Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 21 — The Politics of Fighting Japan
The Politics of Fighting Japan
THE decision to leave 2 Division in Europe till the defeat of Germany shelved the problem of New Zealand's part in the anticipated long war against Japan. It did not solve her manpower difficulties, and certainly did not diminish the political importance of this mingled domestic and military conundrum. Indeed, the last months of hostilities produced vigorous controversy and threw unusual light on some aspects of New Zealand politics.
Towards the end of 1944 it seemed likely that New Zealand land forces would not be needed in the Pacific war, in which case the victory over Germany might bring comparatively quick relief. In January 1945, however, General Barrowclough discussed matters in London and reported a somewhat different prospect. The War Office, in fact, expected a manpower crisis at the end of the war in Europe. ‘Considerable forces required for army of occupation coupled with proposed repatriation of British long-service men and demands of industry will make it difficult to assemble forces in Far East on scale desired.’ The intention at this time was for the Australians to serve under MacArthur in the Philippines. General Barrowclough was told that it would not be practicable for the New Zealanders to serve with them. The British Government, however, would gratefully accept a New Zealand division if it were offered for service under British command in Burma or Malaya. The same line of thinking was shortly afterwards expressed by Churchill to Fraser. He explained that the despatch of the New Zealand Division to operate in South-east Asia under Admiral Mountbatten would be a contribution of the first order. On the other hand, he wrote, ‘we do not know yet what tasks the United States Chiefs of Staff will allot to the Australian forces after the completion of the Philippines campaign, nor of the role which they would assign to a New Zealand Division if it were placed under American command. I hope, therefore,’ he concluded, ‘that when you have had an opportunity to weigh carefully the factors involved, you will decide once again to keep your Division alongside ours to the end. Anyhow, God bless you all1.’
1 PM UK to PM NZ, 27 Jan 1945.
British thinking had accordingly swung over to the view that a New Zealand land division could well be used in the war against Japan, though fighting under British command. In view of the known opinions of the Australians and of the United States Government, however, there were substantial political reasons against the adoption of Churchill's recommendation of South-east Asia. Further, General Freyberg, whose advice was always highly valued by the New Zealand Government, had on 19 February expressed the opinion that by serving with the Australian troops under American command against the main Japanese army in China or in Japan itself, the New Zealand Division would be making the most effective contribution from the purely military point of view and that it would, at the same time, be ‘serving national as well as Allied interests1.’ There was, moreover, another point of some importance. If the men of 2 Division were to be withdrawn for service in the Pacific area under American command with the Australians, the obvious plan would be to bring them back to New Zealand for reorganisation. If, on the other hand, they were to be used in South-east Asia, then the best plan, militarily speaking, would be to send them to Egypt to be reorganised for their new period of service. Freyberg evidently feared that there would be considerable disappointment among the men of the Division if this were done. He cautiously expressed the opinion, nevertheless, that the decision would be accepted ‘provided the Government's policy, including the replacement scheme, is announced to the troops before the end of the war in Europe2.’
1 Documents, II, pp. 389–93.
2 Ibid., p 393.
These discussions among its expert advisers led War Cabinet, as was to be expected, into the usual compromise decision. On the political side the attitude both of the domestic cabinet and of War Cabinet was clear. ‘In view of our position as a Pacific nation, the need for maintaining our relations with the United States of America on the friendliest terms and firmest basis and the declarations made in the Canberra Agreement’, the fullest possible contribution of armed forces should be made to the war against Japan. As to/the form of that contribution, War Cabinet proposed in April to maintain the air effort at nineteen squadrons. To this was to be added a land force of 15,000; that is, a division of two brigades plus ancillaries. Annual reinforcements of 5000 would be needed; there would be no difficulty, thought War Cabinet, in finding them in 1946, but trouble might arise in 1947. As to the location of this force, War Cabinet begged the question. ‘Our preference is that force function under British command in Southeast Asia or with the Australians1.’
This general line of thinking was approved in May by the high authority of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He expressly accepted the political argument. New Zealand had been one of the countries closely threatened by the Japanese advance. She was vitally interested in Japan and it would be fitting if she were to take part in the operations against that country. He accepted, too, the necessity for a drastic reduction in the size of the Division. Even if it were ‘reduced to two-brigade strength and backed by reasonable administrative tail,’ he wrote, it ‘could be used most effectively against the Japanese in the South-east Asia Command, and possibly later as part of a British Empire force against Japan. It would be an advantage if it could be reorganized in the Middle East and moved thence to its new operational area2.’
