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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 4 — The Critical Year

page 32

The Critical Year

THE critical year in the definition of New Zealand policy was 1935; for by a combination of external incidents and domestic discussion the character of public opinion was thoroughly tested and almost every group of political importance indicated its attitude either positively or by keeping silent. Accordingly, when the government which held power throughout the war period took office in November, its field of work was defined and its liberty of action circumscribed by facts made plain and pledges given. Moreover, the vigour of debate on domestic issues obscured a fact of first-class importance for external policy. Ostensibly the election of November displaced a government whose views on overseas relations were strictly conventional by one whose leading members had been for years outspoken critics, on varying grounds, of established tradition. Yet the passage of years had softened the asperities of difference between the two parties to such an extent that the Labour leaders were in fact consulted on the critical decision to enforce sanctions against Italy. In spite of differences in the past, and in the present a considerable contrast in paths travelled and arguments advanced, the National and Labour parties evidently proposed to do in practice very similar things. The events of 1935, in short, showed with force that New Zealand would face the external crisis with an agreed policy: a fact which helped to keep foreign affairs in their place of accustomed obscurity during a briskly fought general election.

The story begins on 19 February when the Prime Minister, G. W. Forbes, made in Parliament a long statement on external affairs: in itself an unusual course which he justified on the ground that members should know the current issues when ‘the times call for the efforts of all well disposed people, and perhaps the weight even of New Zealand might conceivably turn an evenly balanced scale1.’ One of the major developments which he then reported to the House was a proposed treaty of non-aggression and mutual protection. The Dominions, he said, were not parties to this new proposal, just as they were not parties to the Treaty of Locarno,

1 NZPD, Vol. 241, p. 79.

page 33 yet it concerned them vitally. ‘There must be no blinking the fact that if Great Britain became involved in war New Zealand would also be involved. This is so, not only because of the legal position as we accept it in New Zealand–though there is some difference of opinion on this matter in certain other dominions–it is so because the sentiment of this country would inevitably insist on New Zealand standing shoulder to shoulder with Great Britain in such circumstances: and, even were these two reasons absent, any catastrophe that affects Great Britain must inevitably affect New Zealand also, bound up as we are in the welfare of the Old Country1.’

This statement apparently aroused little interest, but two months later the press reported Mr Forbes as having been even more explicit. He was on his way to a conference in London, and told the Canadians that he saw no need for discussion on defence or foreign policy. New Zealand had been kept informed of negotiations, but ‘when Britain is at war, we are at war,’ he said. No discussion had taken place in New Zealand as to participation or non-participation in a future war involving the Empire, which was the greatest agency for peace in the world. New Zealanders were confident Britain would always be on the side of peace and would make no commitments which were not absolutely necessary.

‘We don't have to discuss those things,’ he said. If another war broke out he expected New Zealand would act as promptly as in 1914, and there would be no necessity for calling Parliament to decide what should be done.2

In substance this reported statement did not add much to what he said in Parliament in February, but it raised a storm throughout the Dominion. There was a spate of newspaper controversy, and even staunchly conservative journals gently chided Forbes's complacence.3 An important declaration was also made at an early stage by M. J. Savage, now Leader of the Labour Party and of the Opposition. In his view Forbes's ‘astonishing statement’ showed how far the Prime Minister was out of touch with the thinking people of the Dominion. ‘Our future,’ said Savage,4 ‘is bound up with the countries of the British Commonwealth. The Labour Party will strengthen the ties of the nations of the Commonwealth. The Labour Party's policy in the present state of world thought is to take whatever steps are necessary to defend the Dominion and its democratic institutions, but this policy, to be successful, implies discussion, negotiation and agreement in which Parliament, as representative of the people, should have the determining voice.

1 NZPD, Vol. 241, p. 83.

2 Evening Post, 26 Apr 1935.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 30 Apr 1935.

page 34 The future of the Dominion and the British Commonwealth is dependent on the will to peace. This will can be rendered wholly ineffective if unknown commitments involving the lives of our people are to be made exclusively at the will of men who may not in any way understand the objective and outlook of our people. Our youth should not be sacrificed for unknown causes and unknown policies and without reference to the representatives of the people.’

This statement, taken in conjunction with that of Mr Forbes, gives the essence of New Zealand's attitude at this time. Solidarity with fellow members of the Commonwealth was common ground: so was the need for the defence of democracy. The main reminder of Labour's ‘free lance’ period was insistence that discussion and agreement in the community and endorsement by Parliament should precede commitments. There was no hint of pacifism and only a faint echo of the notion that war is necessarily an imperialist swindle. It was fairly clear that if Savage became prime minister, with Fraser and Nash as lieutenants, there would be some vigorous support of the League of Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the principles of collective security. There would be a claim for New Zealand to formulate her own foreign policy and even an attempt to associate Parliament and people with such a policy.

