that he would “go to England and ask the people who own the Navy what they have to say about it”. Hughes had said of the “open door” that he feared that under it “the territory would become a Japanese or a Japanese and German country within ten years”. Given his rudimentary Welsh and Lloyd George’s fluency in that language, Hughes’ story that the two men continued their quarrel in Welsh is clearly an exaggeration. Later, doubtless with a glint in his eye, Lloyd George told a colleague he would not be intimidated by “a damned little Welshman”. At this stage Hughes, it appears, totally or partly inspired an article in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail which contained direct quotes from the confidential Council of Ten meeting and alleged that Lloyd George was favouring Wilson’s woolly-minded idealism over the legitimate claims of the Dominions. Wilson, needless to say, was incandescent and threatened to go home.

In the upshot, there were no surprises: in the Pacific, mandates went to Australia for New Guinea, New Zealand for Samoa, and Japan for the Marianas, Marshall and Caroline Islands. The detailed drawing up of the mandate agreements was left to a later Commission chaired by Britain’s Lord Milner in June and July. Viscount Chinda, its Japanese member, tried to hold out for freedom of entry and residence in the “C” class mandates and it was only when his claim was eventually withdrawn that the League finalised matters in December 1920.

As Hughes saw it, Japan mounted a two-pronged assault on Australian policy. The other prong was Japan’s campaign to have a “racial equality” clause inserted in the League of Nations covenant. Such a clause, however benign, in Hughes’ view might have been used to mount a legal challenge to Australia’s restrictive immigration laws, initially as applied to the mandate and perhaps ultimately to Australia itself. The Japanese first proposed a draft clause to House and Wilson on 4 February and this was massaged into what appeared to be an innocuous affirmation of the “all men are created equal” variety, leaving it up to individual countries how they determined their immigration policies. Japan already had so-called “gentleman’s agreements” with the United States and Canada for each country to restrict immigration to the other at source.

As Hughes saw it, Japan mounted a two-pronged assault on Australian policy.

The United States and Canada had racially restrictive immigration policies similar to Australia, but were prepared to accept this pretense. In British Empire Delegation meetings, however, Hughes and William Massey, the New Zealand Prime Minister (and South Africa’s Smuts sotto voce) were opposed to the clause in any form. The matter was first rejected by the British chairman, Lord Robert Cecil, with the Dominions’ pressure behind him, on the Commission on the League on 13 February, but it became critical in a meeting on 11 April when the Japanese again moved to have a racial equality clause inserted in the draft preamble to the League Covenant. Eleven of the sixteen present voted for the clause, whereupon, inexplicably, Wilson ruled from the chair that, as the vote was not unanimous, it was not carried. In ensuing weeks, the Japanese, while still protesting in private, dropped their publicity campaign. Wilson, for his part, publicly blamed Hughes for torpedoing it. The truth is more complex and justifies Hughes’ description of Wilson over the matter as “Mr Facing-both-ways”.

it became critical in a meeting on 11 April when the Japanese again moved to have a racial equality clause inserted in the draft preamble to the League Covenant.

There were a number of contexts and issues bearing on the debate. First was the United States’ domestic position. The American West Coast was uniformly opposed to the Japanese clause and threatened to use Wilson’s support of it against the Democrats in the forthcoming United States Congressional elections. Wilson also needed the votes of the West Coast Democrats to have his precious League of Nations ratified by Congress. Furthermore, again for domestic reasons, Wilson had overtly excluded the Monroe Doctrine from the application of the League Covenant, much to the ire of the French.

Hughes had pressure on him domestically from the Australian Labor Party who saw his “failure” to annex New Guinea as a sign of his diluting of the “White Australia” policy and feared worse was to come. Japanese domestic opinion was equally agitated in the other direction, but the Japanese government was prepared to broker a deal whereby, in return for recognition of their rights in China and the north Pacific – the Okuma-Ishii Doctrine – which paralleled the Monroe Doctrine, they would agree not to press the racial equality issue further. South Africa, Canada and New Zealand also had concerns for the implications for their racially discriminatory immigration and other policies.

South Africa, Canada and New Zealand also had concerns for the implications for their racially discriminatory immigration and other policies.

In his notes on one of the proposed amendments Hughes remarked in his inimitable way: “The Japanese want to insert the proposed amendment into the Preamble. It may be all right. But sooner than agree to it I would rather walk into the Seine – or the Folies Bergères with my clothes off.” In other words, it would be domestic political suicide. As, indeed, it might have been for Wilson.

