Unequal allies: australia-american relations and war in the pacific 1941-1945

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The outbreak of global war late in 1941 brought Australia and the United States into a critical, if temporary, military alliance. Although part of the broad multilateral United Nations alliance against the Axis states, Australia-American collaboration was directed principally against Japan. During the early phase of war the interests of the two Pacific Allied powers were often complementary, though not wholly identical. During the transition to peace, however, the sometimes divergent interests of the two countries were overtly manifest as the unifying threat of Japan receded, and both countries sought to play broader peace-time roles in Pacific and world affairs.

As a result of the overriding significance of the US to Australia during war in the Pacific, relations with the American government were constantly the subject of top level political and administrative decisions made in Canberra. The Australian Labor government consciously pursued a series of clearly discernible policy initiatives towards Washington. These were often modified or abandoned because of overt or covert American opposition. But they can nevertheless be traced in high-level Australian or US government records. In contrast, Australia figured prominently in America’s external policies only briefly. Neither the Roosevelt nor the Truman administrations framed consistent policies towards Australia or indeed the Southwest Pacific area generally. Only in the economic arena did the US develop a specific and reasonably consistent policy towards this minor ally. When the Dominion achieved prominence in American planning, it usually did so within the context of broad Anglo-American decisions concerning global strategy. Seldom were bilateral relations with Australia the subject of protracted deliber­ation by the President, his Secretary of State, or the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. While understandably preoccupied with global strategy and relations with the major Allied powers – Great Britain and the Soviet Union – Roosevelt and his immediate advisers inadvertently overlooked the problems confronting the smaller members of the United Nations alliance. Specific American policy towards Australia was generally formulated on an ad hoc basis in response to Labor’s persistent agitation or controversial initiatives. Nor was American policy usually promoted by prominent administration representatives or the President.

The broad outlines of political and military relations between Australia and the US during World War II are well known.1 But despite the availability of various published and unpublished surveys, no detailed analysis of the interrelated political, military and economic relations of the two countries during 1941-46 has yet been written. While existing studies, especially those by Hasluck, Reese, Grattan, and Reed, pro­vide valuable insights into particular aspects of this subject, their general conclusions are often based on limited or highly selective evidence.2 These studies have largely ignored critical aspects of wartime relations, especially Pacific settlement negotiations, the counter-­offensive against Japan, and economic affairs. With the notable excep­tion of Hasluck’s substantial official studies, the findings advanced in existing works have not been based on extensive primary research. Hence most of the generalized assumptions about Australian-American wartime and immediate postwar relations have yet to be substantiated.3

Global forces, not domestic pressures, were the fundamental deter­minants of Australian-American relations during 1941-46. Consequently, the argument advanced here is more concerned with the influence of international developments and the distribution of global power on the evolution of relations between the two states than with the impact of domestic factors. It views the changing bilateral association within the broad context of altered American policies towards the Far East and Europe following the outbreak of war between Germany and the Allied powers late in 1939. Similarly it emphasizes the decisive impact of Britain’s military difficulties in Europe and changes within the British Empire on Australia’s external relations, especially after early 1942. This is not to deny the particular imprint of the Australian Labor government on relations with America, nor indeed on Australia’s wider international relations and responsibilities after late 1941. Nonetheless, the indepen­dent initiatives adopted by the Labor government cannot be adequately explained unless viewed within the framework of changing Anglo-American relations and Imperial affairs. Moreover, the American responses to such initiatives were also fundamentally influenced by general international political, strategic or economic considerations, not domestic pressures.

The peculiar problems confronting Australia and the US in maintaining an effective wartime alliance and planning the peace were always aggravated by general difficulties arising from the unequal international status and power of each country. Despite the theoretical sovereign equality of all independent states, the influence Australia exerted within the wartime alliance was seriously restricted by its limited military resources and diplomatic weight. In contrast, as the dominant partner America was less concerned with the need to compromise in order to maintain the alliance than with implementing policies that would promote its specific national strategic objectives and postwar interests. After 1941 Australia was preoccupied with ensuring that its policies were not overridden by the US, and that its separate regional interests not merely subordinated to those of the major power. In a general sense, the disparate international power of Australia and the US is a durable factor which has consistently and often decisively influenced relations between them. At no time, however, has the unequal power and status of the two states been more apparent or crucial than during the conflict with Japan.

