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Political and External Affairs

CHAPTER 9 — Whither?

page 104


BY January 1940 New Zealand had grasped the nettle of the Expeditionary Force. She had committed herself not only to despatch such a force, but to maintain it as a national army basically under New Zealand control: a symbol of the continuation in war of that national independence which a peacetime Labour government had so expressly claimed. This attitude was made plain not only by written agreements, but by the personality and attitude of the commander who had been chosen, and by the personal relationships established between Fraser, Freyberg, and Churchill. The decisions had then been made, the men had volunteered and the machinery set in motion. The next phase was one of administration and fulfilment: for the time being unspectacular matters. The very success with which the ranks had been filled paradoxically contributed to a period of mental slackness. There was little need to conduct recruiting campaigns or to build up morale in a community already virtually unanimous. Nor did a distant war with so little immediate impact even on the country's economic life present challenges which could be taken up with enthusiasm.

The period of comparative calm made possible, and indeed necessary, some serious discussion on war aims. Apart from a relatively few pacifists, there was no debate on the basic policy of destroying Hitlerism by force of arms. At first even the Communist party spoke with the majority, and followed the same broad lines as before the Russo-German pact of August.1 ‘The central question’ was seen as the defeat of Hitlerism, and for a month those within the party who argued that the ‘struggle against the reactionary forces in Britain and New Zealand is the first indispensable condition for the defeat of Hitler’ were suppressed with some vigour. The party's policy was to participate in the war as a means towards influencing its course, and in particular to guard against a development which was more or less consciously feared by many whose thinking inclined towards the ‘left’ but who were by no means communists, namely, the possibility that the Western powers and Germany might even at this late stage suspend their own

1 People's Voice, especially 8, 22, and 29 Sep 1939.

page 105 conflict in a mutual hostility to Russia. This suspicion was one of the factors pressing towards a definition of war aims. New Zealanders could agree that the battle was for freedom and justice, for ‘human brotherhood, fair dealing and international righteousness’ against dictatorship and aggression. It was a crusade in which, it was widely believed, the enemy was a savage and faithless clique, not the German people itself. New Zealand's basic war aims were the application to international affairs of that generosity and reasonableness, that inherited morality, faith in human nature, and somewhat superficial optimism which were close to the heart of the community's life.

Yet in this period of grace, before Hitler struck in the west, national agreement on broad objectives did not adequately define for New Zealanders the object and character of the war, or even the means by which it was to be carried on. The period therefore became one of some uncertainty and debate, which by no means qualified the country's wholehearted willingness to fight, but which probed causes and aims, and defined attitudes. At the national level, moreover, New Zealand took during this period an individual attitude in this matter. Her government from the first shared the uneasiness which prompted many in Great Britain to press Mr Chamberlain for a statement of precise aims which could be announced both to friendly Germans and to the men and women in allied countries who were being asked for unlimited efforts. This line of thought was being pressed by influential Englishmen in mid-September,1 and after the defeat of Poland and the Russo-German settlement of 29 September 1939 the problem recurred more insistently. Hitler, now echoed by the Russians, urged that continuance of the war was purposeless, for the extinction of Poland was a fact which the Western powers could not reverse. His virtual offer of a negotiated peace along these lines was not attractive to governments who had recently experienced his faithlessness. Yet during these months a war of stalemate seemed so likely that it was natural for people to lose the sense of immediate peril. When even governments did not realise their danger, it was difficult for citizens to keep vividly in mind that they were fighting a war of survival which needed for its justification no assurance that after victory the state of Europe would be better, or even no worse, than it was in September 1939.

The issue had, of course, seldom been stated so modestly. Naturally and—from the point of view of getting the maximum public support—wisely, the Allied leaders had from the beginning laid great emphasis on the universal and moral aspects of their

1 Manchester Guardian Weekly, 29 Sep 1939.

page 106 cause. But if it was necessary to represent the war as something more than a struggle for survival, further difficulties presented themselves. In view of the disillusionments of the previous two decades there was reason to fear that enthusiasm for the defence of democracy, freedom, decency and the principle that men should fulfil their covenants made, could not be sustained unless concrete illustrations were offered of what these generalities would mean. Men will not fight for a negation, it was remarked in the House of Commons,1 and behind the closed doors Peter Fraser for New Zealand told the assembled statesmen of the Commonwealth that ‘the time was not far distant when the people would no longer be satisfied with broad generalities, no matter how eloquent, but would ask for a definite statement of the Allies' objectives.’

