Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 9 — Whither?
BY January 1940 New Zealand had grasped the nettle of the Expeditionary Force. She had committed herself not only to despatch such a force, but to maintain it as a national army basically under New Zealand control: a symbol of the continuation in war of that national independence which a peacetime Labour government had so expressly claimed. This attitude was made plain not only by written agreements, but by the personality and attitude of the commander who had been chosen, and by the personal relationships established between Fraser, Freyberg, and Churchill. The decisions had then been made, the men had volunteered and the machinery set in motion. The next phase was one of administration and fulfilment: for the time being unspectacular matters. The very success with which the ranks had been filled paradoxically contributed to a period of mental slackness. There was little need to conduct recruiting campaigns or to build up morale in a community already virtually unanimous. Nor did a distant war with so little immediate impact even on the country's economic life present challenges which could be taken up with enthusiasm.
1 People's Voice, especially 8, 22, and 29 Sep 1939.
Yet in this period of grace, before Hitler struck in the west, national agreement on broad objectives did not adequately define for New Zealanders the object and character of the war, or even the means by which it was to be carried on. The period therefore became one of some uncertainty and debate, which by no means qualified the country's wholehearted willingness to fight, but which probed causes and aims, and defined attitudes. At the national level, moreover, New Zealand took during this period an individual attitude in this matter. Her government from the first shared the uneasiness which prompted many in Great Britain to press Mr Chamberlain for a statement of precise aims which could be announced both to friendly Germans and to the men and women in allied countries who were being asked for unlimited efforts. This line of thought was being pressed by influential Englishmen in mid-September,1 and after the defeat of Poland and the Russo-German settlement of 29 September 1939 the problem recurred more insistently. Hitler, now echoed by the Russians, urged that continuance of the war was purposeless, for the extinction of Poland was a fact which the Western powers could not reverse. His virtual offer of a negotiated peace along these lines was not attractive to governments who had recently experienced his faithlessness. Yet during these months a war of stalemate seemed so likely that it was natural for people to lose the sense of immediate peril. When even governments did not realise their danger, it was difficult for citizens to keep vividly in mind that they were fighting a war of survival which needed for its justification no assurance that after victory the state of Europe would be better, or even no worse, than it was in September 1939.
1 Manchester Guardian Weekly, 29 Sep 1939.
These last words were spoken on 1 November 1939 at the Ministerial Conference in London, when representatives of commonwealth countries studied the tasks they had jointly undertaken. By this time the difficulties of being definite were clear, as well as the need. All agreed on the necessity to march in step with France, and French opinion insisted that a final solution must be found and Europe freed for ever from the menace of German aggression. Material guarantees must be sought, and though the character of such solid guarantees was not well thought out, hints were not lacking that for many Frenchmen the best guarantee would be the dismemberment of Germany into its component parts. Any suggestion that Britain was considering a ‘generous’ peace would, it was made clear, take the heart out of the French will to fight. On the other hand, the idea of a ‘hard’ peace was repugnant to a great deal of British opinion, partly because the hint of it must unite Germany behind Hitler, and partly because history showed vindictive peace settlements to be followed by resurgent nationalism and wars of revenge. Faced with these facts the British Government urged caution. It kept to broad generalities which offended no one, even if they did not inspire; and it dropped over Germany propaganda leaflets of a character which, according to some British critics, demonstrated the current lack of constructive leadership.
1 Hansard, 5th Series, Vol. 351, col. 1921.
A fortnight later a new round of discussion was started by the French. They were bearing once more the main military burden and physical risk. Their government had been told a few months before that British military help would be of token character only—too small to justify staff conversations.1 Frenchmen were asking themselves whether Britain now was willing to make the efforts necessary to secure permanent peace or whether she still looked for a compromise, and for an understanding with good neighbourly non-Hitlerite Germans in whose effective existence few Frenchmen believed. The only way to allay such doubts was to frame a statement of war aims pledging the British to do something much more drastic and presumably more permanent than merely to eject the present German government in favour of one more acceptable to the Allies. The British countries were thus asked to go a good deal beyond the destruction of Hitlerism, which had been the essence of the generalities thus far used.
On this problem the two Pacific dominions were in close agreement. In the phrase of the Australian Prime Minister victory should be followed ‘by a great gesture of generosity and of justice. Germany would be expected to play her part as a great nation on a footing free and equal. Those who advocate not mere defeat but the destruction of Germany pay far too little attention to the problems which are and will be presented by Russia, Italy and Japan.’ New Zealand told the Australians that ‘your sentiments in favour of a generous peace are shared equally by us’, and sent to Peter Fraser, then attending the Commonwealth Conference in London, significantly detailed instructions. These were a serious attempt to apply her well established general attitudes to the current crisis.