Relations between the governments of Australia and the US under­went fundamental changes during 1941-46. At the same time the wider international roles and objectives of each country in political, military, and to a lesser extent economic affairs, were altered decisively. The Australian-American alliance was born of immediate military necessity, and was not translated into a permanent postwar security alliance. Indeed it was not characterized by general bilateral accord on political, defence or economic matters during wartime. But by bringing the two countries into close and effective military association, the war provided a necessary foundation for negotiation of a tripartite Australian-New Zealand-US alliance (ANZUS) a decade after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While this postwar alliance was a response to essentially different international conditions than those operating during 1941-46, its origins lay in the wartime experiences of Australia and the US.

Political, military and economic affairs were interrelated and largely complementary aspects of relations between Australia and the US during war and preliminary postwar planning in the Pacific. Effective co-operation in each area was an essential basis for the successful common war effort against Japan. But the degree of bilateral wartime co-operation and accord in each area fluctuated considerably, and was less pronounced than historians have often implied.4 While each power made sufficient contributions and concessions to enable ultimate victory over Japan, neither state was prepared to compromise its immediate or long-term national interests to further this end.

Without access to the confidential wartime records of Australia and the US, past studies have generally over-emphasized the common strategic objectives and postwar interests of each government. The elaborate and determined efforts of both partners to maximize their respective influence on the wartime alliance and post-war settlement in order to protect their often incompatible security or economic interests, have been largely ignored. The evidence declassified recently indicates that despite successful prosecution of the war against Japan, and the development of more direct diplomatic bilateral contacts, political and economic relations between Australia and the US were often uncertain and ambivalent. Australia was constantly critical of American strategic priorities and the consultative machinery established in Washington. It consistently presented exaggerated appeals for military and economic assistance to the US, and resisted American domination of the postwar settlement. The US provided levels of assistance considered unsatisfactory by Australia, and made minimal concessions to Aus­tralia’s demands concerning inter-Allied consultation, global strategy, and postwar arrangements. Furthermore, the Roosevelt administration often sought to extract permanent political or economic concessions from the Dominion in return for generous wartime aid and a favourable postwar settlement in the Pacific.

However, these pronounced differences seldom found acute expres­sion in the contemporary public record in either country. This was partly because war demanded that overt inter-Allied unity be maintained, even if this resulted in severe and unwarranted censorship of the mass media. After MacArthur had retreated hastily from the Philippines and estab­lished headquarters in Melbourne, censorship was often imposed to bolster the general’s public image as well as for alleged security reasons. But MacArthur was not the only authority intent on controlling information. Through an over-zealous Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell, the Curtin government often manipulated news for political ends rather than national security. Knowledge of relations between the two states was also obscured by the fact that diplomacy, especially during wartime, is essentially a secret exercise. Now that both the public and confidential dimensions of Australian-American relations can be documented for the period 1941-46, it is apparent that in the political and economic arenas relations were often uncertain and strained.

The evidence presented here also suggests that while the two countries implicitly agreed that their military alliance must be sustained and Japan defeated, they generally failed to agree on the means necessary to achieve these related objectives. During the vital early months of war each government held widely divergent views and promoted often con­trasting policies on the central questions of inter-Allied consultative machinery, global strategy, command arrangements, and reciprocal economic assistance. The Australian Labor government’s unprecedented assertion of independent initiatives, however, generally failed to effect a dramatic change in American policies. Differences between the two states were consistently resolved in accordance with the wishes of the major partner, the US.

