Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970

Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970

by Anna Haebich


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In Spinning the Dream, multi-award-winning historian Anna Haebich re-evaluates the experience of Assimilation in Australia, providing a meticulously researched and masterfully written assessment of its implications for Australia's Indigenous and ethnic minorities and for immigration and refugee policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781921361074
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 03/01/2008
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Anna Haebich's multi-award-winning book Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000 was the first national history of Australia's Stolen Generations. Anna's career brings together university teaching and research, centre directorship, museum curatorship, visual arts practice, and work with Indigenous communities. Her research interests include histories of Indigenous peoples, migration, the body, the environment, the visual and performing arts, and representations of the past. Anna is a Professor specialising in interdisciplinary research at Griffith University and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Spinning the Dream

Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970

By Anna Haebich

Fremantle Press

Copyright © 2008 Anna Haebich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921888-37-3


Anxious World

How richly people have always dreamed of this, dreamed of the better life that might be possible.

Ernst Bloch

Societies are mechanisms for the generation of hope ... the caring society is essentially an embracing society that generates hope among its citizens and induces them to care for it. The defensive society ... suffers from a scarcity of hope and creates citizens who see threats everywhere. It generates worrying citizens and a paranoid nationalism.

Ghassan Hage

Humanity is forever involved in two conflicting currents, the one tending towards unification, and the other towards the maintenance or restoration of diversity. ... In different spheres and at different levels, both currents are in truth two aspects of the same process.

Claude Levi Strauss

In 1959 crowds in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane thronged to visit the most popular blockbuster photographic exhibition of all time. Billed as 'The Show You See with Your Heart', The Family of Man opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, toured thirty-eight countries and was viewed by over nine million people before it was 'retired' in 1963. At the time the exhibition was praised for its hopeful message of peace for a disillusioned and shocked world still reeling from the horrors of global warfare and confronted by the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Today The Family of Man is acknowledged as an iconic expression of the vision of universal humanity and equality that sustained the hopes of an anxious world in the mid-twentieth century and is on permanent display at the Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg and listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Peeling back the layers to find the real 1950s is not easy. Like visitors to The Family of Man, we have been seduced by the veneer of civilised optimism glued over a world of crises, threats and unprecedented change. This veneer helped shape the popular view of the 1950s as a 'decade of normality' wedged between the violence of the 1940s and the political protests of the late 1960s — a time of stability, conservatism, peace, circumscribed gender roles, restrained sexuality and a conservative mass media. However, this was a strange normality: shockwaves from the war had forced a 'desperate flight into normalcy' and a determination 'to move on and not look back' as nations and individuals quietly drew an 'amnesiac veil' over war-time horrors and complicities. In such a time, many people found security and stability in the metaphors of family and universality popularised in The Family of Man and promoted by the United Nations. We can now look back on the decade as a social and psychological turning point, a pivotal period of global upheaval and dramatic change that transformed the world and determined the shape of events to the end of the century.

Australia was swept along in these changes. No longer a Cinderella satellite of Britain, it had to carve out its own place as an independent nation on the world stage. There were also dramatic political, economic and demographic transformations at home. Historian Nicholas Brown describes a period of 'complexity, frustration and transition'. In this context Australia was pushed to reconsider its unifying race-based vision of nationhood — a White Australia built on the twin pillars of Anglo-Celtic racial origins and cultural heritage — and bow to the newly emerged international democratic model of nationhood that advocated human rights and equality for all citizens. The government was driven by fears of international censure of its discriminatory Aboriginal and immigration policies and the threat of repercussions such as exclusion from vital economic, political and defence alliances. What emerged was the vision of an assimilated Australia where a common culture rather than race was the driving force of nationhood. This promised security and hope for an anxious nation and, for some, suggested the realisation of humanitarian ideals fought for in the war. However, as we will see, this new program of assimilation remained embedded in race ideology and practice, so that criticism at home and abroad continued on in tandem with implementation of the policy.

Mixed messages

The 1950s provided a peculiar mix of contrasts — rapid change and conformity, exhilaration and fear — that resonates with today's global climate of turmoil and transformation. The Family of Man exemplified the mixed messages of the times. Curated by Belgian photographer and US resident Edward Steichen, the exhibition contained fifty-three black and white photographs depicting family groups from sixty-eight countries around the world happily caught up in their daily activities or celebrating the joys and achievements of family life. The focus on the commonality of human experience was reinforced by relevant quotes from world religious texts. Together these served to reduce the marked differences of nation, culture and race in the images to mere surface trappings of a common human core while distracting viewers from memories of the recent past when the world tore itself apart over distinctions of race and culture. The exception in this seamless narrative was a single large colour photograph of a nuclear explosion — a stark reminder of the horrific potential for world destruction. Steichen's biographer and contemporary Rosch Krieps recalled that the exhibition's mass appeal came from its optimistic promise of peace by virtue of the essential oneness of all races and cultures. Publicity for the exhibition reinforced this message with iconic photographs, in particular showing rival Cold War leaders US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sitting amicably together at the 1959 Moscow exhibition opening.