1 Nash to PM, 7 Apr 1945.
2 NZHC to PM, 21 May 1945.
1 Nash to Freyberg, 9 Jun 1945. Nash to Fraser, 9 Jun 1945, gives reasons why War Cabinet decided not to cut down the air effort. ‘Although the Air organisation is considerable in numbers Isitt says that no material assistance can be given to Army unless the whole Pacific organisation were disbanded. Disbandment of Air would yield about 6,000 men but they could not be provided immediately since it would be necessary to get formal agreement of Combined Chiefs of Staff to release of our Squadrons and this would take some time. Moreover there would be serious organisational difficulties with certain of these men since they hold rank in the Air Force which they must necessarily drop in any new force. In any case Air Force seems to be needed and to be reasonably well employed.’ At this time the strength of the RNZAF was 21,146 in New Zealand (including 2176 women) and 7829 in the Pacific.
The despatch of ground forces for service in the Pacific was, then, not a proposition likely to be popular in the circumstances of 1945, quite apart from certain overtones, which were important even if their assessment must remain a matter of speculation. There was at least in some quarters a revulsion against jungle fighting, a fear of tropical diseases, and a feeling that Germans and Italians were preferable enemies to the Japanese. There was some resentment against American influence over New Zealand life; and, after all, a high proportion of New Zealand men had been overseas for three years and more. The Pacific war, moreover, had the aspect of a new demand for unlimited effort without the stimulus of visible danger—a demand which accordingly released pent-up war weariness. In short, on this whole issue, opinion appeared to be lagging behind leadership, and the result was a full-blooded political discussion during which some of the deeper currents in New Zealand's politics and thinking, normally hidden, were brought spectacularly to the surface. Moreover, the restraining personal influence of the Prime Minister was removed by his attendance at the San Francisco conference. This had the accidental result that information on the whole incident was unusually full. To voluminous press reports can be added the detailed comments sent by Walter Nash as acting Prime Minister to his absent chief.
‘Throughout April and May,’ reported Nash to Fraser, ‘there was increasing public demand for a clear statement of manpower objectives. This was linked by farmers and other sections of the community with the need for additional skilled labour for farms and a desire to know the character and extent of our future military commitments.’ Men were still being withdrawn from farms and elsewhere to form the 16th Reinforcements and ‘the general resistance of farmers was heightened by universal emphasis on food production1.’ The campaign in a by-election for the Hamilton seat helped to give irritation a political edge, and ‘the announcement on the 24th of May of a ballot calling some 5,000 men for service did not help, even though the announcement stated that in the meantime no one would be called up2.’
1 Nash to Fraser, 19 Jun 1945.
2 Nash to Fraser, 19 Jun 1945.
5 The Nationalist vote was 6777, Labour 5711, and Mr Lee's 1231.-Round Table, September 1945, p. 379.
Nash's reports from Hamilton raised in Fraser's mind the gravest apprehensions, in which national interests and honour became entangled with the need to command a solid following within the Labour Party. The question arose, he wrote, as to ‘whether we can both carry out our duty as we would like to do to fulfil our obligations to Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States by sending the Division to fight in the Pacific war and survive’ as a government. To insist on sending a division to the Pacific ‘would appear to involve a complete defiance of public opinion, clinging only to what we would believe would be the path of duty and honour.’ Nor was that all. Fraser himself and Nash might feel clear enough on the issue; but what of their colleagues in cabinet and in the Labour Party generally? Would they think the provision of a force against Japan so important as to ‘be worth the defeat of the government and its prospects of still further benefiting the people of New Zealand? Would not there be a danger of the party itself revolting even if Cabinet by a majority agreed?’ Would objection be silenced, if not converted, he asked his deputy, by a message from Churchill expressly asking for the help of the Division in the Pacific war?2
1 Nash to Fraser, 30 May 1945.
2 Fraser to Nash, 5 Jun 1945.
Fraser's sensible conclusion was that the whole matter had ‘now become a major political question’ so that ‘Parliament will, in my opinion, have to be consulted.’ It was, therefore, a matter of considerable embarrassment that on the day of his return to New Zealand Churchill should have made a direct appeal for help, with an urgent request that ‘a very early reply’ should be given as to whether it would be forthcoming. ‘With the early capture of Rangoon and the prospect of the opening of the Malacca Straits before the end of the year,’ said Churchill, it now seemed that a British Commonwealth force might take part in operations against the Japanese main islands. He proposed, therefore, that ‘the headquarters and two infantry brigades of the New Zealand Division now in Italy should join this force and that the R.N.Z.A.F. should form part of the air component2.’ In the circumstances, Fraser could only reply that the air and naval units would be available, but that during his three months' absence the future of the land forces had ‘become a major political problem.’ He told Churchill, accordingly, that ‘unless and until the Government and the Opposition are at one on this issue, and unless there is the largest degree of unanimity in Parliament, a firm commitment cannot be entered into3.’
1 Nash to Fraser, 19 Jun 1945.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 5 Jul 1945.
3 PM NZ to PM UK, 14 Jul 1945.
1 NZPD, Vol. 268, p. 143.
2 Ibid., pp. 823, 879.
1 Minister of External Affairs to SSDA, 4 Aug 1945.
2 PM UK to PM NZ, 4 Aug 1945.