Chapter 11 - Scrap iron for Japan

Posted in The Forgotten People

To be a Prime Minister and then an ex-Prime Minister is to find yourself charged with most of the crimes in the calendar. In my own case I have discovered that one of the most current accusations made about my administration is that we sent iron to Japan and that the Japanese are now using it in the form of munitions against us. Indeed, only this morning a printed circular has reached me which demands legality for the Communist Party of Australia and which goes on to describe this party as - and I now quote the exact words - "declared illegal by the Menzies (pig-iron-for-Japan) Government in June 1940."

Now, I can assure you that I am not a bit concerned to defend myself against the ridiculous charges which are always made against public men, but as some decent people maybe worried over this particular question, I shall just say a little to you about it.

My term of office was from April 1939 to August 1941. So far from the Menzies Government being a "pig-iron-for-Japan Government" the records show that, during my term of office, no pig iron was exported from Australia to Japan, nor was any iron ore. In the whole of the two years the exports of steel to Japan from Australia did not reach fifty tons.

It is true that over the same period there was an export of one hundred and seven thousand tons of scrap iron to Japan from Australia, while in half that period, namely the year 1939 alone, the United States of America exported to Japan two million tons of scrap iron and the like material. Make a note of that - the USA in one year exported twenty times as much as we did in two years.

During my term of office Australia exported to Japan one hundred and ten million pounds' weight of wool, valued at £8,000,000, and £1,700,000 worth of wheat. About these last two items I have heard no complaint, though it is obvious that the maintenance of any army depends upon food and clothing just as much as it does upon guns and ammunition.

The other material fact you should have in mind is this, that while we did export to Japan a relatively small quantity of scrap iron which was not needed in Australia, we at the same time were importing from Japan substantial numbers of lathes, grinding machines and other tools of high quality, badly needed for our own munitions programme.

It is a pretty unfair sort of judgement which directs its attention solely to what Japan got from us while completely ignoring what we got from Japan.

I am still quite satisfied that the policy of the Australian Government in relation to trade with Japan was right, and has been in effect very much to our benefit. In the first place, if Australia had prohibited the export to Japan of materials - whether scrap iron, wool or wheat - capable of military use, we might very well have provoked this war with Japan at a much earlier date than December 1941.

Weighing up the whole of our present position, can anybody in his right senses imagine that this could have been to our advantage? Do not forget that the fact that Japan did not enter this war against us until she felt herself ready to make the United States her first enemy is of great importance to us, and will unquestionably lead to her ultimate defeat. Was Australia, the smallest country concerned, to be the one country to hit Japan on the nose?

Heroics about this kind of thing are all very well after the event, but sober students of international relations who had any knowledge of the extent of our warlike preparations were and are quite satisfied that victory for the allied nations depends upon well-coordinated and synchronized effort, and that, before the war with Japan began, the best prospect of influencing Japan lay in combined action on the part of the democratic countries, not by sporadic and foolhardy action on the part of the smallest of them.

What some people do not appear to appreciate is that in this modern world with its rapid communications, Governments which have interests in common do not act, so to speak, in watertight compartments. They keep in touch with one another. They prefer united action to disunited action, and it is just as well for our prospects in this war that they do.

Second - and I am saying these things tonight in an attempt to settle an argument, not to stir one up - why make this purely unreal distinction between iron and wool? Iron and steel have their civil as well as their military uses. Wool has its civil as well as its military use. It is clear enough today that many thousand of bales of Australian wool have probably gone into Japanese uniforms, and a soldier cannot fight without a uniform. The clothing of an army is a major problem.

You may say that we have helped to clothe the Japanese troops fighting against us. But if you are going to be quite frank with yourselves, go out into the kitchen and see what Japanese crockery you have in the house. If you have some, please remember that Japanese crockery sold abroad created for Japan some of the very credits which have enabled her to equip herself for war.

The world's trade, if it is to be in reality fluid and far-reaching, cannot be confined to individual localities. Nations cannot live to themselves, and in the long run the traffic between two nations must flow in both directions if it is to be of real value to either.

In result, therefore, I urge you to pay no attention to these whisperings, however widespread they may be. If Australia sinned exporting scrap iron to Japan she was, all things considered, the smallest sinner among the allied nations. If she sinned in exporting wool to Japan, she was one of the greatest sinners among the allied nations.

But in reality, there is no question of having sinned at all. The whole economy of this country has rested upon our great exports, and upon the willingness of foreign countries to buy them.

In the last two and a half years we have had much reason to be thankful that because of these things our financial stability has been high, and our resources so great as to enable us to put forward a war effort - particularly on the productive side - that nobody would have imagined possible a few years ago.

3 April, 1942