BECAUSE Australia and New Zealand belong to the British Empire they must always risk being involved in any disturbance of the international peace almost as much as England herself. And because numerically speaking they are small countries -- New Zealand has only a million and one half population, and although Australia calls itself a continent it has less than seven millions -- they must find difficulty in defending themselves against a determined major Power without very substantial help from the British Navy and British wealth. Both the spirit and the letter of the Covenant of the League of Nations suited Australia and New Zealand. They liked the ingenious scheme of the "C" Mandates, the prospect of disarmament, the faint hope for freer markets in which to sell their produce, and the comforting thought that any threat to their security would be a matter of international concern. They were on the receiving end of the benefits of the League of Nations. But the events of each recent year made the League shield less and less real.

Whether Australia and New Zealand have all the attributes of nationality is a point as hotly disputed as is the precise nature of their legal statehood under the Statute of Westminster of December 1931. Some persons resent the suggestion of nationality separate from "Home" as sharply as others defend it. Early this summer there was little public sentiment for joining forces, as in 1914, with Britain and sending several hundred thousands of troops to Europe; there was a notable absence of the famous "Anzac" enthusiasm which displayed itself so bravely at Gallipoli. Some of the older people predicted that if war should come there would be a revival of the old spirit. A statement by Prime Minister Menzies in the press of August 23 seemed to indicate that public sentiment was already turning in that direction. But the most that Australia and New Zealand had been contemplating, so far as one could judge from the official statements, was defense of their own territories.

Towards Europe the prevailing tone of public opinion has probably been even more isolationist than in America. On the other hand, neither Australia nor New Zealand has ever undertaken the full duties of statehood for neither has ever really faced the question of independent self-defense. Deficient both in wealth and in man power, intent on creating south of the Equator a new heaven and a new earth wherein will abide such social righteousness as elsewhere only prophets dream of, both countries have been well content to leave the direction of foreign policy to Downing Street and the responsibility for their protection to the British Admiralty (with the exception that Australia has for years maintained a small navy and New Zealand has made annual contributions for the expense of the British naval force in the South Pacific).

Recent years brought great public bewilderment in both countries. The vision of collective security passed; and in September 1938 there was not a single British battleship east of Suez (although Japan had nine). The foreign policy of Downing Street, which the public had viewed with vast unconcern so long as it was conciliatory toward Japan, a good customer, turned out to be a policy that might involve them in a war in which, for the first time in their history, they might have actually to face an invader. Such a war, too, would create a disturbance in overseas commerce which might cause them grave disasters. And a Japan dominant in the Pacific would be unlikely to remain content either with the immigration or the tariff laws of Australia and New Zealand.

Public opinion in Australia and New Zealand in the spring of 1939 was something as follows. Like other human beings, Australians and New Zealanders wanted to have it not merely both ways but all ways. They were determined to retain the mandated islands, and they were determined to maintain, even to lift, their standard of living. That standard has already so increased production costs that they have difficulty in disposing of their primary produce other than wool. They desired a protected market in Britain, access to loans, the protection of the British Navy. They also required friendly relations with Japan and China, both good customers, and they wanted to sell in the United States and Canada at least enough to pay for their American motor cars, which they prefer to British makes. They would like still better to make their own motor cars, but they cannot secure the advantages of mass production with their present limited domestic market. Proposals for increased immigration left them very cool, even though the population rate is stationary; for they cannot tolerate the thought of a possibly lower standard of living. As for the Empire, they were able to become very sentimental about it; but they wanted to be left with complete liberty to amplify their program of social experimentation in ways which would be far beyond their means if they were to take over anything like full responsibilities for self-defense. The Labor groups, which have been most opposed to the new defense measures, sneer habitually at British imperialism; but they demanded the protection of the British Navy both for themselves and also for the mandated islands.

