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ANZUS at 70: Menzies, Spender and the creation of ANZUS

Posted By on August 16, 2021 @ 12:30

This post is an excerpt from the new ASPI publication ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, released on 18 August. Over the next few weeks, The Strategist will be publishing a selection of chapters from the book.

Before, during and immediately after World War II, Percy Spender was a close observer of, and sometimes minor participant in, regional and global geopolitics, noting especially Britain’s declining power and influence and the emergence of a powerful US from its traditional isolationism. As his biographer, David Lowe, has demonstrated, Spender saw, much earlier than most Australians, that Australia’s future lay in the Pacific, based on a strong defence relationship with the US and close relations with the non-communist nations of postcolonial Asia. Despite Spender’s often fractious relationship with his party and his obvious leadership aspirations, Robert Menzies appointed him as foreign minister when the Liberals came to office in 1949.

Early in his short but highly significant term as Minister for External Affairs, Spender made it clear that his personal mission was to achieve a security treaty with the US. He had already taken a prominent role in forming what became the Colombo Plan (known for a time as the ‘Spender plan’).

Spender hoped for a relationship that would include a security guarantee similar to the NATO model and the greatest possible access to strategic policymakers in Washington. Many small nations aspired to such a relationship with the world’s greatest superpower, but Washington was reluctant to offer that level of support for nations that couldn’t offer strategic assets in return. As MacArthur had told Curtin, holding similar democratic values or a ‘consanguinity of race’ wasn’t enough.

Moreover, Spender’s own leader was less than wholeheartedly supportive. Menzies, who pronounced himself ‘British to the bootstraps’, was influenced by the opposition of the British governments led by Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill to the concept of Australia, New Zealand and the US signing a treaty to which the UK wasn’t a partner. Menzies also feared that any American guarantee would be limited to the administration that granted it, so that any agreement might be ‘a superstructure on a foundation of jelly’.

Spender’s educational and professional background and his tenacity in argument were similar to HV Evatt’s—they were alumni of the same high school and law school—but their approaches had a crucial difference. Evatt placed great faith in international law, especially the UN Charter, of which he had been an architect. Spender, like Menzies and their cabinet colleagues (including a future foreign minister, Paul Hasluck), took the view that what mattered in the world was power. In the emerging Cold War, as in the recent world war, the fate of small nations depended on the attitudes and interactions of the great powers.

Spender’s ability to impress Washington depended on both long observation and agile opportunism. While Menzies was incommunicado on a tour to the UK and the US, Spender ensured that Australia announced a commitment of troops to the Korean War shortly before Britain announced its own, demonstrating that Australia was acting on its own assessment of Pacific geopolitics, not merely following London’s lead.

When the Chinese entered the Korean War soon afterwards, the Americans realised that they needed respectable partners to support a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan, of which many Australians were still highly suspicious. At the time Britain, with American support, was pressing Australia to commit forces to the Middle East in the event of a widely feared Third World War against the Soviet Union. Spender asserted that Australia would make such a commitment only if its ‘back door’ were secured by the Americans. With the aid of the chief American negotiator, John Foster Dulles, that argument won the day.

Menzies kept himself at some distance from much of Spender’s negotiations, but the urbane Melbourne barrister readily accepted the benefits of his assertive colleague, later declaring the negotiation of ANZUS as one of the principal achievements of his 16-year term as Prime Minister.

The Australians didn’t get a security guarantee as strong as that of the NATO alliance. Nor was their access to strategic policymakers as great as they had hoped, largely because the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no intention of sharing their detailed plans with a minor ally. After a short but highly significant term as foreign minister, Spender spent the next seven years as ambassador in Washington, constantly seeking to put more ‘flesh on the bones’ of the alliance. He was less successful than he had hoped, partly because the atmosphere in Washington was less favourable and partly because his cabinet colleagues objected to his inclination to act as if he were still the foreign minister, rather than an ambassador acting on his government’s instructions.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Menzies government’s public statements and confidential diplomacy placed more emphasis on the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, of which both the US and the UK were members, than they did on ANZUS. After the armistice in Korea, Australia’s only military commitments were successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the Malayan Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation, both of which were fought alongside British and Commonwealth forces but with minimal involvement or support from the US. Not until combat troops were committed to Vietnam in 1965 did Australians fight in an American-led campaign in which Britain wasn’t involved.

Spender’s success in gaining the prize sought by many nations was achieved by long preparation, skilful leadership of a young but effective diplomatic service, close attention to political developments in both Australia and the US, and the perspicacity and courage to seize any opportunity to press his case. The different experiences of Curtin in the early 1940s and Spender in the early 1950s demonstrated that the creation of an enduring Australian–American security relationship required a sympathetic domestic environment in both countries as well as favourable alignments in global and regional geopolitics.

For the next 70 years, supporters of the alliance worked to keep those elements in line. The continued existence of the alliance shows that those efforts have generally succeeded. But, in the early 1970s, when dramatic realignments occurred simultaneously in domestic politics in Canberra and Washington and in regional and global geopolitics, the alliance came perilously close to a terminal breakdown.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/anzus-at-70-menzies-spender-and-the-creation-of-anzus/

[1] ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/anzus-70-past-present-and-future-alliance