Shifting alliances the whole world should adopt the American system

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The whole world should adopt the American system ...

the American system can survive in America only if

it becomes a world system.

US President Harry S. Truman, 1946

America’s dream is Australia’s reality.

Telecom Australia advertisement, 1992

Despite America’s decisive role in defeating Japan, and the escalating ten­sions of the Cold War, Australia’s postwar Labor government refused to accept that Washington’s international actions were in the interests of all former Allies. Indeed, through the UN, in its continuing imperial links, and in bilateral diplomacy Australia encouraged other nations to join it in attempting to counter, resist, or at least to deflect US foreign policy initia­tives. As a small state, it felt its particular economic interests and regional ambitions stifled by the predominance of American power and influence in the Asia-Pacific area.

Only gradually, and against the background of an allegedly new Asian threat to its security in the form of communist China, did Australia accom­modate itself to American authority in the Pacific. The conservative govern­ment of Robert Menzies pursued such a policy and, like its American counterpart, eagerly exploited the anti-communist rhetoric of the Cold War for electoral advantage at home. Much less nationalist and reformist than its predecessor, the Menzies government substituted an uncritical dependence on its so-called ‘great and powerful friends’ for the assertive independence in international affairs that Labour had pursued, however successfully, from 1941 to 1949.

The 1949 change of government in Australia coincided with dramatic developments in the international arena, especially in Australia’s ‘Near North’. European colonialism was almost everywhere in retreat or under military challenge. India had won its independence from the UK. The Philippines was granted a qualified independence by the US. The Dutch reluctantly prepared to relinquish colonial authority over Indonesia (while retaining West New Guinea). The Soviet Union now extended its authority over much of Eastern Europe and in 1949 detonated its first atomic bomb. In China the US-backed forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime were expelled to Taiwan and replaced by the victorious communist-nationalist government under Mao Tse-tung. In Malaya and Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) the colonial authority of Britain and France was seriously challenged from left-wing nationalist forces. In the middle of 1950, North Korean communist troops moved south, crossing the 38th par­allel. The war that erupted in Korea quickly became a brutal reminder that the divisions of the Cold War had been transferred to the Asia-Pacific region and would now be contested in virtually every sphere of international politics.

Cold War Allies In Asia

Against this background, the new Australian government became increas­ingly receptive to American definitions of international threat, as it did to American interpretations of security issues and international politics more generally. The suspicions and rhetoric of the Cold War that justified America’s global confrontation with communism also came to dominate official Australian perspectives and actions in foreign affairs. Independent efforts of the Labor governments of the 1940s may have delayed, but could not avert, a broad realignment of Australia’s policies consistent with American perceptions in both its foreign policy and, to a lesser extent, domestic affairs. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s an accumulation of interlocking changes in international politics, economics, technology, and cul­ture transformed Australia’s links with the outside world, and relationships with the US assumed centre stage. American influences squeezed out many of those long associated with the UK and its empire. Although the rhetoric and symbols of traditional ties to the mother country were not all displaced, the realignment of Australia towards the US was to be insistent and irre­versible. As interactions between the two multiplied, the vast asymmetries in power and status between the societies biased their relationships towards American models and American interests.

The victory of the conservative parties in the Australian elections late in 1949 coincided with a radical reappraisal by America of its ‘containment’ policies, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and selective use of limited counter-force in confrontations with the Soviet Union were central to America’s containment activities. By the early 1950s containment was transformed from a selective application of realpolitik to an ideological crusade against communism everywhere.

National Security Council Memorandum 68 (NSC 68), drafted in April 1950, is the most blatant evidence of this fundamental shift. Against a back­ground of anti-communist hysteria at home, revolution in China, and com­munist gains in Korea, American perceptions of international communism and the policies necessary to contain it (or preferably to ‘roll it back’) were dramatically revised. ‘Soviet aggression’ was held to be responsible for the rise of communism in different parts of the world – from Yugoslavia to China and Korea, and later Cuba. Ignoring the varied nationalist bases and the very different types of socialist revolutions in these regions, official American opinion preferred to see communism as a uniform and mono­lithic movement promoted everywhere by the Soviet Union. This was despite the fact that, shortly after Mao’s victory in 1949, the US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had cautioned against such simplistic and conspirator­ial thinking. The ‘loss’ of China, he argued, was not a result of Soviet expan­sion, but of a civil war, ‘the product of internal Chinese forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not’. Such subtlety had little appeal by 1950, as McCarthyist slogans and hysterical anti-communism sought tougher action against a ‘subversive’ enemy both at home and abroad.

