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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 3



‘Australia’s vital strategic interests in Dutch New Guinea, … are, in fact, no less than Australia’s vital strategic interests in Australian New Guinea and Papua’.

Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, 1950

‘Australians could not trust the Indonesians as neighbours in New Guinea in the event of a conflict between the free world and the communists’.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies, 1950

On 19 December 1949 Robert Menzies was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia for a second time. A week later, following years of bitter conflict and the transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands, Achmad Sukarno, seven years younger than Menzies, was sworn in as President of Indonesia, a title he had held since his audacious declaration of independence in August 1945. In a curious twist of history both would govern and dominate the politics of their respective countries for the next sixteen years. Both would lead their governments through the challenges and threats which emerged over that period.

These two men, Menzies and Sukarno, were a study in contrasts. Menzies had been moulded in the principles of law and Westminster parliamentary democracy, having first been elected to the Victorian State Parliament in 1928 and then to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1934. He had served as Attorney General from 1934 to 1939 and as Prime Minister from 26 April 1939 to 29 August 1941. He had seen the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia as the greatest threat his country had ever faced. For many Australians, Menzies included, it had demonstrated, once and for all, the country’s vulnerability to attack from the north.

Sukarno’s political career had been forged in the furnace of an anti-colonial struggle against Dutch rule over the Netherlands East Indies. He had carried the aspirations of his people as they sought a new identity in an independent nation emerging from colonial rule. For Sukarno, the Second World War and the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies had become the catalyst for a much longed-for drive for decolonisation and independence. He had led this struggle through the post-war period and had finally succeeded in negotiating independence for his homeland – a homeland which he firmly believed included all of the former Dutch East Indies and stretched from Sabang in Aceh to Merauke in West New Guinea. Sukarno had emerged as the symbol of Indonesia’s new nationalism.

Menzies was conservative, orthodox, disciplined and cautious. He saw Australia’s involvement in international issues as a means to secure the support of Australia’s principal allies, Britain and the United States. He campaigned strongly at home and abroad against the threat of communism. He preferred the atmosphere and surety of the old world of Imperial Britain and, as Peter Edwards has described,

like many Australians of his time, Menzies assumed that Australia’s security was based in large measure on European dominance of most of Southeast Asia. The rapid post-1945 decolonisation of the European empires in Asia and Africa, especially in Southeast Asia, discomfited him.1

In contrast, Sukarno was emotional, undisciplined, reckless and a near-demagogue. He governed in an atmosphere of crises and diversions and enjoyed indulging in acts of brinkmanship. He saw the world through the prism of anti-colonialism and non-alignment and identified himself closely with leaders such as Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt and Zhou Enlai of communist China. He regarded himself as a natural leader of the emerging Afro-Asian bloc. As President, Sukarno ignored questions of economic management, allowing his country instead to crumble into near bankruptcy and chronic instability. He flirted with the largest communist party outside of Russia and China, the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia), in order to retain power. Under Sukarno’s leadership Indonesia became the second largest non-communist recipient of aid from the communist bloc after Nasser’s Egypt.

From vastly different backgrounds and pursuing markedly different policies and objectives these two leaders dominated their respective countries’ domestic and foreign policies for more than sixteen years. Both could be described as the product of their background and times. Menzies put his country on the path to prosperity but yearned for an older world and was disturbed by changes to institutions, such as the Commonwealth. Sukarno was the product of his own tumultuous upbringing and marked by his long campaign for Indonesian independence. His ill-disciplined behaviour and nationalist rhetoric reflected the frustration of leading a diverse country struggling to develop and prosper.

The two leaders met only once, when Menzies visited Indonesia in December 1959. There is no evidence that they corresponded with one another, despite Menzies being a prolific writer to world leaders and a regular international traveller (in his first eight years in office he was absent overseas for a cumulative period of close to two years).2 Indeed, one of the surprising facts is that despite being engaged in two significant regional disputes in the 1950s and 1960s, Australia’s and Indonesia’s senior leaders only occasionally met one another – for example, there were only four meetings between President, Prime Minister and Ministers for Foreign Affairs in the eight years between 1955 and 1963.3 Nevertheless, the assessment by Menzies and his fellow ministers of Sukarno and his government had a profound influence on the development of Australia’s foreign and defence policies in the period between 1950 and 1966. It contributed to one of the most rapid build-ups in Australia’s military preparedness beginning in the early 1960s. It also had a significant influence on the way defence planners approached the assessment of Australia’s strategic environment and, as a consequence, ensured that Papua New Guinea remained a constant focus in Australia’s defence planning.

It is hard to know what Sukarno thought of Australia. He would have had an intimate knowledge of Australia’s sympathy for Indonesia’s push for independence in the post-war period under the Chifley Labor Government and he kept the door open to Australian diplomats such as Tom Critchley who had been instrumental in securing Indonesia’s independence.4 He may also have been impressed by the senior level of the Australian diplomat sent to Jakarta as Ambassador: John Hood (1950–1953), Walter Crocker (1955–1957), Lawrence (Jim) McIntyre (1957–1960), Patrick Shaw (1960–1962) and K.C.O. (Mick) Shann (1962–1966). But beyond that little is known. He never publicly criticised Australia, even during the height of Confrontation in the mid-1960s, and at times went out of his way to reassure Australia of his wish for a positive relationship. His personal opinion of Menzies is not known. In contrast, Menzies and his fellow Cabinet ministers distrusted Sukarno from a very early date and remained deeply suspicious of Indonesia’s intentions. This feeling was pervasive and influenced Australia’s decision-making throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By 1963 Menzies had lost all confidence in and respect for Sukarno and let drop an invitation for him to visit Australia.5 At the same time, as an indication of the complex nature of the relationship, he and his colleagues acknowledged, albeit at times reluctantly, that Australia had to live with its northern neighbour and had to establish some type of a workable bilateral relationship.

If the two leaders did have a characteristic in common it was their skill as formidable and popular orators. Both were masters of the public arena with Sukarno in particular employing his charismatic personality to manipulate and win the support of the crowd and thereby secure his continued supremacy in the chaotic world of Indonesian politics. Sukarno was described by one Australian Ambassador to Jakarta as having a ‘mesmeric hold over the urban and (to a lesser degree) the rural masses’ secured through a ‘mixture of astuteness and charm’ and the ‘guile to play off his potential challengers against one another’.6 Menzies was forceful, authoritative and, at his wilful best, merciless in the prosecution of his argument as best demonstrated in his brutal demolition of the leader of the Labor Party, Dr Evatt, in October 1955 following the tabling in Parliament of the final report of the Petrov Royal Commission.7

Menzies and his Cabinet were tested for over a decade by the management of the relationship with Indonesia. The West New Guinea dispute was discussed in Cabinet on at least thirty-six occasions between 1950 and 1962 either in great detail or in the wider context of Australia’s overall strategic outlook. Confrontation and the question of military assistance to Malaysia were discussed on over twenty occasions between 1963 and 1966. Both issues dominated the Cabinet room discussion more so than the Korean War, the Suez Crisis or Australia’s entry into the war in Vietnam. The West New Guinea dispute and Confrontation were also the subject of regular correspondence and discussion between Menzies and his British and American counterparts for close to sixteen years and the subject of repeated assessments by senior officials. As the various crises unfolded in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s a recurring feature of the debates in Cabinet and elsewhere was the need to factor in the defence of Papua New Guinea in any calculation of how Australia could or should respond. Menzies and his ministers held uppermost in their minds the place of geography in determining Australia’s strategic priorities, the importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia and the need to provide for its defence.

