Australia has a long tradition of publishing Official Histories – histories of major events and organisations. Sponsored by the Australian government, which provides the authors with unique access to relevant records, Official Histories are considered authoritative and comprehensive reference works of first resort. The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) at The Australian National University has a strong association with the production of Australian Official Histories in the post-Second World War era. 

The Korean War

Korean War

The two volume Official History of Australia in the Korean War 1950–1953 was written by Professor Robert O’Neill during his tenure as Head of Centre.

Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations

In 2024, David Horner was appointed the Official Historian of Australian peacekeeping and post-Cold War operations. Professor Horner’s remit was extended in 2006 to also include Australia’s overseas emergency relief operations. Australia’s First and Second World War official history series remain among the nation’s largest and most sustained historical projects. The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations was also ambitious in its scope and scale, researching 67 separate missions across a period of 60 years and running to six volumes and a total of over two million words. While previous official histories had been solely government funded, Professor Horner’s project relied on a new model of collaboration in which SDSC, the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Research Council, and the Australian Department of Defence all provided resources to complete the official history series.

Official Histories
Official Histories

In 2019, the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations was completed. Volume IV, The Limits of Peacekeeping: Australian missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005 was launched in May and Volume I, The Long Search for Peace: Observer missions and beyond, 1947–2006 was launched in October. These two volumes feature contributions from Professor Horner, SDSC academics Drs Jean Bou and Garth Pratten, former SDSC staff Dr Bob Breen, Dr Rhys Crawley and Miesje de Vogel, and ANU historian Dr Peter Londey.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

Official Histories

Professor Horner’s experience led to a request to head up the Official History of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) which delved into domestic intelligence operations between 1949 and 1989. Three volumes – written by Professor Horner, Professor John Blaxland and Dr Rhys Crawley – were published amidst great public interest between 2014 and 2016. The first volume The Spy Catchers was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2015.

Australian Signals Directorate

In 2019 the official historian’s baton has been passed to Professor Blaxland with the commencement of a fourth official history series in SDSC – the Official History of the Australian Signals Directorate

Official Histories

Although official histories may be the first word on a subject they are definitely not the last. They provide a springboard for subsequent researchers, highlighting sources and opportunities for further work as well as arguments to test and challenge. They also offer an authoritative account to inform future policy making, and both decision-making and practice in the strategic and operational spheres. They also serve to recognise the service of Australians undertaking challenging roles in complex, and often dangerous, environments. SDSC’s long involvement with official history is an example of how its deep and sustained research serves the Australian community in multiple ways.