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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 6



‘East New Guinea is Australian territory – for us to take an attitude that we would not defend it would be unthinkable – we must defend it and we would – nothing else would satisfy either our obligations or our conscience – so an attack on East New Guinea is an attack on us’.

Robert Menzies, 11 January 1962.1

By the end of 1959 Menzies was riding a wave of success. He had secured a stunning victory at the elections in November 1958, winning a thirty-seat majority over the now divided and broken Labor Party. Lord Peter Carrington, the British High Commissioner in Canberra, described Australia in 1959 as a country with a ‘greater sense of maturity and self-confidence’. Economic performance had been ‘outstanding’ while ‘abroad there is also a surer touch’. He added that there was now ‘a conscious realization that Australia is a South East Asian power’. It appeared certain that ‘as time goes on Australia will concern herself more and more with her Asian neighbours on whose goodwill and markets her security and prosperity will increasingly depend’. The change in emphasis from Europe and the Middle East to Southeast Asia had been ‘swift and marked’, although Australia retained a very close attachment to both the United States in defence relations and with Britain in defence and economic relations. Australia remained emotionally and sentimentally closer to Britain than any other country. Carrington acknowledged the hard work of Casey and External Affairs in refocusing Australia towards Asia but attributed the overall success of Australia to Menzies whom he described as the ‘outstanding figure in the political scene … he dominates public life as much as he dominates the Cabinet. His authority and success are acknowledged even by his political opponents’.2

In Indonesia Sukarno had by 1959 acquired near absolute power. In his comprehensive biography of Sukarno, John Legge described him as the ‘dominating figure, the source of authority and of ideological leadership and the centre of a glittering court’.3 Politics in Indonesia in 1960 was, according to Legge, ‘in great measure the history of a shifting balance’ between ‘the President, the army and the P.K.I. (Communist party)’.4 Guided Democracy was now established as the political philosophy for Indonesia but Indonesia’s future would also be determined by its vulnerability as the economy crumbled in the face of declining exports and accelerating inflation.5 In his valedictory despatch in February 1960 McIntyre described the ‘picture’ in Indonesia as ‘opaque if not indeed black … the political, economic and security situations are all bad and they are inseparable, each one contributes to the worsening of the others. Over everything hangs an atmosphere compounded of a queer mixture of emotion, envy, sincerity, opportunism, cynicism, timidity and intrigue … the nation is being fed on slogans passed down from on high’.6 Sukarno relied increasingly on bravado, bluster, brinkmanship and adventurism to hold power. The West New Guinea dispute continued to serve his purposes.

An inconclusive debate in Cabinet

In the months before Menzies’s visit to Jakarta the Department of External Affairs, at Tange’s direction, and with Casey’s full support, had been drafting a new Cabinet submission dealing with West New Guinea. The submission was one of three to be presented which sought to re-examine Australia’s relationships with its northern neighbours. The first was to address the ‘The Future of Netherlands New Guinea’. It was to be accompanied by a separate submission from the Minister for Defence (Athol Townley) on ‘The Military Importance of Netherlands New Guinea’ and the third, from the Minister for Territories (Paul Hasluck), on ‘The Unity of New Guinea’.7 This last submission dealt with the questions of whether Australia should seek the transfer from Britain of the Solomon Islands Protectorate and a possible political union of the Solomon Islands with Papua and New Guinea.8 The three submissions were to form the first instalment of six submissions, as well as discussions without submissions, in Cabinet in 1960 on West New Guinea, followed by a further four debates in 1961. It was a period described by the Acting Secretary of External Affairs (Peter Heydon) as one in which the relationships with both Indonesia and the Dutch were ‘going to be in a more or less constant state of crisis’.9 It saw ideas and options proposed and examined then rejected; assumptions questioned and upheld or dismissed. It ended with Australia’s security environment irreversibly changed.

Casey retired from the Cabinet and Parliament on 4 February 1960 and Menzies assumed his responsibilities as Minister for External Affairs, holding the portfolio until December 1961 when it was passed to Sir Garfield Barwick. Menzies accepted responsibility for the submission on the ‘Future of Netherlands New Guinea’ prepared under Casey’s direction. The External Affairs paper sought endorsement for the continuation of a policy to encourage and support continued Dutch administration of West New Guinea, or, as it stated, the ‘primary objective of [Australian] policy should be by means short of force to prevent Indonesia from occupying or controlling any part of West New Guinea’.10 This was an imperative. At the same time it said that while pursuing this policy objective ‘we should do all we can to reduce the damage to our relations with Indonesia’.11 The submission acknowledged the fact that at some stage in the future the Dutch would leave West New Guinea and argued that if they were to leave before self-government, Australia should ‘seek, in the extremely difficult situation that would follow, at least a form of international control which would limit Indonesian opportunities for interference to a minimum, give Australia a maximum voice in the administration of the territory and keep open the possibility of ultimate unification of New Guinea’.12 It acknowledged the possibility of a UN-negotiated trusteeship agreement which would place the territory under Australian administration, although it readily acknowledged this would be difficult to obtain and arouse intense opposition from Indonesia. It also accepted as a possible outcome a UN-only trusteeship arrangement.