Boosted by McCarthyism, policies underlying the Truman Doctrine and NATO were generalised to other regions and, as with West Germany in Europe, a revitalised Japan became the linchpin of American strategy in Asia and the Pacific. Communism would be resisted in Asia by both physical and ‘moral’ (that is to say ideological and economic) force. In the words of NSC 68, containment policies of the past had failed; diplomatic and economic efforts were impotent to counter Soviet aggression. American planners now wanted greater physical power and a stronger moral commitment to the ‘free world’. They envisaged not just the containment of communism but ‘offensive operations to destroy vital elements of the Soviet war-making capacity’.1 America’s ideological construction of, and its material responses to, the communist ‘enemy’ were most evident in its refusal to recognise the People’s Republic of China – although most European states, including Great Britain, had extended recognition by late 1950.

War in Korea became the testing ground for America’s policy of ‘containment militarism’. It ushered in an unprecedented acceleration in American defence spending and support for remilitarisation of Japan as a counterbal­ance to communist China. New American bases were established abroad; existing bases were strengthened. In the Asia-Pacific region, the ANZUS Agreement and SEATO were the two paramount examples of America’s new Cold War posture. Within two decades, while the European powers were withdrawing or being expelled from their colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, the US had established new military commitments with no less than forty nations; it had stationed permanently abroad more than one mil­lion troops; it occupied almost 400 major bases and supported about 300 minor military facilities on foreign soil; and it had entangled itself in at least forty other anti-communist alliances.

As the Cold War intensified, the Asia-Pacific region joined Europe as a focus of superpower rivalries. Australia’s foreign policies and strategic assumptions were radically recast by its associations with the US. Some on the left in Australia rejected the need for such a relationship and refused to view international events through what they saw as the distorting lens of the Cold War. Instead, they interpreted revolutions in Asia as legitimate manifes­tations of nationalism and evidence of long-overdue social change. They criticised the assumption that China and North Korea (and later North Vietnam) were merely willing satellites of the Soviet Union, or pawns in the global contest between ‘Marxism’ and ‘democracy’. But for members of the ruling Liberal-Country Party coalition, as well as the Democratic Labor Party, recently splintered from the ALP, such interpretations were at best naïve, at worst comfort to the ‘enemy’. In the first months of war with Korea, for example, Liberal MP Paul Hasluck greeted his govern­ment’s decision to send troops to serve under General MacArthur in Korea with words that clearly echoed NSC 68: ‘This expansionist, imperialistic and aggressive policy of the Soviet Union must be resisted wherever it is exemplified’.2

Despite its 1949 election loss the ALP did not eagerly support America’s early Cold War initiatives, nor inflame the exaggerated anti-communist fer­vour that helped to sustain and rationalise these actions. Far more respon­sive to American policies was the Anglophile and deeply conservative government of Robert Menzies. The new cabinet and many in the wider community ingested much of the rhetoric and fear that characterised McCarthyist America in the early 1950s. The Menzies’ cabinet accepted that foreign eco­nomic and military initiatives were integrated aspects of America’s broad international objectives. Australia could not shelter behind ‘containment’ and seek American ‘protection’ without at the same time conceding further ground over multilateralism and offering at least symbolic support to America’s Cold War military-strategic adventures in the Asia-Pacific region.

Although from the early 1950s Australian governments sought to hinge their foreign policies on an alliance with America, the Liberal-Country Party governments still did not wish to cut the ties of Empire. Conservative leaders, including Menzies, Richard (later Lord) Casey, and the Country Party’s John McEwen, wanted physical protection for their vul­nerable nation, but they remained privately disturbed by the postwar accel­eration of American cultural commerce with Australia. They were enthusi­astic allies but reluctant friends. Anglophile Australians were drawn to America as a protector, but would not break the ties of monarchy, ‘race’, and history that bound them to England and Empire. The Sydney Morning Herald echoed this ambivalence in words common in conservative circles, when it suggested in 1951 that: ‘Australia’s relations with America are often imperfectly understood abroad…They imply no weakening of the Commonwealth bond, nor any turning away from Britain’.3

Until the mid 1960s, at least, Protestant Australians, in particular, contin­ued to share what Russell Ward and others have described as a ‘dual ident­ity’: ‘For most, but not all people, national and imperial patriotism were complementary, not contradictory’.4 The lessons of Singapore and Darwin, and later the decolonisation of Asia, dented but did not destroy the illusion of an imperial umbrella under which White Australia could shelter. ‘We draw our main strength not from eight million of our own population,’ Casey claimed, ‘but from the fact that we are a member of a great coopera­tive society: the British race, of which the senior partner is our mother coun­try Great Britain.’ Significantly, he added: ‘We also have the very great potential asset of the friendship of the greatest single nation in the world, the United States of America.’5 Although Australian conservatives were anxious to negotiate a formal alliance with their potential new friends, royal visits, royal honours, and celebrations of Empire remained linchpins of public life in the Menzies years. Even in the late 1960s, while Australian troops fought alongside Americans in Vietnam, it was not uncommon for prominent Australians to announce, as did a former Ambassador to Washington, Sir James Plimsoll, that ‘we do not see our United States relationship as a threat to British relationships’. Such assertions could not conceal the drift away from Great Britain. However, this realignment was much slower than most historians have assumed.6

Given this background, it is not surprising that Australia’s relationship with the US remained uneven and ambivalent. During negotiation of the ANZUS agreement in 1950-51, for example, Australia’s perceptions of China and Japan often contrasted with those of Washington. The US agreed to the alliance because it paved the way for a ‘soft’ peace settlement with Japan, and provided another link in a broad anti-communist network in Asia. In contrast, Australia initially viewed ANZUS as a guarantee against a resurgent Japan. Four years later, during the Suez crisis, the two nations also acted from very different perceptions and pursued very different policies. Menzies’ effort in support of British and French aggression against Egypt led to a sharp exchange with Eisenhower, who condemned the attack as a de­bacle that merely accelerated the decline of Anglo-French prestige in the Middle East and paved the way for expanded Soviet influence. Even under Menzies, Australia occasionally attempted to distance itself from America’s Cold War policies, especially if these challenged British interests. Australia was not yet an uncritical follower of America. However, the Dominion’s refusal to recognise the communist government of China, its willingness to fight in Korea under American leadership, and its anxious promotion of ANZUS and SEATO were portents of the new direction in its foreign policy.

The precipitous decline of Britain’s power in the Far East, combined with Mao’s victory in China and the war in Korea, convinced Menzies’ cabinet that it must cultivate a new protector – the US. This decision did not rest comfortably with either the arch-Anglophile Prime Minister or many mem­bers of his conservative cabinet. However, guided by the Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, an alliance with America was actively pur­sued. Concessions over investment and trade, which went further than those given grudgingly during 1950 and early 1951, were offered. Spender observed privately: ‘Australian policy is directed fundamentally towards acceptance by the US of responsibility to assist in the protection of Australia…[thus] it is necessary for Australia to cultivate US interest in our welfare and confidence in our attitude.’7 Consistent with this calculating policy, Australia obediently fell into line behind Washington’s various Cold War ini­tiatives – except when such initiatives contradicted the interests of the UK or its empire.

The tenor and direction of Australia’s policies in the period framed by the wars in Korea and Vietnam were expressed by Menzies in discussions with his cabinet in 1958. Australia must not disagree publicly with the US, he stated, and Australia’s defence forces must be geared to fight alongside those of its great and powerful friends. Independence in policy formulation, or military-strategic activity, was rejected. ‘The greatest practical fact of life for Australia is that we are in no danger of conquest, either directly or indirect­ly, except from Communist aggression,’ Menzies observed. ‘[O]ur doctrine at a time of crisis should be “Great Britain and the United States right or wrong”...The simple truth, therefore, is that we cannot afford to run counter to their policies at a time when a crisis has arisen.’8 Surprisingly, this observation came after the Suez crisis of 1956 had exposed the impossibility of simultaneously courting two great and powerful friends in the event of a disagreement between them. This crisis, along with events in Malaya, South Africa, and Indonesia, confronted Australia with additional difficulties as it attempted to embrace British imperial policies without alienating its power­ful new Cold War partner in the Pacific.

In seeking to ensure that American power would uphold Australia’s regional interests – rather as British power once had – Australian govern­ments in the 1950s and 1960s actively encouraged an expanded and belliger­ent US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia’s compliance in the diplomatic arena became starkly visible over the question of recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Privately, there was strong support for following the UK and most European states by recognising Mao’s infant regime and permitting it to enter the UN. Publicly, however, Washington’s hostile refusal to extend recognition was supported. Subsequently, Taiwan was recognised, not the PRC, and Australia endorsed the view that mainland China was an agent of subversion throughout Asia and directly responsible for the mounting conflict in divided Vietnam. As early as 1950-54 Australia joined in military and security activities that tied it to American interven­tions in the affairs of Asian states.

