H-Diplo Article Review 1177: Detering on Brawley and Radcliffe, “Selling White Australia"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1177

25 April 2023

Sean Brawley and Mathew Radcliffe, “Selling White Australia: The Asian Visits Fund and Assimilation as a Foundational Concept in Australian Cold War Public Diplomacy.” Cold War History 23:1 (2023); DOI: 10.1080/14682745.2022.2059072

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Lori Maguire | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Liam Detering, Deakin University

Sean Brawley and Mathew Radcliffe’s article serves as an important contribution to the growing historiography of the Australian government’s public diplomacy efforts throughout the Cold War period. It sits comfortably within the existing literature[1] and makes an important contribution to the debate surrounding the intentions of the Australian government and its public diplomacy programme, particularly in regard to the hosting of Asian journalists. The article’s most important contribution is that it clearly distinguishes the Asian Visits Fund (AVF) as an initiative that was separate from its better-known cousin, the Colombo Plan, which came into effect in 1951. The Plan was an all-encompassing foreign policy initiative that took the form of a series of bilateral aid agreements between donor and recipient countries. From an Australian perspective, it was a regional response to the rise of Communism, and foreign aid was seen as a way to prevent living standards from falling in Asia. As Daniel Oakman has noted, the Plan is most popularly remembered in Australia for the giving of scholarships to international students.[2] The AVF, launched in 1956, was the Australian Government’s first targeted people-to-people public diplomacy programme. It was noteworthy as it contained a directive from R.G. (later Sir Richard, later Baron) Casey, Australian Minister for External Affairs from 1951 until 1960, that “at least half, if not more,” of the fund would be used to bring Asian journalists to Australia (2). Brawley and Radcliffe challenge existing notions of these public diplomacy initiatives and use primary sources to outline the intent of the AVF clearly and succinctly. They also establish the idea of assimilation as a foundational concept in Australian Cold War public diplomacy, highlighting how this policy represented a clear shift in intent from previous immigration policy, and how the government attempted to use the AVF to sell this vision to Asia.

The overarching argument is that the AVF was a failed vehicle for the Australian Government to sell to Asia the ‘White Australia Policy,’ the serious of historical policies attached to the Immigration Restriction Act that sought to exclude non-Europeans from immigrating to Australia. It failed, according to Brawley and Radcliffe, primarily due to pedagogical issues associated with the gap between the lessons the Department of External Affairs hoped the journalists would learn, and what they actually took away from their experience in Australia. The authors utilise a wide array of primary and secondary sources to illuminate an under-studied area of Australian Cold War era public diplomacy. Notably they make use of a wide array of archival material housed in the National Archives of Australia (NAA), including Cabinet minutes, submissions to foreign policy committees, and memos from overseas embassies. They also make particular use of the private papers of former Secretary of the Department of Immigration, Peter Heydon, who at the time was the Australian High Commissioner to India. Casey, is another key figure who naturally receives a great deal of attention in the article. Utilising newspaper reports written by the Asian journalists invited to Australia which are housed in the NAA and also in overseas archives, Brawley and Radcliffe highlight how the showcasing of indigenous communities as an example of the new policy of assimilation failed to persuade these journalists of the immigration restriction plan’s intent.

Colombo Plan literature has to this point dominated the literature on Australia’s public diplomacy initiatives throughout the Cold War period. Australian historians such as Chris Waters, Daniel Oakman, David Walker, and David Lowe have devoted extensive attention to this topic,[3] focusses extensively on the more recognisable Colombo Plan. As outlined by Lowe, the Colombo Plan, which was launched on 1 July 1951, was “less ‘a plan’ than an umbrella under which a series of bilateral aid arrangements unfolded.”[4] The Plan was grounded on the basis of a series of developed donor countries providing aid to newly independent developing countries in south and southeast Asia.

Brawley and Radcliffe note how the AVF has received limited scholarly attention compared to the efforts of the Colombo Plan. Waters, in his 1999 article, “A failure of imagination: R.G. Casey and Australian plans for counter-subversion in Asia, 1954-1956,” makes detailed mention of the use of propaganda as an expansion of the Colombo Plan but only makes passing mention of the AVF’s adoption.[5] The previously mentioned authors have devoted limited or passing mention of the AVF, but generally in the context of wider public diplomacy aims. Brawley and Radcliffe advance two separate arguments that dispel some of the current orthodoxy on Cold War cultural diplomacy. The authors lament the continued misidentification of AVF efforts as part of the Colombo Plan’s initiatives that remains in recent literature. In the case of Amit Sarwal’s study[6] of the visits of Indian journalists and newspaper editors to Australia, the article challenges the characterisation of this activity being part of the Colombo Plan when it was in fact an AVF initiative. In the case of Lowe, the article challenges the chronology outlined in his 2013 article.[7] Brawley and Radcliffe note that while Lowe’s work implies that 1958 was the starting date for the journalistic exchanges between Australia and Asia, the AVF had in fact already been operational for two years. These arguments are compelling and contribute greatly the evolving historiography of this period of Australian public diplomacy engagement. Further historical inquiry of this period may continue to update and expand the growing historiography on Australian Cold War-era public diplomacy initiatives. The misidentification of certain public diplomacy activities is also reflective of the slipshod nature of the Department of External Affairs’ internal policies at the time.

