Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 15 — Impact of the Pacific
Impact of the Pacific
INTERACTION between heredity and environment has been one of the constant factors in the history of New Zealand as of all colonies. In turn her two immigrant peoples—Polynesian and European—adapted an imported culture to the conditions of their new home, thus becoming in some degree New Zealanders. For white men in particular, the claims of history and geography have seemed to be in perpetual conflict, but with history on the whole predominant; though they were planted in the Pacific, their thinking, their strategy, their economic interests remained obstinately European. Yet the influence of history has proved equivocal, for one aspect of New Zealand's development has been precisely an involvement in Pacific affairs. Since very early days, missionary activities reminded at least some New Zealanders that they lived in Polynesia; and Pacific islanders have been a small but persistent element in New Zealand life. Though trade has been predominantly with Britain, it has not been exclusively so. There has been room for activity—and ambition—among neighbouring islands, and sometimes a pugnacious concern that communications in the Pacific area should run effectively and if possible remain in British hands. Quiet adaptations have accordingly modified the way of life of men and women who believed themselves to be unalloyed Europeans. Far-sighted individuals voiced fears and ambitions for their country's future in terms of her geographical destiny, and from time to time the Pacific forcibly invaded New Zealand consciousness. The stream of European influence ran strongly; but, jerkily and uneasily, with back-slidings and nostalgic regrets, New Zealanders over the years learnt to include an increasing element of Pacific-consciousness into their lives, and the strength of that element has been claimed as the best index to New Zealand's national maturity. During wartime years an education that had been slow and irregular operated at frightening speed, with the Japanese as insistent schoolmasters, and with the Americans, themselves learning similar lessons, hammering Pacific politics into a new shape, and finding a new balance between Europe and Asia.
From the first, attitudes towards Japan were fundamental to New Zealand's war policy. Some degree of confidence in Japanese page 192 neutrality had been the condition of New Zealand's willingness to send a substantial force overseas, and her obvious vulnerability made the preservation of that neutrality a vital interest. Despite its indignation at Japan's war in China, her government acquiesced in Britain's placatory attitude towards Japan in the early part of the European war. Before the outbreak of war New Zealand had asserted with some asperity that an inflexible moral code was applicable in the Far East as elsewhere. In September 1939 the paradoxical reality seemed to be that the abandonment of appeasement in Europe might well mean its intensification in Asia. On 5 September the Government urged New Zealand newspapers to avoid ‘the publication of reprint matter or comment which might in any way seem to reflect on Japan or Italy’, so as to avoid prejudicing the development of ‘still more friendly relations’ with these countries.1 This action may reflect not only British policy, but possibly an appreciation, bluntly stated in R. G. Menzies's first broadcast as Prime Minister of Australia,2 that the two dominions bore the ‘primary risk’ in the Pacific. It was, however, balanced and soon outweighed by another consideration: the desire to encourage United States participation in the defence of the Pacific. This produced a degree of regard to the reactions of a country outside the Commonwealth which was a new development in New Zealand foreign policy. Though less advertised at the time than the independence displayed at Geneva over Spain, Abyssinia and China, it was really both more novel and more solidly based. The one was nourished by, if it did not arise from, a certain lack of realism—or cynicism—in New Zealand thinking about overseas affairs. The other arose from New Zealand's own assessment of a situation whose outlines were emerging for the first time and were to become much more pronounced in the next few years.
One element in this situation was uncertainty about British ability to protect New Zealand from Japan by holding Singapore and sending naval reinforcements there. New Zealand uneasiness on this score was evident at the Defence Conference of April 1939, and at the gathering of Commonwealth premiers in London in November. Nor was it entirely removed by British assurances.3
1 Circular issued through national Press Association office.
2 Hasluck, Government and People, p. 118.
2 1GGNZ, to SSDA, 9 Feb 1940.