The submission also canvassed the consequences of Indonesia securing control of West New Guinea. It recognised that such a development would remove the one major irritant in the relationship, as well as strengthen the West’s position in Indonesia by removing a rallying call used by the communists. However, on balance, it suggested that any short-term gain would be compromised by the long-term consequences as Australia and Indonesia would be ‘bound to be competing for influence in New Guinea for decades’.13 The paper judged Indonesian competition with Australia in East New Guinea as a possibility and noted that Indonesia’s capacity to do so would be ‘considerably greater if they had control of West New Guinea’. Indonesia’s strong sense of ‘anti-colonialism’ could encourage it to call for change in Australian New Guinea. If Indonesia were to be controlled by communists then West New Guinea ‘would inevitably be used by Indonesia for the systematic subversion of East New Guinea and the territories beyond in Melanesia’. Even a non-communist Indonesia could spread its influence into Melanesia.14

The separate submission from the Minister for Defence repeated many of the judgements from earlier strategic assessments. It argued that ‘in friendly hands Netherlands New Guinea (NNG) ensures the security of Eastern New Guinea (ENG) and reduces the requirement of Australian forces for its protection’; ‘occupation of bases in NNG would represent a breach in the island chain and greatly increase Indonesian capability to attack ENG’; ‘Indonesia could not obtain ENG by force’ as long as substantial help were available to Australia under ANZUS; ‘the loss of ENG would be the loss of Australian territory and the maintenance of our territorial integrity is a cardinal aim of defence policy’; Indonesian ‘possession of ENG would result in a further breach in the Pacific island chain’; and, the ‘retention of NNG in friendly hands is the best guarantee of the security of ENG’. In terms of strategic guidance the submission nevertheless reminded ministers that in January 1959 Cabinet had agreed that ‘the strategic importance of Indonesia is of greater importance to the United States and to Australia than Netherlands New Guinea’.15

The Defence Committee’s more detailed assessment of the military importance of Netherlands New Guinea to Australia, which was attached as an annex, drew on the earlier references by Menzies in his conversations in the United States and the United Kingdom that a hostile Indonesia would cause Australia to ‘reconsider our contributions to our regional arrangements under SEATO and ANZUS [and] might require Australia to be prepared to devote a large part of its defence effort to the protection of East New Guinea’.16 Over the next decade this argument was to feature more prominently in Australia’s assessment of how to respond to regional conflicts.

In the consultations held between departments before the Cabinet meeting it had become apparent that Hasluck held strong objections to the External Affairs draft. In an unusual step he put his views direct to Menzies before the Cabinet meeting.17 Hasluck described the submission on the Future of Netherlands New Guinea as showing ‘an imperfect knowledge’ and being based on incorrect assumptions. In keeping with the views he had expressed in earlier Cabinet room discussions, he argued for Australian diplomacy to focus on keeping the Dutch in West New Guinea ‘for another twenty years’. He added that ‘every ounce of diplomatic skill we have and our thinking on policy should be directed to keeping the Dutch there’.18 He told Menzies that Australian policy should try to secure greater recognition from the United States and Britain of the importance of West New Guinea.

Cabinet discussed the three submissions on 2 March 1960.19 Ministers concentrated their attention on the External Affairs submission and left the other two virtually untouched. There was no interest amongst ministers or in the bureaucracy for Hasluck’s proposal to acquire the Solomon Islands and to link it to Papua New Guinea. Christopher Waters has written of Hasluck’s ‘dreams for the Southwest Pacific’. If Hasluck held such dreams then they evaporated in the disinclination of ministers to share them.20 Instead ministers focused on the question of policy towards West New Guinea. The discussions in 1959 leading to Menzies’s visit to Jakarta had shown a small but an increasing number of ministers who felt the policy of support and collaboration with the Dutch had exposed Australia unnecessarily and that it was time to distance Australia from the Dutch. At issue now was whether a consensus had formed in Cabinet in favour of change. As expected Hasluck led the argument, describing the assumptions contained in the submission as inaccurate or ‘wrong’.21 He dismissed the inference in the paper that the Dutch would leave or that self-government would be granted in fifteen years. Hasluck said the Dutch had assured him otherwise and described the consequences of a Dutch withdrawal as ‘chaos’. In keeping with the views he had strongly put in earlier discussions in the Cabinet room, he argued that, once having committed itself to the Dutch claim of sovereignty, Australia could not now resile in the face of Indonesian intimidation. He made clear his view that ‘our policy surely must be to do our utmost to keep [the] Dutch in’.22 Menzies deployed a different argument and reminded Cabinet that existing policy was based on a solid judicial view of the Dutch claim to sovereignty. He had told President Sukarno that Australia was not a party principal in the dispute and that Australia would not cut across a freely determined settlement of the dispute. He also reminded his colleagues that Cabinet had decided that the strategic importance of Indonesia was of more consequence than Netherlands New Guinea. Menzies’s preference was to keep Australia out of any written commitment with the Dutch and ‘not egg on either party’. He added:

the strategic importance of New Guinea can be very easily over-rated. … We must face up to the fact that we are not going to invest troops in [the] defence of New Guinea. The Australian people will not be prepared to go to war with a country of 80 million people with backstopping of Russia and [the] Chinese. So we must not take ourselves to the point where we can’t recoil with honour.23

McEwen supported Menzies and warned that if the Dutch had begun to consider possible options for an act of self-determination in fifteen years time or later, they ‘were mentally out of New Guinea’ and, as a consequence, ‘we are not to be entangled by [the] Dutch into embarrassing commitments’. He cautioned that ‘we have no long history of close friendship with [the] Dutch and the plain fact is that they are trying to use us and we them’. McEwen was not prepared to change existing policy but he showed his increasingly pragmatic nature by adding ‘geography will endure and Indonesia will always be where it is. We have to hope to ride the problem out’.24 Sir Garfield Barwick (Attorney-General) agreed with his colleagues and added ‘my view has solidified along line that [the] strategic importance of New Guinea [is] overstated and also that we should not be fearful of Indonesia coming into New Guinea’.25 Senator Spooner maintained his earlier argument in favour of Australia distancing itself from the issue. He noted that ‘my first reactions on this … were that we should oppose even by force any Indonesian move … [but] we can’t wisely resist’. He told his colleagues that the government had to begin to prepare the public for a change in policy.

Australia preferred the status quo but this was under increasing pressure. Whichever way ministers looked at the West New Guinea dispute it had implications for Australia’s security and regional relationships and innovative solutions were not obvious. Moreover, the issue was becoming increasingly entangled with the question of the future political development of the Australian half of New Guinea and, more generally, Australia’s relations with Asia. The government had committed itself to supporting a distant but like-minded Netherlands holding on to the last remnants of its pre-war empire while recognising that a change of government in The Hague could bring about a change of policy towards West New Guinea. At the same time Australia wanted to develop a sound relationship with Indonesia. The twin objectives were in conflict with one another and could not easily be sustained. Australia was also dependent on the sympathetic attitude of its major allies, Britain and the United States, to support its policy towards the dispute. The discussions in Cabinet, recorded in the Cabinet Notebooks, revealed ministers who were aware of the implications of Australia’s current policy but could not bring themselves to change course formally and to trust Indonesia to become a near neighbour in New Guinea.

In one of the few positive developments in this period, the Menzies Government received a letter from the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr Subandrio, in which he tried again to reassure Australia that Indonesia had no ambitions towards East New Guinea, or Australia. Subandrio told Menzies that:

We certainly have no irredentist intention towards Australian territory. Certainly we are fully prepared, after recognition of our sovereignty over West Irian, to discuss ways and means of how to develop the territories under our respective jurisdiction and how to safeguard the frontier between Indonesia and Australia. I am adding this thought, because especially lately the rumours have been spread around, as if after the solution of the West Irian problem in our favour, we will embark upon an adventurous policy of expansion upon other territories, including East Irian [East New Guinea].26

Menzies acknowledged the letter and ‘welcome[d] your friendly sentiments towards Australia and the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea’. However, in private, he told Patrick Shaw, the newly appointed Ambassador in Jakarta, during a meeting in January 1961 in Canberra that ‘on the dangers of Indonesian control [of West New Guinea] … even if there were no immediate threat, it would cause constant irritation in East New Guinea, stimulation of agitation in, or actual independence movements, and so on’.27 Menzies remained unconvinced of Indonesia’s bona fides.

