How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
FIVE years ago "pure" or Christian pacifism flourished in the sheltered environment of New Zealand. The Geneva representative of the Dominion's Labor Government voted with Litvinov against Eden. In Australia, the government was conservative, but the important trades unions went on record as opposed to sending troops overseas under any circumstances. They argued particularly that every man would be needed at home to ward off invaders. And yet both extremes of opinion in each Dominion were consistently critical of the Chamberlain policy of appeasement, and hotly anxious for Czechoslovakia.
The fact was that Australians and New Zealanders did not consider, until the last moment, that there would be a war. Hitler seemed to have everything against him. Like so many others, these isolated peoples consistently underrated the European menace. But their revulsion of opinion was no less complete when Hitler did go to war.
The expressions of united loyalty and full support by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, and by the opposition parties, when Britain declared war against Germany in September 1939, were only qualified by the stipulation that "there must be no second Munich, and the present crisis must at all costs end crises" -- to quote a leading newspaper. The volte face was complete. Everyone knew that if Hitler were not stopped, there would be an end to everything, including the British export market and the protective arm of the Fleet. It was a simple matter of self-defense, with no 1914 shouts of "Good Old England" or "Advance Australia."
Perhaps some Australians and New Zealanders, representative of vested interests, remembered that the First German War had greatly stimulated local industries and calculated that another one might mean more profits for farmers and manufacturers. When war broke out New Zealand was financially embarrassed by the expensive schemes of social reform introduced by her Labor Government, and was heading for an economic crisis. Both Dominions were finding it increasingly difficult to meet interest charges on their London debts. The war, some may have felt, might at least solve these problems. But the previous war had also left Australia and New Zealand with heavily overcapitalized industries and greatly increased internal debts, not to mention a grim gap in the ranks of their young manhood and a legacy of social unrest. It is doubtful if very many Antipodeans really welcomed the opportunity to hazard their fortunes again.
Curiously enough, however, the preliminary character of the new hostilities at first seemed to play right into the hands of those with furtive thoughts of making money from the war. The British Government expressly requested that the effort of the two Dominions be primarily an economic one. "If Britain were asked whether she preferred an infantry division or adequate arrangements for sending supplies, I know what her answer would be," said the Prime Minister of Australia. Thus arrangements were made at once for the sale to the British Government -- at good prices "for the duration" -- of practically the entire Antipodean production of such items as wool, butter, meat, sugar, copper, zinc, tungsten and lead. With the assurance that all their output would be absorbed, Australia began feverishly to build factories for the production of aircraft, guns and ammunition, and shipyards for the building of small naval vessels. New Zealand was soon relieved from anxiety about financial solvency by the large payments made into her London account for the first shipments of produce to Britain. Marginal lands were brought into cultivation. There was even a little boom in business.
Both Dominions were encouraged by the British Government to think of their own defense before sending contingents overseas. Conscription for early age-groups was introduced in Australia, but the men were not to be sent out of the country unless they volunteered. New Zealand relied on voluntary recruitment, and did not make strenuous efforts to encourage even that. The British Government gave the official seal to procrastination by declaring that it was planning for a three-year war. Antipodeans cheerfully agreed that the French Army and the Maginot Line were quite strong enough to hold Hitler on land, while the mounting economic, naval and air arms of the British Commonwealth would slowly strangle him in any case. Both Dominions subscribed to the scheme for training airmen in Canada, but even this had such a long-term aspect that Australia felt free to make certain reservations and for a while to obstruct a unified effort.
As for the preliminary strategy adopted when the first military contingents were sent overseas (Christmas 1939), it had a similar convenience. The new Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were sent to Egypt and Palestine again. They would be defending, said the pundits, their natural frontier. In the same way, those troops kept at home might be called upon to reinforce British garrisons at points round the Western Pacific such as Hong Kong and Singapore -- another "first Australasian line of defense." But Australians and New Zealanders were probably as surprised as any when their first real war shock came to them from just this sacrosanct neighborhood. When Hitler invaded Holland, it was suddenly remembered that the Dutch East Indies might prove a sore temptation to a neighboring country tacitly allied to the Axis. There was a great scare in the Antipodes, only relieved by a general chorus demanding that the status quo in the Indies must at all costs be preserved. For this scare succeeded in arousing Australians and New Zealanders to a keener consciousness of belligerent realities. The long period of comparative inactivity gave way to widespread criticism of all aspects of the war effort.