Not all viewers were convinced by the exhibition's veneer of optimism. For Melbourne writer and peace activist Elizabeth Vassilieff the exhibition was a reminder of the terrible choice that faced humankind:

... on the one hand the assertion of faith in people's capacity for goodness, their dignity and worth, in the vital energy of the Family of Man, in the potential even of the bodgies, the widgies, the tramps, the crims, the beasts of the world, in the human capacity for moral indignation, rebellion, struggle, in the concept of justice and freedom for all in the world now; on the other hand, contempt for the Family of Man, historical pessimism, resignation to evil, and the abdication of responsibility, leading to universal death from a war with nuclear weapons.

French critic and theorist Roland Barthes visited the exhibition in Paris in 1956 and attacked its veneer of universality, achieved by 'denying history ... eliminating difference, overlooking the scars of life in particular social circumstances, and inundating the viewer in sentiment'. Gender stereotyping and US hegemony could be added to his list. Barthes' sentiments have echoed down the years in continuing criticisms of the exhibition's 'sentimental humanism' and opulent images that, like the specious multiculturalism of more recent Benetton advertising campaigns, mask the challenge of the heterogeneous, the complex and the contradictory. Cultural analyst Eric Sandeen describes Steichen's vision of universality as an illusion that is 'continually challenged by the relentless fracturing of the globe among competing interests and communities, and the consolidating power of multinational capital and globalising media'. This, rather than the mute silence of Steichen's exhibition space 'is the cacophony in which we live and through which the images must be read'.

In creating The Family of Man Steichen had hoped to arouse an imagined sense of global community that would 'incite people into taking open and united action against war itself'. However, The Family of Man was not universal and nor was its message confined to peace. The exhibition was a product 'Made in the USA' within a particular historical context. Developed in a prestigious New York museum, it was bankrolled by the Rockefeller family and created by a largely US curatorial staff with the vast majority of its images taken by US photographers. Like the Billy Graham crusade that also toured Australia in 1959 — preaching Christianity, anticommunism and the American way — the exhibition provided ammunition for America's Cold War cultural diplomacy campaigns, although this of course had not been Steichen's intention. Masterminding this darker side was the US Information Agency, which funded the exhibition's ambitious touring schedule to promote America's new status as a superpower and to spread positive images of US democracy in the wake of the bad publicity from its communist witch hunts and persecution of civil rights activists. The underlying domestic ideal promoted in the exhibition was of the American family with its familiar constructs of religion, patriarchy and gendered family roles that challenged communist ideology with an image of a 'classless society with the family as its nucleus'.

Such public relations doubletalk that communicated its messages through the potent symbols of family and nation was typical of propaganda of the 1950s. When the Australian government promoted its new vision of an assimilated nation it adopted these same measures to sell the concept. Like visitors to The Family of Man, Australians would also be seduced by images of happy families — British, European and Aboriginal — all joining in the Australian way of life, the veneer of unity covering over the mass of tensions, contradictions and inequalities that characterised the changing Australian nation in the 1950s.

Age of anxiety

For poet W. H. Auden, the 1950s were an 'age of anxiety'. Beneath the complacency and conformity lay the velvety darkness of anxiety and fear. The United Nations and the Family of Man exhibition pumped out comforting messages of universal brotherhood and equality and the ideal of an international family of nations, but the political and economic realities were different. That decade had unprecedented global migration, extraordinary economic development, undreamt of prosperity and a new world of consumerism and advertising and political spin. Despite the creation of the United Nations with its promise of world peace, reports of new theatres of war escalated, along with political terrorism in decolonising nations and racial backlash sparked by the civil rights protests in the United States. Overshadowing everything else was the spectre of a world split by the competition between capitalism and communism and the terror of atomic global annihilation through the Soviet and American competing will to power. Even outer space was threatened by this deadly conflict. Fanned by US doctrine at home and abroad, a scenario of fear and delusion was created, with Janus-faced paranoia about enemies at home and abroad that is familiar to us today in our own age of anxiety.