The United States begins to change tack

At the same time as the Menzies Government was examining the implications of the unresolved problem of West New Guinea for the security of the region and for bilateral relations, officials in London and Washington, in separate initiatives, were beginning to turn their attention to possible solutions. The re-examination in both capitals would see the abandonment by Washington of its decade-long policy of non-engagement with Australia being caught off-guard by the swiftness and completeness of the new policy approaches towards Southeast Asia being developed by the incoming Kennedy Administration.28 Sir Garfield Barwick (appointed Minister for External Affairs in December 1961) was later to comment in Cabinet that ‘we didn’t act soon enough in getting into rapport with US [on West New Guinea] – we didn’t have a meeting of minds’. Menzies acknowledged Barwick’s assessment with the comment ‘Barwick’s historical point about events in West New Guinea is powerful’.29

The State Department had had the issue of West New Guinea under review from mid-1960 and, on 30 November 1960, a few weeks after John F. Kennedy had been elected President but before he took office, Graham Parsons, Assistant Secretary, Far East, in the State Department, called in the Australian Ambassador with the intention of briefing Australia on the results of the State Department’s review.30 Howard Beale, who had succeeded Sir Percy Spender as Ambassador to Washington in March 1958, had served in the Menzies Cabinet from 1949 to 1958. Parsons made clear to Beale that in Washington’s mind ‘free world interests had been damaged by the continuance of the quarrel between the Netherlands and Indonesia … and that this damage would continue. … The Communist bloc has benefitted from the situation. The Communists had exploited it both externally and internally’.31 He added that the current US policy ‘was not considered good enough’. In fact, the US position was now ‘lamentable’. Parsons went on to argue that, while all solutions presented difficulties, the State Department was inclined to favour a United Nations trusteeship with the UN itself as trustee, an idea which had earlier been floated by Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Such a structure ‘would take the issue out of the present atmosphere of crisis and diminish the risk of hostility’ while ‘Indonesia was much less likely to cause trouble in Netherlands New Guinea if the United Nations were there’. The collateral objective was ‘preventing Indonesia from going Communist’. Parsons acknowledged that ‘in his view Australia was the country most interested’ in the type of settlement which could emerge. Australia’s reactions, he said, ‘would influence the State Department on whether it would continue on its present train of thought or cast about for alternatives’.32

Beale, who was scheduled to return to Canberra for consultations, responded to Parsons by noting that Australia ‘had never set our face completely against the possibility of a trusteeship. We were most anxious to get the problem out of the area of conflict and controversy’.33 He nevertheless questioned whether a trusteeship administered by the United Nations would ‘achieve our objectives both politically and for the welfare of the natives of the territory’.34 Beale undertook to consult Canberra but it soon became evident that he had not appreciated the full significance of the conversation with Parsons. Woodard has described Beale as having ‘completely misjudged US policy on Indonesia and New Guinea’.35

Beale was invited to attend a Cabinet meeting on his return to Australia. His presentation did not ring any alarm bells. He told his former colleagues that the United States was ‘very worried’ about the West New Guinea dispute and ‘impatient’ with the Dutch. He added that in his view the ‘strong attitude’ of the United States was ‘that they did not want Indonesia sovereignty’ and that they had ‘put up this idea of UN sovereignty without knowing just how it would operate’.36 Beale had failed to alert ministers to the beginning of a major shift in US policy which gathered momentum once the Kennedy Administration had taken office in January 1961.37

The re-examination of policy options in Washington was matched in London where the Macmillan Government examined closely the concept of promoting a Federation of Melanesia embracing the Solomon Islands, Australian New Guinea and Netherlands New Guinea. The Federation was seen as a long-term option intended in part to provide a more solid structure in which the weaker West New Guinea could develop.38 Australia would be obliged to include its half of New Guinea in the Federation but would not have a role in its administration. A similar idea had been current in some non-governmental quarters in Australia. The British idea, which was always rather vague, faded as a preference emerged for Washington’s suggestion of a UN trusteeship arrangement over West New Guinea. As both Washington and London began to consider new options for a settlement, Australia soon found itself tested as to whether its diplomacy could keep pace with the rapidly changing turn of events as the West New Guinea dispute entered a phase of negotiation.

Australia challenged as events gather pace

The Australian Cabinet twice examined the US overture. At its first meeting on 6 February 1961, Menzies, also serving as Minister for External Affairs, advised his colleagues that his preferred approach was to ‘show objective interest … temporize and point to the problems’. The second meeting, held immediately before Menzies was due to call on President Kennedy, took a harder line and noted that ‘this proposal bristled with difficulties and that its publication might encourage the Indonesians to take precipitate action in the area’. Ministers agreed that Australia ought not to resist the principle of the idea of a trusteeship but the administering power should be the Netherlands. It again recommended the adoption of ‘politically delaying tactics’.39

Menzies arrived in Washington four weeks after Kennedy’s inauguration. He was the first in a series of leaders Kennedy met over the next three months from those countries with a direct interest in the dispute or who had a capacity to influence the parties principal. The President’s meetings with Macmillan, Sukarno, Dutch Foreign Minister Luns, and Australian Ambassador Beale were used by him to gain a full understanding of the problem and to search for a possible solution. In this he was assisted by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and senior officers in the State Department who worked quickly to take advantage of what the President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, Walt Rostow, described as a ‘unique but transient opportunity for action which might solve the problem’.40

