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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 21 — The Politics of Fighting Japan

page 293

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.

page 294

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.’

By this time, however, it was by no means clear that New Zealand had enough fit men to maintain even one division in active service and still keep up the substantial air force which was her main contribution to the Pacific war. In February the National Service Department bluntly recommended to the contrary. It argued that the Army's capital reinforcement and replacement requirements could not be met during 1945 without eliminating the Air Force; that the contributions being made by the Air Force must be maintained; and that, accordingly, the army division must ‘be repatriated on the defeat of Germany.’ The Army naturally reacted sharply to this advice. It pointed out that there had been considerable demobilisation since 1942 and that, accordingly, ‘there must be a large number of men capable of replacing some of the personnel held on appeal.’ It maintained stoutly that ‘it was wrong to approach

1 Documents, II, pp. 389–93.

2 Ibid., p 393.

page 295 the problem on the assumption, as the Director of National Service apparently did, that if some part of our military effort was to be curtailed then this must be the Army.’ However, it began reluctantly to consider what use could be made of a division of less than full strength, and of men in older age groups or with less than first-class medical grading.

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.’

With this advice before it, War Cabinet in June 1945 framed its future policy with reasonable clarity. It could see little prospect of being able to provide a land force of more than fifteen or sixteen

1 Nash to PM, 7 Apr 1945.

2 NZHC to PM, 21 May 1945.

page 296 thousand men.1 It was fully conscious of the disadvantages of a two-brigade division which General Freyberg and others emphasised, yet the manpower shortage was so acute that this was quite clearly the maximum force that could be provided. As to the area in which it should serve, War Cabinet was evidently inclined to accept the British suggestion of South-east Asia. One important reservation was made, however. New Zealand preferred that her forces should not be used in Burma on the ground that this might lead to political repercussions in the country.2 The fear was clearly that operations against the Japanese might merge into a war to maintain British authority against Burmese nationalists, many of whom, indeed, had been collaborating with the Japanese. It was, incidentally, a political argument of this character which led New Zealand in the days before the war to reject British suggestions that New Zealanders should be used to strengthen the peacetime garrison of Singapore.
At this stage a new development took place. For the first time the disposition of New Zealand's armed forces became the subject of vigorous public controversy. Relaxed tension both in Europe and in the Pacific seemed to permit freer discussion than ever before. Moreover, the matter was raised in a form particularly likely to rouse widespread interest and launch discussion from an angle unfavourable to the Government. On the one hand, decision on the use of New Zealand's land forces in the Pacific was linked with a problem which was in everyone's mind, and in respect of which policy intimately touched the lives of most citizens. This was the crisis in manpower, which was brought home not only to those liable to conscription, but (through direction of labour, rationing, and shortages in general) to the community as a whole. Again, since the specific question concerned large-scale participation in Pacific warfare, questions were raised to which conventional answers were not available. The Japanese were now far from New Zealand, and the argument was no longer one of physical survival but of calculation: that New Zealand should earn the right to participate in the peace settlement by full military participation in the area where her destiny was cast. It may be doubted whether such reasoning—in essence that New Zealand was a Pacific country and should

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.

2 Nash to Freyberg, 21 Jun 1945.

page 297 act accordingly, if necessary under American leadership—had made much impact on the Labour Party outside its responsible leadership. It is still more doubtful whether it could command much sympathy in the National Party—more particularly in the farming community.

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.’

On the eve of the voting in Hamilton, a marginal seat which had been won from Labour in 1943, the matter was taken up by Polson, as acting Leader of the Opposition. ‘In the opinion of the

1 Nash to Fraser, 19 Jun 1945.

2 Ibid.

page 298 National Party,’ he wrote, ‘the time has come to decide what New Zealand's course of action should be in the future—whether, in view of the food position and the urgent need for more production, we would not be serving the best interests of the Empire and our allies by concentrating on such service.’ In the absence of such a decision the new call-up was bound to cause confusion, and the National Party held ‘the emphatic opinion that unless Great Britain specifically requests the transfer of our troops to the Near East or some other theatre of war, they should come home, but in any event the matter is of such importance that Parliament should make a decision at once1.’ John A. Lee, who was a candidate for the Hamilton seat, took the same general line. He ‘consistently contended that New Zealand had done too much, should not send any more men overseas but should concentrate on food production and the reconstruction of the internal economy2.’ Nash in reply put strongly the case for continued military participation in the Pacific war. ‘If New Zealand deserted her allies now, how could she expect them to help her if she was menaced by an aggressor in 10 years' time, and without that help what hope would a country as small as New Zealand have of defending herself?3’ The following day-on which the election was held-he referred to the advice given by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and said that ‘The indications are that a small land force will be required, but not in any way approximate to the numbers which we have contributed towards the war against Germany4.’
At the polls on 26 May the National Party held the seat, the Labour vote dropped by 1900 as against a 1400 drop in the Nationalist vote, and Lee gained 255 more votes than had his candidate in 1943.5 Nash's conclusion was that ‘With so many voices suggesting that there is an honourable way out of the war a fair section of public opinion is ready to believe it. Hamilton, which was one of the most troublesome areas in connection with the furlough problem, was of course relatively fertile ground for this idea, but it seems to be true that the views expressed by the Nationalists and Lee have some fairly general appeal throughout New Zealand and the maintenance of a vigorous war effort by New Zealand may become something of a political liability unless through skilful and effective publicity we can once more build up a public sense of responsibility and duty.’ The Government, in fact, was to some extent the victim of its own propaganda: the trouble,

1 Dominion, 25 May 1945

2 Nash to Fraser, 19 Jun 1945.

3 Dominion, 25 May 1945.

4 AucklandStar, 26 May 1945.

5 The Nationalist vote was 6777, Labour 5711, and Mr Lee's 1231.-Round Table, September 1945, p. 379.

page 299 thought Nash, was ‘due in large measure to the emphasis placed in the past on the relatively high casualties sustained by New Zealand and the publicity given to the distinctive part played by the New Zealand Division in operations, which has built up the impression here that New Zealand has done more than its fair share1.’

