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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 15 — Impact of the Pacific

page 191

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

If there was reason for uneasiness as to what Britain might be able to do in the East, there were grounds for optimism regarding the part that the United States might eventually come to play in that area. American ‘isolationism’ was, after all, a reaction primarily against European ‘entanglements’ and did not exclude interest in China and in the Pacific islands. It was natural, therefore, that in

1 Circular issued through national Press Association office.

2 Hasluck, Government and People, p. 118.

3 See p. 99.

page 193 his first efforts to modify that isolationist trend, Roosevelt should have been thinking more of the menace of Japan than of Germany. Japanese brutality and disregard of American interests in China gave both impetus and a considerable measure of success to his policy. Two months before the European war broke out the administration—encouraged by Congressional feeling against Japan—had served notice of intention to terminate the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with that country. This gave the United States the right, after six months, to single out Japan for an economic embargo.1 Among the papers placed before the Commonwealth ministers at the conference of November 1939 was an assessment of American opinion by Lord Lothian, British Ambassador in Washington. There was not, he reported, ‘any particularly strong feeling…for Australia and New Zealand, though they are popular as young democracies’; yet opinion was hardening against Japan, and reaction against Japanese aggression in the Pacific. ‘Partly because the Central Pacific is now regarded as a kind of American reserve,’ he wrote, ‘partly because the expansion of Japan overseas would eventually threaten the Monroe Doctrine, and partly because a war with Japan would probably not involve sending abroad vast armies of conscripts, I think that long before Japanese action threatened Australia or New Zealand, America would be at war.’
Doubts about British strength in the Pacific, and hopes, however contingent, of American activity, naturally influenced New Zealand's reaction to British Far Eastern policy in 1940 and 1941. When in February 1940 the British Government expressed itself as willing to participate only to a limited extent, so far as Japan was concerned, in an American proposal for a progressive embargo on war materials to Germany, Russia and Japan, New Zealand commented that this might cause ‘resentment and misunderstanding’ in the United States. ‘It would be wise to pay less regard to the susceptibilities of Japan….and on the other hand to attach the greatest possible weight to good relations with the United States and to the encouragement in every possible way of every American tendency towards resisting or restraining aggression2.’ In April, it is true, New Zealand agreed with Australian objections to a British plan for intercepting supplies going to Germany through the Far East. Both dominions felt that the military advantage to be gained was not worth the risk of provoking Japan or Russia. Nevertheless, New Zealand expressed opposition to any concessions to Japan designed to gain her co-operation in the blockade as ‘such a bargain must have the effect in some degree firstly of strengthening Japan's position in her attacks

1 Feis, Road to Pearl Harbour, p. 22.

2 1GGNZ, to SSDA, 9 Feb 1940.

page 194 on China and secondly of alienating neutral sympathy particularly in the United States1.’ The British carried the plan further but eventually abandoned it as they were unable to reach agreement with the Japanese.2

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.

3 Hull, Memoirs, Vol. I, p. 630; Morison, Rising Sun in the Pacific, pp. 48 ff.

page 195
colour of movement in the pacific

The War against Japan: Allied Operations in the Pacific

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.

There followed eleven months' delay before the first New Zealand minister to Washington was appointed. It was apparently accepted that the minister should be a member of cabinet, and the Prime Minister, in whose hands the selection lay,4 long hesitated; for he had to choose between sending someone who could not really be spared from Wellington and someone who might not be adequate in Washington if a crisis developed in the Pacific. In February 1941 it was announced that the New Zealand and United States governments had agreed to exchange ministers, and in May an interim

1 GGNZ to SSDA, 15 Jun 1940.

2 SSDA to GGNZ, 7 Jul 1940.

3 GGNZ to SSDA, 9 Jul 1940.

4 Langstone, Dominion, 8 Dec 1942.

page 196 arrangement with a flavour of compromise was adopted. Gordon Coates was sent to America to discuss the supply of munitions, and Frank Langstone, Minister of Lands, who had been a critic within cabinet of the majority's financial policy and of the formation of the War Cabinet, went to discuss trade. He was also charged to make preliminary arrangements for the New Zealand Legation in Washington. This twofold mission was regarded in New Zealand as a ‘vigorous attempt to build up still more close and fruitful relations between this country and North America’;1 but it left the diplomatic gap unbridged during the crisis that preceded Pearl Harbour. Coates returned to New Zealand and publicly emphasised the importance of a speedy decision on the matter, but Langstone remained in Washington with his status undefined. As war with Japan drew nearer Fraser came to the conclusion that the importance of the Washington post would be such that it could only be filled by a member of War Cabinet, and on 18 November Walter Nash was appointed Minister to the United States. Langstone, it appeared, would have been appointed to Washington if Nash had found it necessary to move to London to attend the Far Eastern Council; in April 1942 he became first High Commissioner to Canada. He shortly afterwards resigned, however, and broke from his colleagues in the cabinet, maintaining that he had been misled as to the Washington appointment.