Whereas the Labor government was fundamentally concerned with developments in the Pacific after 1941, the Roosevelt administration consistently interpreted events in Europe as the principal threat to America’s security interests. Despite Australian protests, the US devoted the maximum possible resources to an early victory over the European Axis powers. But at the same time America jealously attempted to maintain unqualified control of operations against Japan and to dominate all aspects of the postwar Pacific. During the transition to peace these policies conflicted directly with Australia’s attempt to play an expanded or (as perceived by the State Department) ‘imperialis­tic’ role in regional affairs, and to participate meaningfully in all phases of the Pacific settlement.

The impact of the Pacific war on relations between Australia, and the US on the one hand, and Australia and the United Kingdom on the other, has also frequently been misinterpreted. J.J. Reed has argued recently, for example, that the special bilateral relationship ‘forged in the desperate early days of the war against Japan has been a cardinal feature of Australian and American policy’ since Pearl Harbor.5 Similarly T.B. Millar has suggested that ‘Australia’s turning to the United States at this time…has never been reversed’.6 Australia did seek maximum mili­tary assistance from the US after war was declared against Japan. Yet both the UAP governments of Lyons and Menzies, and the Labor government of Curtin, had promoted defence commitments with Wash­ington and sought substantial military assistance from the US before the Pearl Harbor attack. As early as 1908-9 Australia, under the Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, had attempted to guarantee its security through a Pacific Pact embracing the US. Moreover, Australia’s close wartime military collaboration with the US was not developed at the permanent expense of continuing defence co-operation with Britain or close postwar Imperial relations, especially in the political and economic spheres. December 1941 was a less decisive turning-point in Australia’s external affairs than has generally been assumed.

Nor is the suggestion, advanced for example by H.G. Gelber, that ‘after 1941 the US assumed the role of Australia’s chief protector’, accurate.7 In the immediate postwar years the Chifley Labor government accepted that Australia must ultimately rely on US military assistance in the event of regional or global hostilities. But Washington refused to be drawn into specific defence agreements or military arrangements embracing Australia. Moreover, despite protracted negotiations during 1945-47, the two powers failed to resolve political and military differences over reciprocal rights to bases in the postwar Pacific. After 1944 the Chifley government sought continued defence co-operation with the US, provided this conformed with terms specified by Australia. Those conditions were rejected by Washington. Not until 1951 did the US again accept a formal (if ambiguous) security agreement with Australia. But this agreement, the ANZUS pact, was negotiated in response to the alleged threat of international communism after Mao’s victory in China in 1949; it was not a direct extension of wartime defence or military co-operation between Australia and the US. The evidence presented here supports the conclusion recently advanced by Trevor Reese that during the war the importance of the British Commonwealth to Australia declined, while that of America increased.8 But the temporary wartime alliance between Australia and the US was not translated immediately into a special postwar alliance contract. After the armistice, as before the Pearl Harbor attack, the US accepted no formal responsibilities for the defence of Australia.

While Australia was willing to foster joint Pacific defence and security arrangements involving the US after 1944, it was also anxious to limit unilateral American political and military influence in the South Pacific. During the transition to peace Australia reaffirmed its traditional political and economic allegiances with Great Britain, and sought close military and defence co-operation with Britain as well as the US. By re-­establishing close collaboration with the mother country and attempting to assume de facto leadership of residual British Commonwealth diplo­matic and military influence in the Far East, Labor attempted to counter possible US domination of the postwar settlement, occupation of Japan, and disposition and use of bases in the Pacific. Also, Australia reaffirmed its traditional associations in order to add political and mili­tary weight to its position during negotiations with Washington over possible regional security arrangements and military co-operation after the defeat of Japan.

The period 1941-46 marks perhaps the most decisive stage in the evolution of an independent Australian presence in world affairs. The impact of war in the Pacific, combined with the assertive independence of the new Australian Labor government, brought unprecedented changes in the direction and conduct of Australia’s external relations. But the traditional view that ‘the Curtin and Chifley governments gave Australia a foreign policy for the first time in its history’,9 overstates the influence of the new government and the war on the Dominion’s external relations. The style and direction of foreign policy under Curtin and Evatt were much less radical than most historians have assumed.10