Hostilities in Korea obliged Australia to demonstrate its support for America’s hardening anti-communism in more than just polite diplomatic language. In July 1950 Canberra committed troops to fight under MacArthur in Korea – an action welcomed by Truman as of ‘great political value’, for it helped Washington represent its military involvement as part of a genuinely multilateral UN operation. Within months Australia had received a positive response for a loan through the World Bank, as well as favourable terms from the US for purchases of military equipment. Significantly, Washington’s generosity was encouraged, as an Australian negotiator conceded, by Australia’s decision to fight in Korea. It ‘is under­stood that the assistance rendered the United States/Nations by Australia providing naval, aid and ground forces in Korea has facilitated the consider­ation of Australia’s request for a dollar loan’. Adamant that involvement in the Korean conflict presented an opportunity of cementing friendships with the US that may not have easily presented itself again, Spender was able to convince his cabinet colleagues that Korea would be a turning point in Australian-American relations: ‘From Australia’s long-term point of view any additional aid we can give the US now, small though it may be, will repay us in the future one hundred fold.’9

The ANZUS alliance, negotiated during 1950-51, was the most enduring expression of Australia’s efforts to shelter under America’s widening anti­communist umbrella. The conflict in Korea crystallised Washington’s plans to give Japan a pivotal role as an ally in the Far East. With Japan’s economy reconstructed and linked to the US, more than 80 per cent of world industry would be controlled by ‘the West’. And, as the US Secretary of Defense commented in 1949 – in words that predictably reflected Washington’s fears about ‘monolithic’ communism – if ‘Japan, the principal component of a Far Eastern war-making complex, were also added to the Stalinist bloc, the Soviet Asian base could become a source of strength capable of shifting the balance of world power to the disadvantage of the United States’. For the CIA, ‘the crux of the problem’ was ‘to deny Japan to communism’. However, memories of the Pacific War died slowly in Australia and it did not welcome the plan to cultivate Japan as an ally. None the less, American opinion about Japan eventually prevailed in Canberra – if only after a final compromise had been agreed over security arrangements. In February 1951 America’s leading Cold War warrior, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, brought a proposal to Canberra that he correctly anticipated would allay Australia’s fears of a resurgent Japan while bringing both Japan and Australia firmly into an anti-communist network spanning Asia and the Pacific. Dunes outlined a ‘chain of Pacific defence’, extending from the Aleutians to the South-West Pacific, with Australia and New Zealand incorp­orated into a security treaty with the US. This proposal placated Australian fears of the possible consequences of a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan. Thus, the tripartite ANZUS Agreement was signed.10

ANZUS, however, was a very modest concession by America, as it was not a strong Pacific version of the Atlantic NATO alliance. ANZUS did not insist that an armed attack on one member would be interpreted as an attack on all. At most, Australian officials conceded privately, ANZUS gave them ‘access to the thinking and planning of the American administration at the highest political and military level’. In practice, however, it did not even ensure this limited result. If ANZUS was celebrated publicly over the next four decades as an assurance of US military support, Australian officials were privately dismayed by its limited and ambiguous nature. Spender, the Australian largely responsible for securing the agreement, complained as early as June 1952 that on matters of vital international importance ‘our for­mer enemies, Germany, Italy and Japan...are to have the opportunity of a manner which has so far been denied to Australia’.11 Echoing the protests of Curtin and Evatt during war against Japan, Spender stated bitterly during the Korean conflict that ‘the conduct of military oper­ations is directed solely by the United States’ and that Australia was denied consultation. This pattern of exclusion dominated the bilateral relationship, being broken rarely, as in 1961 when the US sought for domestic as well as international reasons to involve troops from other nations alongside it in Vietnam. During that war, the Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck, claimed that Australia continued to enjoy close and frequent contacts with the Johnson administration. But despite such routine assurances Australia and other allied combatants were excluded from major policy decisions, including Johnson’s unilateral decision to bow to domestic protests and halt the bombing of Vietnam on 1 April 1968. In Korea in 1952, and later in Vietnam, the US made major ‘allied’ decisions unilaterally – even when such decisions directly affected Australia’s military role in these conflicts.