Early Australian interest

In December 1949 Australia enjoyed a positive and sympathetic standing with the incoming government of an independent Indonesia. On 9 July 1947, in response to the first Dutch ‘police action’ against the Indonesian nationalists, the Minister for External Affairs, Dr Evatt, had announced Australia’s recognition of the de facto status of the Indonesian Republic while still appearing to accept the Netherlands de jure authority. In September 1947 following extensive negotiations at the United Nations, Australia accepted the invitation by the Republic to become its nominee on the United Nations Good Offices Committee (GOC).8 Over the next four months, culminating in the signing of the Renville Agreement in January 1948, ‘Australia found itself increasingly cast in the role of champion of the Republic’.9 The Renville Agreement was at best an interim or temporary solution to the problem of Dutch–Indonesian relations and a new round of negotiations would be inevitable, particularly following the resumption of ‘police action’ by the Dutch in December 1948.

In July 1949, in the days preceding the beginning of the Round Table Conference intended to settle the terms of the transfer of Dutch sovereignty over Indonesia, the Netherlands surprised the international community when it made clear that it intended to retain sovereignty over Dutch New Guinea. The republican and federalist Indonesian delegations claimed that as the successor state to the Netherlands for the whole of the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia had the right to control West New Guinea. It was eventually recognised by all delegations at the Round Table Conference that postponement of negotiations over the status of West New Guinea was the only acceptable approach if the conference and the founding of Indonesia were not to be delayed. Under the terms of the Round Table Conference agreement it was acknowledged that the views of the parties remained ‘in dispute’. It was agreed that negotiations on the ‘question of the political status of New Guinea’ would commence within a year of the date of the transfer of sovereignty, i.e. late 1950.10

Margaret George has argued that Australia’s support for the continuation of Dutch sovereignty over West New Guinea ‘contradicted its approach to the resolution of the Dutch-Indonesia dispute’ based as it was on support for the moderate forces within the nationalist movement. George has concluded that ‘whereas the Australian government had come to regard the Dutch as contributing to instability in Indonesia, their continuing control of West New Guinea was welcomed as a guarantee to stability within New Guinea and as a bulwark to Australia’s external security’.11 Australia’s security interests were best promoted by obstructing ‘any changeover to indigenous administration in West New Guinea’ as this ‘might enable revolutionary nationalism and or Asian Communism to penetrate New Guinea’.12 Australia had supported the emergence of an independent Indonesia but felt best protected if the ‘barrier’ to the north were maintained by a reliable but distant European power. Garry Woodard, a senior Australian diplomat and later historian, has described Australia’s objective in the West New Guinea dispute as ‘keeping this undeveloped territory out of the hands of Indonesia while trying to control the damage to the bilateral relations’. He has also argued that this was ‘Australia’s most consistent foreign policy challenge in the decade up to [Sir Garfield] Barwick becoming Foreign Minister [1961]’.13

The second outcome from the early debate over the future of West New Guinea was that, in the mind of Australians, little distinction was drawn between the two halves of the island. When assessing the future of Dutch New Guinea, Australian decision-makers were also thinking of Australian New Guinea. The island was seen as one strategic entity despite the political division between the two halves. As a consequence, little distinction was made in assessing the military importance of either half to Australia. This attitude was to be carried forward by the incoming Menzies Government when it assumed office in December 1949.

New government: old ideas

A recent study of Menzies by Anne Henderson makes few references to his views on foreign affairs in the post-war period except for his rigid support for the British Commonwealth and a wish to see a stronger relationship between Britain and the United States.14 This overlooks Menzies’s view on issues such as continued Dutch rule of West New Guinea. Menzies was alarmed by the combination of rising nationalism in Asia and the calls for decolonisation. As early as 1945 he had told a Liberal Party convention that ‘the very arguments used for throwing the Dutch out of the East Indies are the arguments which will be used to throw the British out of Malaya, to throw the British out of Burma, India, for throwing the Australians out of New Guinea’.15 Menzies returned to this theme in February 1949 when he told the Australian Parliament that ‘we cannot sensibly expect to maintain our own territorial integrity and our own national, racial and economic policies – which we are perfectly entitled to have and which we do have and hold strongly – if we take sides against European nations as though they were, of necessity, interlopers in countries where they have long been colonists, administrators and educators’. He went on to argue that, as a consequence of what he described as the Chifley Government’s anti-Dutch stance, ‘we have been assisting to put the Dutch out of the East Indies. If we continue to do that the same process will no doubt in due course, eject the British from Malaya and the Australians from Papua and New Guinea’.16

Menzies also showed his lukewarm attitude towards the newly-formed United Nations which was to characterise his time in government. He attacked the Chifley Government’s support for the United Nations in facilitating the negotiations, describing it as interference in the sovereign affairs of a state and as a possible harbinger of future interventions in issues of domestic jurisdiction such as the White Australia policy. He also criticised the Labor Government for a policy which served ‘to placate neutrals or former collaborators with the Japanese, (rather) than … play the game by our former allies’.17 This was a reference to the links between Sukarno and his senior supporters and the Japanese occupying forces during the war. In a speech in Sydney in January 1949 Menzies had described members of Indonesia’s independence movement as ‘active Japanese collaborators’.18 It was a description repeated by other members of the Liberal Party.