In the papers prepared for Kennedy, officials advised that Australia’s interest in the West New Guinea dispute derived from its territorial interests in the eastern half of the island and a ‘defence interest based on their memories of the threat posed by the Japanese on New Guinea during World War II’.41 The briefing warned that, ‘apprehensive of Indonesia’s turbulent political scene and strong Communist party, Australia fears that Indonesian control of West New Guinea might cause unrest in East New Guinea, pose a threat to the security of Australia itself, and prejudice Australian objectives with respect to East New Guinea’. It concluded that Australia considered potential Indonesian influence in East New Guinea to be a greater danger than an ‘Indonesian nation drifting in the direction of more dependence on the Communists and greater hostility towards the West because of frustration over the non-attainment of its objective’ (in West New Guinea).42 Officials advised the President to ‘assure him [Menzies] in this context that we regard very seriously our responsibilities under our Mutual Defence Treaty’.43

In a style which was to characterise his approach to most conversations on the subject, Kennedy first invited Menzies to set out Australia’s position on the problem. In response, according to the White House record of the meeting, Menzies:

reviewed the historic involvement of New Guinea in both world wars, mentioned its proximity to Australia and its importance from the standpoint of Australia’s national security. He said all Australians feel emotionally and strongly about the West New Guinea issue and react immediately to any danger that it might fall into the hands of a Communist-dominated Indonesia. He described the Indonesian position and the political, rather than legal, basis on which the Indonesians advance their claim. He questioned in this connection whether one could have assurance that control of West New Guinea would be the limit of Indonesian ambitions once control had been secured. He summarized the Indonesian position as a substitution of brown colonialism for white colonialism, and mentioned Australian sympathy for The Netherlands, whose property in Indonesia had been ‘stolen’ from them.44

Menzies added that he thought the ideal solution would be continued Dutch administration under a trusteeship but acknowledged that this was not politically feasible. He was dismissive of the other options that had been mooted, including Tunku Abdul Rahman’s ‘fantastic’ proposal that a trusteeship might be created for a brief interval for the purpose of turning the territory over to the Indonesians. Both Kennedy and Menzies dismissed the British idea of a Federation of Melanesia. Menzies ‘showed scepticism in regard to Indonesian attitudes and motives’.45 The record acknowledged that Menzies had left the impression of ‘genuine and continuing concern from the Australian national viewpoint over what, to Australia, was a potentially most serious problem’.46

Menzies’s presentation of Australia’s concerns had changed little over the decade since he had spoken in the Australian Parliament in 1949 or had argued his case to Kenneth Younger, Minister of State in the Foreign Office, in London in July 1950. They were the same concerns derived in the first instance from Australia’s experience in the Second World War and sustained by its fear of the consequences of an Asian country coming in close proximity to Australian-controlled interests. While the discussions in the Cabinet room in Canberra had shown hints of flexibility and pragmatism, Menzies and his colleagues could not bring themselves to convey to Australia’s allies a view other than one of not trusting President Sukarno and Indonesia. Menzies was still trapped in a mind set formed in the late 1940s.

Menzies was very pleased with the discussions in Washington. He had been greatly impressed by Kennedy’s ‘lively’ mind and cabled McEwen and Holt to tell them that the President had given him ‘over a couple of hours an opportunity to tell him about the New Guinea problem in its proper historic and national setting. I am sure that no American administration has been so completely put in the picture on this matter’.47 Menzies referred to ‘notions’ from the ‘official level in the State Department about a trusteeship for West New Guinea which would exclude the Netherlands’. He assured McEwen and Holt that this idea ‘has not been adopted by either Kennedy or Rusk, and that after our discussions there may be a healthy disposition to preserve the status quo in West New Guinea’.48

As events were to prove over the next twelve months Menzies was incorrect in his assessment of the new administration’s approach. Woodard has described Menzies as making ‘a rare misjudgement about an American President’ and as not being ‘in tune with the White House’s New Frontiersmen’.49 Just as Prime Minister Hughes had misread President Wilson’s mind on the terms of the peace settlement when they had met in 1918, Menzies had misread the new President’s thinking. He had failed to appreciate Kennedy’s deeper concerns about events in Asia, notably Laos and Vietnam, and the need to neutralise issues which could be used by communist elements in the region to strengthen their popular standing. Kennedy would pursue a strategy which, in quick time, would see him reverse the decade-long policy of non-involvement in the West New Guinea dispute preferred by the Eisenhower Administration. Australia’s policy could not withstand the forceful pragmatism of Kennedy’s approach to the issue.

The initiative in seeking a possible solution to the West New Guinea dispute was seized by the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy discussed the problem with Britain’s Prime Minister Macmillan and Foreign Secretary Lord Home in Washington on 5 April 1961.50 He drew attention to the fact that Sukarno would be visiting Washington on 24 April. Kennedy specifically asked Macmillan and Home what the Australian attitude would be to a trusteeship arrangement and whether Australia would be concerned if ‘there were no response from their major allies in the event of an Indonesian attack on West New Guinea’. Home advised Kennedy that he thought Menzies would accept a trusteeship solution ‘though he was not enthusiastic about it’ and that ‘the Australians would certainly be concerned at the prospect of West New Guinea in the hands of an Indonesia which itself might come under Communist rule’.51 Macmillan privately told Beale that his assessment of the conversation with the President was that ‘Kennedy would warn Sukarno off’,52 although the acting Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office (Sir Roger Stevens) told the High Commission in London that the talks in Washington had revealed that the warning would not be made ‘with much heart’. The Foreign Office added that ‘the President regards the problem as a dangerous one and the Dutch as “wrong”’.53

President Kennedy was still searching for options when he held a private meeting with Beale on 6 April. Kennedy asked Beale: ‘Tell me, how seriously does Australia really view the idea of Indonesia getting Dutch New Guinea?’54 Beale relied on arguments similar to those presented by Menzies. He said ‘the whole Australian nation would view it very gravely indeed’. He gave as the reasons ‘the threat to the rest of New Guinea if a Communist Indonesia became our land neighbour; also the threat of an expansionist Indonesian dictatorship having a land border to our territory from which it could infiltrate and subvert the native population, leading probably to a claim to other parts of the island’. Beale reiterated Australia’s support for the principle of self-determination and added that ‘to permit more than one third of them [i.e. the indigenous population of West New Guinea] to be taken over by Indonesia was to perpetuate colonialism’. As to a trusteeship, Beale commented that ‘a genuine trusteeship was a mirage because Indonesia simply would not accept [it], nor indeed would most of the Asians’. In response to the President’s question ‘What is the solution?’ Beale said the ‘sheet anchor to which I felt we should all cling was the principle of self-determination’ to which Kennedy agreed but asked: ‘What steps could be taken consistent with this principle to head-off the Indonesians?’ Beale concluded by commenting that Kennedy ‘made no specific proposal’ but appeared to be looking for options. He added that he could not judge what effect ‘his reputed anti-colonial sentiments and those of some of his advisers, may have’ on policy development.55 Beale had failed to appreciate the fundamental changes which were occurring in America’s foreign policy under the new President and their impact on issues such as the US approach to the West New Guinea dispute and Indonesia.

The fourth meeting held by Kennedy was with the Dutch Foreign Minister, Luns, on 10 April. Luns warned the President that his country would not turn West New Guinea ‘over to the Indonesians … if they did so, this crisis might disappear but new crises would follow as the Indonesians moved against the Australian portion of New Guinea or against the Portuguese island of Timor’.56 The President pressed Luns on why the Dutch were determined to remain in a ‘faraway island which was really a great burden for them’. Luns had difficulty in articulating a case and offered Kennedy no suggestions for a solution to the dispute.57 In a separate conversation with Secretary of State Rusk, Luns stressed the importance of the new US Administration sending an early and clear signal to Sukarno that it would not accept an act of aggression by Indonesia to secure West New Guinea.58

The final meeting in this series occurred on 24 April when President Sukarno, accompanied by Foreign Minister Subandrio and Deputy First Minister Leimena, called on President Kennedy.59 Again, Kennedy used the meeting to pose questions and seek explanations. He pointedly asked Sukarno: ‘Why do you want West Irian?’ Sukarno replied just as directly that ‘it is part of our country; it should be free’. Kennedy also raised the subject of Australia’s attitude to the dispute and asked ‘What about the eastern part of New Guinea?’, to which Sukarno replied: ‘This was never part of Indonesia, we have no claim to it, but West Irian is different. Long before the Dutch came, West Irian was Indonesian territory’. Later in the conversation Kennedy returned to the West New Guinea issue and said the ‘problem was a very great concern to us [United States] and that Australia was disturbed. … We want to see this matter come to an amicable conclusion’. Subandrio replied on Sukarno’s behalf that ‘several years ago these [relations between Australia and Indonesia] approached hostility. Australia wanted no relations with Asia. This has changed recently, however. Prime Minister Menzies was moving forward, demonstrating greater interest in establishing good relations with his Asian neighbours’. Kennedy added that ‘Mr Menzies feels that if communism is successful in Indonesia it would constitute a greater threat to Australia if West Irian were in the possession of Indonesia. He pointed out that the US too was concerned about international communism in the area’.60

