Charles Bean and American Progressivism

In 1984 my book Nine Australian Progressives explored the pursuit in this country of ideas akin to those espoused by American “Progressive” thinkers around 1900. American Progressivism grew from and interacted with ideas affecting many aspects of thought and life. The story was rich in ideas and enthusiasm. Personifying all this was Theodore Roosevelt, President from 1901 to 1909, who declared, midway through his term, “next to my own country, I am interested in the progress, success, and safety of Australia, that great democratic island-continent”. While it was driven by concern to improve the lot of both polities and individuals, the Progressive story was not one of simple virtue; various of its themes (and Roosevelt’s own style) had a totalitarian vein. That did not impede the movement’s international appeal.

My nine Australians did not include Charles Bean, but he had some place in the book’s overall text. As the First World War’s centenary brings renewed attention to the man who recorded Australia’s role in the conflict, it seems appropriate to develop the Bean/Progressive symbiosis, although he never specified any such debt. How far was this an instance of journalistic concealment of sources, how far of subconscious adaptation to zeitgeist ideas?

Among Theodore Roosevelt’s many remarkable feats was to write a history of American territorial expansion from the Atlantic coastline westward, an epic in which he had an active part. Published in 1894, Roosevelt’s Winning of the West complemented a paper more eminent in formal historiography, Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History (1893). With varying emphasis, both Roosevelt and Turner saw the men who drove westward expansion as crucial in developing true democracy and much else that was admirable in America’s evolving politics and spirit. Roosevelt was quick to endorse Turner’s thesis; Turner was a good Progressive.

There is much congruity between the Turner–Roosevelt argument and that advanced by panegyrists of the Australian up-country worker, as was recognised by Russel Ward’s Australian Legend (1958). Among those panegyrists Bean holds a lofty place. As war historian he celebrated Australian achievement as reflecting, indeed deriving from, qualities thus acquired. In complement, his emphasis was less on grand strategy and the decisions of generals, more on what everyday Diggers did in the front line of battle. As the American frontiersmen won “the West” so did Bean’s Diggers transcend the war, expressing national qualities as they did so.

Bean himself was a frontiersman, recording the war as a journalist on the spot. He fits a dictum of that eminent critic Richard Hofstadter: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind, and that its characteristic contribution was that of the socially responsible reporter-reformer.” Journalism might be seen as applied history, and so amenable to the Progressive belief in instrumental practicality, serving some good cause. The pragmatism of William James, a creed fundamental for Progressives, underpinned such conviction. Bean’s histories of the war accord with this matrix. In 1907 he had said that “the Australian” had yet produced no great fiction but rather “he is a journalist”.

Born in Bathurst in 1879, Bean spent from 1901 to 1904 in Britain as the son of a clergyman-headmaster, and duly graduated from Oxford. On returning to Australia he practised law while already dabbling in journalism, Realpolitik to the fore. In April 1905 appeared a consequent essay on the Russo-Japanese war, “The Approaching Sea Fight in the Far East”. After surveying various naval conflicts since the American Civil War, Bean forecast that the current antagonists would carry that story to deeper intensity: their ships, equipped with up-to-date armour, faced new weapons of attack—torpedoes and submarines. The outcome would be crucial for Britain by testing the validity of its heavy investment in modern armoured ships. Coincident with the publication of this article came Japan’s victory at Tsushima, a battle such as Bean had predicted. His analysis was congruent with that of the outstanding theorist of sea power’s historic role, America’s A.T. Mahan. Theodore Roosevelt stood high among the many influenced by Mahan.

In mid-1907 Bean published a series of articles about Australian society that showed further Progressive affinities. “The civilization up-country is more or less a new thing in this world; Australian country life … has hammered out of the old stock a new man,” he wrote. Such sentences echoed Turner’s frontier thesis and complemented the Progressive “country life movement” that upheld rural values against urban corruption. From the Australian situation, Bean’s argument continued, there evolved “a tall spare man, clean and wiry … of a certain refined ascetic sense”. The creative process worked through the perpetual conflict that the small farmer confronted. Nature was his chief antagonist. A lesser role belonged to human tensions, arising from within settler ranks (“the blacks” offering but meagre resistance). “All this … has made the Australian as fine a fighting man as exists.”