Recruiting in New Zealand had continued to languish. The Norwegian failure had begun to turn active criticism against the Allied war leaders. "The British Government has failed to demonstrate its competence to handle such a great and dangerous problem," said one Australian newspaper. "Chamberlain's complacent outlook evokes the gravest doubts throughout the Empire of the Government's capacity to put the necessary drive into the war effort," said another. And it is possible that such expressions of overseas opinion may have contributed the final push to Britain's toppling Prime Minister.
After the Dutch East Indian scare, events came thick and fast: the British Expeditionary Force was isolated in northern France and had to be evacuated; the French Army was rolled back; the Channel ports were irrevocably lost and England open to short-range bombardment; Italy came in; Paris fell; France surrendered -- and Australia and New Zealand were belligerent at last.
The British people are dull and even apathetic until roused by a tangible danger. Such a rousing had brought the hitherto isolationist Dominions into the war; this new consciousness of real danger now brought them into the fight. The Labor Government of New Zealand, which had firmly pledged itself never to introduce conscription, now adopted it at once, without so much as a preliminary test of public feeling. In the same way, they set up a Council of War to conscript wealth, industry and labor, and assumed sweeping powers to requisition premises, plants and services.
Similarly the Australian labor movement, which had been dead against not only participation in an overseas war but also any form of authoritarian mobilization even for purposes of local defense, now changed its attitude completely. The Australian Amalgamated Engineering Union, one of the strongest in the country, and previously much opposed to any lowering in working standards, approached the Government with an urgent plan for fully utilizing the resources of the trades unions and mobilizing industrial man-power immediately. A few days later the Australian Government took advantage of this remarkable change to pass an Emergency Powers Act. This removed all checks on the administration's wartime initiative, gave unlimited powers to tax and take property, to direct employers and employees, and to call up and train men for the services. "I am not afraid of what the Government may do with these powers," said the Federal Labor Leader, Mr. Curtin, "I am only afraid of what the enemy may do if we do not vote with the Government." Both Dominions voted vast appropriations for increasing the number of men under arms and the number of arms factories. Brigadier-General Street, Minister for Defense, declared: "We give the mother country an open cheque to draw on Australia's man-power."
Another deceptive period of calm succeeded the fall of France. True, Japan was making ominous moves towards Indo-China; Britain herself might be invaded any day; while Italy was already marching into the desert. But fundamentally there was again no war for Australia and New Zealand to fight -- save against their own dissatisfaction with themselves. Thus, for the moment, internal politics again became important. Trying to capitalize on Labor's emotional gesture of coöperation, the Prime Minister asked that party to enter his government, for production could not reach maximum pitch without the worker's help. Moreover, law required that a general election be held in September, and the Prime Minister was not altogether sure of himself and the talkative country.
But the Labor Party refused to play ball on these terms. It had a clear memory of what had happened to other Labor Parties in British countries when they had entered coalition governments. It was shortly confirmed in this attitude by an unfortunate accident which befell a plane-load of Cabinet Ministers just outside the Federal capital one day in August. Mr. Fairbairn, the energetic Air Minister, Brigadier Street, Minister for the Army, and Sir Henry Gullett, Minister for External Affairs, were among those killed; and the Government's fighting team was sadly reduced as a result. The forthcoming elections, thought the Opposition covertly, now offered it a great chance.
Meanwhile there were some sparks of martial news to keep the war interest alive. A small number of Australian and New Zealand soldiers had arrived in England, presumably as a token payment and to give them something to write home about. Others were sent to reinforce the army waiting in the Middle East, where its strategy had been thrown out of gear by the defection of the French in Syria and North Africa. Australians and New Zealanders alike were performing great deeds of valor with the Royal Air Force, first over the English Channel, then above the balloons of London. An Australian cruiser, the Sydney, old and slow, won a brilliant victory in the Mediterranean by sinking the newer and faster Bartolommeo Colleoni. A liner struck a mine in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, sank, and started all kinds of rumors.