Unlike Luns, Sukarno and Sudandrio suggested a solution. Subandrio told the President that Indonesia would be ‘willing to consider a trusteeship for a period of one or two years to make the transition to Indonesia’s possession easier’. There could be no alternative to Indonesia taking possession of the area. Sukarno had earlier poured cold water on the idea of a plebiscite to allow the local population to determine whether they wanted to join Indonesia. Kennedy brought the meeting to a close by expressing his strong hope that Indonesia would not resort to force to secure its claim. Subandrio gave Kennedy the same assurance that Sukarno had given Menzies in 1959 that Indonesia had ‘no intention of taking military action against West Irian’.61

The conversation between President Kennedy and his Indonesian counterpart at least confirmed that the new Administration had listened to the arguments put by Menzies and Beale as to Australia’s interests in the dispute and its views on the implications of a settlement which would result in Indonesian control. Unfortunately for Australia, it also confirmed that the new Administration was actively searching for a solution to the dispute and was beginning to move away from a position of neutrality.

A further conversation with Indonesia

Australia had a further, and perhaps last, opportunity to present its views and to influence events when General Nasution, Indonesia’s Minister for National Security, Chief of Staff of the Army and Chairman of the Government’s National Front for the Liberation of West Irian, visited Australia in late April 1961. It was the first meeting between a senior Indonesian minister and senior Australian ministers in nearly eighteen months.

Nasution was accorded an almost identical welcome to that given to Subandrio in 1959. He was seen by Canberra as the Indonesian leader most capable of resisting the influence of communism in Indonesia and the most likely successor to Sukarno should the latter be removed from the scene. He met the Cabinet in Canberra and held two private meetings with Menzies and the Minister for Defence, Athol Townley, in Canberra and Sydney. If the Australian Government had hoped that Nasution might present a more moderate assessment of Indonesia’s claims to West New Guinea it was disappointed. He did not deviate from the arguments presented by Sukarno and Subandrio in their meetings with Menzies in 1959 or with Kennedy in April 1961. He offered no hint that Indonesia was prepared to compromise its position or agree to a settlement based on a trusteeship arrangement. Nasution did however address directly what he described as Australian fears of Indonesian ‘intentions’, specifically that Indonesia would also want to claim East New Guinea. He ‘assured ministers that this would not occur’.62 He dismissed ‘another fear that Indonesia would turn communist and become a tool of major communist powers to be used against the security of Australia’.63

At the private meeting in Sydney with only Menzies, Townley, General Nasution and Tange from External Affairs present, Menzies sought to assure Nasution that Australia had no secret military agreement or arrangements with the Netherlands. He did, however, add that Australia could not be ‘indifferent if force were used’ against West New Guinea but he was confident following the assurances given by President Sukarno, Subandrio and now Nasution that Indonesia contemplated no such thing. Nasution agreed that the government could make public his reiteration of that assurance. Menzies used the remainder of the conversation to speak of Australia’s support for the principle of self-determination. He described Australia’s attitude as ‘it could be said that we do not support the Dutch but rather we support self-determination’, a policy approach that was strongly supported by officers in the Department of External Affairs.64

Menzies was not fully won over by Nasution’s statements and told New Zealand’s Prime Minister Keith Holyoake that ‘any breach of those undertakings [i.e. respect for the principle of self-determination and not to resort to the use of force] would create an entirely new situation in which Australia would have to reconsider the whole position’.65 For his part, Nasution went away from the meeting pleased to hear from Menzies that Australia had no military arrangements or understanding with the Dutch.66 Australia stayed in touch with Nasution over the next few years through a series of personal letters from Townley (cleared with External Affairs) which often referred to outstanding defence issues.

The ground moves from under Australia

The Australian Government’s confidence that the West New Guinea issue was unfolding at a pace and in a direction consistent with its objectives was disturbed on 1 August when the Dutch Government presented an Aide Memoire which advised that it had been in discussion with the United States on an initiative in the United Nations to bring the issue to some form of resolution based on an act of self-determination and the creation of a UN trusteeship, assuming that Indonesia would be excluded as a trustee.67

The Dutch initiative was matched by a US proposal for a ‘solution to the problem’ which called for the appointment of a group of countries to report to the UN General Assembly ‘with suggestions for a solution’ while acknowledging that ‘no form of trusteeship solution appeared practicable’.68 At the same time the UK let it be known that it had been thinking of an alternative trusteeship arrangement. The presentation of all three ideas sparked a period of intense consultation in Canberra leading to a Cabinet meeting on 16 August.