This would be done, however, in the faith that it involved no breach with other members of the Commonwealth, but on the contrary was an expression of Britain's own ideals. In the nineteen-thirties this faith had some practical justification, for New Zealand Labour could fairly claim that its views were shared, if not by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, at least by His Majesty's Opposition, together with a large number of politicians and citizens who, on other issues, supported the Government. Further, even though British policy should remain conservative, there was so strong a disposition towards Commonwealth cooperation in the highest levels of the Labour Party that it was, to say the least, doubtful whether an incoming Labour government would push its disagreement beyond the point of frank discussion.

Such was the upshot of discussion on general principles in the first half of 1935; and it was shortly afterwards confirmed by the impact on New Zealand of the Italian-Abyssinian dispute and the problem of sanctions. Here were urgent practical issues formulated in such a way that they could not be indefinitely ignored. Reluctant New Zealand politicians were forced out of silence into speech and had to take up some position, however sketchily defined, towards an international problem of the first magnitude.

From September 1934 onwards the Dominions Office sent to Wellington massive information about the developing crisis. It page 35 neither asked for nor received any comment, nor did the New Zealand Government make any announcement of policy or give a lead to public opinion. This quiescence was deliberate, and was maintained in the face of challenge. On 5 August 1935 a deputation from the League of Nations Union asked expressly that the Government should form and announce its policy and suggested strongly that this policy should be the honouring of New Zealand's pledged word and the fulfilment of her obligations under the Covenant. In reply the acting Prime Minister, Sir Alfred Ransom, spoke of New Zealand's love of peace and support of Britain, of the dangers of speech and of the difficulty of deciding how far, in fact, the Covenant should be honoured. At this stage the New Zealand Government had, in fact, nothing to say.

Meantime, however, Sir James Parr, as High Commissioner in London, was attending frequent conferences between the British Foreign Secretary and the Dominion High Commissioners, from which it was hoped that Commonwealth-wide agreement might be reached before the meeting of the League Assembly early in September. On 20 August he wrote asking for instructions. Three days later New Zealand was told what Britain proposed to do: to reaffirm loyalty to the League and the procedure laid down in the Covenant; to bring the question of sanctions to the attention of League members and to keep in step with France, assuming no obligations which the French would not share. With this document before it the New Zealand Government at last formulated its ideas and sent Parr instructions on 2 September. They recorded approval of British policy to date, and promised ‘closest collaboration’ in the future. New Zealand policy, for publication only if necessary, was to fulfil obligations under the Covenant ‘on the understanding that any action to be taken will be collective action as contemplated by the Covenant.’ This last saving clause was reinforced in an uneasy confidential note, expressing extreme reluctance to become entangled in any quarrel not directly concerning the British Commonwealth. And as to sanctions, the Government was confident that public opinion would reject any measure involving force, and Parr was told not to vote for any sanction, economic or otherwise, without asking for further instructions.

In short, it took New Zealand a full year and some pressure from overseas to decide a policy, which amounted to following British leadership in reaffirming the Covenant, with conditions, and with the earnest hope that the whole matter might be cleared up without sacrifice. And even this policy was only to be made public if necessity arose, for the Prime Minister expressly declined to make any public statement.1

1 Dominion, 3 Sep 1935.

page 36

The New Zealand Government trod gingerly on unfamiliar ground, still hopeful that the machinery of the League and of Commonwealth co-operation would rescue it from the need to state its mind publicly. Yet circumstances were forcing it to take part in a debate that was fifteen years old; and before long New Zealand would find itself in unaccustomed opposition to the British viewpoint. This long-standing debate concerned both the original drafting and the interpretation of the provisions of the League Covenant. By Article 10 The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.' Article 16 provided that no member of the League should trade with an aggressor and that the League Council should recommend to each government what contribution it should make ‘to the armed forces to be used to protect the Covenant of the League.’ These provisions were not regarded by British statesmen as involving, as on the surface they appeared to do, the abandonment of the traditional policy of strictly limited commitments. Article 10 was insisted upon by France, who feared she might have to rely on the Covenant for her guarantee against Germany, but its second sentence only underlined the circumstances that its first was, as the French delegate complained, ‘only a principle’. Sir Alfred Zimmern wrote that ‘…the fact that the Council was now empowered only to advise on means of enforcement threw the whole responsibility back from the League upon the individual states, who could justly argue that, in its final form, the article was a mere expression of moral obligation and did not “mean business”. And so those of them for whom the English text of the Covenant is binding have not failed to argue1.’

