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Political and External Affairs

Prelude: A Field Defined

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Prelude: A Field Defined

THIS volume is concerned with the politics of New Zealand's participation in the Second World War: a broad definition which is intelligible according to the interpretation placed on its terms. There is much discussion of soldiers, but this is not military history; for the core of the inquiry is the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ of New Zealand's fighting. Political thinking—and feeling—within the Dominion are clearly relevant, and sometimes domestic politics strongly influenced the shape of New Zealand's war effort. Only to this extent, however, are they here analysed. Otherwise, the word politics is broadly conceived. It includes, for example, the impact of economic and social trends on public policy. These aspects of New Zealand life, however, are touched on relatively lightly because, in the upshot, political history turns out to be concerned with the activities of political leaders to a greater extent than might have been expected in a country so dedicated to a democratic theory. Their actions are on record: and moreover they register, often with subtlety and accuracy, the thinking and the emotions of those anonymous men and women who were the New Zealand community. The relationship between leaders and led in a wartime democracy is necessarily one of the underlying themes of this history. Another is the effect on the New Zealand people of those war years which covered a sizeable proportion of their corporate existence. At this point history merges into current affairs and thence into prophecy; so the historian is silent.

The politics of New Zealand at war, however, know no geographical boundary. Her coastal waters were occasionally visited by enemies, but her territory saw no fighting. Her own soldiers and sailors and airmen served hundreds, more usually thousands, of miles from their homes. This physical transplantation of New Zealand's most active manpower into other hemispheres underlined the Dominion's involvement with forces external to herself. There were thus created problems of concern to the political as well as to the military historian; for the integration of New Zealand troops into much larger forces under British or American command was not merely a technical problem. It involved national dignity and the right of a government to control its own armed forces. Eminent soldiers and sailors are not necessarily expert in the subtle conventions governing the intercourse of nations, and their professional task does not normally include the consideration of an overseas page 2 prime minister's susceptibilities. Nor is it, perhaps, easy for commanders trained in an imperial school to assess the attitude of a small, even if kindred, allied community. In military terms a division is a formation with which he is familiar. But in relation to the population from which it was drawn, the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Middle East was the equivalent of twenty-five divisions of British troops; and in New Zealand's thinking the dangers which it encountered had to be considered on that scale.

In short, though the political meaning of dominion status had been fully worked out between the two wars, the formula was by no means easy to translate into terms of military co-operation. Some practical reconciliation had to be found between two principles easily enough acknowledged in theory; on the one hand, that in a military operation there must be a clear line of command and discipline, and on the other, that there must be agreement between governments on the employment of national armies. In the end, working agreement was reached but not without grave difficulties and the risk of failure. In the history of the Commonwealth the nature of these difficulties and the manner in which they were surmounted was as important as the ultimate achievement of successful co-operation, and with this field the present volume is inevitably concerned.

It is concerned, too, with the higher politics as well as with the grand strategy of the Second World War; nor is this merely a truism. One point of emphasis in any analysis of New Zealand life since the depression must be growing independence of thinking, her claim for at least a share in controlling her own external affairs. In one sense in the nineteen–thirties an independent foreign policy was hers for the asking, for she had merely to exercise the rights inherent in dominion status. The deeper realities of the situation, however, were infinitely more complex. Even in the most familiar of well established Commonwealth relationships—that with the United Kingdom—and even in the handling of peacetime issues, it can be said that actual practice still fell short of recognised theory. With the best will in the world ‘consultation’ could not give full participation in the formulation of policy. Differences in patterns of thought, though barely acknowledged, were a barrier to full understanding, and as the crisis gathered speed and intensity, a small partner, far distant from immediate danger, could claim only a modest share in policy-making. Yet the New Zealand Government was determined to assert that claim. In face of world trends which concentrated power and responsibility in London, in Washington—and in Moscow—New Zealand was one of those small but active powers whose leaders strove both to page 3 understand the great forces shaping their destiny, and so far as they might, to influence them.

