Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 6 — Defence Policy
IN respect of external relations—as indeed in much else—the impact of a Labour government sharpened and clarified existing trends in New Zealand evolution and set the course for the wartime period. It was perfectly clear well before the final catastrophe that New Zealand would stand by Britain in any crisis then conceivable. Yet she plainly proposed to exercise her right to have her own policy, and the directions in which she would exercise her influence—such as it was—were boldly sketched out. Further, though there was some conservative criticism of the Government's plain speech, the line was sufficiently close to that previously followed by the Opposition leaders to give it a broad basis in political assent. In the sanctions crisis the Government of Forbes and Coates made confidential information available to the leaders of the Labour Party. In 1939 they in turn showed the vital cables to Coates and to Adam Hamilton, then Leader of the Opposition; and there is, to say the least, no reason to suppose that in either case the particular decision or the general attitude would have been different if the parties in power had been reversed.
1 5 Dec 1938; Keith, Journal of Comparative Legislation, Vol. XXI, Pt. I, p. 100.
In short, entwined with the political problem was the technical difficulty of ensuring that the military efforts of a team of independent nations would be adequately prepared and coordinated. The soldiers might hope ‘that the whole of the British Commonwealth would form a united front in an emergency which must ultimately threaten the security of all’;2 but they could not count on such a united front nor press too boldly for the prior planning necessary to make it effective. Ireland would clearly stand aside in any case. At the Imperial Conference of 1937 Mackenzie King said plainly that any attempt to commit Canada in advance would destroy national unity. The Australian Opposition was notoriously isolationist and the Government, to say the least, was lukewarm about opposing German expansion in Europe. General Hertzog, as Prime Minister of South Africa, said bluntly that his country would give no help if Britain became involved in war through interference in the affairs of central or eastern Europe. As Stanley Baldwin gently reminded his fellow prime ministers, no democratic community readily goes to war unless a vital national interest is evidently at stake, and it was plain that in no part of the Commonwealth was opinion then ready for a firm commitment to resist Hitler by force, nor indeed for a businesslike set of detailed plans for military co-operation by Commonwealth countries.3
Nevertheless established procedures within the Commonwealth provided at least a framework for action. Within this framework New Zealand had of all the Dominions probably the least to contribute in material resources: but in spite of strong anti-war sentiment, she had less psychological difficulty than any of them in contemplating prior commitments and in accepting British leadership. On technical as well as political grounds her defence, like her economic existence, was inconceivable to her citizens except in terms of co-operation with Britain. Yet the upshot, even for New Zealand, was a group of commitments which, however clear in political principle, remained up till the outbreak of war obscure when translated into practical terms.
1 COS paper, 15 Oct 1938, quoting CID paper of June 1938.
3 Imperial Conference, 1937, 3rd meeting, 21 May 1937.
4 Resolutions of Imperial Conference, 1923.
1 GOC to Minister of Defence, 6 Apr 1936. Mr Churchill had said much the same in the House of Commons on 17 Mar 1914.
2 ‘For we had guessed right: it was to Egypt we were going; as in the previous war we would doubtless train there, even do some fighting in the vicinity, and then go on to France for the great battles. So it had been and so it would be ….’—Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier, p. 8.
The last-named factor was of great long-term importance in influencing New Zealand's attitudes. As early as 1921 Massey defined the issue at the Imperial Conference referring to the First World War: ‘supposing Japan had been on the enemy side, one result would have been quite certain, that neither Australia nor New Zealand would have been able to send troops to the front, neither could we have sent food or equipment’ for the armed forces or the civil population of Great Britain.1 At that date, of course, the good neighbourliness of Japan was taken for granted, but by 1930 confidence had been to some extent shaken. At the Imperial Conference of that year G. W. Forbes bluntly inquired as to the place of New Zealand's forces in Commonwealth defence, and was answered by the Imperial General Staff in March 1931. Japan, it appeared, was the power most likely to challenge Commonwealth security in the Pacific area, but it seemed reasonable to hope that before any danger could materialise the Singapore base would be completed, the main fleet would reach it, and the general level of Commonwealth defence preparations would be adequate. There followed concrete suggestions which amounted to some alteration of emphasis from Europe to the Pacific area. The old commitment—that in war New Zealand would on request supply an expeditionary force—still remained. In addition it was now suggested that New Zealand might, if she wished to help, reinforce Singapore's peacetime garrison, or train airmen to relieve Royal Air Force units in the Far East, or prepare a force to be despatched immediately on the outbreak of war to menaced points in that area.