That sentiment was akin to Roosevelt’s glorifying of “the strenuous life”, while Roosevelt’s celebration of the Spanish-American war of 1898 had its complement in Bean’s praise of Australian action in the Boer War. Bean particularly endorsed his compatriots’ resistance to the foolish orders of “someone with half a yard of gold lace on his cuff”. He argued that this scepticism vis-à-vis settled authority permeated Australian life generally, fostered by there being “no cut-and-dried customs” to guide settlement of the “virgin” land. While Bean seems never to have cited Roosevelt, Turner or Mahan, he now said that Australian attitudes and values were well suggested in Bret Harte’s presentation of Californian gold-diggers. Henry Lawson was another admirer of Harte—but neither he nor other Bulletin writers won mention from Bean.

That the word new appeared twice in the foregoing quotations from Bean was indicative. Those three letters had a mighty role in Progressive dialectic. A striking example came with the American 1912 Presidential election as Roosevelt campaigned for “New Nationalism” against Woodrow Wilson’s victorious “New Freedom”. Australian counterparts included Jethro Brown’s “New Democracy” (an Australian polity made vibrant by Federation and proportional representation), Alfred Deakin’s “New Protection” (tariffs granted to Australian industries that paid decent wages) and Henry Higgins’s “New Province for Law and Order” (industrial arbitration). Surmounting all stood the concept of a self-created “new man”.

Another of Bean’s essays, “The Romance of It”, further spoke of Australia’s history. It admitted some repugnant passages in that record—yet “blacks” received just one mention, convicts not even that. Anyway, these grim years soon ended. “Romance” had some place in exploration, and then the gold discoveries, but Bean’s dominant concern was to present this elixir as permeating country life. Thereby “romantic” morals and standards infused Australians. This touch of mystery-cum-myth flavoured Bean’s Australianism and his empathy for the “country life movement”.

In concluding the 1907 series Bean returned to Realpolitik. “The real Australian,” he claimed, “is the Briton re-born,” having Elizabethan vitality and adventurous spirit. Again Bean stressed how Australian virtues had been formed by the small farmer’s response to nature’s challenges of drought, fire and flood. The true Australian, thus tempered, would fight in defence of “the British community the world over”. Australia’s particular concern was the eastern hemisphere, increasingly the focus of great powers’ competition: “they will jostle and they will fight”. In response, Australia and New Zealand aspired to constitute “the great white sea Power of the South”. Pursuing the racial theme Bean became fervid in defending the White Australia policy, his target its old-world critics. “The Australian is fighting the coloured nations of the Earth today in the same cause in which Themistocles fought with Xerxes, Pompey with Mithridates, Richard the Lion Heart with the Saracens, or Charles Martel with the Moors.”

Inter-racial mingling bred doom-laden horrors, Bean continued, among them “a difficulty so insuperable, a danger so appalling as the negro problem in the United States”. American Progressives were sensitive to this issue, and now reformist opinion was less sympathetic to black America than at any time in the nation’s history. Most Progressives saw the situation much as did Bean and reacted accordingly. Anglo-Saxon-Nordic virtues were extolled, and other races, Afro-Americans to the fore, condemned. This mindset often went in lock-step with enthusiasm for eugenics—a protean story, replete with fascistic strains; not all Progressive thinkers were eugenicists, but most eugenicists were some kind of Progressive.

In January 1908 Bean abandoned the law to become a full-time journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, and later in the year reported on the visit to Australasia of a flotilla of the United States Navy. “The Great White Fleet” was a tag generally applied to these ships—which indeed were painted white, and colour was also a matter of human skin. Roosevelt read the eastern-hemisphere power situation much as did Bean. All portents told that Bean would relish his new assignment.

So it proved. Bean sailed with the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Australian squadron to Auckland, where the Americans called before making to Sydney. He responded above all to “constant preparation at more or less high tension for a dimly-distant battle”. Bean’s development of this scenario can be read as celebrating the achievement of efficiency through scientific management, another crusade of American Progressives—and “preparedness” (for war) was to become Roosevelt’s battle-cry after 1914. From Auckland Bean wrote with enthusiasm and skill. Yet elaboration of themes congruent to my argument awaited publication of a book in 1909, With the Flagship of the South. Here Bean advanced from reporting the American visit to arguing that Australia must develop its own naval strength. At various points he offered hope for peace, and horror of war, yet repeatedly pointed to Germany and Japan as striving for hegemony. In antiphony Bean invoked Britain and the United States as “beyond comparison the most honest and, on great issues, the most generous of the world’s great powers”. It was a mighty challenge for Australia to establish a navy, but its people could meet it—“because they are Anglo-Saxons”.