This volume is accordingly concerned with the problems of developing nationhood, with a small country's efforts to play a part in world politics, to assert in a wider field some of those democratic principles to which its domestic life was professedly wedded. There is a tension here which challenges study, a persistent effort to assert, if not to exaggerate, its right to be heard before issues of world-wide importance could be decided. New Zealand's action can thus be understood only in the light of these issues, and the attitudes taken towards them by the ‘Big Few’. Inevitably, therefore, this volume, which at times deals intimately with local politics, becomes entangled also with the actions of statesmen to whom New Zealand could be no more than a tiny (if occasionally irritating) factor in a master-pattern. Exploration of this field is the more important because the wartime period carried forward sharply developments of world importance which in other circumstances have moved slowly and won tardy recognition. The predominance of American power over that of Britain was a fact of the greatest moment to New Zealand; so, though more remotely, was the rising importance of Asia as compared with Europe and the West. These two factors were strongly illustrated by the wartime experiences of the Pacific area, experiences to which New Zealand made vigorous, sometimes agitated, but generally dignified response. Discussion of her actions must at least take cognisance of the cosmic forces which, admittedly from a far distance, provoked them.

The time span, like the subject matter, involved in studying New Zealand at war can only be loosely defined. The beginning was not when war was declared, or when, some days earlier, German troops invaded Poland. By that time the part that New Zealand was to play had been determined. The material conditions and the mental attitudes were moulded for New Zealand—as for every belligerent—in the years of twilight and half-recognised menace. It is in these years that the historian must get his grip over the forces which controlled wartime thought and action. And he seeks in vain for an evident terminus. A global and totalitarian war was not followed by the conventional pause, by the tangle of diplomatic peace-making in which victors—and maybe vanquished too—struggled to frame a peace treaty more or less acceptable to all. On this occasion, with the main battle-front barely silent, the antagonisms of power politics were reshuffled in ways which even those with short memories found sadly inconsistent with wartime hopes. Ostensible friends became enemies, and enemies valued friends, almost overnight, all in the over-simplifying glare of publicity. Diplomatic convulsions were punctuated by local wars, as well as by bitter page 4 recriminations, and a new term, the ‘cold war’, crept in to describe a situation which, though not new, was singularly grievous and unpeaceful. Moreover, the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ was met in Germany by resistance to the point of political disintegration. Even if anyone had been disposed to negotiate a treaty in conventional terms, and formally convert an armistice into peace, there was no one in the ruins of the Nazi empire with whom a treaty could have been concluded. Never before in modern history had allies possessed the field so completely after victory; and perhaps never before had the sudden disappearance of a powerful common enemy had such immediately shattering results on a wartime coalition. Before firing ceased, and when the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was still embattled in Italy, the new alignment took shape; the leaders of the United Nations were already choosing their partners and sizing up potential enemies in the conflict that was to come.

Accordingly, the history of New Zealand at war cannot be drawn neatly to a conclusion with an analysis of New Zealand's attitude to a peace settlement that never really took place. An arbitrary break must be made in a story that is endless; and the obviously convenient terminus is the mechanical one: the end of the shooting. For New Zealand the date is, therefore, 2 September 1945, when Air Vice-Marshal Leonard Isitt signed the documents of Japanese surrender. Moreover this date, in practice, proves an excellent watershed. Certain exceptions impose themselves. In particular, the stories of wartime Samoa and of post-war relief—both of intimate concern to New Zealand—cannot be wound up with the Japanese surrender. Moreover, the treatment of certain developments of first-rate importance but specialised character, whose origins lie well back in the wartime period—notably the rehabilitation of servicemen, and economic adjustment in general—must be left to other hands. Such reservations made, the six-year period ending in September 1945 turns out to have a real political coherence.

It did not, as did the immediately preceding four years, mark a new change of direction. In those four years the new Labour Government had pushed forward with unprecedented rapidity the tendencies, admittedly already traditional in New Zealand, towards the creation of a welfare state. In the war years this structure was tested and maintained—its maintenance as well as the waging of war requiring various further extensions of state control. By 1945 measures which had been controversial in 1939 had become sanctified, and the question was clearly not whether the welfare state was to survive but who was to operate it, and how in detail the burden of the expense was to fall. When Isitt laid down his page 5 pen on USS Missouri decisions had been made and attitudes adopted which defined the problems and set the policies New Zealand was to follow in the post-war world. In foreign affairs new decisions were clearly going to be required. The Government's enthusiasm and faith in international organisation for the maintenance of general morality and security was undiminished, but these principles had now to be related to a world in which the balance of power had profoundly altered since 1939. The world drama, no doubt, was the same. But one act had come to an end, and with the temporary disappearance from the stage of the former chief villains a general recasting was hastily in progress before the curtain again went up.

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