In 1952 Menzies had welcomed ANZUS as a significant boost to ‘the concerted efforts of the free world’. Washington interpreted the agreement far more cautiously, emphasising only the very limited consultative obligations it imposed on the major partner. Yet over the next four decades ANZUS remained the cornerstone and symbol of a relationship to which Australia, unlike New Zealand, gave unqualified support. Ever anxious to demonstrate its commitment to America, Canberra sent two additional battalions to fight in Korea in early 1952. Two years later Australia agreed to join the overtly anti-communist South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a collective defence treaty, even before the actual aims or nature of the association were finalised. In contrast to European democracies like the UK and France, as a member of SEATO Australia consistently followed the US – in the words of an American official, ‘almost without exception’. Co-operation under ANZUS and SEATO went beyond the defence of shared interests. ‘It is in the interests of the United States,’ a National Security Council official rec­ommended, ‘that Australia and New Zealand as strong-points of political stability and Free World orientation in the Far East, continue and extend their developing interest and activities in that area.’12

SEATO, far more than ANZUS, was to be the expression of the unifying power of anti-communism among Asia-Pacific nations. It embodied the exaggerated fears of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and sought to contain communism by erecting a series of countervailing alliances. Earlier, the hastily conceived, compromise ANZUS agreement had anticipated ‘a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific Area’ (Clause 5). Stalemate in Korea and the humiliation of France by communist-nation­alist forces in Vietnam were factors that encouraged anti-communist states in the region to join together in a formal alliance. These events also induced Washington to broaden its formal containment policies from Europe to include the Asia-Pacific region. SEATO was negotiated against an immedi­ate background of discussions over the partition of Vietnam at the Geneva Convention of 1954. It embraced the US, France, the Philippines, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, and Australia. Like ANZUS, SEATO did not commit the US or other signatories to anything more than joint discussions ‘in accordance with constitutional processes’ in the event that any party was involved in military conflict. From the late 1950s Canberra learnt with dis­may that in the event of hostilities over communist influence in Malaya, or conflict with Indonesia over the future of West New Guinea, neither ANZUS nor SEATO would guarantee diplomatic or military support from the US.

Later, bogged-down with America and a handful of its allies in Vietnam, Canberra attempted to use its SEATO membership to justify intervening in this conflict. But in reality, Australia’s role in Vietnam was an outgrowth of its uncritical embrace of American Cold War policies. In the words of an analysis conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia’s partici­pation resulted from ‘the frequently expressed wishes of the United States for political support from its friends and allies’. However, very few of America’s other allies, notably other members of NATO, were prepared to demonstrate their friendship by joining this protracted and costly war. Moreover, Australia did not simply support US initiatives; rather, as recent archival disclosures reveal, Canberra actively encouraged Washington to intervene with direct military force against communism in Asia. Given this context, Vietnam has been labelled Australia’s ‘war for the asking’, and interpreted as the symbol of Australia’s willingness to go ‘all the way’ with American policies.13

Both the ANZUS and SEATO agreements only committed their member states to consult on matters of mutual significance. It was a measure of Australia’s limited power on the world stage that it accepted these agree­ments as a symbol of its elevated status in the postwar world and as a vehicle for establishing a more balanced relationship with Washington.

Despite ANZUS and SEATO the Menzies government was slow to recog­nise Britain’s decline. In its own limited way, it attempted to hold back the tide of decolonisation that symbolised this decline. As mentioned above, in the Suez conflict of 1956 Australia’s support for British and French colonial policies left it isolated from America as well as from the decolonising nations. Again, in the late 1950s, Menzies’ clumsy attempts to keep White South Africa within the Empire (the Commonwealth) signalled his nation’s isolation in the climate of rapid international change that accompanied the drive for decolonisation and racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. Events in Malaya and Indo-China eventually convinced even Anglophile Australia that its physical security, if not its demographic character, depended on events in the region rather than traditional ties to the Old World. Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community in 1963, and its decision of 1967 to gradually withdraw its forces from Malaya and Singapore, obliged even the most conservative Australians to recognise that their future lay in developing regional security and closer ties with the US. Australia had traditionally displayed what Bruce Grant has labelled ‘loyalty to the protector’,14 and in the 1960s it belatedly accepted that its old pro­tector had to be discarded. So more than twenty years after the shock of Pearl Harbor and Singapore, Curtin’s claim that Australia would look to America free of guilt about its ties to Great Britain had come to fruition. Australia now encouraged its new protector to commit ground forces to Asia and to expand its permanent military presence in the region.

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