1 Renouvin in Revue Historique, Vol. 205, p. 270
The memorandum thus summarised was duly circulated to fellow delegates before the conference decided how to answer the French. Meantime, however, broad questions of policy had been discussed at the first joint meeting on 1 November. Peter Fraser for New Zealand, who was quick to respond to British suggestions for the use of our forces, was critical on political issues. He was not satisfied with Lord Halifax's opening analysis of the position. In particular, he thought that an agreement with Russia should have been reached some time ago, and he said bluntly that warlike enthusiasm might well vanish unless fed with more concrete fare than praise of democracy and criticism of rival political, economic and social systems. The time was certainly not ripe for drawing frontiers but the people must be told clearly the purpose for which they were fighting. A fortnight later, with the instruction of 5 November 1939 before the conference, he initiated another discussion on war aims, adding the suggestion (which had been made before the outbreak of war by Savage) for a general conference. ‘It was obvious,’ he said, ‘that sooner or later a conference must be held, and it would certainly be better held before both sides had suffered enormous casualties.’ Such a conference would have to include neutrals as well as belligerents. At the present moment, he added, there was a pause in the fighting and a period of apparent hesitation in Germany: ‘was not the present, therefore, an opportune moment for a general conference?’
1 Savage to Fraser, 5 Nov 1939.
The effort to obtain a definite and convincing statement of war aims had, then, failed; and as Fraser had predicted, the failure had its effect in local politics.
1 R. Semple, in Standard, 14 Mar 1940.
This line led to a forthright attack on the Labour Government of New Zealand, which ‘instead of leading the New Zealand people on the road to socialism, peace and democracy,… have led it into the jaws of a new imperialist war2.’ Now that war had come, however, the party could give little practical advice on how to end it, beyond the demand that an agreement should be reached with Russia; and it may be doubted whether the communist line, with its apparent subservience to Russian leadership and lack of practicable policy for those who distrusted Chamberlain but believed that Hitler was the most serious immediate danger, ever won much support in New Zealand. In May 1940 one of the party's ablest spokesmen, Gordon Watson, later to be killed in action in Italy, won at a by-election a vote claimed to be higher than had ever been cast for a communist candidate in New Zealand, but it was only 375 against the winning candidate's 5935.3
Nevertheless, communist action had some significance in New Zealand politics. In the face of the country's substantial homogeneity it expressed persistent opposition. Later the party went underground and endured the mild forms of persecution possible in this country; its small, irksome, sometimes contradictory and not very respected voice kept reminding Labour men of old-fashioned objectives and of the uncomfortable fact that the defeat of Hitler would not of itself solve the problems of mankind. In the meantime the Communist party's sharp change of policy and at times irresponsible criticism had unfortunate effects. It alienated moderate opinion and invited repression, stinging a not illiberal government into actions which were sometimes ill-considered. The manner of its complaints made the sensible discussion of problems increasingly difficult, and so far as domestic policy was concerned, intensified the very evils against which the party was ostensibly fighting. In particular, the tactics adopted by the party made the suppression of its journal almost certain when the fall of France brought a real sense of tension.
1 People's Voice, 8 Dec 1939.
2 Ibid., 3 Nov 1939.
3 Ibid., 24 May 1940.
Almost from the first there were complaints that ‘the British government consistently refuses to state its war aims1.’ There were evidently many Labour supporters who fought shy of communism but felt uneasy lest this was, or should become, a war of the old imperialist type, ‘a struggle for markets and raw material between capitalist Britain and France on the one side and capitalist Germany on the other2.’ The demand was accordingly pressed that the Government should ‘make public the reasons for which New Zealanders were expected to fight’;3 and as months passed without clear statement of war aims and without spectacular military achievements or dangers, those elements in the country which had fought ‘appeasement’ became increasingly uneasy about the undefined mandate claimed by their old enemy, Neville Chamberlain. Was he even prepared to switch the war from Germany to Russia? On the testimony of W. E. Barnard, whose personal conviction on the need to fight Hitler was very clear, there were ‘many thousands of New Zealanders of unimpeachable loyalty who are … not satisfied with the oft repeated declarations about liberty and freedom and democracy (equality is not mentioned) which are offered as sufficient reasons for the present sacrifice’.4
Men wanted to know not only why they were now called on to fight, but what kind of a world their efforts would help to create. ‘It is fairly obvious,’ wrote James O'Brien, MP, ‘that until we have something definite to go on, opposition to war in all its forms will grow’.5 This uneasiness was shared in high quarters. The Prime Minister himself, for all his moving public statements, apparently felt doubts: he wanted more clarity as to objectives and assurance that it would be ‘a very different peace this time’. His deputy and successor, Fraser, did his best to extract definition from London, and correctly foretold what would happen if it were not forthcoming.
2 West Coast Trades and Labour Council, Press, 6 Dec 1939.
4 Tomorrow, 7 Feb 1940.
5 Ibid., 21 Feb 1940.
These uneasinesses must be set in their right perspective. So far as the war effort was concerned, they were variants within an accepted master pattern which was never disturbed. When the test came, New Zealand's war potential was at Britain's command, subject to the right of friendly though independent scrutiny of individual suggestions. Nevertheless, the military pause gave an opportunity, even a challenge, to thought. The lack of definition in war aims left the field open, and this situation led to important developments in internal politics. Not only did it make possible, and indeed stimulate, changes in both political parties; it led to a new ordering of the relations between them. The pattern of New Zealand's political behaviour and the tone of her wartime administration were set between September 1939 and April 1940.