It became quite clear during the twenties that British governments did not consider themselves bound to an automatic and universal guarantee. In Britain, however, as in New Zealand, the League was gaining favour with the left and there is noticeable a swing of opinion in favour of sanctions after the failure to impose them against Japan's Manchurian aggression. This feeling found spectacular expression in the Peace Ballot held in Britain at the end of 1934. Here, after a series of questions in which voters were given an opportunity to endorse the general principle of the League and disarmament, they were asked: ‘Do you consider that if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by: (a) economic and non-military measures,

1 Zimmern, League of Nations and the Rule of Law, pp. 246–7.

page 37 (b) if necessary military measures?’ Out of the eleven and a half million votes cast, ten million replied ‘yes’ to the first half of the question and six million eight hundred thousand to the second half.1

The Peace Ballot had been set under way well before the Abyssinian crisis became threatening and its results were announced in June 1935, two months after the Stresa conference at which Mussolini had been given some reason to believe that he would get a free hand in Abyssinia in exchange for his assistance in holding Hitler in check in Europe.2 This unexpectedly emphatic expression of public opinion in the Peace Ballot was followed by an almost equally impressive series of declarations by influential individuals and organisations in favour of the application of the principles of collective security in the developing crisis. Among these, though too late to influence the British Government's decision, were resolutions in favour of ‘all necessary measures’ to enforce the Covenant passed by overwhelming majorities at the conference of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party. The last named was followed by the resignation of the pacifist leader of the party, George Lansbury.

The British Government was obviously impressed by the facility with which ‘pacifist’ opinion could transform itself into support for a League war and therefore accept the necessity for armaments. Baldwin and others had in fact long been convinced that rearmament was necessary in the national interest but that it would be politically dangerous to say so. Here there appeared to be a release from the dilemma. The formula of ‘collective security’ seemed to cover alike Baldwin's earnest wish for a brisk rearmament programme (which must not, however, outrun political expediency) and the active remnants of nation-wide anti-war sentiment.3 At the very time when the imminence of public discussion at Geneva made it essential for New Zealand's spokesmen to say at least a few words about the Dominion's attitude, there was a powerful swing in British opinion towards the sterner interpretation of the Covenant's obligations. The British Government harkened. It determined on firm action–or at least firm words–which repudiated the politic silence recently maintained at Stresa and cast an odd light on Baldwin's own dictum that effective sanctions mean war.4

Accordingly, on 11 September Sir Samuel Hoare declared at Geneva that Britain would fulfil her explicit obligations ‘for the

1 Livingstone, The Peace Ballot.

2 See Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. I, pp. 104–5; Salvemini, Prelude to World War II, Ch. XXIII; Cecil, A Great Experiment, p. 266.

3 G. M. Young, Baldwin, passim. Cf. Cecil, A Great Experiment, p. 260.

4 Round Table, Vol. 25, p. 466; Carter, British Commonwealth and International Security, p. 178; Cecil, A Great Experiment, p. 260; Young, Baldwin.

page 38 collective maintenance of the Covenant in its entirety, and particularly for steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression.’ It was a strong statement, all the more impressive because the League had waited for a decisive lead from the great powers. ‘Never did our name stand higher in Europe than at the close of that day. It seemed as if England had learnt to speak once more with the voice of Palmerston, or Pitt, or Cromwell1.’ Parr noted that hesitations seemed to have been swept away, and that when his turn came he should endorse the British view and express ‘our loyalty to collective security, a course now being followed by all here, and from which New Zealand cannot stand aloof.’ This he did in company with the representatives of other small powers on 14 September, adding the significant remark that, if collective security failed, the small powers would suffer most.2 Meanwhile, in New Zealand the Prime Minister broke silence to say that the Dominion had accepted obligations under the Covenant and that New Zealand, being British, would not like its government to dishonour them. ‘We feel that the League of Nations is the hope of the future and that its testing time has come. We are not going to shirk our obligations3.’
Mr Forbes had in his office, if not in his head, full information about the secret negotiations which underlay the brave words at Geneva. Maybe he felt that New Zealand's obligations might not turn out to be very onerous after all,4 and that the old formula of supporting Britain had again shown its utility. Nevertheless, the political currents of 1935 had carried a Conservative government into unfamiliar waters, and brought it into close agreement with the official opposition. When Sir Samuel Hoare spoke at Geneva on 11 September, indeed, it was not quite certain what the New Zealand Labour Party would do. In neighbouring Australia opinion was divided, and in the Australian Labour movement the current of isolationism ran strongly. Moreover, during the Address-in-Reply debate, when the Prime Minister invited members to express their opinions, no clear consensus—nor indeed strong feeling—emerged from the Labour benches between 6 and 12 September. At the same time it seems that discussions were held by representatives of the industrial and political wings of the movement, and at least one observer expected Labour to follow an Australian lead against

1 Young, Baldwin, p. 210. The sympathy of ‘practically the whole of the world’, Savage later remarked, had rallied behind the magnificent lead given by Hoare.–Imperial Conference, 1937, 3rd meeting.

