Journal Entry #5


5 years ago

Hawke and Reagan: Exploring Different Emerging Spirits of Nationalism

Hans Kohn argued that “the twentieth century since 1945 has become the first period in history which the whole of mankind has accepted one and the same political attitude, that of nationalism.”[1] Kohn’s argument is paramount in the speeches of Reagan and Hawke whose use of ‘nationalism’ as a concept is employed to develop a sense of ‘national community’, that not only seeks to connect the individual to society but also attempts to promote a unique societal ‘myth’ to the wider public.

This essay seeks to understand these differing experiences of nationalism promoted by Reagan and Hawke as a means to identify the essence of each nation’s identities and why they differ so greatly. Ultimately, this essay hopes to offer insight into how the innate forces implicit in this kind of ‘classical’ nationalism has led Australian leaders to shy away from that grandiose American rhetoric of national ‘awakening’, independent ‘destiny’ and civic liberty, and instead adopt a framework of tolerance and diversity that suits the unique circumstances of a country once firmly ensconced within the British empire.

Probably the single most important symbol in understanding the American ‘national’ doctrine is the formation of the Declaration of Independence and the deeper ideological concepts it signifies. The principle elements of this document were seen as marking the beginning of a history separate from colonial and imperial rule, that would abandon the old-world order of Britain and Europe and encourage the growth of a new world that would fight for the “rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”[2]What had once been dependent colonies were now declared as independent states, outside of the empire’s authority. It was not so much an assertion of statehood but a declaration of individual civic freedom and rights. [3]  It asserted that at the heart of this new America were the essential elements of liberty, constitutionalism, law and democracy. It was a beacon of hope, that had emerged from the American Revolution, fought for the very thing the Declaration signified – freedom.

It is no surprise then, that on Independence Day 1981, Reagan chose to capture the essence of the Declaration as the means to define the core ideological foundations that underpin America’s national identity. He proclaimed that America’s Revolution did not only “change the very concept of government”, but it was and still is the “only true philosophical revolution in history”. The nationalism that Reagan purports is not one of cultural or racial uniformity, but rather one of ideological supremacy as seen in America’s fight for the right to equal civic liberties and independence, a nationalism based upon the founding principles of America’s Declaration of Independence. As Richard Hofstadter states, this American thesis of nationalism is an “example of civic nationalism par excellence.”[4]

The experience then of American nationalism is one of an ideological nature that in theory could allow anyone regardless of race, gender or language to not only ‘become’ American but also adhere to the worldwide values of freedom and civic liberties.[5] Reagan, know as the ‘Great Communicator” is particularly fervent in his understanding of American nationalism. With the American image tarnished by the actions in Vietnam, Reagan sought to restore these founding myths as seen in the Declaration, and in the true ideological supremacy of that document, proclaims America as the heartland of human freedom and progress as a “nation that grew from sea to shining sea.”

In stark contrast to this freedom based ideological nationalism, is the one captured by Hawke in his Australia Day speech of 1988. It is crucial to understand that the Australian colonists, unlike those in America, never rebelled against the British Empire, instead they were quite content in accepting Britain’s heritage as the corner stone to their own understanding of ‘nationalism’ as it fulfilled both their cultural and emotional needs as a community of the British peoples.[6] However, in the mid 1960s as the British race patriot idea collapsed, the fundamental idea behind this long held Australian identity as part of the ‘organic’ British worldwide community had to be significantly revised.

What post-Menizes leaders faced was a distinctly cultural and emotional dilemma in their need to combat this lingering emotional link to Britain with a viable language that suited Australia’s continually growing multicultural society. The once held ‘British white Australia’ image was simply no longer visible, so instead we see Hawke fashion a new language about the realities of Australian society as one diverse and rich in ethnic cultures and traditions. On Australia Day, he described Australia as a “nation of immigrants”, a “source of richness… diversity”, where one’s “commitment to Australia” was the markers of a “true Australian” and not that of ancestry or “privilege of origin.”

Hawke’s understanding of nationalism then was not so much concerned with Australia’s freedom or independence but should be seen as something of ‘liberal progressive’ nationalism that saw no need for an intense ‘radical’ founding myth.[7] Hawke comments on the “ever growing source of the richness, vitality and strength of our community”, sees this experience of nationalism as one without a glorious founding moment, but instead focuses on the commonly shared past of immigration. It is not the vehement rhetoric of American nationalism, but is one latent and cohesive in experience for a culture comprising of so many ethnic backgrounds. This nationalism is in many ways ‘artificial’, imposing upon the reality of British colonization a history of Australia that had always been ‘multicultural’.

For the most part, Australia’s nationalistic doctrine is a far cry away from the prose of the Whitehouse. The ideological and intransigent nature of the American national experience is contradicted by the volatile language of the Australian leaders who did not see a need to call upon their own exclusive nationalism to fill the void of the British race patriot idea. Both America and Australia were once British colonies, but the national identities of each are worlds apart. The appeals of Reagan towards a manifest destiny offer us an experience of American nationalism that is enduring in its relentless ideological mission for freedom and human civic liberties. Hawke’s views are perhaps less ‘radical’, understanding the Australian character as one that embraces the cultures of the world and diverse in one’s experience. Both attempt to offer nationalism as a means for social cohesion, but view the experience to this in ways unique to their own historical and cultural background.


Adams, Ephraim Douglass, The Power of Ideals in American History (Yale: Yale University Press, 1925).

Armitage, David, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Bhabha, Homi K., Nation & Narration (London: Routledge, 1990).

Curran, James, Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers defining the national image (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

Lieven, Anatol, America Right or Wrong (London: Harper Perennial, 2005).

Meaney, Neville, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, v.32, no.116, Apr 2001, pp. 76 – 90.


[1] Quoted in Homi K. Bhabha, Nation & Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 126.

[2] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 27.

[3] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, pp. 17 – 20.

[4] Quoted in Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 49.

[5] Ephraim Douglass Adams, The Power of Ideals in American History (Yale: Yale University Press, 1925), pp. 148 – 151.

[6] Neville Meaney, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, v.32, no.116, Apr 2001, pp. 82 – 83.

[7] James Curran, Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers defining the national image (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004), p. 158.

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