In the debate in parliament in February 1949, Menzies’s senior colleague, Percy Spender, who had served as Minister for the Army from 1940 to 1941, a member of the War Cabinet in 1939 and would assume the portfolio of Minister for External Affairs and Minister for External Territories (i.e. responsible for Papua and New Guinea) in the Menzies Government, argued that by supporting the Indonesian independence movement the Chifley Government had ‘allied itself to a policy which will ultimately destroy White Australia’.19 Spender echoed Menzies’s argument when he said that the consequence of the government’s policy would be that ‘the French should get out of New Caledonia, the Dutch out of Indonesia, the English out of Malaya and the Portuguese out of Portuguese Timor. Then certainly we should be alone, and to whom should we turn to in time of trouble?’20 Spender added that should Indonesia secure Dutch New Guinea and ‘if the natives have a right to govern themselves in Dutch New Guinea why have they not a similar right to govern themselves in the mandated territory administered by Australia? If so, we ought to get out of there, if we are to be logical’.21

The arguments used by Menzies and Spender, drawing on the threat to Australia’s immediate security in the region should Indonesia secure West New Guinea, had bipartisan support in the Australian Parliament. The Labor Party, although a supporter of Indonesia’s drive for independence, firmly believed that Australia’s security would be endangered if Indonesia secured West New Guinea. The former Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Government and later leader of the party, Arthur Calwell, told the House of Representatives in February 1950 that

we can no more let the Indonesians into Dutch New Guinea than we can let them into Darwin. … and we can no more trust an Indonesia that we have recognized under Soekarno than we could trust an Indonesia that was led by the same Soekarno when he was a Japanese puppet premier. If we allow the Indonesians into Dutch New Guinea there will be no hope of our holding the northern portion of Australia and the fate of this country would then be sealed and certain.22

Labor did not change its views throughout the period of the dispute.

Similarly, the Australian press, drawing on language first used by Prime Minister Hughes, echoed many of Spender’s arguments with a recurring degree of alarm. In an editorial on 2 January 1950 the Melbourne Sun argued that an Indonesian takeover was a ‘matter … of vital interest to the Commonwealth. … we would be entitled to view with some uneasiness a transfer which placed in the hands of relatively inexperienced administrators an area which would be an obvious springboard for any future aggressor’.23 Earlier it had described a possible Indonesian takeover as ‘a dagger pointed at Australia’s heart’.24

The influential Sydney Morning Herald commented that ‘it is an imperative requirement of Australia’s security that no dangerously premature nationalism should be injected into New Guinea’ and preferred the Dutch to remain to steer ‘more safely and wisely’ the area to self-government.25 The Sydney Sun described the Indonesian Government’s claim as ‘the most serious threat to Australia’s security since the Japanese advance on Rabaul’ and that Australia would have ‘a common front with an Asian nation of 75,000,000 in which is a strong communist element’. It would see the ‘loss of a strategic buffer against possible aggression from Communist-dominated Far Eastern counties’ and the ‘disappearance of the last European neighbour and complete isolation from white communities’.26

The Australian press had captured the arguments which would form the basis of Australia’s objections to an Indonesian takeover of West New Guinea: that Indonesia was an untested and potentially unreliable neighbour; that the Dutch were a more reliable and steady administrator; there were no cultural or community links between Indonesia and West New Guinea which would sustain the argument that it should be granted control of Dutch New Guinea; and that an Indonesian presence in the western half of the island was too close to Australia’s interest in the eastern half of the island and to Australia in general. The Australian media remained unchanged in its opinions throughout the 1950s. As Woodard has concluded, ‘after the experience of World War II, Australians of all political persuasions … saw Australia’s security interests as served by New Guinea being in reliable hands, certainly in the hands of a country which would keep out hostile powers’. He has also added to this argument by noting that Australia’s security concerns ‘were bound up inextricably with racial prejudice against Indonesia, which reflected public opinion’.27

Spender takes the initiative

Within three weeks of coming to office Spender began to put in place a plan largely developed on his own initiative to establish a security screen across Australia’s northern coastline.28 His intention was to create a barrier of friendly states which would serve to defend Australia. Crucial to this objective was that sovereignty over West New Guinea not pass to Indonesia. As part of this plan he also sought to secure control over the archipelago stretching across Australia’s northeastern coast.

In January 1950, en route to a Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Conference in Colombo, Spender launched the first part of his strategy. On 14 January he wrote to the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Philip Noel-Baker, and proposed that Britain’s interest in the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides be passed to Australia. Spender cited Australia’s ‘close interest in the New Hebrides from a strategic point of view’, as well as its interest in developing over 40,000 acres of land held by the Australian Government.29 Spender also asked that Australia be involved in any talks with the French on the future of the New Hebrides. Britain responded positively to Spender’s initiative with Prime Minister Attlee describing it to his Cabinet colleagues as a ‘very good bargain for us’.30 Shortly after, Spender was told that the French were, in principle, sympathetic to the proposal. Spender recommended to Menzies that the issue be put to the Australian Cabinet. He hoped ministers would endorse a ‘proposal so obviously in the vital interests of Australia’. He added that it was a ‘matter of supreme importance … that for the effective protection of our eastern coastline we should step into the shoes of the United Kingdom. … The New Hebrides are an important area, forming as they do with New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville, a vital strategic screen for Australia’.31 Spender’s ambitions, and the language he used, were similar to those used by Hughes in 1919 and 1920.


A reflection on Percy Spender’s role in the West New Guinea dispute. Charles Hallett, Smith’s Weekly, October 1950.

The issue evolved slowly over the next few months. The government’s Defence Committee advised Cabinet in July 1951 of its ‘lukewarm’ assessment of the strategic value of the New Hebrides to Australia’s defence.32 The Committee noted that ‘all islands of the central and south Pacific may be regarded as having approximately equal strategic value to the defence of Australia’. The New Hebrides occupied a ‘strategic position in the inner screen’ of islands off the coast of Australia’ but ‘the group is only of limited importance in any foreseeable strategic situation’.33 Over subsequent months Canberra’s enthusiasm for the idea waned until it allowed it to pass. Finally, in June 1952 Australia advised the British Government that it would defer for at least two years any further consideration of the proposal ‘due to difficulties in providing necessary administrative personnel’ to support an Australian presence.34 Canberra, as Goldworthy has noted, was content not to assume responsibility for Britain’s half of the island as long as Britain remained in situ and protected any potential Australian interest.35 It is a curious anomaly that in this period Spender made no formal demarche to the British Government to seek the transfer of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate to Australia. Its claim to a crucial role in Australia’s defence perimeter due to its close proximity to both the north eastern coast of Australia and to Papua New Guinea was just as strong as those of the New Hebrides. It was not until 1956 and again in 1959 that ministers turned to the suggestion of acquiring the Solomon Islands but by then the Cabinet had lost interest. John McEwen, Leader of the Country Party and Deputy Prime Minister from 1958 to 1971, told his colleagues that Australia had too many other responsibilities and obligations to take control of the Solomon Islands. He later added that ‘takeovers don’t fit in today’s world’.36

The second element in Spender’s strategic plan was to ensure that the Dutch retained sovereignty and responsibility over West New Guinea. In January 1950 he visited Jakarta en route to the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Colombo. In his report to Menzies on his discussions with President Sukarno, Spender told the Prime Minister that there was ‘evidence of sustainable good will towards Australia’ and that the new government ‘will obviously appreciate all the advice and assistance that can be given them by Australia’. For his part, he had ‘confined [himself] to general expressions of our desire to give them whatever help we can and in particular to increase trade with Indonesia’. He noted the ‘general air of confidence’ and judged that ‘if the present government can be sustained through full cooperation from the Dutch and help from the United States, Australia and others, there is good cause for optimism’. He was also confident that the bilateral relationship could be developed.37

