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Common(wealth) Knowledge #49: Practical independence - The ANZUS Pact

AUKUS isn’t the first security alliance Australia has signed with the United States.

In Common(wealth) Knowledge #47, we took a look at the Statute of Westminster, a law that allowed Australia to gain complete control over its foreign policy. The first real application of this was Australia’s participation in the ‘Security Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America,’ also known as ANZUS. As Australia’s first foray into managing its own foreign policy, this treaty will be the focus of this edition.

Australia’s relationship with the UK during World War II wasn’t always great. Prime Minister Robert Menzies was seen by some British politicians as a replacement for Winston Churchill, and Menzies spent the first four months of 1941 in the UK. This was unpopular with the Australian Parliament, and ultimately led to Menzies’ resignation. The UK would then lose control of Singapore to the Japanese, which was the UK’s main naval base in the region, and then Churchill attempted to overrule Prime Minister John Curtin to try and force Australian soldiers to fight in British India, instead of defending Australia.

The UK’s failure in the region meant that Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand too, turned its eyes to the US. The bombing of Pearl Harbour had forced the US out of its isolationist approach to foreign policy, for the second time in less than 30 years. Having learned its lesson, the US remained an active player on the world stage after the war.

Two speeches sum up Australia’s immediate desire for a treaty with the US. In his 27 December 1941 speech ‘The Task Ahead,’ John Curtin said the following:

“The United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan [in the Pacific]. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom … we know … that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on.”

Speaking to Parliament on 9 March 1950, Minister for External Affairs Percy Spender described his vision of a defensive alliance in the Pacific that would involve members of the British Commonwealth:

“I have in mind particularly the United States of America, whose participation would give such a pact a substance that it would otherwise lack. Indeed, it would be meaningless without her.”

When the Korean War broke out, neither Australia nor the UK was willing to send troops to the conflict, despite requests from the United Nations. On 9 July 1950, Menzies went to visit the UK and the US. On 14 July, the UN again asked Spender for troops, but a telegraph from Menzies, now in London, told Spender to decline.

However, on 26 July a British diplomat told the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Alan Watt, that the UK had changed its mind and was going to send troops. Watt immediately contacted Spender. According to Watt, Spender’s response was that Australia could not “allow the UK to cash in on American goodwill ahead of Australia, having restrained Australia from acting earlier.” Spender then convinced Acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden to give a public announcement saying that Australia would commit troops, pre-empting the British. Unsurprisingly, when Menzies landed in the US he was received positively.

Not wanting to create another NATO, which was controversial in the US, especially in Congress, as it would potentially allow the US to go to war with Congress declaring war, Spender pitched it as a purely defensive treaty. He borrowed from the US’ own Monroe Doctrine, which said that any European intervention in the Americas would be treated by the US as “dangerous to its own peace and safety,” and applied it to the Pacific.

Australia had to concede to the US’ demand that the UK be left out of ANZUS, as they were an imperial power. In 1953, the new Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, was told that any effort to expand ANZUS to include the UK would immediately lead to the US exiting the treaty.

The UK was unhappy with the treaty. Two Commonwealth nations, Australia and New Zealand, had given the US access to their military bases and formed a defensive agreement with another world power, one that would overtake the UK. The UK had agreed to surrender its control over Australian foreign policy, but when Australia then acted independently of the UK and worked with the US, the British response was ‘no, we didn’t mean it like that.’

Australia never fully abandoned the UK. In the Suez Crisis of 156, Menzies and Australia sided with the UK, even though the UK was invading Egypt alongside France and Israel. Menzies ignored the advice of Casey, who correctly predicted that the US would work to resolve the conflict, instead of siding with the UK and taking part in the invasion. The Suez Crisis soured US-Australian relations for a few years afterwards.

And now Australia has come full circle. The new AUKUS alliance incorporates both Australia’s strong, modern relationship with the US and its old, traditional connection to the UK, but this time without New Zealand, because of the latter’s refusal to use anything nuclear-powered.

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