A few months later, in mid-1909, the Herald sent Bean not across sea but into the far reaches of eastern Australia, Darling River country. “Wool Land” was the title for the articles that followed. The first of them returned to pondering the nature of his compatriots: “Australia has been made by wool. And so has been the Australian.” The archetype was he who in one way or another serviced the industry by his labour. Somewhat confusingly, Bean ascribed different characteristics among workers according to their particular task, while the small farmer now received but one, derogatory, mention. In his introductory article Bean spoke only of working men, but subsequently he extolled “the Boss” as a master-figure of high order. Withal, Bean sustained his central argument as to the working man’s creative role. “The genius of the Australian is that he can make something out of nothing … He can do anything. He is aware of it.” It would be a sad day if pastoralism and the human type it fostered should wither.

Other Progressive themes flavoured these essays. One of the few features of pastoral life that Bean deplored was the splurging by many workers of their pay-cheque at their nearest pub. Temperance agitation went well back into the nineteenth century but it gained renewed strength in Progressive America, with Prohibition being enacted there in 1918. Again, Bean’s articles addressed Nature as well as Man, applauding the beauty of outback trees and grasses; notwithstanding his praise of pastoralism he recognised its harm to the environment, here echoing another major Progressive concern, conservation of natural resources. Still closer to the Progressive model was his call for effective “locking” of the Darling, thus utilising its waters to maximum effect. His final article argued for outback dwellers to agitate for a separate state within Australia, centred in the Murray-Darling basin. Thereby would be created political force to achieve such projects as “locking” the Darling, while undermining the current tendency of governments to endow urban projects, so further swelling degenerate cities. Such thinking sharpened Bean’s variant of “the country life movement”.

In On the Wool Track (1910) Bean published these articles as a book aimed at British readers. He now expanded ethnic and militarist themes. “The Boss” derived his authority from “the common sense and courage and the sheer ability to lead which generally exists somewhere deep down in people of British birth”. Likewise the aforesaid Australian genius was now said “to go back deep into the British stock”, finding creative liberation as “the race” interacted with outback Australia. That life fostered martial quality; “short of putting a man up and running a piece of iron through him, there is probably nothing more like real warfare in the world”. Bean applauded Lord Kitchener’s recent assertion that Australians had the potential to be excellent soldiers.

Bean finished his western assignment by travelling down the Darling in a steamboat, duly presenting that story in the press. That he referred to the craft as “Dreadnought”—a current term for a battleship—might seem to forecast some link with naval power and empire. Such was not the case: the title was jocular and the text told somewhat simple stories—appreciative of the experience and especially of the crew’s expertise, but lacking ideological thrust. With some added material the series was published as The Dreadnought of the Darling in London in 1911, an Australian edition coming as late as 1956. The added material remarked on “the strong lovable characteristics which … the pastoral civilization breeds … and which make the Australians at this day feel strangely at home in the Western states of America”. So Bean connected the two frontiers! Otherwise this version of Dreadnought was more emphatic than the original in lauding the outback man as Australia’s heroic type. Now too, Bean lauded the Aborigines’ adaptation to desert conditions, while denying them any future role:

In the days when the last remnant of the old race will have vanished for all time from the land, some casual wayfarer through these wildernesses may still notice on the clay by his side some crumbs of earth, a few stones, some scattered shells … Look well at them; they are worth it.

Bean returned to Britain as a Herald representative in 1910. A cherished task was to report the building there of three warships—the nucleus of an Australian navy such as he had advocated and political consensus now upheld. This story underpinned another book, Flagships Three (1913). Its early pages extolled the Viking seafarers of ages past, their story melding with the broader migration of seafaring peoples—Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish—who made England glorious. Then followed virtual repetition of Flagship of the South. Bean stressed that battle-readiness now dominated aboard naval craft, and pondered relations between Britain and Germany: the two nations had verged on war in 1911, he remarked, and might cross that line henceforth—yet these were not natural enemies, and one day might unite as the world’s power balance moved eastwards. Bean further argued for liaison between Britain and the United States, claiming that this was “a wish very dear” to Australia and regretting that American opinion currently showed lukewarm on the issue. Theodore Roosevelt’s moves towards a “special relationship” with Britain languished under William Taft, President from 1909 to 1913.

Bean probably was uncertain as to whether Russia, Japan or China would be victorious in the eastern hemisphere’s power battle, and so Britain’s likely due antagonist. While vague about that, he insisted that the key role of an Australian navy must be to defend the White Australia policy. Racial pride became yet more vehement in these passages: “Australia, of all countries in the world, is an ideal one for the white man to live in.” British virtues thereby cherished included “a pure regard for women, a chivalrous marriage tie”. These were among Bean’s few words about the sexes.

Bean pondered whether aerial bombardment and ever more lethal torpedoes might make current warships obsolete, or at least force their designers to adopt new technology—oil replacing coal, and driving turbine or internal-combustion engines. Another long-standing interest was the securing, in Britain and Australia, of men competent to meet the ever-rising standards required in naval service. Especially winning Bean’s enthusiasm was Australia’s establishment of a naval college, whereby able boys were recruited for full-time training as officers. He likened this to “an experiment from Plato’s Republic”; “the State realises that, for the sake of efficiency it must catch young those who are to fill its higher posts”. Bean emphasised that recruitment depended altogether on merit. Such blending of elitism with democracy has had many admirers, perhaps even before Plato. It won Progressive support, especially by promising to maximise “efficiency”—a word appropriately used in Bean’s last-quote sentence. (One of my fancies is to interpret “efficiency” as the Progressive equivalent of Nietzsche’s “will to power”.)

In early 1913 Bean returned to Sydney and the Herald. His journalism continued of the highest order. From mid-1914 it addressed the European crisis. To some degree the situation ran counter to his earlier forecasts that cataclysm would erupt in the eastern hemisphere, waged primarily on sea; in With the Flagships he had remarked, “as for Germany’s continental ambitions, one doubts if they are worth the death of one British soldier”. When hostilities came, however, he showed no ambivalence, and won appointment as Australia’s official war correspondent.

First at Gallipoli, then on the western front, he discharged that role with phenomenal endurance and devotion. Complementing, even surpassing that record was Bean’s subsequent achievement as author and director of the official histories of Australia’s role in the war. The achievement was monumental, concerned to give credit where due, but avoiding triumphalism. Passages in these volumes affirm that the soldiery displayed virtues derived from outback life: that theme mixed with others (pan-Britannic loyalty and the capacity of junior officers strong among them) but still stood central. It appears, for example, in Bean’s introduction to his overall synthesis, Anzac to Amiens (1946). There he invoked the Bulletin, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy as his earlier work did not, and claimed that it was to

the backwoodsmen, and the men of the great runs and the mining fields … that Australians owed their resourcefulness and readiness to grapple with their objectives even against authority, and also their basic creed, in industry as in war, that a man must at all costs stand by his mate.

A complementary passage described Bean’s aims and technique:

As war—even more than other disasters—still affords a plain trial of national character, it was necessary to show how the Australian citizen reacted to it. This could be done only by recording not merely the decisions of generals and governments, but also the manner in which those decisions worked out through the ultimate machinery of men’s nerves and muscles at the fighting edge …

This indeed was the credo of a frontier historian.

Immediately on war’s end, Bean’s published a tract, In Your Hands, Australians, which addressed civic concerns in thorough Progressive style: “Australia is a country still to make”, and “Nationalism is the soul of our race”. It called for a higher civic consciousness that would strive to uplift society, and for purposeful planning—guided by applied science—to supplant the aimless muddling of the past: “We must plan for the education of every person in the State, in body, mind, and character.” Thereby might be overcome the debilitating effect of big-city life, while raising the appeal and practicability of farming. Of course, towns would remain; they should be modelled so as to preserve beauty and provide amenity, while resisting skyscrapers and promiscuous advertising. In all such matters lessons should be taken from the skills and qualities that had won the war. Nor should Realpolitik be forgotten. Bean reverted to his insistence on the eastern hemisphere as a likely point of further tension, urging that in response English-speaking nations join in watchful alliance: “the existence of the great Anglo-Saxon Republic on the other side of our ocean is an all-important fact for us”.

After establishing his headquarters in Sydney in the mid-1920s Bean served as an active citizen, notably through membership of the Town Planning Association, upholding a mainstream Progressive cause. His prodigious war-history work continued into the 1940s. In 1943 he published War Aims of a Plain Australian, its purpose “to stimulate thought towards grasping this time the chances we missed after World War I”. The message was very much the same as In Your Hands. Ever the Progressive, Bean declared that his nation currently was “not fighting for the Old Australia and the Old World, but for a New Australia and a New World”. Perhaps he felt added confidence as seer in that Pearl Harbor had confirmed his long-abiding forecasts. Living until 1968, Bean might well have judged that some of his hopes for Australia had been fulfilled.

Michael Roe taught history at the University of Tasmania from 1960 to 1996 and still lives in Hobart. His book Nine Australian Progressives (1984) complemented his first major work, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia (1965).


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