On the subject of Dutch New Guinea, Spender was more cautious. He described the issue as ‘an exceedingly delicate one’ and that ‘the Indonesians at present apparently feel very strongly on the matter’ – a surprisingly naïve remark given the events of the previous twelve months. He commented that an article in the Australian press by Wilfred Kent-Hughes MP ridiculing Indonesia’s claims to Dutch New Guinea ‘had caused some excitement here’ but added that to ‘what extent this is a real question with the Indonesians as distinct from the politics behind it, is not possible at this stage to gauge’. He urged that ‘public comment and speculation be discouraged at the present time’.38

In his memoirs Spender described his meeting with Sukarno in which the President had raised the issue of West New Guinea. Spender said he had cut Sukarno off, saying the President knew the views of the Australian Government on the issue and that ‘in the light of them did he think that any discussion between us would be likely to be very productive’. Spender added that he didn’t want the convivial nature of the meeting to be disturbed by ‘any difference between us’.39 In view of the seriousness of the issue and the Menzies Government’s strong stance it is surprising he did not take this early opportunity to try to discourage Sukarno from pursuing Indonesia’s claim. It would be another two years before an Australian Minister for External Affairs again had the chance to speak directly to Sukarno.

Spender used the occasion of his visit to deliver a speech over the Macquarie Radio Network to an audience in Australia. Speaking from Jakarta he described the emergence of Indonesia as a ‘great experiment’ that ‘can have tremendous importance for the future of Southeast Asia and indeed for the whole world’. He drew attention to the fact that:

Indonesia is, after all, our nearest neighbour, and [that] our future welfare, and especially our future security, might be vitally affected by what happens here … This is a plain fact of geography; we simply cannot afford to be indifferent to events that take place next door to us.

It is especially important that Indonesia should … pursue a course of conduct which creates no clash of interests between us. Anything we can do to these ends will be a measure of insurance for our own future.40

Australia had begun a delicate balancing act which was to last for over a decade between developing a bilateral relationship with Jakarta and maintaining a position on the status of West New Guinea. Richard Casey, who would succeed Spender as Minister for External Affairs, described this policy as similar to trying to ride two horses at once.

On his return to Canberra Spender made clear Australia’s full support for continued Dutch control over West New Guinea. In a letter to the Dutch Ambassador on 8 February 1950, he drew attention to the fact that negotiations between Indonesia and the Netherlands were to be held later in the year to settle the status of West New Guinea. He asserted that ‘the Netherlands authorities will fully appreciate Australia’s vital strategic interests in Dutch New Guinea, which are, in fact, no less than Australia’s vital interests in Australian New Guinea and Papua’. As a result the Australian Government regarded itself ‘as directly concerned in the determination of the future administration of Dutch New Guinea’ – a point it intended to make separately to the Indonesian authorities. He then proceeded to articulate Australia’s policy position:

The Australian Government does not regard Dutch New Guinea as forming part of Indonesia. We believe that the peoples of Dutch New Guinea have little or nothing in common, except a past common administration, with the peoples of Indonesia. Their developmental problems are separate and the level of political development necessitates placing them in a category quite different from the States of the United States of Indonesia. In fact, we regard Dutch New Guinea as having much in common from both an ethnic, administrative and developmental point of view with our own territories of New Guinea and Papua.

In our view, political and economic stability in the newly-created United States of Indonesia is vital, not merely to our own security interests, but also to those of all western peoples having interests in South-East Asia. The inclusion of Dutch New Guinea, however, with the United States of Indonesia would not, in our view, add to this stability, and may in fact result in Dutch New Guinea being undeveloped, undefended and a major weakness in South-East Asian strategic planning. Indeed, we would view with profound misgivings any transfer of sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia.41

Spender concluded his letter with a proposal that both governments exchange views on the future administration of their respective halves of New Guinea. He also held out the possibility that the ‘Australian Government would be prepared to consider even more fundamental proposals on the future control of the territory’.42 Spender had in mind a possible joint trusteeship arrangement over Dutch New Guinea.

Spender’s letter to the Dutch Government encapsulated the principles the Menzies Government would articulate over the coming decade with an ever-increasing emphasis on security and defence. Indonesian control over such a large area was too close for comfort for a government still haunted by the experiences of the Second World War. In addition, the letter had suggested that an Indonesia which was already struggling with the demands of independence would be made more susceptible to internal instability by having to provide for the development needs of West New Guinea. It also hinted at the possibility that Indonesia could not be trusted to restrict its claims to just Dutch New Guinea and that it had ambitions to incorporate the whole island. The ethnic and anthropological arguments were particularly important because by describing the Papuans of Dutch New Guinea as having more in common with the indigenous population of Australian New Guinea, Spender was also drawing a picture of a potentially unified island. In terms of strategic planning it meant that the island was being seen by Australian authorities as one entity rather than Australia’s interests being solely focused on Australian New Guinea.

The second point to note is that Australia had embarked on a policy without first seeking the support of either London or Washington. As Richard Chauvel has commented, Spender’s policy approach was an ‘attempt to conduct an indigenous and independent policy’.43 Stuart Doran has developed this point further with an argument that Spender viewed Australia ‘as the preeminent power in the area roughly south of Singapore and as the effective colonial power of the Southwest Pacific’. As a consequence it ‘aggressively and relatively independently assert[ed] its predominance in the wider area through defence of its immediate Pacific sphere of influence east of the West New Guinea–Papua and New Guinea border and maintenance of its strategic buffer zone in West New Guinea’.44 As we shall see, the behaviour of Spender in pursuing his objective gives support to Doran’s thesis but the argument is weakened by the realisation that Australia had few diplomatic assets and no military wherewithal to back up any claims to assert superiority over Indonesia or to stake out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. Even Spender’s ‘stubbornness’ and ‘maverick trait’ that characterised his dealings with his allies eventually undermined his standing and his support.45 The ‘highly volatile, almost manic’ approach of Dr Evatt in the 1940s was replaced by the ‘strong, self-assured personality’ of Spender, leading Patrick Gordon Walker, the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, to comment that, when assessing Australia’s policy approach to the West New Guinea dispute, ‘scratch a Spender and you’ll find an Evatt’.46 He could have added ‘and a Hughes’.