Pearl Harbor did not constitute a watershed for Australia in world affairs. The origins of Australia’s new, if somewhat uncertain, relations with other powers, especially Great Britain and the US, and its preoc­cupation with regional affairs rather than Imperial unity predated the Pearl Harbor attack and formation of a Labor government in October 1941. The foundations of independent Australian diplomacy were laid in the inter-war years as the Dominion moved hesitantly towards establishing separate diplomatic representations first within the Commonwealth, and later in the major capitals of the Pacific.11 This development, combined with occasional Pacific security initiatives by Australian Prime Ministers and concerted attempts to shape British Far Eastern policy to Australia’s regional interests, reflected a growing realization that the interests of Britain and Australia were not synonymous. Before World War II (indeed, before World War I) Aus­tralia was concerned with security in the Pacific and sceptical of British policy. This found muted expression in unsuccessful efforts to involve America in regional security arrangements in the Pacific.12 When the nature of Australia’s pre-war diplomacy is recognized, Labor policies after late 1941 constitute a less radical departure from the methods and objectives of previous governments than has generally been assumed.13 This is not to deny, however, that under the Labor government these pre-war tendencies found more forceful and distinctive expression. Curtin’s and Evatt’s nationalistic policies dramatically quickened the development of a more independent and regionally oriented Australian role in world affairs. While more concerned with continental defence than its predecessors, Labor’s foreign and defence policies brought unprecedented Australian participation in world affairs, precipitated a redefinition of Australia’s status within the British Commonwealth, and established a new and essentially bilateral association with the US. If these policies were initially necessitated by the exigencies of war, they were nevertheless brought to fruition by a Labor government holding different international objectives and employing contrasting diplomatic methods from those of its conservative predecessors.


1. See especially P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1952 and The Government and the People, 1942-1945, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1970; M. Matloff and E.M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare 1941-1942, Washington, DC, 1953; L. Morton, Strategy and Command: the First Two Years, Washington, DC, 1962; and L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Canberra, 1957.

2. See especially T.R. Reese, Australia, New Zealand and the United States: A Survey of International Relations 1941-1968, London, 1969, pp. 10-106; A. Watt, The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965, Cambridge, 1965, pp. 29-105; C.H. Grattan, The United States and the Southwest Pacific, Melbourne, 1961, pp. 147-205; R.A. Esthus, From Enmity to Alliance: US-Australian Relations 1931-1941, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 70-142; B.K. Gordon, New Zealand Becomes a Pacific Power, Chicago, 1960, pp. 115-212.

3. Reese, op. cit., pp. 32-105, is the one work which discusses extensively peace settlement negotiations and economic relations.

4. See for example theses by J.J. Reed, American Diplomatic Relations with Australia During the Second World War, PhD, University of Southern California, 1969, pp. 341-42; A.F. Walter, Australia’s Relations with the United States 1941-1949, PhD, University of Michigan, 1954, pp. 11, 34, 47, 361. See also P.H. Partridge, Depression and War, in G. Greenwood, Australia: A Social and Political History, Sydney, 1955, p. 397.

5. Reed, op. cit., p. 2.

6. T.B. Millar, Foreign Policy: Some Australian Reflections, Melbourne, 1972, p. 7.

7. H.G. Gelber, The Australian-American Alliance, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 9.

8. Reese, op. cit., p. 11.

9. Partridge, op. cit., p. 403.

10. See for example T.B. Millar, Australia’s Foreign Policy, Sydney, 1968, p. xiii; K. Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice, Sydney, 1970, pp. 135-38.

11. See Hudson, ‘The Yo-Yo Variations: A Comment’, Historical Studies, vol. 14, October 1970, pp. 424-29. For the traditional view of Australian policy before 1941-1942, see E.M. Andrews, ‘Patterns in Australian Foreign Policy’, Australian Outlook, vol. 26, April 1972, pp. 32-33.

12. See N.K. Meaney, ‘Australia’s Foreign Policy: History and Myth’, Australian Outlook, vol. 23, August 1969, pp. 173-81.

13. Andrews op. cit., p. 31, for example, describes the period of Australian foreign policy under Evatt during 1941-49 as an ‘aberration’.

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