Brawley and Radcliffe advance a further compelling argument, where they highlight how the Australian Government sought to link indigenous assimilation into white Australian life with a further defence of anti-Asian immigration restriction. They note that “with its seeming success in facilitating the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from Europe into the Australian way of life, Assimilation had also been long advocated as the means by which the nation could solve its ‘Aboriginal problem’” (10-11). As part of the AVF mission, Asian journalists were invited to visit certain indigenous communities. Brawley and Radcliffe argue that the visits were meant “to provide these visitors with a clear proof point that highlighted how a new national ideology was being applied in practice” (10). Within this rationale, they criticise previous arguments by Walker and Oakman that white Australia was selfishly guarding, but underutilising, a vast and productive continent, and that the other purpose of the visit was to highlight the ‘primitiveness’ of indigenous Australians.[8] The authors characterise both of these arguments as secondary and inductive, a proposition that is somewhat dented by their admission that “the extant and publicly available archival records of the AVF do not hold within them the specific reasoning of Minister Casey and his External Affairs officials as to why they believed the visits by Asian journalists to Aboriginal communities such as Hermannsburg would benefit Australia’s relationship with the Asian region” (9).

As noted, existing literature on the creation of the AVF has focussed on placing the programme within the wider public diplomacy aims of the government at the time. This article, however, provides a much needed holistic analysis of the programme and its specific aims. Brawley and Radcliffe note that while immigration restriction was not explicitly stated in the justification for the creation of the AVF, the Fund was used to “explain Australian official policies which affect or are of interest to Asians” and “remove misconceptions about attitudes of the Australian community towards Asians and demonstrate the readiness of Australians to co-operate with them on a basis of genuine friendship and mutual respect.”[9]

Brawley and Radcliffe’s article sits as an important contribution to the literature on Australia’s use of public diplomacy in a Cold War context. They advance a series of compelling and coherent arguments that recast the AVF as a separate programme that aimed to advance Australia’s interests in the Asian region. This examination of the AVF’s role as a public diplomacy initiative aiming to alter the public perception of Australia’s immigration policy has interesting methodological implications and provides scope for further research. Brawley and Radcliffe highlight that there are further avenues to examine the evolving ideas about intersections between public relations and public diplomacy. Given that Casey was one of the dominant proponents of this era of foreign policy direction, further analysis of his personal reflections and papers would offer valuable insight into the development of public diplomacy during the Cold War era in Australia.


Liam Detering is a PhD candidate and member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. He is researching how international education contributes to the public diplomacy efforts of the Australian government in its relationship with India.


[1] See for example Daniel Oakman, Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, 2010; David Lowe, “Journalists and the Stirring of Australian Public Diplomacy: The Colombo Plan Towards the 1960s,” Journal of Contemporary History 48, no. 1 (January 2013): 175–90, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022009412461819; David Walker, Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region (Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2019); David McLean, “Australia in the Cold War: A Historiographical Review,” The International History Review 23, no. 2 (June 2001): 299–321.

[2] Oakman, Facing Asia, 4.

[3] Christopher Waters, “A Failure of Imagination: R.G. Casey and Australian Plans for Counter-Subversion in Asia, 1954-1956,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 45, no. 3 (August 1999): 347–61, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8497.00069; Oakman, Facing Asia; Walker, Stranded Nation; Lowe, “Journalists and the Stirring of Australian Public Diplomacy.”

[4] David Lowe, “Journalists and the Stirring of Australian Public Diplomacy: The Colombo Plan towards the 1960s,” Journal of Contemporary History 48:1 (2013): 175–90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23488341.

[5] Waters, “A Failure of Imagination”, 356-7

[6] Amit Sarwal, “‘A Kangaroo and Bradman’: Indian Journalists’ Visit to Australia under the Colombo Plan, 1950–1957,” Journalism Studies 20, no. 6 (April 26, 2019): 840–56, https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2018.1428907.

[7] Lowe, “Journalists and the Stirring of Australian Public Diplomacy.”

[8] Walker, Stranded Nation, 289; Oakman, Facing Asia, 150.

[9] Cabinet Minute, June 16, 1964, Decision No. 281 of Submission No. 222, ‘Special Overseas Visits Fund – Increase in Size of Fund and Extension of Area of Application’, Asian Visits Fund, Geographical Extension, A4940/1 C3265, NAA, as cited in Brawley and Radcliffe.