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Autumn 1999 cover

National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Book Review

Australia and the End of Empires: the Impact of Decolonisation in Australia's Near North, 1945-65,

by David Lowe (ed.)

Melbourne, Deakin University Press, 1996, pp.209

Decolonisation in the broad brush strokes of John Darwin is an excellent opening chapter for this group of twelve essays, derived from a l994 conference at the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, located (in the words of the editor) "in the belly of empire, Russell Square, London". Providing thematic unity, international postwar ties and differences between Australia and Britain are analysed, up to the Vietnam war and including controversies with Indonesia during the previous two decades.

It is ironic that Menzies, his monumental gaze still set on London, has become an icon of the colonial era he was so reluctant to change, his very imperviousness now seen by some as a miscalculation of the tempo of the times. In the 1950s and early 1960s, noted Darwin, the world was changing "all too quickly for the Menzies governments"; they did not approve, nor did they deal with the changes well in all respects. Britain was still the world's largest colonial power. Australia's primary colonial concern was neighbouring Papua New Guinea, its proximity a strategic concern adding to the complexity of decolonisation.

Scott MacWilliam's account (Chapter 2) focuses on how successive postwar Australian governments "became as trenchant defenders of colonialism as their British counterparts". In the main, they were motivated by issues of regional defence (after the Japanese wartime invasion) and a postwar economic preference for maintaining the dominance of sterling. But MacWilliam points out that the United States was not prepared to stand idle while European powers recolonised South East Asia, so that a pro- British stance by Australia naturally took precedence over the wartime American alliance. Postwar United States-Australia relations had soured already under a Labor government because Americans had undermined Australian attempts at the 1945 San Francisco Conference to include a "Full Employment Approach" in the Charter of the United Nations. Christopher Waters (Chapter 5) modifies the personal attribution of British-Australian differences to Dr. H.V.Evatt (as Australian Minister for External Affairs) by pointing out the "fundamental conflict of interests and ideology" was larger than a mere clash of personalities. Yet in the mid-1950s, the Australian government reacted to its perceived geographical isolation by holding to a fragmented belief in postwar British empire.

In 1956, Menzies' endorsement of Britain's action at Suez, as David Goldsworthy (Chapter 9) shows, "was of a piece with his support for the British colonial presence, especially in Australia's Asian and Pacific neighbourhood." Some British colonies were handed over to Australia, such as the Cocos and Christmas Islands, but Australian inflexibility aggravated differences between London and Canberra. John Murphy (Chapter 6) laments the fact that "Asianists were a post-war phenomenon in Australia".

At a time when speed in decolonising was essential, the Menzies government not too dissimilarly to the stance taken by the Dutch government in Netherlands New Guinea anticipated self-determination at some time three decades in the future. In 1962, as quoted by Roger Thompson (Chapter 10), the preference of Arthur Tange (Secretary of the Department of External Affairs in Canberra) was that "we would be able to keep our colonies in the region ticking over quietly for as long as possible". For both Holland and Australia, there was a rude awakening for their blinkered denial of how quickly the Second World War had brought irreversible changes in South East Asia.

The Japanese invasion had sparked widespread calls for independence but, in the ensuing Cold War, nationalist and communist ideology had often become enmeshed. More than this, explains Murphy, some in the Australian parliament insisted that "the communist movement throughout Southeast Asia is not nationalist, but an extra-national force exploiting national sentiment". This approach to international affairs in dealing with Indonesia, as Australia's closest Asian neighbour, had long-term consequences: in 1962 in the sovereignty dispute over West New Guinea between Indonesia and The Netherlands, and in 1965 when General Suharto replaced Sukarno, who was regarded as anathema to American (and Australian) interests.

While Britain in Malaya in the decade after the Second World War seemed adept at separating nationalism and communism, Australia tended to follow the American lead in which anti-communism became paramount. Australian understanding and appreciation of neighbouring South East Asian peoples - not to put too fine a point on it - was inadequate. Tragically, the very issue President Kennedy invoked when he intervened in the West New Guinea dispute, that Sukarno was a nationalist not a communist, was soon forgotten when President Kennedy disappeared from the scene in 1963. When conscription began, even before forces were sent to Vietnam, troops were sent to the Papua New Guinea border with West New Guinea claimed by Indonesia.