1 Summary of Proceedings, Cmd. 1474, p. 31.
This strongly worded report was taken up by General Sinclair-Burgess, who on 28 August presented to his government a formidable argument for rearmament. He recommended in some detail a six-year programme of defence expansion, and asked specifically for the adoption of one of the suggestions made by the Imperial authorities in March 1931. A special force of an infantry battalion and an artillery battery should be stationed in India in peacetime to be transferred to Singapore in war. The men should be recruited for twelve years' service, of which three would be spent overseas; and the result would be an immediate contribution to Imperial defence, and the formation of a reservoir of trained men to be drawn on for an expeditionary force in the event of war.
In spite of the depression, cabinet felt bound to act; yet it remained fearful of public opposition and was firmly held in a European-wise tradition. Nothing was heard of the special force for the Far East. That suggestion remained a closely if not quite successfully guarded secret, which the Army hoped to operate one day. This apart, cabinet accepted its advisers' six-year plan for expansion, and the defence vote was slightly increased. A year later, in August 1934, Parliament was asked to approve a further and substantial increase in defence expenditure. The basis of appeal was broad and emotional—men should defend their homes and womenfolk1—and the Opposition complained that for six years there had been nothing like a reasoned government statement on defence policy.2
1 NZPD, Vol. 239, p. 875.
2 Ibid., p. 755. Cf. Vol. 237, pp. 213, 255.
3 There was much anxious debate between cabinet ministers, service chiefs and Treasury as to how a rearmament programme might be decided upon and financed over a period of years without recurrent reference to Parliament.
1 NZPD, Vol. 239, pp. 81, 84.
At the time of the general election in November 1935 the situation was unchanged. Rearmament was being quietly carried out, and the Army knew that the provision of an expeditionary force was in prospect; but to avow this objective, or to make adequate preparations to achieve it, remained politically impossible. The suggestion would have affronted the optimistic and pacific temper of the community, and also alarmed a politically vocal minority that was conscious of New Zealand's position in the Pacific. The Government of Forbes and Coates accordingly prevaricated on the matter, and service conviction of the need for strong action was restrained by political expediency, rather than by countervailing argument.
In these circumstances the new Labour Government which took office at the end of 1935 naturally needed some little time to formulate its defence policy.1 None of its members had had cabinet experience before; nor had they been kept in touch with the developments culminating in the rearmament programme of 1934. They were anti-militarist and opponents of conscription; in so far as they had ideas on defence techniques they apparently believed in small, mechanised, highly trained forces, particularly the Air Force. From the first, however, they were impressed by the seriousness of the trend in world affairs, and to the pleased surprise of their opponents there was no check to the increase in defence expenditure begun in 1934. On the contrary, within their first two years of office they enunciated ‘a policy of rearmament’ which, said a conservative commentator, ‘ought to satisfy all reasonable criticism2.’ It included a considerable strengthening of the Navy, a vastly increased and independent Air Force, and a reorganisation of the Territorial Army which stopped short of conscription, but which was designed for expansion. The Government even expressed its sense of the great importance for New Zealand of the Singapore base, the construction of which the Labour Party in opposition had warmly criticised.
1 ‘We have not so far decided our policy with regard to defence.’—F. Jones, Minister of Defence, Press, 10 Jul 1936.
2 Round Table, December 1937, p. 201; Contemporary New Zealand, p. 250.
The attack on Manchuria in September 1931 caused some uneasiness, but relatively little public criticism in New Zealand. Most newspaper comment condemned Japanese methods, but recognised that Japan had a major economic problem to solve and that ‘the expansion of a virile and increasing people is inevitable4.’ The country as a whole allowed its preoccupations with economic problems and the general trend of its strategic thinking to remain undisturbed by nightmares of immediate war with Japan.