Today we grapple with the black dog of depression; the personal devil in the 1950s was anxiety. The prescription drugs of choice today are Prozac and Zoloft but back then the 'miracle cure for anxiety' was Miltown (Meprobamate) a tranquilliser known popularly as the 'peace pill', 'happiness pills' or 'emotional aspirin'. Miltown was 'an overnight sensation', the first psychotropic wonder drug in medical history that 'fulfilled the promise of better living through chemistry' by reducing 'tension, anxiety, depression, menstrual stress, psychosomatic symptoms, and insomnia'. Within a year of its launch in 1955, one in twenty Americans was prescribed Miltown, over a billion tablets had been sold and the monthly production of fifty tons could not keep up with demand. The drug promised to relieve post-war tensions in gender expectations, as well as threats to patriarchal authority in the home by reconciling wives and mothers to domestic life and a restricted 'new femininity'. It was widely prescribed for mothers to bolster their role of maintaining peace and stability within the haven of the family. Miltown became the panacea for the anxieties of American life, its calming effects helping to prop up the increasingly precarious vision of a nation of happy families.

In Australia mothers relied on the analgesic properties of the aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine in headache powders like Bex, Vincent's Powders and Aspro to get them through the day. Advertisers promised to 'soothe away' the effects of 'modern tension, "nerves" strains, pain & headaches' — it was only later that the harmful effects of addiction and overuse causing serious damage to the liver and kidneys and even death were made public. These products could be purchased at any corner shop and their widespread use gave rise to the iconic 1950s housewives' remedy of 'a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down'. According to Hugh Mackay, the anxiety of the times penetrated the heart of the Australian family to shape the nihilistic view of the baby boomer generation: eat, drink and be merry because, with the press of a button, the world could be annihilated.

Anxious nation

Australia, like many other nations, was in a state of high anxiety following the war as our leaders struggled to carve out a respectable place within the changing boundaries of empire, nations and alliances. For a nation finding its way on the world stage, this was a demanding new era of international standards of conduct and scrutiny under the United Nations, and an expanded global media — including an emerging press in decolonising states — that accelerated the speed and spread of criticism and brought a sharp critical edge to reporting. In this climate Australia's race-based immigration and Aboriginal policies were a liability rather than a positive statement of nationhood and allegiance to Britain. Our outmoded domestic policies threatened to blow out into scandals that could irreparably damage Australia's international reputation and our leaders sometimes seriously misjudged world opinion — an infamous example being the refusal in the late 1950s to condemn South Africa's apartheid system.

Significantly, as historians Sue Taffe and John Chesterman point out, the international climate provided the impetus for concerned senior diplomats and politicians to push for equal rights for Aboriginal Australians. Activists at home were able to use the language of civil rights to promote their own agendas. International censure was answered by 'prudential diplomacy', a new idealism and Aboriginal activism. In regard to migration, the gradual relaxation of the White Australia policy was driven by a mix of humanitarian concern for the millions of post-war refugees, fears of international reprisals against the racist policy, and economic self-interest in developing a mass labour force for post-war economic development.

Refugees and migrants taking advantage of new opportunities to settle in Australia were inevitably changing the nation's demographic and cultural landscape. Meanwhile Australians were seeking to improve their economic status while otherwise endeavouring to maintain the status quo. What emerges is a complex picture of changes that were remoulding the vision of Australian nationhood. A mix of key players was operating in various national and international arenas, sometimes promoting conflicting agendas. The Australian government was responding to the erosion of old global networks based on racism and colonial power and was seeking to capitalise on new opportunities and alliances that were vital to national development and defence while also striving to meet new international standards of democratic nationhood. This included building alliances with the new decolonised states in the Asia Pacific region. The government's critics at home and abroad drew on new human rights conventions like the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights to push for Indigenous equality within the nation and recognition of Indigenous rights.

Guiding Australia through these anxious times was the paternal figure of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies who held office from 1949 to his retirement in 1966. During his twenty-three years of conservative political ascendancy, Menzies manoeuvred the nation through the labyrinth of change, guided by his own passionate allegiance to Empire, Queen and the British race and a pragmatism that looked to building new networks of commerce and defence that inevitably drew Australia ever closer to the United States.


Excerpted from Spinning the Dream by Anna Haebich. Copyright © 2008 Anna Haebich. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
About the Author,
Part 1: White Nation,
1: Anxious World,
2: New White Australia,
Part 2: Selling Assimilation,
3: Promises,
4: Practices,
Part 3: Assimilation in Nyungar Country,
5: Good Citizens,
6: Happy Families,
7: Living the Dream,
Part 4: Cracks in the Mirror,
8: Paradox,
9: Fragments,

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