At this time the Australian Government and the press were especially sensitive to any suggestion that Indonesia held expansionist ambitions and, in this regard, comments made on 30 January 1950 by Mohammed Yamin, a middle-ranking adviser to the Republican delegation at the Round Table Conference, caused considerable alarm. In an interview with the news wire service ANETA, Yamin was reported to have said that after Dutch New Guinea had been incorporated into Indonesia, talks should also be held about Australian New Guinea ‘as this territory which is at present under Australian trusteeship is Indonesian, too’. He also identified Portuguese Timor and British North Borneo as areas to be included in Indonesia if colonialism were to be ‘wiped out absolutely and unconditionally’.47 The Australian press and the government reacted angrily to Yamin’s comments. The Sydney Morning Herald described them as demonstrating ‘Indonesian imperialist pretension’ and that ‘Djakarta’s territorial appetite is visibly growing’. It again called for continued Dutch administration of West New Guinea or, if necessary, that it should be placed under a trusteeship. As for Eastern New Guinea, it ‘is our charge, and we shall firmly hold it’.48

Spender similarly rejected Yamin’s statement, adding ‘the United States of Indonesia has not the slightest shadow of a claim to Australian New Guinea on any ground, ethnic (racial) or otherwise. Any such claim would not admit a moment’s consideration. It would be immediately rejected’.49 The Indonesian Government, through its Ambassador to the United Nations (L. N. Palar), formally advised the Australian Government on 6 February that the statement (by Yamin) was ‘totally without foundation and my government denies it emphatically’.50 Later, on 11 April, President Sukarno asked the Australian Ambassador ‘to convey to his Minister his strongest assurance that Indonesians have no aspirations whatever regarding Australian administration of territories in New Guinea’.51

In late April 1950, Australia again approached the Dutch Government and expressed its alarm at any possibility of a compromise settlement being reached which would see Indonesia secure control of West New Guinea. Australia’s diplomatic note made clear that ‘we would regard our security interests adversely affected if Republican influence were confined to Dutch New Guinea. … Inevitably Republican influence would step by step be increased and ultimately argument put forward in spite of present denials that our own territories should be similarly incorporated either wholly or in part’.52 Australia suggested as an alternative to a possible Indonesian takeover that responsibility for West New Guinea be transferred to Australia or that a trusteeship be established with Australia a trusted power or a joint Netherlands–Australian trusteeship be created. Australia made clear that ‘we could not contemplate trusteeship in which Indonesia was either alone or in conjunction with other power a trusteeship authority’.53

Menzies and Spender state Australia’s case

After three months of international travel and active diplomatic campaigning, Spender turned his attention to the Australian Parliament where he delivered two major speeches setting out the government’s foreign policy priorities. On 9 March 1950 he told the Parliament that Australia had a duty to ensure that ‘nothing takes place [in the islands to the north] that can in any way offer a threat to Australian security. These islands are, as experience has shown, our last ring of defence against aggression’. He drew attention to New Guinea as a whole and described it as ‘an absolutely essential link in the chain of Australian defence’. He added, with an oblique reference to Dutch New Guinea, ‘it is not to be assumed by any one [sic] that should fundamental changes take place in any of these areas, Australia would adopt a purely passive role’.54 Spender did not elaborate on what he meant by this last remark. It could be assessed as suggesting an aggressive diplomatic campaign to thwart any Indonesian initiative or, in extremis, a preparedness to use military force. Spender did not inform the Parliament of his discussions with the British Government over the New Hebrides but referred to Australia’s interest in ‘any developments in Timor, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia that might have unwelcome consequences for Australia’ and Australia’s preparedness to join in ‘arrangements of mutual economic and security benefit’. He referred to Australian New Guinea in the context of the promotion of the local population and its development ‘to serve Australia’s security interests’.55

On 8 June 1950 Spender delivered the second of his speeches on Australia’s immediate security environment and dealt at length with New Guinea. He reiterated many of the points he had earlier made in correspondence with Australia’s allies as to the significance of the island to Australia. He again sought to create the image that the island’s two halves should ‘naturally’ be considered as one and that ‘strategically (they were) vital to our defence. … We cannot alter our geography which for all time makes the mainland of New Guinea of vital significance to our security’.56

Spender had taken an early role in setting out Australia’s objections to Indonesia securing control of West New Guinea. He and Menzies now took advantage of a program of visits over the next six months to London, The Hague and Washington to lobby allies to support their arguments. In July 1950 Menzies used his first visit to London since being elected Prime Minister to tell Kenneth Younger, Minister of State in the UK Foreign Office and acting Foreign Secretary, of Australia’s concerns and suspicions about the newly independent Indonesia.57 He reminded Younger that ‘New Guinea had proved to be of vital strategic importance to Australia in the last war and would be equally important in any coming conflict’. Menzies, using language similar to his speech in Parliament in 1949 as well as to that used by the senior Labor parliamentarian, Arthur Calwell, in February 1950, went on to say:

to be frank, the Australians could not trust the Indonesians as neighbours in New Guinea in the event of a conflict between the free world and the Communists. At a time when Australian blood was being shed in New Guinea the present Indonesian leaders had been making obeisance to the Emperor of Japan. Furthermore, Indonesia had no valid claim to Dutch New Guinea on ethnic, historical or other grounds. In fact their claim was purely colonial – on the basis that what had been a Dutch colony should be an Indonesian colony.58

He added that such was the strength of feeling in Australia that ‘any proposal that the Indonesians should take over Dutch New Guinea would have to be resisted by Australia, even to the extent of a rupture with Indonesia. … What the Australians were not prepared to have was a long, indefensible, purely technical frontier with an Indonesian New Guinea over which they could not stop Chinese Communist or other infiltration’.59 It is not clear what Menzies intended by his reference to Australia resisting an Indonesian takeover but it was similar to Spender’s earlier reference to Australia not adopting a ‘purely passive role’ in its approach to the issue.

Younger expressed his sympathy for Australia’s point-of-view but added his concern if ‘the matter were allowed to vitiate Indonesian–Australian relations and become a major issue of East–West conflict, with the Asians supporting the Indonesian stand’.60 Britain saw the dispute in the broader context of the global Cold War rather than regional security. It was preoccupied with the tense relationship with the USSR over Berlin and East Germany, the impact of the fall of China to the communist party, the threat to Formosa (Taiwan) and the Korean war which had begun just weeks earlier. It did not wish to add a quarrel over the sovereignty of half an island in Southeast Asia to global tensions. Both leaders agreed it would be best if the issue were kept out of the United Nations, with Menzies expressing his support for the question to be held in abeyance for a number of years. This latter idea had emerged as the preferred option for the management of the dispute, with a number of countries suggesting that the issue be placed in ‘cold storage’ until a solution could be found.