2 Carter, op. cit., p. 195.

3 The Times, 20 Sep 1935; quoted Carter, op. cit., p. 192.

4 For those who feared precipitate action, the attitude of the French was a safeguard. On the evening of the 11th Laval congratulated Hoare on his speech, while regretting that Britain had not spoken thus in earlier years ‘when France was more directly engaged.’

page 39 participation in overseas war.1 There was then a background of some uncertainty on this issue when on 16 September Walter Nash, now National President of the party, addressed Labour's first big meeting in the general election campaign. ‘The Labour Party,’ he said, ‘is solidly behind the idea of collective security. This can best be achieved through adherence to the Covenant of the League of Nations.’ The covenant, he said, provided for peaceful change, and also, if all fulfilled their obligations, for the defeat of aggression. The Italians, he admitted, might insist on war: if this happened and if ‘the British Empire was drawn into it, New Zealanders should not be led into it with emotional hatred and shouting, but should fight in sorrow for the good of the future2.’

Mr Nash offered a clear answer to a decisive question: would the Opposition, on the eve of a general election, follow the Government in its ostensibly firm advocacy of League action? His robust affirmative was indeed challenged within the Labour movement by dissident individuals and by certain unions on the ground that the existing crisis was merely capitalism at its old tricks of bluffing the workers to slaughter each other for Imperialists' profits: ‘the situation does not differ fundamentally from that of 1914, and we refuse to be again deceived’ resolved the Seamen's Union immediately after the Italians invaded Abyssinia.3 This line of criticism, however, apparently failed to deflect the party's leadership, and on 16 October the party's official organ, the Standard, editorially approved of the principle of collective security. The members of the League must fulfil their obligations, it said, and ‘it is useless to cloud the issue with arguments about imperialism.’ The acquiescence of the New Zealand Labour Party in Nash's policy speech of 16 September 1935 was a critical point in New Zealand foreign policy. It meant that after the election of that year a prosanctionist policy, into which a conservative government had drifted slowly and reluctantly, was to be taken over by a Labour cabinet which really believed in it, and which had won the preliminary skirmish against its own dissidents. The Labour movement in New Zealand, as in Britain, had grasped the nettle of warfare as the ultimate guarantee of collective security.

Accordingly, the enforcement of sanctions as advocated by Britain and France was for New Zealand an agreed policy. At Geneva the Government proceeded slowly and apprehensively, striving anxiously and unsuccessfully to keep precisely in step with the United Kingdom. In New Zealand it took the Labour Party into its confidence. The leaders of the party saw and discussed the

1 Tomorrow, 18 Sep 1935.

2 NZ Worker, 25 Sep 1935.

3 Dominion, 5 Oct 1935; Tomorrow9 Oct 1935

page 40 confidential correspondence; while caucus had an advance copy of the bill embodying the Government's policy, and apparently was successful in having a proviso added to safeguard free speech and prevent the regulations authorised by the new legislation from enforcing conscription. In these negotiations, the Government explained, its hope was to enable the country to speak with one voice on an issue of great importance which was not a party matter; and it was, broadly speaking, successful. The Bill to enable the Government to enforce sanctions was passed without a division and without Labour opposition on 23 October. And incidentally, the defence estimates also passed without Labour opposition on 3 October, in sharp contrast with the course of events in 1934.
Parliamentary unanimity was, of course, a deceptive index to public opinion, for to the last the community as a whole showed little interest in foreign affairs as a field for New Zealand initiative. It was observant and receptive, but unconscious of responsibility. Moreover, no government had made any effort to educate opinion to a contrary point of view, and the earlier stages of this very crisis passed according to the usual pattern with the Government assuming a policy only when forced to do so by outside events. Nevertheless, the fact that it ultimately did something, and even did something with a form of independence, was a gratification not only to nascent national sentiment and to an important section of the Labour movement, but to influential people in the government camp. In April, for instance, a daily paper so far removed from Labour sympathies as the Evening Post1 gently reminded the Prime Minister that his great confidence in the British Government did not divest him of responsibility for positive action in imperial statesmanship, and in September boldly chided the Government for leaving the public without a lead. In the same month the Christ-church Press accused cabinet of lethargic indifference in foreign affairs' and said that it was ‘wrong and dangerous for members of the New Zealand government to assume that the willingness of the British government to advise and assist absolves them from duty to think.’ The public, added that newspaper, was fortunately showing signs of ‘a more active intelligence’. The Prime Minister was stung into protest by this criticism, but the editor stuck to his guns in private correspondence. Finally, it may be noted that in June 1935 the annual conference of the Returned Soldiers' Association discussed the overlapping fields of defence and foreign policy. It sent forward for consideration a plan by which the members of the Commonwealth should pool their resources, military and economic, and invite peace-loving countries of western Europe to join in a