1 Round Table, December 1937, p. 131.
3 NZPD, Vol. 246, p. 560.
With this background Mr Jordan, as New Zealand's representative at Geneva and at the Brussels conference of November 1937, pressed for the application of the Covenant and deplored the failure to find some basis of collective action. In September 1938 New Zealand and Russia alone criticised the platonic resolution with which the Council of the League met China's appeal for help, and Jordan expressed his country's ‘sincere regret that the terms of the Covenant are not being collectively applied without qualification in conditions about which there is unfortunately no room for doubt.’ New Zealand maintained this general attitude through 1939. There is evidence that while Australia was cautious and feared that Britain might go too far in opposing Japan, New Zealand was uneasy at the possibility that principle might be sacrificed in an effort at ‘appeasement’. There was much criticism among rank and file members of the Labour Party of the so-called Tokyo Agreement of July 1939, when Britain recognised that ‘Japanese forces in China have special requirements for the purpose of safeguarding their own security and maintaining public order in regions under their control, and that they have to suppress or remove any such acts or causes as will obstruct them or benefit their enemy1.’ The Government, when pressed on the point, was non-committal but admitted that it had not known in advance the terms of the agreement between Britain and Japan.
1 Jones, Japan's New Order in East Asia, p. 150. It is perhaps noteworthy that this scholarly book deals with British policy in the Pacific virtually without consideration of the importance of that policy to Australians and New Zealanders.
Between 1933 and 1939, in short, New Zealand opinion was reluctantly assimilating two disturbing facts: that in a new war Japan might not be an ally or even a friendly neutral, and that the consequence of Japanese hostility would be more serious to New Zealand than to those British statesmen who controlled Commonwealth policy in the Pacific. Realisation of responsibilities involved in being a Pacific country brought, therefore, not subservience to her predominant partner, but renewed willingness to differ from Britain. In this matter, political judgment was reinforced by a new sense of intimacy. If things went wrong in the Pacific the impact on the Commonwealth partners would be fundamentally different: as the perspicacious head of the New Zealand Army, General Sinclair-Burgess, noted during the earlier scare of 1933, ‘the difference in degree is that between embarrassment in the case of Great Britain and disaster in the case of New Zealand2.’
Accordingly, as tension mounted, New Zealanders naturally rated higher than did Englishmen both the likelihood and the destructive possibilities of a Japanese move against a weakened Commonwealth. In February 1936, for example, the incoming government was told by its service chiefs that Australia and New Zealand were ‘open to attack as never before in their histories.’ The Singapore base, they noted, when completed ‘will act as some deterrent to Japanese activities’, but, they added, the British main fleet, the greater part of which would be required at Singapore to deal with a serious Japanese attack, could not move east of Suez if things were complicated in Europe.3 In December 1936 they returned to the attack with a forcible reminder that on any reasonable calculation the fleet would, for the foreseeable future, be tied firmly to European waters. The risk of invasion remained, therefore, unless New Zealand could obtain an explicit promise that an adequate fleet would arrive at Singapore in time.4
1 Nazi-Soviet Relations, p. 70.
2 Cf. Toynbee, World in March 1939, p. 32.
3 GOC to Minister of Defence, 27 Feb 1936.
4 GOC to Minister of Defence, 16 Dec 1936.
The resulting situation was regarded realistically in New Zealand. In 1933 the Army estimated that New Zealand would have to hold out alone for two months; in 1936 it put the period at six months, with the reflection that if the fleet could not in the end reach Singapore, Australia and New Zealand would have to defend themselves indefinitely from their own resources.3 At the end of 1938 the New Zealand Council of Defence was told by its chief civilian official, C. A. Berendsen, that ‘New Zealand might well get no assistance from Great Britain for very many months or even years’; and the Navy spokesman ‘agreed that the British fleet could not come to Singapore for an indefinite period.’