While Menzies returned to Australia Spender continued his aggressive campaign to thwart any possible Indonesian takeover of West New Guinea. On 28 August 1950 he visited The Hague for discussions with the government of Dr Drees. Spender and his Cabinet colleagues had been concerned either that the Dutch Government could weaken in its resolve to hold on to West New Guinea, or that the coalition government could collapse and be replaced by one that was prepared to negotiate a settlement. This concern was to remain present in Australian ministerial thinking for the remainder of the decade and was watched carefully by Australian diplomats in The Hague and by ministers in Canberra. After the talks he cabled Menzies that he was satisfied that the Dutch Government was opposed to any form of compromise and understood that the ‘Australian Government’s view was wholly opposed to any entry direct or indirect by Indonesia into Dutch New Guinea’. Spender told Menzies:

The course which I have advanced is that of no compromise. I think this is the safest one to pursue at the moment. If we show any disposition to compromise we only worsen our position later on although it may be that Dutch trusteeship will be accepted in which Australian vital interests will be protected.61

He added that ‘it was obvious that they welcomed our unequivocal stand and that this has produced over the past six months a stiffening of their attitude’.62 Spender did acknowledge to Menzies that the Dutch attitude could change in the years ahead as Dutch commercial interests operating in Indonesia could try to pressure the government to reach a compromise. Nevertheless, he was confident that Drees would resist such pressures. (In a later report to Cabinet Spender noted that ‘the matter still has its dangers because of the pressure from Dutch commercial interests’.63) Spender also advised Menzies that he had raised with the Dutch the question of ‘collaboration in defence security and administrative problems in New Guinea’ and his suggestion for an ‘informal machinery for consultation on common defence security and similar problems in New Guinea’.64 The Dutch authorities had taken note and had left it for ‘future discussion’. (The Dutch record of the meeting with Spender noted that he had also drawn attention to the Australian naval base on Manus Island and by implication had raised the possibility of the Dutch using it.)65 Spender concluded his message by noting that he had ‘stressed to the Dutch that emphasis should be placed in their arguments on the welfare of the indigenous people of New Guinea’ while in his approach to the United States and Britain he would ‘place special emphasis on the security and defence aspects’.66 Spender’s comment reflected a decision by him on the tactics to be pursued in this debate. It is open to question whether this was a cynical ploy to hide Australia’s overall objection to the newly independent Asian state coming closer to Australian interests in Papua and New Guinea or represented a genuine concern for Australia’s security.

According to a later record of the meeting, the Dutch Prime Minister had also asked Spender not to make ‘too strong [public] statements’ on West New Guinea, perhaps reflecting a concern that Spender’s uncompromising approach and blunt remarks in public could only serve to alienate Indonesian opinion.67 Spender appeared to take little notice of the Dutch request when he issued a press statement in The Hague on 29 August in which he repeated all the arguments that now constituted Australia’s case against any concession to the Indonesian claim. A clear emphasis was again placed on the need to secure Australia’s defence interests against an ambitious Indonesia. He argued that:

if the claim of Indonesia … were conceded to any degree at all it would be but a matter of time, no matter how genuine may be assurances to the contrary, when the claim will be pushed further so as to include the Trust Territory of Australian New Guinea and its people. Experience has shown to Australians how strategically vital to Australian defence is the mainland of New Guinea.

At the same time as dismissing the Indonesian claim, Spender noted Australia’s ‘friendly attitude towards the Indonesian people’ and Australia’s ‘not unimportant part in bringing nationhood to the Indonesian people’.68 This was a convenient line of argument and one which sought to bring a degree of balance into the presentation of Australia’s policy objectives but it was a hollow gesture given Spender’s overall hostility towards Sukarno’s Indonesia.

Spender next travelled to London. He called on British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and took up the issue of West New Guinea. Attlee agreed with Spender’s argument that ‘there was no real reason why New Guinea should be under the Indonesians’ and he also ‘recognized the strong strategic interests of Australia’. He told his colleagues that he ‘thought we [i.e. the UK Government] should endeavour to keep the status quo at present’.69 Spender was more direct and somewhat agitated in his conversation with the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, on 1 September 1950. He told Bevin that ‘too many attempts were being made to find a solution’ to the issue and that ‘any solution which did not maintain Dutch control would mean a concession and no concession of any kind should be made to Indonesia’. He also told Bevin that ‘if there were any Indonesian infiltration Australian troops would have to go in at once’. Moreover, any decision by the Security Council for participation by Indonesia in the administration of Dutch New Guinea would mean ‘a break between Australia and the United Nations’. Spender had no authority from Cabinet to make such a statement and any initiative to include Indonesia along these lines could have been vetoed by one of Australia’s allies on the Council. It indicated Spender’s single-minded if somewhat emotional approach to the issue and his heightened distrust of Indonesia. Bevin tried to calm Spender by expressing a preference for the issue to be placed in ‘cold storage’ for a few years.70

The British Government described Spender as ‘violent’ in the presentation of his argument. His uncompromising approach disturbed the Foreign Office which at one point characterised his response to possible joint consultations on the issue with Britain as ‘uncommunicative and unwilling’.71 Reflecting on its own policy approach which sought not to antagonise Indonesia for fear that it would become hostile to the West and hence undermine the West’s position in Southeast Asia, the Foreign Office assessed that:

It is one thing to state a preference for Dutch control over West Irian but entirely another to go bald-headed for that objective. This is what the Australians are doing, and I do not see where it will lead them except to some strain on their relations with Indonesia.

If Holland and Indonesia reached a mutually satisfactory arrangement, I really do not see what justification anyone else would have for trying to upset it: nor would such action be supported by other powers. If it were Australia who tried to upset it, then we would I am sure try to use our influence discreetly to help Australia, but it would be for the sake of friendship for Australia and not out of conviction that we were acting in the best interests of ourselves or indeed of Australia, and I doubt whether we would go as far as Australia would want us to go.72

British Ministers also questioned whether Spender’s style and presentations had the full endorsement and knowledge of the Australian Cabinet. The Foreign Office summed up Spender as difficult to manage.73 In contrast, it assessed Menzies as ‘considerably more reasonable and long-sighted over this than Spender’.74 It understood that Menzies had accepted the idea of maintaining the status quo for two or three years ‘while passions all round had cooled’ but described Australia in general, and Spender in particular, as ‘simply not in the mood to accept a compromise’ which would associate the Indonesians with the administration of West New Guinea. It also understood from the British High Commission in Canberra that Spender had threatened to resign if the Dutch and the Indonesians were to compromise over New Guinea.75 Privately, the Foreign Office described Spender’s threat as ‘very unreasonable’.76

For his part Spender thought he had done well in his conversations in London. He cabled Menzies that British ministers:

fully realize now the vital significance of the issue to Australia and the force of public opinion behind the Government. I think that they will support the Dutch trusteeship. At the very least they will play to prevent any decision being arrived at for some two or three years in the hope that by that time the heat will be off the issue.77

A military perspective

The views expressed by Menzies and Spender in London and The Hague were supported by their military advisers. In three reports, all prepared in the wake of the outbreak of war in the Korean Peninsula, culminating in a letter from the newly appointed Minister for Defence (Philip McBride) to Menzies dated 24 October 1950, the senior military advisers concluded that it was ‘strategically important to Australia that, in a major war, Dutch New Guinea should be denied to a potential enemy. There [was] no internal or external threat at present but it is possible that Indonesia may become Communist dominated or unfriendly and attempt to gain control by force’. The military advisers recommended that ‘Australia should support the Dutch, if necessary with military assistance, in their stand to retain control of Dutch New Guinea’.78 In an earlier report, the Chiefs of Staff had commented that ‘from a defence point of view, the Republic of Indonesia should not be regarded as a friendly power and, in the event of a hot war, it could become Communist dominated or unfriendly’. If it gained control of Dutch New Guinea ‘it is likely that Communist influence would become established there. This may lead to the spread of Communism throughout New Guinea and have a consequential effect on the defence of Australia’.79 The introduction into Australian strategic assessments and ministerial discussions of viewing Indonesia from the perspective of being communist or non-communist was to remain a feature of assessments made from this date until the fall of President Sukarno in late 1965.