The existing trends in New Zealand's Pacific policy were strongly confirmed by the immediate results of German victories in mid-1940, and in particular by their shattering effects on Far Eastern strategy. On 13 June the British Government gave New Zealand a general survey of the probable position if Britain had to continue the war without France. In the course of it the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs remarked that ‘In the unlikely event of Japan, in spite of the restraining influence of the United States of America, taking the opportunity to alter the status quo in the Far East we should be faced with a naval situation in which, without the assistance of France, we should not have sufficient forces to meet the combined German and Italian navies in European waters and the Japanese fleet in the Far East. In the circumstances envisaged it is most improbable that we could send adequate reinforcements to the Far East. We should therefore have to rely on the United States of America to safeguard our interests there.’ For the Admiralty, maybe, this was the materialisation of a possibility long envisaged, and indeed bluntly expressed in very secret discussions with the Americans.3 For the New Zealand Government, however, the despatch of 13 June was, for all the official lifelessness of its language, an announcement of almost apocalyptic character.
The situation was not one for recriminations, but the reply has claims to be considered the most important single document in the formation of New Zealand foreign policy. A departure had been made, cabled Fraser to Churchill, from the understanding, reinforced by repeated and most explicit assurances, that a strong British fleet would be available to, and would, proceed to Singapore should the circumstances so require even if this involved the abandonment of British interests in the Mediterranean. His Majesty's Government in New Zealand do not in any way demur to this decision (which they have always regarded as a possibility) if, as they assume, it is necessary in order to safeguard the position in the central and critical theatre of war and they are quite prepared to accept the risks which they recognize are inevitable if the most effective use is to be made of Commonwealth Naval Forces. At the same time His Majesty's Government in New Zealand must observe that the undertaking to despatch an adequate fleet to Singapore, if required, formed the basis of the whole of this Dominion's defence preparations. They assume that this undertaking will again be made more operative as soon as circumstances may allow and they would most earnestly request that the whole situation should be reviewed if the position in the Far East should become threatening.
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 20 Apr 1940.
2 SSDA to GGNZ, 1 Aug 1940.
The message then asked for British agreement to the despatch of a New Zealand cabinet minister to Washington on a special mission ‘In the hope of strengthening the security of the Pacific and of reinforcing the representations already made to President Roosevelt on behalf of the Allies…1.’
The British Government advised against any immediate visit by a New Zealand minister to Washington, as the obstacle to more active American aid arose from public, and not government, reluctance. Such a visit might even be ‘misinterpreted as an effort to influence the forthcoming Presidential election and to drag the United States into the war2.’ The New Zealand Government, in reply, emphasised the deterioration in the Pacific situation, and remarked blandly on the possibility that ‘His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, preoccupied as they must be with affairs of the most vital moment, do not perhaps completely understand the point of view that is being forced by circumstances upon the Governments and peoples of New Zealand and, it is believed, Australia.’ It explained firmly its desire quickly to follow Australia in establishing the closest possible relations with the United States, always with regard to the Dominions' ‘primary connection with the British Commonwealth.’ It wished, on the one hand, to satisfy public opinion in the Dominion, and on the other to assist ‘discreetly in establishing as far as possible the principle that the United States cannot be disinterested in the isolated British communities in this area and to lead as delicately as possible to the active co-operation of the United States in assisting to preserve the political integrity and economic well-being of those communities3.’ As to methods, it tactfully asked British advice, suggesting however that the solution might lie in the establishment of a permanent diplomatic post in Washington. This was acceptable to Britain and to the United States, and the formal approval of the American Government on 23 December completed the necessary diplomatic preliminaries.
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 15 Jun 1940.
2 SSDA to GGNZ, 7 Jul 1940.
3 GGNZ to SSDA, 9 Jul 1940.
Delays in finally establishing diplomatic relations with the United States do not detract from the importance of Fraser's cable of 15 June 1940 as an expression of New Zealand's war policy. New Zealand accepted the necessity of concentrating the Commonwealth's forces against the present enemy in Europe; she did not entertain any great expectations of what Britain could do to help her if war came to the Pacific, and if it did come she saw her main hope in the United States. It seems a fair assumption that this remained the case after Churchill on 11 August 1940 restored the British guarantee in terms which, though generous, suggested that it might only become effective after the worst had happened to the southern dominions. ‘If,’ he wrote, ‘…contrary to prudence and self-interest, Japan set about invading Australia or New Zealand on a large scale, I have the explicit authority of Cabinet to assure you that we should then cut our losses in the Mediterranean and proceed to your aid, sacrificing every interest except only the defence of the safety of this Island on which all depends2.’ Accordingly, New Zealand continued to feel her way towards a Far Eastern policy in the Pacific, in a manner showing unwonted independence of overseas leadership.