1 Evening Post, 26 Apr 1935.

page 41 tight system of collective security within the League but explicitly abandoning the universal guarantee.1

In short, by the end of 1935 not only was the Labour Party converted, but the forces of orthodoxy were in considerable measure adjusted to the notion that New Zealand should actively participate in sanctions; and the form of the crisis disarmed the strongest of the pacifist elements in the country. The League of Nations Union, for example, had prominent pacifist supporters. It was a small body in any case, though not unrepresentative; and it was naturally pro-Covenant, which in this context meant sanctionist. Again, in 1933 and 1934 the No More War Movement, the Councils against War in various centres, and the Movement Against War and Fascism contained strongly pacifist elements. In the last year before the crisis the last-named was probably the most influential of these movements. Like much anti-war activity during these years, it owed a good deal to the work of the small Communist party, though it was supported by many pacifically minded non-communists, and in the main its propaganda followed the general Communist party line. Up to September 1935 this was to denounce both the Italian and British governments and to approve any efforts to stop the Italians save those led by Britain. In September, however, the Soviet Union approved Sir Samuel Hoare's pro-Covenant speech, and by the end of the month the Workers' Weekly said plainly that ‘all those who stand for peace’ must ‘support the Soviet Union in the demand that sanctions be enforced against Italy2.’ This statement aligned the foreign policy of the Communist party with that of the British and New Zealand governments and with the British and New Zealand Labour parties, and it destroyed the Movement against War and Fascism, which at one time had seemed a possible instrument for the articulation of pacifist and anti-sanctionist sentiment.

There remained, indeed, a significant number of unappeased Christian Pacifists, who asserted boldly the view that ‘participation in war is a denial of the spirit and teaching of Christ’; ‘that attempts to end war by means of war will defeat their own ends, and that ultimately the only way to create a warless world is by taking the risks and making the sacrifices involved in an absolute repudiation of war3.’ A deputation went so far as to tell the Prime Minister that in a new war ‘no government could reckon on the unanimity which manifested itself in 1914’, and forecast resistance to conscription by any moral means.4 Another group insisted that

1 Round Table, September 1935, p. 858.

2 Workers' Weekly, 28 Sep 1935.

3 Dominion, 7 Sep 1935; Press, 30 Sep 1935.

4 Evening Post, 18 Sep 1935.

page 42 membership of the Christian Church ‘sets definite limits to our obedience to the behests of the State’ and that the duty of obedience stopped short of co-operation in war-making.1

Ministers and laymen who held such views were to be found in all the main Protestant denominations, and earnest discussion took place. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, for example, considered in November a pacifist resolution, but in the end unanimously approved of economic sanctions, and its Moderator said expressly that for the church ‘sometimes war was the least of a number of conflicting evils2.’ In the previous February the Methodist Conference called on everyone to consider his or her attitude towards war, and recognised that personal judgments might differ. ‘We uphold liberty of conscience in whichever direction loyalty to inward convictions may lead them3.’ Nevertheless, it seems fair to conclude that pacifist sentiment of an absolute character which rejected a sanctionist policy was confined to a comparatively small though active minority. The existence of this minority together with criticisms voiced by the Seamen's Union in the Labour movement showed a healthy variety in opinion but did not modify the general conclusion. A clear-cut and deliberate parliamentary decision had, when it came to the point, been accepted with equanimity by the majority of those who might have been expected to oppose it. The principle of economic sanctions as expressed in the legislation of 23 October represented the policy more or less consciously accepted by the vast majority of New Zealanders.

1 Dominion, 7 Sep 1935.

2 Evening Post, 28 Sep 1935.

3 Ibid., 19 Feb 1935, 21 Sep 1935.