But the growing menace of Japan should have dominated the stage. That it did not is a final testimony to the pachydermatous quality of well-fed democracies. In Australia the leaders appreciated the danger; but the people were getting tired of scares, and were more exercized over the introduction of petrolrationing. They clearly were in a mood for a general election, even though an electoral appeal at that moment must inevitably embarrass the Government's foreign policy. When the Australian people began to realize their mistake, it was too late, with the result that the election itself was an inconclusive farce. The Government was left with just sufficient strength to keep it alive and the Opposition was given just enough hope to maintain its obduracy. Obviously the electorate had gone so far, then wavered -- or else had decided at the last moment that it was not interested and would prefer to have no government at all.
All the indications point to an anxious future for Australia and New Zealand. They have the flower of their young and sparse manhood in the direct path of Hitler and Mussolini. Of Australia's 190,000 men under arms, over two divisions are now overseas. Within a year approximately 100,000 Australians are expected to be fighting away from home. The Dominion could eventually mobilize about a million men from its total population of seven million. The air force is now some 11,000 strong and the navy about 11,600. New Zealand has approximately 81,000 men under arms, of whom about 23,000 are overseas. Her military capacity is about 250,000 men. Her air and naval forces are negligible in quantity but important in quality, as was shown by the performance of the New Zealanders on the cruiser Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate.
The dictators must strike towards Suez if they are to break away from the British death-grapple. The Antipodes may thus at any moment be fighting desperately at the spearhead of a war many thousands of miles away, and desperately reinforcing their fighting elements there. Yet the real danger to Australia and New Zealand is Japan's steady penetration southward towards those East Indian supplies over which it must sooner or later gain control. Once established in Malaya, Java, Madura, Sumatra, the Japanese would be able to consolidate against all eventualities. And to the more clear-thinking of Australians and New Zealanders there seems to be no reason why Japan should not conquer all the East Indies -- no reason, that is, except the United States of America.
The fact is that Britain could not, by the naval and military textbook, prevent Japan from doing that without sending very strong naval and air forces from Europe. She cannot spare such forces now, and it is doubtful whether she can do so for a long time. Therefore, the only hope for the East Indies if Japan sails south -- and the only hope for Australia and New Zealand in the long run -- is that the United States may intervene promptly with its strong navy. If an agreement were to be made by which the United States would be permitted to use the bases at Auckland, Sydney, Darwin, Singapore and perhaps certain Pacific islands, Japan might think again. Such arrangements are indeed said now to be under discussion.
It may hearten the friends of all good pachyderms to know that even in the midst of this rather desperate bid for American support in the Pacific, some Australians and New Zealanders are thinking in terms of a wider future. They see, perhaps, an eventual world of regional as opposed to national groupings, and the germ of a plan for their own region in the present hurried effort to effect coöperation with America. As for the short-term effects of the war upon their young countries, they can already foresee what some of them will be.
Many of these effects, particularly the really short-term ones, may not appear bad. Both Australia and New Zealand may to a certain extent be released from the economic thralldom of London. To pay for Antipodean products Britain may, in effect, have to remit some of the debts that have saddled these young countries from the beginning. They will also have fine new industries. The extent of the arms drive in Australasia is already considerable. This year Australia alone is spending about 440 million dollars on defense, compared with the annual average of about 30 million before 1937. Most of the money is earmarked for equipment, and most of that is being produced in local factories. Already the big munitions works are planning to supply British forces in other parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Last fall representatives of Australia and New Zealand attended a conference in India to arrange a mutual exchange of such products. After the war, shrewd men see, the former agricultural annexes of Britain will need Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow no longer; indeed, they will be sturdy and well-equipped world competitors of those chastened towns.
Not a few Australians and New Zealanders today, at the threshold of a decisive struggle for existence, have the audacity to wonder if their present parlous situation may not itself contain the seeds of hope. Should the United States collaborate with them for defense, why should she not coöperate later in peaceful reconstruction ? In the past, Australia and New Zealand have found their market in a little country on the opposite side of the world. But their natural economic sphere is nearer home. Does not this fact offer a firm basis on which to build close collaboration, economic and political, with other countries on the Pacific?