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.

page 197

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.’

The Australian Government expressed itself in general agreement with Craigie's line of thought but felt that conditions including ‘the complete independence and integrity of China’ would be ‘quite impossible of acceptance by Japan.’ They would ‘put her in a worse position than at the commencement of hostilities in 1937.’ The immediate Japanese demands should be conceded.3

1 Jones, Japan's New Order, p. 167.

2 SSDA to GGNZ, 26 Jun 1940.

3 SSDA to GGNZ, 2 Jul 1940; PM Aust. to PM NZ, 28 Jun 1940.

page 198 New Zealand, on the other hand, was ‘inclined to feel that an acceptance of the Japanese demands or an offer of mediation between Japan and China might well be interpreted by the Japanese as a plain indication of our realisation of the weakness of our position and of our readiness on that account to sacrifice the Chinese for the purpose of endeavouring to protect our own interests. We are at present inclined to feel that an appearance of continued confidence is more likely to be effective with the Japanese than any step which might be interpreted as a display of weakness…1.’

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.’

None the less New Zealand pressed during September both for a British decision to resist an attack on the Dutch East Indies3 and to reopen the Burma Road at the end of the three months' period.4 Her judgment differed from that of Australia on both issues, and in each case her government emphasised both the moral aspects of the problem and the effect on United States opinion if these were disregarded. The problem of the Burma Road was indeed essentially moral rather than material.5 Few supplies had reached China by this route, and the period of closure was the rainy season. In any case, the British attempt to placate Japan did not last much longer. The hope, if not the understanding, had been that the closing of the road should be followed by a serious attempt to seek a

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.

page 199 solution to the problem of Japan. In fact, though the interval led to a strengthening of Britain's position in Europe by the defeat of Hitler's air assault, it was marked by further Japanese thrusts: by infiltration into Indo-China, pressure on the Netherlands Indies for economic concessions, and on 27 September by an alliance with Italy and Germany by which the parties undertook ‘to assist one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the three Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Chinese-Japanese conflict1.’

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.

Thereafter, ‘in shadow rather than [in] open view, the American and British governments began to draw plans for a common front of resistance in the Pacific4.’ The new co-operation extended to planning the strategy of the war in which it seemed so likely the United States would become involved. Within a relatively few months some considerable detailed work was completed. In fact the main lines of Allied strategy then laid down for the European area were followed when America entered the war. Plans for the Pacific were less far-sighted, partly because Japanese strength was grievously underestimated. Nevertheless, the foundations were laid

1 Feis, p. 120; Jones, pp. 196 ff.

2 SSDA to UKHC, Wgtn, 7 Oct 1940. Cf. McNeill, America, Britain and Russia, p. 7.

3 Jones, p. 266.

4 Feis, p. 128.

page 200 and certain basic problems faced. It may be noted, for instance, that there was no return to the original fundamental plan of a major British fleet arriving at Singapore within a defined period after the outbreak of war with Japan. Indeed, in March 1941 the British asked for the transfer of part of the United States Pacific Fleet to Singapore. This was refused, but it was agreed that the United States should increase its forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and thus enable the British to release capital ships for the Far East.1 The occurrence of these talks should not, of course, be entirely concealed from the Japanese, and probably gave them an exaggerated impression of British and American hostility.2

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.

The decisive item in the new sanctions was the embargo on oil. ‘The Japanese Navy was at once forced to live on its oil reserves, and at the outbreak of the Pacific war had in fact consumed four out of eighteen months' supply. It was evident that this was a stranglehold, and that the choice before them was either for Japan to reach an agreement with the United States or go to war4.’ That these sanctions might very well lead to war was recognised when they were taken, as it had been when they had been previously considered. On 24 July Nash as acting Prime Minister cabled to Fraser in London that ‘we are satisfied that the southward move to Indo-China, if and when achieved, will not end there but will be used by Japan to strengthen bases and to consolidate for yet a further southward move. It does not appear reasonably possible to avoid conflict with Japan if Indo-China is occupied, and this being so we consider that, if the possibility of conflict is extended by the

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.

page 201 economic measures proposed and taken by the United States, their co-operation in the conflict should be inevitable1.’

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?