Separately, the Chiefs of Staff described the strategic importance of Dutch New Guinea as providing depth to the defence and security of Australia and as a site for potential air and naval bases for use by allied forces. The occupation of Dutch New Guinea airfields by a potential enemy would constitute a threat to Australia and her territories, including Manus Island. The sea approaches to Australia could be threatened and the Australian territories of Papua and New Guinea would be threatened with attack, which, if successful, would put the enemy in possession of areas suitable for mounting an invasion of Australia. The internal threat to those territories would be considerably increased. Indonesia lacked ‘both the means and the experience for firm control and effective administration and cannot be regarded as a stable and friendly regime at present’. For these reasons the Chiefs of Staff argued it was important to the defence of Australia that Dutch New Guinea remain under the control of an allied power, preferably the Netherlands.80

More diplomatic pressure

Australian ministers remained uncertain and concerned as to the future course of events. The Minister for Defence (Philip McBride) told his Cabinet colleagues that he thought the Dutch would ‘sell out on us’ while Spender also doubted the Dutch and asked ‘Can we ensure that the Dutch will stand fast?’ Spender also expressed some sympathy for the idea of a trusteeship over West New Guinea, but only if it were given to the Dutch to administer. He also told his colleagues that the American and British Ambassadors in Jakarta were placing pressure on their home governments to encourage a settlement of the dispute.81 Spender renewed his representations to the Dutch and British Governments but such was the forcefulness of the Australian representations that the British Government intervened directly with Menzies and asked that he tell Spender to refrain from ‘provocative’ statements.82

Menzies returned to London in January 1951 and again raised the West New Guinea issue with Foreign Secretary Bevin. In his response Bevin acknowledged Australia’s anxiety that West New Guinea remain under ‘solid, reliable’ Dutch control but argued that ‘in the long run Australian interests will be best served by a policy designed to retain Indonesian goodwill … even if this sooner or later involves the Australian acceptance of Indonesia as the sovereign power in Western New Guinea’. Alan Watt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, who was accompanying Menzies in London, described Bevin’s argument as ‘completely unsatisfactory’.83 Menzies and his colleagues similarly dismissed Bevin’s suggestion.

Menzies then turned to the United States in an effort to counter the pro-settlement arguments which it was thought were being promoted by Merle Cochran, the US Ambassador in Jakarta. Menzies wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson on 18 January 1951. He made a brief reference to the absence of ethnic and cultural links between West New Guinea and Indonesia, pointing out that a transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia would be ‘no more than the conversion of one form of colonialism into another’. He then shifted the focus to his central argument that ‘New Guinea is vital to Australia’ and that he had ‘sometimes pondered whether we should not declare some form of Monroe Doctrine in relation to it’. In making this suggestion he was in fact repeating the idea articulated by Australian colonial leaders during the nineteenth century, by Prime Minister Deakin and by Hughes during his visit to New York in 1918 en route to the Paris Peace Conference. Menzies went on to note that ‘our experience in the recent war gave us a jolt and you may take it from me that Australian public opinion is on this matter both sensitive and strong’. He acknowledged the possibility ‘in the long run’ of some form of joint trusteeship emerging as a solution but said it would need to be one in which the Dutch and/or Australia had a hand. He sought Acheson’s assistance ‘as an act of singular friendship’ in delaying any decision which might see the Dutch leave and thereby ‘giving us an uncomfortable neighbour in the near north’. He concluded by reminding Acheson that ‘who controls Dutch New Guinea can at will infiltrate into Australian New Guinea’.84

Acheson replied on 7 February 1951 to Menzies’s ‘friendly and frank’ message but gave him little real comfort. He acknowledged that the issue of Dutch New Guinea ‘has been and is a source of serious concern’ to Australia but said that US policy was to remain impartial and to urge a resolution through negotiations. Acheson pointed out that the primary interest of the United States was to avoid a rupture in the relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia as this would not only be detrimental to the interests of the two countries but ‘could endanger the maintenance of that stability which is essential to the security of South East Asia’. He reiterated that such a development would have consequences not only for the Netherlands and Indonesia but also ‘for Australia, the United States and in fact for all those nations interested in the peace and security of the area’.85 Acheson’s letter established two points: that in American eyes the handling of the West New Guinea dispute had to be considered in the context of a broader Cold War strategy and that the United States would remain neutral and detached for as long as it could. It was a policy position shared with Britain’s Labour Government. Acheson’s letter did nothing to reassure Menzies and his colleagues. Menzies told a worried Cabinet on 15 February that ‘the Dutch won’t stand firm – the commercial interests will give way’. Moreover, he did not expect the UK Foreign Secretary to be of ‘any real assistance … because he is so ill’.86

Menzies’s exchange with the US Secretary of State and his conversations with the British Government revealed a significant factor in Australia’s approach to the West New Guinea dispute. It had embarked on its policy objectives without prior consultation or agreement with its major allies. The Menzies Government had not sought their endorsement of its tactics or objectives before presenting its views so forcefully to the Dutch. Over the next ten years Menzies and his colleagues sought to persuade Washington and London of the merits of Australia’s case but found both capitals lukewarm at best. London and Washington were in the difficult position of juggling a response to Australia’s policy with larger strategic problems associated with the Cold War, a ‘dilemma’ which, according to Richard Chauvel, ‘seemed little understood by Australia’.87 Chauvel has also concluded that the West New Guinea dispute ‘was one of the few policies pursued by the Menzies Government which was not initiated or supported with any enthusiasm or much interest in Washington or London’.88 As the dispute progressed over the decade there were frequent comments by Australian Cabinet ministers in private that American support could not be taken for granted. A sense of doubt and uncertainty as to the reliability of Australia’s allies contributed to a sense of unease and insecurity in the Cabinet room.