1 SSDA to GGNZ, 4 Aug 1938.
2 According to Cordell Hull, Halifax told the American Ambassador on 22 March 1939 that, in spite of the British promise to Australia, the fleet could not be sent to Singapore. France, it was said, had vetoed the plan.—Jones, Japan's New Order, p. 149n
3 Conference of 28 Sep 1933; GOC to Minister of Defence. 27 Feb 1936
1 Contemporary New Zealand, p. 255.
The situation was in sharp contrast with that preceding the First World War. Then it was clear to all concerned that in a war with Germany an expeditionary force would be needed. The idea had a certain appeal, and in any case under the new system of compulsory service, peacetime training could be planned accordingly. In the nineteen-thirties public sentiment was on the whole unfavourable, and as late as June and July 1939 the Prime Minister, while appealing for recruits, gave ample assurance that no one would be compelled to serve overseas. The Government's professed policy was that New Zealand should defend herself and also British interests in the South Pacific, but should make no promise to send forces elsewhere; New Zealand would stand with Britain, but as to the disposition of her manpower would ‘wait until the time shows what we ought to do1.’ The Army was thus denied the tangible objective of an expeditionary force by official pronouncement as well as by commonsense calculation; nor was there any clearly conceived threat to New Zealand soil which could give emotional reality to plans for local defence. It was natural, therefore, that the Army should lag behind in the defence expansion programme launched in 1934: it continued to be desperately short of equipment and trained manpower, and army service ranked low in sentimental appeal.
1 NZPD, Vol. 254, p. 172.
In short, the Government's efforts to strengthen the Army made little progress, as was evident enough to interested citizens. The result was sporadic, but sometimes searching, criticism of this side of New Zealand defence policy. In August 1936 Parliament held what was its first full-dress debate on defence since the abolition of compulsory training, when the Opposition moved to refer back to the Government for consideration the annual report of the GOC Defence Forces.3 Two months later a Defence League was established under the chairmanship of Mr William Perry, a Legislative Councillor and President of the Returned Soldiers' Association. In 1938 this organisation became really active, and the National Party became seriously concerned about the shortcomings of the country's defences. The opinion grew among soldiers, and among conservatives generally, that only compulsion could produce the men necessary to put the Army in order. Accordingly, the Government was pressed from many quarters to re-apply the existing compulsory service law for the benefit of the Territorials.
In answer to this campaign the Minister of Defence on 17 May 1938 gave a lengthy and detailed account of the Government's defence policy. The record was not unimpressive, but the Minister expressed conviction that 9000 would be an adequate peacetime strength for the Army, and admitted that the existing strength was 7400, of whom only 41 per cent had attended camp that year. The following day four colonels of the Territorial Force issued a manifesto declaring their conviction of the complete inadequacy of the system of land defence; and they said bluntly that the voluntary system had failed owing to lack of support for the Army by successive governments. Their precipitate action was widely publicised, but was in plain violation of military regulations. They were accordingly placed on the retired list, though cabinet told General Freyberg at the end of the following year that he could, if he wished, make use of their services in the Expeditionary Force then being organised.
1 Round Table, December 1937, p. 203; Contemporary New Zealand, p. 253.
2 Statement by Minister of Defence, 17 Apr 1939.
3 NZPD, Vol. 246, p. 535.
In spite of this spectacular incident, public discussion on the Army during 1938 remained inconclusive. It was significant that in the election campaign of September-October 1938 the National Party, while castigating the Government for the inadequacies of its defence policy, refrained from advocating compulsory service. Certain public bodies, it is true, pronounced firmly in favour of conscription: the Farmers' Union in May, for instance,1 and the November conference of the Defence League.2 Moreover, government spokesmen, under pressure, sometimes cautiously admitted that among the incalculable necessities of war, compulsion might turn out to be necessary.3 Yet to the commonsense view compulsory service in peacetime made sense only as a step towards the sending of a large-scale expeditionary force soon after the outbreak of a new war. The theoretical possibility of such an expeditionary force was, of course, present in army thinking, as for instance during the Munich crisis, when the Chief of the General Staff warned his officers that, if the enemy should be Germany alone, such a force would be quickly armed and despatched.4 Yet opinion, professional as well as lay, refused to accept the prompt despatch of an expeditionary force as the probable—or even the possible—consequence of war.5 No one questioned that the young men would flock to serve when fighting actually began. In the meantime, Territorial service had relatively little appeal to the community and it remains doubtful whether Government ‘support’ or renewed exhortations from older men could have made very much difference until the obscurity shrouding the New Zealand Army's role in a new war had been dispelled.
4 Memorandum of 16 Sep 1938.