These last words were spoken on 1 November 1939 at the Ministerial Conference in London, when representatives of commonwealth countries studied the tasks they had jointly undertaken. By this time the difficulties of being definite were clear, as well as the need. All agreed on the necessity to march in step with France, and French opinion insisted that a final solution must be found and Europe freed for ever from the menace of German aggression. Material guarantees must be sought, and though the character of such solid guarantees was not well thought out, hints were not lacking that for many Frenchmen the best guarantee would be the dismemberment of Germany into its component parts. Any suggestion that Britain was considering a ‘generous’ peace would, it was made clear, take the heart out of the French will to fight. On the other hand, the idea of a ‘hard’ peace was repugnant to a great deal of British opinion, partly because the hint of it must unite Germany behind Hitler, and partly because history showed vindictive peace settlements to be followed by resurgent nationalism and wars of revenge. Faced with these facts the British Government urged caution. It kept to broad generalities which offended no one, even if they did not inspire; and it dropped over Germany propaganda leaflets of a character which, according to some British critics, demonstrated the current lack of constructive leadership.

New Zealand's opinion on these problems was shown in a significant exchange of views within the Commonwealth in October and November 1939. The British reply to Hitler was given in a statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on 12 October. When consulted as to its terms, New Zealand added to the inevitable approval of the general British line a cautious protest against intransigence. She felt ‘it essential that, without in the slightest degree weakening our determination to put an end to

1 Hansard, 5th Series, Vol. 351, col. 1921.

page 107 aggression once and for all, no door should even at the present juncture be closed that might lead to a peaceful solution whether by international conference or any other feasible means.’

A fortnight later a new round of discussion was started by the French. They were bearing once more the main military burden and physical risk. Their government had been told a few months before that British military help would be of token character only—too small to justify staff conversations.1 Frenchmen were asking themselves whether Britain now was willing to make the efforts necessary to secure permanent peace or whether she still looked for a compromise, and for an understanding with good neighbourly non-Hitlerite Germans in whose effective existence few Frenchmen believed. The only way to allay such doubts was to frame a statement of war aims pledging the British to do something much more drastic and presumably more permanent than merely to eject the present German government in favour of one more acceptable to the Allies. The British countries were thus asked to go a good deal beyond the destruction of Hitlerism, which had been the essence of the generalities thus far used.

On this problem the two Pacific dominions were in close agreement. In the phrase of the Australian Prime Minister victory should be followed ‘by a great gesture of generosity and of justice. Germany would be expected to play her part as a great nation on a footing free and equal. Those who advocate not mere defeat but the destruction of Germany pay far too little attention to the problems which are and will be presented by Russia, Italy and Japan.’ New Zealand told the Australians that ‘your sentiments in favour of a generous peace are shared equally by us’, and sent to Peter Fraser, then attending the Commonwealth Conference in London, significantly detailed instructions. These were a serious attempt to apply her well established general attitudes to the current crisis.

It was common sense, thought the New Zealand cabinet, that Britain and France, having rejected Hitler's terms, should state their own. Since experience showed the disastrous consequences of a dictated peace, the earliest possible moment should be seized for ‘sincere and constructive peace discussions’ before bitterness and exhaustion had destroyed all chance of a rational peace. The French should therefore be told that we would not be parties to an ungenerous peace, while neutral states, especially Russia and the United States, should be enlisted to persuade Germany to discuss the terms of just peace. Possible peace terms were then sketched in terms which, though broad, were an advance on published

1 Renouvin in Revue Historique, Vol. 205, p. 270

page 108 generalities. The rule of law should be re-established, with the sanction behind it implied in a revived and fortified League of Nations. It was argued, however, that the enforcement of the law demanded not merely the punishment of wrongdoers but the establishment of conditions worth defending. The law must therefore be just and capable of peaceful amendment. The economic basis must be sound, with solution in sight of such problems as access to raw materials. And the welfare of the masses must be increased, for ‘no peace is worthwhile which does not result in raising the living standards of the people.’ Along such lines, wrote the New Zealand cabinet, it should be possible to pass from aims largely negative (to stop aggression, or merely to survive) to something more positive. Some progress in this sense was essential for a threefold purpose: to convince our own people that the war was worth winning, at whatever sacrifice; to convince the Germans that we had an acceptable and indeed an improved alternative to their present principles; and to convince ‘neutral opinion that our cause is both just and essential to their own security and welfare1.’

The memorandum thus summarised was duly circulated to fellow delegates before the conference decided how to answer the French. Meantime, however, broad questions of policy had been discussed at the first joint meeting on 1 November. Peter Fraser for New Zealand, who was quick to respond to British suggestions for the use of our forces, was critical on political issues. He was not satisfied with Lord Halifax's opening analysis of the position. In particular, he thought that an agreement with Russia should have been reached some time ago, and he said bluntly that warlike enthusiasm might well vanish unless fed with more concrete fare than praise of democracy and criticism of rival political, economic and social systems. The time was certainly not ripe for drawing frontiers but the people must be told clearly the purpose for which they were fighting. A fortnight later, with the instruction of 5 November 1939 before the conference, he initiated another discussion on war aims, adding the suggestion (which had been made before the outbreak of war by Savage) for a general conference. ‘It was obvious,’ he said, ‘that sooner or later a conference must be held, and it would certainly be better held before both sides had suffered enormous casualties.’ Such a conference would have to include neutrals as well as belligerents. At the present moment, he added, there was a pause in the fighting and a period of apparent hesitation in Germany: ‘was not the present, therefore, an opportune moment for a general conference?’

This last suggestion was formidably criticised and Fraser admitted its difficulties, particularly those connected with reconsti-

1 Savage to Fraser, 5 Nov 1939.

page 109 tuting
Poland. He was acting under explicit instructions, which were later described by a cabinet minister1 as including pressure for ‘an armistice and a conference’; and his defence of the basic demand for defined war aims was more effective. Even so the conference was against him. Neville Chamberlain for Britain had already pointed out the danger of being too definite: for example, precipitancy two months earlier might easily have replaced the present general promise to the Poles by a definite obligation to restore pre-war Poland intact, involving a war with Russia as well as with Germany. Halifax insisted, too, that precision must be avoided to avert a plain breach with French opinion. This general view prevailed and was embodied in the British Commonwealth's comments on war aims, as drafted for the French government. Britain accepted the French view that the mere removal of Hitler would not by itself guarantee the future, but urged that no suggestion of dismembering Germany should be made and no detailed promises given to the Poles or the Czechs. Some permanent machinery to prevent a resurgence of German power would be essential, but details could not yet be decided, and ‘it would seem premature to make any public statement of war aims in precise terms.’

The effort to obtain a definite and convincing statement of war aims had, then, failed; and as Fraser had predicted, the failure had its effect in local politics.

By the time he returned to Wellington there was already some insistent and intransigent opposition to New Zealand's participation in the war, that of the small Communist party. As recently as 18 August 1939 the editor of the People's Voice had written that ‘we in New Zealand are just as concerned in the fate of Danzig as the people of Poland. Hitler must be stopped and Danzig is the place where it must be done. Britain has entered into definite obligations towards Poland. These obligations must be honoured.’ This general attitude was abandoned on the signing of the Russo-German pact, but partially resumed in September, during which month the party supported the war against Hitler. By October, however, the People's Voice was printing material from Russia and from communist sources in other overseas countries which was quite incompatible with support of the war. In December a meeting of the party's national committee formally resolved ‘that the present war is an imperialist war waged by the capitalist classes of Germany, Britain, and France for trade, markets and colonies’, and it called on the working class of New Zealand ‘in unity with the workers of all

1 R. Semple, in Standard, 14 Mar 1940.

page 110 other belligerent countries’ to end it ‘in the interests of the peoples’.1

This line led to a forthright attack on the Labour Government of New Zealand, which ‘instead of leading the New Zealand people on the road to socialism, peace and democracy,… have led it into the jaws of a new imperialist war2.’ Now that war had come, however, the party could give little practical advice on how to end it, beyond the demand that an agreement should be reached with Russia; and it may be doubted whether the communist line, with its apparent subservience to Russian leadership and lack of practicable policy for those who distrusted Chamberlain but believed that Hitler was the most serious immediate danger, ever won much support in New Zealand. In May 1940 one of the party's ablest spokesmen, Gordon Watson, later to be killed in action in Italy, won at a by-election a vote claimed to be higher than had ever been cast for a communist candidate in New Zealand, but it was only 375 against the winning candidate's 5935.3