In the deteriorating security environment following the outbreak of the war in Korea the Menzies Government introduced military conscription for home service and increased the defence budget. The government took one of its few post-war decisions to improve the military preparedness of Papua and New Guinea by re-establishing the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR) as a single battalion of the Australian Army. It had been disbanded in 1946. At the same time it re-established the European-only New Guinea Volunteer Rifles as a reserve force. Although largely a symbolic gesture given the small size of the force and its lack of real resources, these measures and the decision in 1952 to open a patrol base at Vanimo on the northern border with Dutch New Guinea and on Manus Island in 1954 reflected the attitude of a nervous Cabinet. They nevertheless sit oddly with the decision by the Australian Army in the late 1940s and the early part of the 1950s to give back to the Administration in Port Moresby most of the land it had occupied or used as bases during the war.89

Spender departs

Australia’s anxieties continued for the remainder of 1951 and beyond. However, the style and presentation of Australia’s policy changed considerably with Spender’s resignation on 26 April 1951 on the grounds of ill health. He was appointed Ambassador to Washington and was replaced by R. G. Casey. Nevertheless, while in Washington for the next eight years and as a member of the Australian delegation to the annual United Nations (UN) General Assembly in this period, he continued to advocate Australia’s interest in West New Guinea. In doing so he was unrelenting. In 1954 Spender told the General Assembly’s First Committee that ‘Australia felt its destiny and defence (was) closely bound up with West New Guinea’.90 David Lowe has described Spender as engaging in ‘diplomatic high-handedness’ and using ‘militant language’ in his pursuit of objectives such as the ANZUS Treaty and the Colombo Plan. At the same time Lowe sees him as ‘one of the most independent and innovative thinkers in Menzies’s first Cabinet’.91 Lowe has also described Spender as ‘aggressive’, a ‘fierce advocate’ and ‘not easily deterred’ in his advocacy of the Colombo Plan and the ANZUS Treaty.92 It is true that Spender was tenacious but he was also overly persistent and dogged in his advocacy of Australia’s position and in laying the foundations for Australia’s policy towards the West New Guinea dispute. He worried both the British and Dutch Governments with his robust and ‘tactless’ style and was at times insensitive to their own particular interests.93

In a language similar to that of Hughes in 1919, Spender had launched an initiative for Australia to take Britain’s place in the New Hebrides, claiming that control over the islands of the archipelago lying across Australia’s north would strengthen Australia’s strategic environment.94 He had forcefully articulated a case for continued Dutch possession of West New Guinea by pointing out the security implications for Australia, and for Australia’s half of New Guinea, of the newly independent but politically volatile and immature Indonesia moving closer to Australian interests. The idea of a security shield across Australia’s north would, in his opinion, be greatly weakened by Indonesia assuming control of West New Guinea.


In his comprehensive and consummate archives-based account of the West New Guinea dispute and the international diplomacy that accompanied it, Stuart Doran has also argued that the Menzies Government’s response, and particularly that of Spender, was driven by a strong belief that Australia was ‘the preeminent power in the area roughly south of Singapore and as the effective colonial power of the South West Pacific. It consequently behaved in a manner it saw befitting such degrees of ‘imperial’ authority – aggressively and relatively independently’.95 Doran later described the government’s approach as a ‘crusade’ and that ‘Australia approached its relations with Indonesia confident of its supremacy’ while its ‘self-perceived superiority’ allowed it to remain independent of the United States and Britain.96 He has developed this view further by characterising Australia as a ‘middle power’ that ‘ruthlessly and expediently looked to use the Dutch as a political and military proxy’. Doran saw Australia’s policy and Spender as ‘machiavellian’ – perhaps the greatest compliment able to be given to a minister and his policy objectives.97 In his view, Australia’s determination to assert a status in Southeast Asia ‘south of Singapore’ continued until about 1957 and then folded as both London and Washington intervened to find a solution to the dispute.

Doran’s analysis of the shifts within the West New Guinea dispute is exemplary but his secondary thesis is open to criticism as being wide of the mark, especially as it applies to the islands of the South Pacific held by other powers. He has taken Richard Chauvel’s description of Australia’s independence from the United States and Britain and developed an interpretation which does not reflect the comments and debate subsequently able to be seen in the Cabinet Notebooks of the period nor the strategic assessments. There is little indication in these discussions that Australia was seeking such a role for itself in the region. The government allowed the idea of securing Britain’s half of the New Hebrides to lapse and made no claim to the Solomon Islands. Moreover, ministers realised that Australia did not have the military capability to assert a role in Southeast Asia and were worried that the Dutch could concede their claim to West New Guinea. Spender may have sought to construct a shield across Australia’s north but it had very little substance. The sense of the debates in Cabinet in this early period was of a tentative, uncertain Cabinet assessing issues from a defensive point of view and not one intent on asserting a claim to be an ‘imperial’ or even ‘middle ranking’ power in the region. Sir Garfield Barwick, Minister for External Affairs from 1961 to 1964, described Australia’s policies during the 1950s as ‘essentially passive in nature in the sense that we had concentrated on seeking that no one interfere with us’.98 He added that ‘when the present [Menzies] government came to office there had been also some deliberate turning away from the practice of intruding into other people’s business’. A ‘passive’ policy was ‘understandable for a country which had no territorial aims’. Nicholas Tarling, in his comprehensive account of the West New Guinea dispute, drawing extensively on British archives, makes no claim that Australia sought the role of preeminent power ‘south of Singapore’. In Tarling’s account, British officials did not interpret Australia’s policy in such terms.99

The threat of communism in Asia was the major concern of the government throughout the 1950s but, in terms of its immediate security environment, Australia had replaced the pre-war focus on Japan with Indonesia, particularly a possible communist-leaning Indonesia. As Woodard has concluded, Australia’s approach to Indonesia and the West New Guinea dispute was driven by ‘fear … first of New Guinea offering a route for invasion from the north and then fear of Indonesia or perhaps one day a communist Indonesia constituting a threat through sharing a common border with Australian territory or through becoming a competitor for influence in Malaysia’.100

Spender could not have stopped the creation of an independent Indonesia – although he may have preferred this outcome – but he was determined to frustrate its attempts to secure control over West New Guinea. He believed that New Guinea was an integral part of Australia’s defence system and a barrier to an invasion of Australia. Of equal importance he had succeeded in promoting the concept that, from the perspective of Australia’s security and strategic outlook, the island of New Guinea should be seen as one entity despite the fact that sovereignty over the island was divided between two powers. Spender had promoted Australia’s security through the negotiation of the ANZUS Treaty signed after his resignation in September 1951 and had launched the Colombo Plan in 1950 as a means of advancing Australia’s presence in Asia. His policy towards Indonesia over West New Guinea, however, showed the limits to which he was prepared to go to identify himself and Australia with the new Asia that had emerged after the Second World War. On the question of West New Guinea, Australia’s fears for its security, as well as its anxiety at the idea of an Asian state becoming a neighbour in New Guinea, triumphed over its desire to promote a positive relationship with Indonesia.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt