Research tracks little known Australian-US divide on war criminals

January 23, 2013

A Murdoch University History researcher is looking at how the Australian approach to Japanese war criminals differed from that of the US following the Second World War.

Dr Dean Aszkielowicz said while America quickly shifted from treating Japan as an adversary to a partner, successive Australian governments felt obliged to see the trial process through.

“By the late 1940s, as the Cold War intensified, the enemy in the Pacific became communism, not Japanese militarism, and the US approach to Japan quickly shifted to more lenient treatment,” Dr Aszkielowicz said.

“However, the Australian government, and public, viewed a resurgent Japan as an equal threat to Pacific security.”

He said this was influenced in part by Australia’s perceived vulnerability, citing the bombing of Darwin and submarine activity in Sydney Harbour in 1942.

Archival research undertaken in Canberra also revealed a strong sense of responsibility to Australian war veterans felt by the government.

“Half of the Australian soldiers who died in the Pacific War, died in Japanese captivity – 8,031 out of 17,501,” Dr Aszkielowicz said.

“As the soldiers returned, the brutal details of their captivity became widely known, and the war trials became a validation of their sacrifice and suffering.”

While the US began to press allies to complete their trials in 1948, Australia did not wrap up proceedings until 1951, providing a clear sign of its willingness to stand apart.

The trials convicted 644 Japanese defendants, with 148 death sentences handed down for crimes ranging from slapping and beating to murder and cannibalism.

While prisoner repatriation to Japan and eventual release continued to be an issue, the Australian approach slowly became more pragmatic.

“By 1953, the Australian government wanted to be seen as a key ally of the US and gradually came to accept that it could not afford to clash with either the US or Japan on important policy matters. But for a time, the Australian government was prepared to go in its own direction on war criminals policy,” Dr Aszkielowicz said.

Dr Aszkielowicz’s study is part of an ongoing project with Murdoch’s Professor Sandra Wilson, Monash University’s Dr Beatrice Trefalt and ANU’s Professor Robert Cribb, funded by the Australia Research Council.

He is a member of the World Wars Research Group at Murdoch University.

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