Academic journal article Hecate

'To Combat the Plague': The Construction of Moral Alarm and State Intervention in Queensland during World War II

Academic journal article Hecate

'To Combat the Plague': The Construction of Moral Alarm and State Intervention in Queensland during World War II

Article excerpt

A woman's "morals" are understood as something purely sexual just as a woman's "honor" always has to do purely with sex. An "honorable man" is in general thought to be a man who understands and follows such clear and simple, human concepts as honesty, reliability, loyalty, fearlessness. An "honest woman" is a woman who maintains certain traditions in her relationship with men.(1)

"Societies", writes Stanley Cohen, "appear to be subject, every now and again, to periods of moral panic." At such a time, as he further elaborates:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) reported to; the condition then disappears, submerges or [alternatively] deteriorates and becomes more visible.(2)

In the years from 1942 to 1945, Australia was subject to a severe and prolonged moral panic. In July 1942, public apprehension about the pervasiveness of venereal disease was aroused. It was argued that sexually transmitted diseases might jeopardise the health and performance of Australian and Allied servicemen and also undermine the moral fibre of the Australian people. Pronouncements from politicians, press and preachers precipitated the construction of a moral alarm that assumed all the fervour of an evangelical and cathartic enterprise. Three distinct but interrelated phases can be discerned. In each stage, a particular group of women who had supposedly transgressed and contaminated the conventional moral order became the focus of the crusade. Furthermore, the moral arbiters, having identified their particular target, pronounced judgement and demanded `appropriate' chastisement. To accomplish this, the full weight of the state's apparatus was mobilised in order to stigmatise, affix blame, and accord a punishment which was to vary according to a woman's class and social status. These dual processes of apprehension and mobilisation, occurring at the ideological and bureaucratic levels in both civilian and military spheres, were rendered more visible and, indeed, magnified by the upheaval and disruption in a society undergoing the unfamiliar experience of total war. Australia's security, even its very existence, seemed threatened in early 1942. Thus, the panic surrounding venereal infections in both the civilian and military communities throws light upon a series of complex ideological, structural and bureaucratic processes which emerged in order to cope with the, trauma of total war.

As Geoffrey Bolton claims, the year 1942 "saw the greatest crisis in Australian history."(3) In February, Singapore, regarded as the bastion of Australia's external defence, fell ignominiously to the Japanese, who now seemed poised on the very threshold of Australia.

But the crisis was not simply military in nature. It involved a series of unfamiliar internal emergencies, dislocations and innovative redirections. Nowhere were these dilemmas and challenges more acutely perceived and experienced than in the vast northern state of Queensland. For it was here the Japanese had bombed whilst they proceeded to invade the Australian colonial and mandated territories of Papua and New Guinea; it was in Queensland that General Douglas MacArthur eventually established his headquarters in July 1942, and it was through Queensland that nearly a million Allied servicemen were directly transported en route to the Pacific theatre of warfare. Queensland, a society of only 1,039,000 people,(4) was in 1942 and 1943, then, a garrisoned community replete with a formidable army of occupation.

The crisis of `total war' did not simply involve the mobilisation and deployment of available defence forces and the maintenance of a secure base for the USA to launch its Pacific offensives. …

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