1 Round Table, September 1941, p. 822.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 11 Aug 1940; COS Paper, 3 Sep 1940.
This had shown itself, even in 1940, in a continual opposition to the ‘appeasement’ of Japan. In the circumstances of June 1940 the British Government had begun to consider very seriously whether something of the kind might be unavoidable. On 26 June it reported to the Dominions the opinion of the British Ambassador in Tokyo, Sir Robert Craigie, that ‘our object should on no account be to involve the United States in the war in the Far East on our behalf. Such involvement would be disastrous to our most vital interests since it would divert United States attention from Europe and seriously diminish the extent of United States material assistance at a crucial point. On the contrary he feels that we should seek a plan which would lessen the chance of United States involvement in the Far East by offering some alternative to that policy of stark aggression for which extremists and younger officers in Japan are now pressing so strongly.’ Craigie suggested British and American co-operation to reach an understanding with Japan on a basis including ‘joint assistance to Japan in bringing about peace with the Chinese Government on the basis of the restoration of China's independence and integrity’, Japanese respect for Allied territory in the Pacific, and financial and economic aid for Japan.
The British Government appeared to be in considerable sympathy with this view. In the meantime, however, it was greatly embarrassed by Japanese demands to withdraw the Shanghai garrison and close the Hong Kong frontier and the Burma Road to China. It felt it could satisfy the Japanese over the first two, but the last presented serious difficulties. American opinion ran strongly against ‘appeasement’, and the United States Government was putting pressure on Britain to resist Japanese demands; but it could not promise support if such resistance brought war. The Americans, it seems, assumed that Japan was bluffing: but if she were not, her attack would find British possessions in the Far East virtually defenceless.1 ‘Put bluntly,’ cabled the British Government, ‘our problem is whether we are to incur both United States and Chinese odium by stopping traffic or face the consequences of refusal without United States support2.’
2 SSDA to GGNZ, 26 Jun 1940.
3 SSDA to GGNZ, 2 Jul 1940; PM Aust. to PM NZ, 28 Jun 1940.
Britain finally decided to close the Burma Road for three months, a decision announced in the Commons on 18 July. New Zealand protested, both because she had not been kept sufficiently informed regarding British intentions and on the grounds of her general objection to appeasement, which was ‘in our view no more likely to be successful in the Far East than it was in Europe.’ The New Zealand Government was most reluctant to be associated with any further moves of that character, yet felt that a course had been set which it would be hard to change: ‘having now adopted a policy of concession, any alteration, and particularly any reversal of that policy’ might prove to be very dangerous. Moreover, there was danger that America would be antagonised. Yet, added the Government sadly, ‘while we neither understand nor sympathise with the policy that has been adopted vis-à-vis Japan we are nevertheless unwilling by stressing this view to add unnecessarily and perhaps uselessly to the difficulties of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, whose decision on this difficult and delicate matter we have accepted in the past and will no doubt accept in the future2.’
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 3 Jul 1940.
2 GGNZ to SSDA, 30 Jul 1940.
3 GGNZ to SSDA, 8 Sep 1940.
4 GGNZ to SSDA, 25 Sep 1940.
5 Jones, p. 170.
The Tripartite Pact was intended to prevent American intervention in either Europe or Asia; its effect was, if anything, to confirm a trend precisely towards such intervention. The American Government refused formal commitments, and in public spoke harshly about Britain's closing of the Burma Road; constitutionally, and in deference to its own public opinion, it could have done no other. Yet steps were already being taken to prepare the way for effective action. Anglo-American staff conversations, foreshadowed in June, began in August 1940, and in October it was suggested by America that they be extended to include also Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, with a view to planning joint defence in the Pacific.2 On 12 September 1940, Ambassador Grew in Tokyo, who had hitherto opposed coercion, told his government that a firm attitude was the only means of restraining Japan,3 and the Americans began to consider means for showing the Japanese Government that ‘if it chose to pursue an Axis policy it would probably involve itself in war with the United States.’ By early October American policy had stiffened so much that some Americans were wondering whether they might not find themselves at war in the Pacific, with the British Commonwealth neutral. Britain, Australia and New Zealand very promptly promised to stand beside the United States in this eventuality.