Dutch and Commonwealth officers had participated in secret staff talks on Pacific defence and New Zealand continued to favour a definite guarantee of the Indies. She had been disappointed when this had been deferred in July, partly because of the misgivings of Australia and South Africa—‘the customary policy of saying or doing nothing which might be construed as provocative by the Japanese has resulted inevitably in the very situation we were at such pains to avoid3’—and again on 16 September Nash as acting Prime Minister cabled to the Secretary of State urging that nothing was to be lost by entering into such a commitment, as, in the New Zealand view, ‘any overt action directed against the Netherlands East Indies must inevitably lead to British armed intervention.’ Her reaction in the case of Thailand was, however, more hesitant. When, in August, the Australian Government expressed itself in favour of a declaration, if necessary by the Commonwealth countries alone, that Japanese attack on Thailand would be a casus belli, the New Zealand Government was reserved. ‘It seems to them unwise to take such action unless and until there is available a force sufficiently strong to ensure successful resistance to Japan in the area threatened. The result of any hasty or ill-conceived guarantee might well be repetition of the circumstances surrounding the British guarantee to Poland in 1939….the result of a defeat in this region such as we experienced in Norway, in Belgium, in Greece, and in Crete arising

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.

page 202 from any premature or ill-conceived attempt to assist the Thais, could not fail to have the most disastrous results, particularly in the United States1.’ The New Zealand Government was likewise cautious when, at the end of October, the Australian Government proposed a declaration that a Japanese attack on Russia would be resisted by the Commonwealth. Although it thought it inevitable in such a case that the Commonwealth should go to war, it felt also that in view of the ‘obviously limited scale of operations’ which could be launched against Japan such a declaration ‘might….be viewed by Japan as a challenge to immediate action, and be considered as premature and too precipitate by the United States2.’

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.

By October 1941, then, New Zealand had found something like a balance between the three main considerations influencing Far Eastern policy: her attachment to principle as the soundest guide to practical action, her realisation of the Commonwealth's weakness,

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.

page 203 and her desire to obtain firm assurance (as distinct from reasonable expectation) of American participation.

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.

page 204

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.’

With this view New Zealand seems to have concurred. Her government received through London very full information about the negotiations, but her opinion was not asked, nor, until 24 November, offered. On the previous day there had been reported to her the latest Japanese proposals, together with some suggested American counter-proposals which would have provided the peace party in Japan with some evidence of progress in the negotiations, and also have given the American army and navy time to continue their preparations in the Pacific. These proposals involved some economic relief for Japan in return for a partial withdrawal from Indo-China.3 The New Zealand Government reaffirmed its opposition to any steps that might increase Japanese pressure in China, agreed that the Japanese proposals were clearly unacceptable, but in view of the desirability for the closest possible co-operation with the United States was ‘strongly of opinion that the Governments of the British Commonwealth should concur’, if the American Government wished to proceed along the lines suggested. ‘If such an arrangement were ultimately found to be possible (as to which they must express some doubt) then the general effect on the world situation of a Japanese withdrawal from Indo-China must be most salutary, while the prospect of a successful attack upon the Burma Road must be materially decreased. If it failed, the time that would be gained would be exceedingly valuable to our cause, provided care is taken to ensure that the negotiations are not accepted by Japan as a mark of weakness4.’ Despite these considerations, the plan received no very definite support from the British, Netherlands and Australian governments and was violently

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.

page 205 opposed by the Chinese. In view of this and of American doubts as to the reception of the proposals, it was abandoned, and with it there disappeared the last, doubtful hope of delaying war in the Pacific.

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

In the first few days of December, some final decisions were taken on the kind of action that the Commonwealth should take to meet the new Japanese advance that was now clearly imminent, but of which the direction could not be foretold. At last this could be done with firm knowledge of American support in resisting any thrust from Japan. On 1 December New Zealand agreed with a British plan to seize the Kra Isthmus in Siam, with or without

1 Jones, p. 263.

2 Ibid., pp. 313–18.

page 206 Siamese approval, if a Japanese fleet approached.1 Britain had an explicit assurance of armed support from the United States if she became involved in war over this plan, or in defence of the Indies or of her own territories;2 and on 6 December two large Japanese convoys were reported off Cambodia Point.3 When news came of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and Malaya, there was at least no doubt in anyone's mind that the Pacific war was America's war, and that, in the long run, American power was beyond reckoning.

1 PM NZ to SSDA, 1 Dec 1941.

2 SSDA to PM NZ, 5 Dec 1941.

3 SSDA to PM NZ, 7 Dec 1941.