Lacking the collective security promised by the Covenant, and uncertain of the degree of support which they may expect from the Admiralty, Australians and New Zealanders almost without exception have expected confidently that American naval forces would come to their defense in their possible day of need. Probably they have failed to realize that Australia and New Zealand have granted better tariff rates under reciprocity agreements to both Japan and to Germany than to the United States. Nor has there appeared to them any notable inconsistency in the fact that while they have been strongly opposed to conscription even for defense, the United States, if she were at war with Japan and came to their protection, would undoubtedly have to enforce the draft. For many years New Zealand and Australia have resembled the radical sons of wealthy parents. In both countries one heard the sort of petulant expressions that are associated with children who have been overindulged.

An important factor in the security of Australia and New Zealand both before and after the World War was the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. For obvious reasons, therefore, public opinion there did not receive the results of the Washington Conference with pleasure. Many were rather bitter about it even recently, regarding it not so much the symbol as the instrument of their political undoing. Relations with Japan continued friendly until British manufacturers reminded Australia of her Empire obligations, whereupon Australia quite unceremoniously so nearly excluded Japanese goods that Japan slapped an embargo on Australian wool to remind the Australians that they must also "buy Japanese" if they wished to continue cordial relations with Japan.

The full significance of the disintegration of the League system of security was only slowly apprehended. Whatever discontent may have existed had slight opportunity for expression. Public discussions of foreign policy are not particularly encouraged in either country. Until recently the newspapers generally have followed the lead from Downing Street. It has been asserted, and denied, that the Australian Government implored London not to impose sanctions on Japan in 1931-32. The prevailing opinion at the time was that the Japanese excursion into Manchuria might operate to confine Japanese ambitions to that area and thus provide a safeguard to the British possessions farther south. Certainly it was the desire of both Australia and New Zealand to conciliate rather than to antagonize Japan. Labor partisans were not particularly displeased then and later to see British imperialism humiliated on the China coast. In the successive stages of the League's decay public opinion was still reluctant to recognize that anything important was at stake for Australia and New Zealand.

Quite apart from the habit of leaving foreign policy questions to be settled in London, and apart from the traditional faith in the British Navy, there was, perhaps, a special reason why the governments were so reluctant to face the facts. Both countries were preoccupied, first with the depression and then with their ever-widening programs of social and economic reforms. The broad influence of the Russian Revolution and of the specific postwar social reforms in England are easily observable in the growing power of the Labor parties. Labor in power carried on with vigor and Labor out of power was still strong enough to ensure that the party in office would occupy itself with expensive programs of social benefits. In general, Labor has been anti-militaristic and therefore opposed to measures of military defense, the more so because money spent for that purpose would not be available for social purposes. Just how important is the hostility of Labor to military preparations is difficult to know; but certainly the governments now in power have been handling the proposed defense measures with great delicacy. Defense has been a thorny subject for a politician.


The Australians like to call their land a continent. It is about the size of the United States and somewhat similar in shape. Its large centers and most of its productive areas lie in a narrow belt along the eastern and southeastern seaboard. Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth are, roughly, as Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Key West, New Orleans and San Diego. Hobart, at the southern end of Tasmania, is an overnight voyage from Melbourne, the nearest city on the main continent. Port Darwin, an essential air base now being developed as a naval depôt, lies on the northern coast. About half the population is urban. Back of the relatively narrow strip having more or less adequate rainfall lie grazing lands which support one sheep to each two, five or ten acres, and desert which supports nothing at all. The northern part of Australia is within the tropics, which thus far the white man can hardly claim to have conquered. Internal communications, except by air, are poor. The roads around the coast are fair, but on the railways no less than four different gauges are in use. In general, the resulting defense problem is out of proportion to Australia's wealth, population, and present state of industrial development. There is an almost complete deficiency of oil, nitrates, aluminum, rubber, nickel, chromite, potash, phosphates and mercury. There is no dry dock adequate for the repair of battleships. However, Australia has two shipyards which have built merchant vessels up to 9,000 tons gross displacement and naval vessels of 6,000 tons. The government owns and operates two or three relatively small munitions factories.

The geographical factors in New Zealand are in some respects more favorable for defense but in general the task involved is equally out of proportion to the country's resources.[i] Lying 1,200 miles east of Australia, and in many ways of less importance to an enemy, New Zealand is not a likely object of attack at the outbreak of a war. The Dominion is composed of two large islands. The population is about half urban and lives mainly in and around four coastal cities -- Auckland and Wellington in the north island, and Christchurch and Dunedin in the south. The first two ports face west and the other two east.

The value of the Singapore Base for the defense of Australia and New Zealand is at least open to debate. There are two schools of thought, the official Admiralty school which is accepted by the Australian and New Zealand governments in all public statements as to policy, and an unofficial Australian school which expresses itself chiefly in private. The official thesis is that Singapore is impregnable. But many doubt both its impregnability and its ability to offer efficient protection to the British domains in the South Pacific. A good deal of professional opinion in Australia seems to incline to this latter view, which also is held in private by at least some people in high official position. It is known that many British naval and military authorities disapproved of Singapore from the very beginning -- Admiral Sir Percy Scott, Admiral Dewar, General Sir Ian Hamilton, Admiral Mark Kerr and Lord Strabolgi all criticized it more or less severely. The location was chosen by Admiral Jellicoe as part of a scheme in which a very large British fleet would be stationed permanently in the Indian-Pacific area. It was not intended as a base to which other forces could be diverted in case of need. In the original plan it would be adequately held by a fleet capable of getting command of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Recently, critics assert, there has been no British fleet east of Suez capable of commanding the two oceans, and the changed political situation in the Mediterranean means that (until Simonstown in South Africa, is improved) there is no first class supporting base nearer than England.

In a word, the equation of defense has changed materially since the adoption of the Singapore plans. "The changes that have occurred make one wonder," remarked a distinguished Australian statesman who still holds important office, "whether the official British mind has made the necessary accommodation. In every way Singapore is an advanced base thrust far from supporting bases, far into alien territory, in an unhealthy climate; yet not near enough to British interests in the Pacific to protect them without a fleet adequate to fight and beat the Japanese fleet. The limited number of ships that could be detached would be tied to a defense rôle." Singapore is 1,577 nautical miles from Ceylon, 1,440 miles from Hong Kong and 1,902 miles from Port Darwin; it is 2,900 miles from Yokohama, 1,314 miles from Manila and 2,080 miles west of the line between Yokohama and Sydney.

The well-informed understand (although the facts have been withheld from the public generally) that in the event of a war in which England was engaged both in Europe and in the Far East, no battleships would be sent to Singapore until after the German pocket battleships had been disposed of. The official estimate appears to be that at least two months would elapse before adequate reinforcements could reach that base. Australia has never contributed a sixpence toward its expenses.

Accepting the theory that there certainly will be considerable delay after the outbreak of war in reënforcing Singapore, another well-informed civilian who has devoted much time to the study of the strategical problems of the Far East, and whose conclusions have the support of some naval opinion, argues that in the first stage of a war involving Japan, the latter would be at a disadvantage -- a hostile China and a hostile Russia on one flank, a formidable American naval force with undisclosed intentions on the other. The Dutch forces in Borneo, Java and Sumatra certainly would not be friendly. On the high seas would be a large Japanese merchant fleet which would require protection. Russia has airplanes and submarines at Vladivostok; China could give an unmeasured amount of trouble. While the British naval forces east of Suez lack battleships, about half of the total tonnage of the British Navy is said to be in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This force includes a large number of submarines and many of the so-called Washington cruisers, ships of 10,000 tons with 8-inch guns. In the early months of war Japan would be very fully occupied in protecting her merchant fleet and in safeguarding her communications with Korea, Manchuria, Tientsin, Tsingtao, Shanghai, Formosa and her mandated islands. Remembering how much tonnage was required during the World War to protect the Channel routes from England to France, imagine how much more would be needed to guard the communications from Yokohama and Kobe with China, Formosa and the other ports and submarine bases. Hong Kong is now merely an outpost; it will be defended as long as possible, after which Britain will retire to Singapore.