1 Feis, p. 120; Jones, pp. 196 ff.
3 Jones, p. 266.
4 Feis, p. 128.
In the new situation—basically that of American leadership in resistance to Japan with Britain following—the grounds of difference in Far Eastern policy that had become marked between the British and New Zealand governments from June to September 1940 naturally disappeared. Indeed, in April 1941, when asked for her comments on measures of economic pressure which the United Kingdom was considering in the event of a further Japanese move south, New Zealand, while repeating her opposition to appeasement, stressed the need for caution.3 However, when, in July, Japan occupied bases throughout Indo-China, New Zealand fully supported co-operation in the drastic sanctions proposed by the United States. This co-operation involved both the United Kingdom and New Zealand in denunciation of their commercial treaties with Japan; they and the Netherlands Indies fell into line.
1 Feis, pp. 166–7; Morison, US Naval Operations, Vol. III, pp. 50–1; McNeill, pp. 8 ff.
2 Cf. Jones, p. 259.
3 PM NZ to SSDA, 26 Apr 1941.
4 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 521–2.
In short, a firm policy as against Japanese aggression, at one time advocated by New Zealand even against the views of her Commonwealth partners, now commanded New Zealand support when adopted jointly by Britain and the United States. Yet an underlying uneasiness is shown in the last phrase of her comment. In spite of the vigour of American leadership in applying economic pressure to Japan, the lesser powers of the Pacific, including the Netherlands Indies, could never be quite certain of United States armed support if the policy being followed in common should draw down a Japanese attack on one of them.2 This anxiety is plain in the speculations of the Commonwealth governments in the weeks remaining before Pearl Harbour, and in particular, in the consultations between the United Kingdom and New Zealand and Australia as to what should be done in various hypothetical cases of Japanese aggression against certain areas. Should the Commonwealth go to war if the Japanese attacked the Dutch East Indies? Or if they attacked Thailand? Or Russia?
1 Actg PM to Fraser, 24 Jul 1941; Fraser to Actg PM, 25 Jul 1941.
2 Cf. Feis, p. 322; Jones, p. 265.
3 Nash to Fraser, 16 Jul 1941.
At a time when Australia was showing unwonted boldness in Far Eastern policy—partly, it seems, because Menzies was irritated at British fatalism in face of the drift towards war with Japan, and because the new Labour government was optimistic about Russia's possible weight in the Far East3—New Zealand sounded a note of caution. Her comments tended not towards inaction, but towards a realistic assessment of practical factors. Such caution may well have been stimulated by the heavy losses recently suffered in Greece and Crete, which brought home to New Zealand with painful emphasis that the case for assisting a victim of aggression depends on the degree of probability that the assistance will be of some use. It was also calculated in relation to that other factor, on the essential importance of which all agreed: the necessity of American support. ‘We feel that if we are prepared to fight America will not…desert us,’ said Menzies for Australia.4 ‘A bold course ought to change the whole outlook.’ New Zealand's calculation was that America was much less likely to be precipitated into war by a Japanese attack on Thailand or Russia than by an attack on British territory or on the Dutch East Indies, especially if this attack were provoked by a policy adopted under United States inspiration.5 In such circumstances it is not surprising that New Zealand should at this stage emphasise the argument of the Commonwealth's limited ability to resist Japan, an argument which she had, perhaps, treated rather lightly in 1940 when the British had used it in the cases of the Burma Road and the proposed guarantee of the Dutch East Indies.