Nevertheless, communist action had some significance in New Zealand politics. In the face of the country's substantial homogeneity it expressed persistent opposition. Later the party went underground and endured the mild forms of persecution possible in this country; its small, irksome, sometimes contradictory and not very respected voice kept reminding Labour men of old-fashioned objectives and of the uncomfortable fact that the defeat of Hitler would not of itself solve the problems of mankind. In the meantime the Communist party's sharp change of policy and at times irresponsible criticism had unfortunate effects. It alienated moderate opinion and invited repression, stinging a not illiberal government into actions which were sometimes ill-considered. The manner of its complaints made the sensible discussion of problems increasingly difficult, and so far as domestic policy was concerned, intensified the very evils against which the party was ostensibly fighting. In particular, the tactics adopted by the party made the suppression of its journal almost certain when the fall of France brought a real sense of tension.

It is doubtful whether any declaration of war aims could have deflected the communist attack, or even reduced its venom. Yet uneasiness at the situation was felt by more orthodox and more influential citizens of both main political parties. In particular, uneasiness developed within the Labour Party. Public policy was the concern not only of the parliamentary party, but of a complex structure of supporting organisations: local branches and trades

1 People's Voice, 8 Dec 1939.

2 Ibid., 3 Nov 1939.

3 Ibid., 24 May 1940.

page 111 unions, Labour Representation Committees in important areas and Trades and Labour Councils. Though the Government firmly claimed the right and duty of leadership, it was naturally sensitive to the views of its organised supporters, especially when expressed in such influential gatherings as the annual conferences of the Labour Party and the Federation of Labour. In a party so numerous and embracing so much political experience, it was inevitable that a wide range of opinion should be expressed.

Almost from the first there were complaints that ‘the British government consistently refuses to state its war aims1.’ There were evidently many Labour supporters who fought shy of communism but felt uneasy lest this was, or should become, a war of the old imperialist type, ‘a struggle for markets and raw material between capitalist Britain and France on the one side and capitalist Germany on the other2.’ The demand was accordingly pressed that the Government should ‘make public the reasons for which New Zealanders were expected to fight’;3 and as months passed without clear statement of war aims and without spectacular military achievements or dangers, those elements in the country which had fought ‘appeasement’ became increasingly uneasy about the undefined mandate claimed by their old enemy, Neville Chamberlain. Was he even prepared to switch the war from Germany to Russia? On the testimony of W. E. Barnard, whose personal conviction on the need to fight Hitler was very clear, there were ‘many thousands of New Zealanders of unimpeachable loyalty who are … not satisfied with the oft repeated declarations about liberty and freedom and democracy (equality is not mentioned) which are offered as sufficient reasons for the present sacrifice’.4

Men wanted to know not only why they were now called on to fight, but what kind of a world their efforts would help to create. ‘It is fairly obvious,’ wrote James O'Brien, MP, ‘that until we have something definite to go on, opposition to war in all its forms will grow’.5 This uneasiness was shared in high quarters. The Prime Minister himself, for all his moving public statements, apparently felt doubts: he wanted more clarity as to objectives and assurance that it would be ‘a very different peace this time’. His deputy and successor, Fraser, did his best to extract definition from London, and correctly foretold what would happen if it were not forthcoming.

1 Canterbury Branch, Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, quoted in People's Voice, 27 Oct 1939.

2 West Coast Trades and Labour Council, Press, 6 Dec 1939.

3 Ibid.

4 Tomorrow, 7 Feb 1940.

5 Ibid., 21 Feb 1940.

page 112

These uneasinesses must be set in their right perspective. So far as the war effort was concerned, they were variants within an accepted master pattern which was never disturbed. When the test came, New Zealand's war potential was at Britain's command, subject to the right of friendly though independent scrutiny of individual suggestions. Nevertheless, the military pause gave an opportunity, even a challenge, to thought. The lack of definition in war aims left the field open, and this situation led to important developments in internal politics. Not only did it make possible, and indeed stimulate, changes in both political parties; it led to a new ordering of the relations between them. The pattern of New Zealand's political behaviour and the tone of her wartime administration were set between September 1939 and April 1940.