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

Peter Fraser, as party leader, was always extremely sensitive to currents in public opinion and he was probably over-impressed by the difficulties likely to arise if a substantial New Zealand land force were provided for the last stages of the war against Japan. True enough, opinion was sensitively balanced and considerable care would be needed. On the one hand, for example, the announcement that the replacement scheme for long-service men would be continued and speeded up had an appreciable effect on public sentiment. On the other hand, the commander of the South Pacific area, Admiral Calhoun, gravely embarrassed the Government on 4 June by a very well-meaning statement to a press conference ‘that the most important thing that New Zealand could do now to help in the Pacific was to assist in the feeding of the American troops.’ Walter Nash, reporting as acting Prime Minister, judged that the public would be prepared to accept, though reluctantly, the policy of providing a land force for the Pacific provided that it was less in size than a full division. ‘There is not likely to be any enthusiasm,’ he wrote, ‘and public opinion would need to be carefully educated

1 Nash to Fraser, 30 May 1945.

2 Fraser to Nash, 5 Jun 1945.

page 300 and sustained in support of this effort.’ The matter was discussed at a conference of newspaper editors in May, when a land force of 15,000 men was suggested and ‘in general’ accepted. The impression remained that the press and the Opposition would at best acquiesce in the project rather than support it. In Nash's view, a strong message from Churchill might, indeed, silence active criticism from the Opposition, but ‘it would not tend to satisfy the Labour Movement after his speech in Britain at the opening of the election campaign…. Opinion within the Party has been very critical, in common with the rest of the community.’ Nevertheless, he judged ‘that with the general slackening of tension we can carry the majority of them with us in a general acceptance of a reduced army commitment1.’

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.’

Fraser then set about with characteristic diligence to rebuild the conditions of parliamentary unanimity. During the debate in Parliament a few days after the Prime Minister's return, Holland, Leader of the Opposition, took much the same line on New Zealand's participation in the Pacific war as Polson had done in Hamilton. His view, that is to say, was that New Zealand's manpower was over-committed and that she should concentrate on providing food rather than fighting men. He added, nevertheless, ‘I do not enjoy the confidence of the Government and the

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.

page 301 Government has not sought my advice; however, if the war strategists and the commanders-in-chief say that a land force is necessary, and they can produce evidence in support of that contention, I think it is the duty of New Zealand to comply with the request of those people1.’ It was evident how much had been lost since the early days of the war, when Opposition leaders saw the essential cables behind policy decisions. It is true that with the general increase of tension between the parties in the latter stages of the war, the sharp differences of opinion on war policy in the middle of 1945 might have proved unavoidable. All the same, earlier precedent now suggested a course of action. A by-election was about to be held in Dunedin West, and before the party leaders set out for the final campaign, Fraser asked Holland to call on him. He showed the Leader of the Opposition the cablegrams relevant to the problem of New Zealand's Pacific land forces and promised to give him copies to show to his colleagues. Holland, for his part, promised not to raise the matter at the by-election.
The election was held on 21 July, when Labour held the seat with a reduced majority; and thereafter the political negotiations proceeded at reasonable speed. The Labour parliamentary caucus approved the Government's proposals, though with some dissentients. The Opposition proposed at first that the land force sent against Japan should be confined to a single brigade. Cabinet and its advisers persuaded it that the disadvantages of this plan were overwhelming. Both political parties, however, seemed to agree that the total manpower in New Zealand's land, air and naval forces should be kept down to 55,000. The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, under some pressure, produced plans for the disposition of this reduced manpower, but still providing a two-brigade division (with an establishment of 16,000) against Japan. The plan was finally put to Parliament in the debate on 2 and 3 August and was confirmed with seemly expressions of unanimous though vaguely expressed enthusiasm. The Government and people, it was resolved, ‘are inflexibly resolved to devote all their energies and all their resources in the prosecution of the war’ and to make ‘such military contributions as are within the capacity of our remaining sources of manpower, having due regard to our responsibility to produce foodstuffs and other materials for the Allied Forces in the Pacific, and for the people of Britain and Europe2.’ There was naturally no public reference to the destination of the force approved, but the British Government was told that it should be included in the British Common-

1 NZPD, Vol. 268, p. 143.

2 Ibid., pp. 823, 879.

page 302 wealth
Force to take part in the invasion of Japan.1 Word came at the same time from London that the Potsdam Conference had reached agreement on the way in which this force was to be used,2 and on 7 August War Cabinet approved the proposals for the New Zealand forces to be provided against Japan. By this time, however, an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and a few days later Japan surrendered.

New Zealand could thus scrap, with relief, her painfully constructed plans to take a part in the final invasion of Japan appropriate to her newly conceived status as a Pacific power.

1 Minister of External Affairs to SSDA, 4 Aug 1945.

2 PM UK to PM NZ, 4 Aug 1945.