1 Actg PM NZ to PM Aust., 14 Aug 1941.
2 Hasluck, p. 546; PM NZ to PM Aust., 31 Oct 1941.
3 Hasluck, Ch. 13.
4 Ibid., p. 531.
5 Actg PM NZ to SSDA, 25 Jul 1941.
September and October 1941 were a period of comparatively relaxed tension, even of hope. American service chiefs became fairly confident of being able to hold the thrust.1 Churchill at this time allowed himself a somewhat surprising optimism in his comments. ‘I confess,’ he wrote later, ‘that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight, compared with our other needs’, and that if Japanese aggression drew in America he would be ‘content to have it2.’ On 2 September he cabled to Fraser that ‘I cannot believe that the Japanese will face the combination now developing around them. We may therefore regard the situation not only as more favourable but as less tense.’ As late as 25 October, when announcing the decision to send the battleship Prince of Wales to join the Repulse in the Indian Ocean ‘in order further to deter Japan’, he expressed the view that that country would not enter the war unless or until Russia was decisively broken.3
Such optimism was to this extent justified: that, in the confusion of Japanese politics, there was still a strong peace party in Tokyo.4 Its battle was a losing one, however, and service preparation proceeded. On 6 September a full Imperial Conference laid it down that preparations for war against the United States, Britain and the Dutch must be completed by the end of October. Diplomacy should continue, but unless by early October there appeared to be reasonable hope of securing Japan's minimum demands, an immediate decision should be made to get ready for war.5 These demands included the restoration of trade relations and the end of aid to China. Roosevelt refused pressing requests by the Prime Minister, Prince Konoye, for a meeting to discuss ways of improving relations; and on 16 October Konoye resigned, to be succeeded by General Tojo, the head of the war party in the cabinet. The new cabinet still was not pledged to war. The High Command insisted earnestly, however, that the plans it was preparing must be acted upon before the end of the year, or postponed for almost twelve months to await favourable weather; during which period Japan would use up her reserves, especially of oil, while Britain and America would build up their strength in South-east Asia.6 After hard debate, this reasoning was accepted on 5 November; the formal decision was then made that unless negotiations with the USA bore fruit by 25 November, the armed forces were to attack.7
1 Hasluck, p. 543; McNeill, pp. 12–13.
2 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 522.
3 Hasluck, p. 543.
4 Jones, Chs. VIII and IX.
5 Feis, p. 265; Jones, p. 287.
6 Jones, p. 295.
7 Ibid., p. 297; Feis, p. 295.
At this stage negotiations were, in fact, in American hands, in spite of some Japanese efforts to make the British take a more active part. The Japanese pointed out that the British Commonwealth had no share in discussions whose outcome would affect them closely, and they suggested that the British, while no more likely than the Americans to surrender principles, might be more skilful in avoiding a ‘frontal clash at this time1.’ The British Government, however, was well content. A ‘cardinal feature’ of its Far Eastern policy was to keep ‘strictly in line with the United States’, and the best practical means of achieving this was to allow the Americans to lead the way; moreover, American strength in that area was vastly preponderant. Accordingly, it was British policy to ‘confidently and wholeheartedly follow [America's] lead even if on points of detail or method we may sometimes see things in a different light2.’
1 SSDA to PM NZ, 10 Nov 1941. Jones, p. 301.
2 SSDA to PM NZ, 10 Nov 1941.
3 SSDA to PM NZ, 23 Nov 1941.
4 PM NZ to SSDA, 24. Nov 1941.
3SSDA to PM NZ, 23 Nov 1941.
4PM NZ to SSDA, 24 Nov 1941.
In Washington, negotiations moved towards breakdown in the ‘sinister twilight’ which obscured Anglo-American understanding of the consequences of their oil embargo. Japan, despite the lingering resistance of a peace party, was committed since early September to a short timetable; unless the diplomats could produce results by the end of November, the armed forces would strike within a few days. The Americans had broken the Japanese codes, and accordingly could read a considerable range of intercepted messages. These gave the American Government—and, after January 1941, the British—a clear enough picture of Japanese intentions, though it seems they did not know of the precise decision to go to war at the beginning of December.1 In spite of intercepted messages, however, Churchill and Roosevelt and their chief advisers could not quite bring themselves to believe that, when it came to the point, the Japanese would attack a firm Anglo-American combination. To do so, it was felt, would be ‘an act of suicide’. To the last moment, therefore, there remained in their minds the possibility that Japan's propositions, seen by the Japanese as the last moves in lengthy discussions, were intended to keep the conversations alive indefinitely. Accordingly, on 26 November, Japan was given a reply which reasserted the general American position. It was a possible move in long-term negotiations, and a reassurance to some sections of American opinion. To the Japanese Government, with only a few days in hand, it meant the ‘total surrender of Japan to the American position….That surrender, as we saw it, would have amounted to national suicide.’ The diplomats had reached deadlock, and after a further brief struggle of opinion in Tokyo the view prevailed that Japan could not carry on economically in defiance of the embargoes, and that war was the only possible course. On 1 December the decision to fight was finally endorsed.2
1 Jones, p. 263.
2 Ibid., pp. 313–18.
1 PM NZ to SSDA, 1 Dec 1941.
2 SSDA to PM NZ, 5 Dec 1941.
3 SSDA to PM NZ, 7 Dec 1941.