Hughes, sensing that Wilson was wobbling in the direction of the Japanese, gave a widely reported interview to the Associated Press of America intimating that the clause would be opposed root-and-branch in Australia as it would be on the American West Coast. Next day Wilson was inundated with indignant cables from that very region. House confided to the Japanese delegate, Baron Makino, that “unless Hughes promised not to make trouble” the Americans could not support the clause. This time, then, Hughes was, in effect, Wilson’s willing instrument. Hughes said as much in an interview with the Japanese Asahi newspaper after the vote. There was a nation he would not name that “opposed the Japanese amendment … and yet pretended to be a nation friendly to Japan, and hiding behind Australia, wanted to have it falsely said that the responsibility for the rejection of the race equality claim rested on Australia alone”. The Japanese people were not “fools” but were “shrewd and intelligent” and could see through that ruse. We now know, too, that Hughes had suggested behind Lloyd George’s back that he would agree to the Japanese having the German islands north of the Equator, and also the Shandong concession in China in return for the Japanese agreeing not to press too hard on the “racial equality” clause. Makino agreed, as Lloyd George promptly learned from his spy in the Japanese legation.

We now know, too, that Hughes had suggested behind Lloyd George’s back that he would agree to the Japanese having the German islands north of the Equator

Careful American diplomacy sealed the deal. Japan was delighted to get mandates to Shandong and the islands north of the Equator, its principal aim at the conference. Meanwhile, Wilson quietly had inserted a clause in the Covenant guaranteeing that all votes on changing it had to be unanimous. This not only arguably retrospectively justified his actions over the vote in Council on the racial equality clause, it also satisfied Hughes. As long as there was an Australian delegate at League meetings to vote against any proposal racial equality amendment, the “White Australia” policy would be safe.

Hughes reported to Australia’s Acting Prime Minister William Watt after the newspaper interview. “Japanese here … greatly prefer straight-out opponent to those who promised support … Makino … knows that if Wilson had had courage to vote for them, or to accept two to one majority vote, their amendment would have been inserted. Do not worry.” Harold Nicolson, one of the British officials, noted in his diary, quite astutely and correctly, that Hughes “rescued the President by the skin of his teeth”. How right he was. House noted with some satisfaction in his private diary that the Americans were delighted to have shifted the blame for opposing the racial equality clause to the British: “It has taken considerable finesse to lift the load from our shoulders and place it upon the British, but it has been done”.

Harold Nicolson, one of the British officials, noted in his diary, quite astutely and correctly, that Hughes “rescued the President by the skin of his teeth”.

Hughes again was a scapegoat for the Great Powers, and for some of the British Empire Delegation, but the short-term opprobrium of the right-thinking Liberal internationalists was something Hughes was happy to bear provided he gained the substance of his policies, as in this case and with New Guinea, he most certainly did. On issues where he did not have imperial support – such as claiming full financial reparations for the cost of the war – he failed in his main aim. Though even here, thanks to his gaining a share of the phosphate-rich former German Pacific island of Nauru, he won the consolation prize of ultimately some £168m worth of guano.

VII

As one of the three British Empire representatives on the Reparations Commission, Hughes argued on classic legal principles that Germany must make full restitution for the cost of the war, a line initially also argued by Lloyd George and Clemenceau. The American lead, however, the brilliant 30-year-old lawyer, John Foster Dulles, argued that the Armistice was a contract based on the Fourteen Points and consequently did not allow for restitution other than for the destroyed Belgian and French infrastructure. Further, the Americans split the Franco-British front by inserting a symbolic “War Guilt” clause and arguing that more money for the British Dominions and other minor Allies would mean less for France. The British compromised and Hughes was left isolated. An initial claim of £24bn was whittled down to £11bn of which the British Empire would get a fifth, leaving £80m for Australia spread over 20 years. In the event, Australia actually received £5,571,720. The war had cost Australia £464m. Thank goodness for Nauru.

In the event, Australia actually received £5,571,720. The war had cost Australia £464m. Thank goodness for Nauru.

VIII

At Versailles, Hughes’ politicking was effective enough to win for Australia and the British Empire control of the strategically vital German New Guinea and the resource-rich island of Nauru. His audacity and brinkmanship safeguarded “White Australia” against a Japanese challenge. He was successful over obtaining the Pacific island mandates because Britain, France, Japan, Italy, his fellow Dominions, and ultimately even the United States were behind him. Similarly, over “White Australia”, he was a catspaw for South Africa, Canada, and again for the United States, who cynically allowed themselves to be convinced and him to take the blame. On total reparations, where, despite egging on from France and elsewhere, he proved to be a lone voice among the main delegates, he had no success at all. Hughes’s David only prevailed over the American Goliath when he had powerful legions behind him and, more important, Goliath was willing to play along with the act.

He was successful over obtaining the Pacific island mandates because Britain, France, Japan, Italy, his fellow Dominions, and ultimately even the United States were behind him.

Endnotes

  1. The other researchers are Dr Bart Zielinski, Dr Jatinder Mann and Colonel Richard Farrimond, all at King’s College London, though Dr Mann has since moved to Hong Kong Baptist University.  This talk also draws substantially on my book, William Hughes (Haus: London, 2011).
  2. Hughes, too, was rather slippery on this point. We have evidence that he told the British Foreign Secretary in London on his 1916 visit that he agreed personally to the equatorial division but it would be subject to his cabinet’s approval.

  3. There are at least eight versions of this exchange, though there is nothing in the official transcript.

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