Australian political identities, with exceptions such as Tom Critchley in Indonesia and James Plimsoll at the United Nations, were largely responsible for the inability to distinguish communist from nationalist ideology. The issue of Indonesia from the struggle for independence through the issue of sovereignty of West New Guinea and then Malaysian Confrontation up to 1965 is one that is repeatedly mentioned and even specifically analysed in these twelve essays, and one where misunderstanding and Cold War priorities took precedence. Australian support for the continued presence of the Dutch in West New Guinea brought criticism in the early 1950s from the British whose colonial flank in Africa remained vulnerable. "The temper of the United Nations was unequivocally anti-colonial", Goldsworthy comments.

Richard Chauvel (Chapter 4) deals with "The West New Guinea dispute" as "a uniquely indigenous policy, in which Australian policymakers' appreciations of national interest diverged from those of our allies". While there is no doubting his claim that "in WNG Australia opposed a principal policy objective of the most powerful non-communist state in South-East Asia," Chauvel's statement that Australia's WNG policy was "neither designed by, nor enthusiastically supported in, Washington" might create a mistaken impression of United States non-involvement. Yet the diaries of Australian Foreign Minister Richard Casey attest to American lobbying in the early 1950s by a "US diplomat", despite claims that the American stance was neither pro-Dutch nor pro-Indonesian. Penning his private thoughts, Casey suspected oil interests but the full diaries although initially released by Australian Archives have now been recalled and reclassified. Settling the territorial dispute in 1962, President Kennedy certainly was not enthusiastic, because his Central Intelligence Agency advisers had left no option but to "pull rank" on the Dutch NATO allies.

Both major political parties in Australia reflected public support for self-determination for the inhabitants of West New Guinea, but this persisted only until Menzies narrowly won the 1961 election. Once Garfield Barwick became Foreign Minister, Cold War priorities won the day. Both United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, had visited Canberra to impress on the political personalities there the consequences of such a stance. The likelihood of the Indonesian Communist Party achieving government, warned the Dulles, was increasing with their popularity in the anti-colonial campaign against the Dutch in West New Guinea.

Darwin's point that the Second World War transformed the United States from a ''clumsy imperial apprentice" into a "fearsome competitor for influence in remaining spheres of colonial order" here seems particularly apt. Menzies (whose colonial fingers had already been burnt in the Suez crisis, by the actions of Secretary Dulles) was described as "a formidable barrister" by Peter Edwards (Chapter 12); so too Barwick, but in matters of diplomatic stratagem, both were out of their depth alongside the Dulles brothers whose international experience began at Versailles in 1919.

Significantly, with an eye on the 1965 coup in Indonesia, Edwards has deliberately described as ''misleading'' a British memorandum "just one month before the events of 1 October". (It should be noted that Indonesian army officers had contacted the British already sounding out the possibility of ending Confrontation.) The memorandum claimed Britain wanted an early end to Confrontation (between Malaysia and Indonesia) but there seemed 'little likelihood of Indonesia backing away'. The United States and Australia (Secretary of State Rusk and Foreign Minister Hasluck) expressed immediate concern but for vastly different reasons, highlighting the "straight back and sides" approach to foreign affairs that was so characteristic of the Menzies era. Hasluck was concerned that the British forces in South East Asia might disband. Rusk, however, was concerned that Confrontation might end prematurely when it was creating a political dynamic in Indonesia that definitely was conducive to ousting Sukarno from power. This memorandum supplements other research (FO 371 180314 Public Record Office, London).

On 22 June 1965 Rusk had taken the British to task when it was rumoured that, following a planned kidnapping of Sukarno in the Indonesian embassy in Thailand (where a cellar would be used as a dungeon), the army in Jakarta would stage a coup. Rusk vigorously intervened, telling the British ambassador in Washington to disband any such plan for "a half-baked coup". So when Rusk (in response to the memorandum) reaffirmed for the British that ousting Sukarno was not a forlorn hope, he was possibly confirming that an American plan was underway.

In conclusion, these twelve essays provide insightful facets of commentary and analysis on the postwar period of decolonisation in South East Asia. Australia, in a period of regional and strategic readjustment, is shown to be still in the process of defining itself, breaking its ties with Britain, finding its own feet in the South West Pacific and South East Asia, and testing newly-formed alliances such as SEATO and ANZUS, with the crisis in Vietnam about to break.

Greg Poulgrain

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999