Now while it is true that under modern conditions of warfare Hong Kong cannot easily be held against a determined enemy in command of the sea, in possession of the surrounding mainland and attacking in force, nevertheless it cannot be taken in a day. And until it is in Japan's possession she will hardly be in a position to invest Singapore. It seems unlikely, then, that either Australia or New Zealand would be exposed to sudden invasion. It is equally unlikely that their coasts and ports would escape some bombing and that their external communications would remain unscathed. In these two respects both countries are highly vulnerable. Coastal defenses are meagre and inadequate and both countries are extremely dependent on their foreign commerce. Many essential wartime supplies they must secure entirely abroad.


Thus far we have attempted to select and examine certain salient facts in a speculative situation. Our reasonable conclusion is that the defense of Australia and New Zealand is difficult. Now let us see what the two countries are prepared to do for themselves.

On December 6, 1938, Brigadier G. A. Street, Australian Minister for Defense, expounded to the Commonwealth Parliament at Canberra the plans which, to use his language, had as their objective "to defend the Commonwealth against territorial aggression." It will be immediately observed that the objective as defined was narrow as compared with that in 1914. The actual military man power of Australia was estimated in 1933 at about 950,000 between the ages of 18 and 35. About two thirds of these are either unmarried or widowers without children. Another 972,000 are available between the ages of 35 and 60. Australia, like New Zealand, has a compulsory military training law but it was suspended many years ago and the Lyons Government in its election campaign, baited by the leader of the Labor Party, made a public pledge not to revive it. Australia has been depending on a voluntary militia which receives twelve days of camp training a year. Last year the militia stood at about 35,000. The new program called for an increase to 70,000, and in February an old-time recruiting campaign was inaugurated. It is understood that the military authorities asked for only 60,000, which was as many as could be trained and equipped at the moment. But the number of recruits set in the higher goal was obtained. This force is not available for use outside the country except as the enlisted men, individually, consent to go. In this connection it is presumed, though not expressly stated, that mandated New Guinea would be regarded as within Australian territory.

Mr. Street explained to Parliament that the basis of Australian land defense plans is "the presence at Singapore of a fleet adequate to give security to our sea communications. This fleet would provide a threat to the communications of the enemy from any part of the world bent upon the invasion of Australia, and either deter him from aggression, or be able to defeat him should he undertake such an operation." This is a fairly brave assumption.

The expanded program for land defense involved, roughly, a doubling of expenditures for three years, a considerable part of which is for rearmament -- the accumulation of stores, the development of secondary industries, and the manufacture of small arms. Mr. Street was careful to point out that of the total defense budget only 18 percent was to be spent outside Australia. This was considered an important political consideration in meeting the opposition of the Labor Party. The air force is being expanded and, as with munitions, provision is being made for increased reserves for the local manufacture of aircraft. Some emergency purchases are being made in the United States. Eventually it is hoped that Australia will possess an aircraft industry able to supply New Zealand and other British territories in the Pacific. To what extent this is feasible remains to be seen.

In matters of naval defense Australia has in the past been less neglectful. Whether for that reason, or because the Labor Party opposed naval appropriations on the ground that they were likely to be used for the defense of British imperialism elsewhere, the new naval program, although revealing larger aggregate expenditures for the navy, involved proportionately smaller increases than for land defense. The naval force in 1938 consisted of two Washington cruisers, one light modern cruiser, one old light cruiser, one flotilla leader and four destroyers, two escort vessels and one seaplane carrier. To this is being added two more Washington cruisers purchased in England, more escort vessels, some modern torpedo boats and a surveying ship. Attention is also being given to harbor defenses. Australia would like at least one battleship but does not feel that she can afford it.

The cost of the total three-year program was estimated at 63,000,000 Australian pounds, a figure to be compared with the modest 3,200,000 pounds spent for defense in 1931-32. It is expected that the new program will be further expanded to bring the total up to at least 78,000,000 pounds. At that figure one year's expenditure will amount to about 26,000,000 pounds, or more than a quarter of the total budget of 93,136,000 pounds for the year 1938-39.

The bitter opposition to conscription, not confined exclusively to the Labor groups, expressed itself also in opposition to a compulsory national register. The value of a voluntary register is questionable, but the Government in February yielded to Labor pressure and voted to adopt it. Quite recently the Labor unions officially declined to have anything to do even with a voluntary register. Many think that the attitude of the Labor Party toward defense measures would be different if a Labor Government were in power, a not impossible contingency in the near future, for the Menzies Ministry, which came into office on the death of the lamented and loved Prime Minister, Mr. J. A. Lyons, is far from secure.

The New Zealand situation is somewhat different. As a Labor Government is in office, defense measures are in the hands of those who otherwise probably would oppose them. New Zealand has always depended on the British Admiralty for naval protection and has made annual contributions to it. As in Australia, compulsory military training was discontinued some years ago and there is no disposition to revive it. The new budget includes substantial increases for defense but the total is well below 10 percent of the entire budget. Even less than Australia has New Zealand relished the idea of providing troops for the defense of British interests outside her territorial boundaries. On the other hand, the New Zealanders did not respond to the idea put forward shortly before the Munich crisis that they might contribute to the appeasement policy by returning Western Samoa to Germany. In New Zealand the writer observed some discouragement, especially among the young men. To them defense appeared so far beyond their means that to attempt it seemed futile. Furthermore the Munich policy so failed to respond to the heroic sense natural to youth that they viewed the future with slight enthusiasm. In April a Pacific Defense Conference was held in Wellington, at which British and Australian representatives conferred with members of the New Zealand Government. The fact that the conference was held in such an off-center location indicated to some a British desire to bring the difficulties of the defense problem home to a government which has been much preoccupied with very radical and expensive social reforms.

Up until the startling announcement of the Soviet-Nazi agreement all defense measures in Australia and New Zealand had been predicated on two assumptions: one, that Japan would be the enemy; and, two, that she would be opposed to Britain either as an ally of the Axis Powers or at a time when Germany and Italy were so threatening Britain in Europe that the latter would be unable to move any considerable naval force to Asiatic waters. These assumptions account in part for the fact that in recent years there was no plan or intention in Australia or New Zealand to send an expeditionary force to Europe as was done in 1914. It was felt that whatever man power the Dominions possessed should be conserved for defense and not risked on a long ocean voyage with inadequate convoys. The Russian agreement with Germany promptly had its effect on Japanese policy. At the moment of writing it seems unlikely that Japan will take the side of the Axis Powers. On the other hand, remembering the bitter Anglo-Japanese conflict of the past few months in China, it seems unlikely that Japan, even detached from Germany and Italy, will free Australia and New Zealand of all grounds for apprehension.

Persons in government positions in Australia and New Zealand have been careful to refrain from any statements which would appear to imply that the United States has made any commitments in the Pacific. But in presenting his budget in December last the Minister for Defense declared: "The people of Australia have the fullest appreciation that British seapower is the essential basis of the security of the Empire. We look to Britain in an emergency to station at Singapore a fleet of sufficient strength to safeguard Empire interests in the Eastern Hemisphere." Then, after reasserting his faith that Britain's naval strength is satisfactory, he added: "If Britain is confronted with an alliance, there is no reason to believe that she would lack powerful allies." Mr. Street's statement, read against the background of such American news as reaches the Australian and New Zealand papers, was probably understood as a veiled reference to what is actually a confident popular hope. And he may be right.

[i] There is to be considered also the defense of New Guinea and Western Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, Nauru and British Borneo.

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  • TYLER DENNETT, former Historical Adviser in the Department of State; former President of Williams College; author of "John Hay: From Poetry to Politics" and other works
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