The discussion in Cabinet again highlighted the complexity of the issue and the critical point reached in ministers’ thinking. As the record in the Cabinet Notebook illustrates, their approach to the policy implications of developments often evolved during the course of the Cabinet room discussion.69 McEwen began the meeting by noting ‘first there is still a defence significance. Next we must contain Indonesia – it is expansionist and dangerous to us. We should keep it out of New Guinea. … not use force but play for time’. As the meeting progressed and the debate turned to the question of whether the Dutch were seeking to extricate themselves from West New Guinea, McEwen told his colleagues:

My interest in international affairs is my own national interest – that’s the only reason why I’m interested in international affairs – and one thing in international affairs doesn’t change – geography. We began with Billy Hughes declaring certain attachments to New Guinea – since then we have changed but [the] first change was still that we would fight to defend New Guinea – we were unanimous about that – but now, are we so certain – if we fight, win, lose or draw, we lose in terms of Asia. I feel we are hanging on too long to our Dutch attachment. We are the last to be attached. US and UK don’t really mean it – we should disengage. … We can talk about self-determination – that’s empty – what is it – Congo has it – I’d rather see the Indonesians get it (as I believe they will) – preserve what chance of stability there may be – the Indonesians have been driven into the arms of the Communists by its failures in [the] UN – it has gone to a military build up as an alternative – Dutch have contributed to this – so have we – we’re in a new situation and should recognize it.70

McEwen concluded his remarks by recommending that while Australia should continue publicly to defend the concept of sovereignty, he would prefer a position of ‘letting it fade away as a plank’.71 McEwen’s aim was to ensure that Australia was not left isolated and committed to fighting a rearguard action with the Dutch.

The Defence Minister, Athol Townley, had also changed his view to one of accepting the inevitability of an Indonesian takeover. He argued that:

Indonesia now has such weapons and equipment that New Guinea [was] irrelevant to their ability to tackle Australia – of course [we would] rather have friendly Europeans there but if the alternative is to have a possibly friendly Indonesia there or certainly hostile Indonesia (if we adopt certain attitudes) better to seek the former – we’re going to have to live alongside Indonesia and need to trade. Therefore I’m for being very careful about attitudes of anti-Indonesian kind.72

The thought of an unfettered Indonesian takeover appalled Senator William Spooner (Minister for National Development and Leader of the Government in the Senate). He told his colleagues ‘I can’t take any comfort in Indonesia getting New Guinea – I regard Indonesia as Communist or on the way to it – so I would feel we should look to a trustee arrangement’. Spooner, who had argued against continued support for the Dutch in earlier Cabinet meetings, added that he felt ‘the situation is deteriorating against us – the Dutch patently fed up – UK have no stomach for it – US doubtful – Indonesia appetite increasing – must face fact’ and support a trusteeship over West New Guinea.73 Of the other ministers who took part in the debate, Hasluck remained resolute in his view that Australia should continue to support the principles of self-determination and Dutch sovereignty. He saw no reason to shift from established policy.

All ministers agreed that the use of force by Australia to support the Dutch position was not an option. Menzies summarised this point by noting ‘we must not be thought by the Dutch or the world as being the backers of the Dutch because if that’s so, when fighting occurs, we won’t be there’.74 This comment was made in the context of Australia having to deploy forces without the backing of the United States or Britain. In the past, the Australian Government, and particularly ministers such as McEwen, had strongly advocated the need for Australia to deploy forces if asked by the United States or the United Kingdom. A fortnight after Cabinet had discussed and rejected the idea of using force unilaterally to stop the Indonesians in West New Guinea, Menzies told ministers that Australia had to assist the United States in any emerging conflict in Laos in order to avoid a domino effect throughout Asia: ‘as we need US [so] we must be willing to assist them’.75

The debate in Cabinet revealed the deep sense of unease about where Australia’s support for Dutch retention of West New Guinea had left the country. Those ministers, such as McEwen, Holt, Hasluck and Menzies, who had debated the issue for at least ten years, applying arguments ranging from geography, history, race, anthropology, international law but primarily security, were now faced with the realisation that time was up. The involvement of a new American administration, keen to keep Indonesia from falling under communist influence, was having a profound effect. Menzies was dismissive of the early attempts by the Kennedy Administration to find a solution to the issue, describing Washington as ‘playing around vaguely with an international solution – but nothing that will run’.76 By October 1961 he had changed his assessment and warned his colleagues that ‘one thing [that] becomes clearer in relation to West New Guinea and may apply to our New Guinea, is that our large friends are becoming wibbly wobbly’.77

Kennedy and Macmillan change the game

Over the next three months Australia was actively involved in discussions with Washington, London and The Hague as the Dutch, against Australia’s advice, put a proposal to the UN General Assembly for the terms of a settlement. At the same time the possibility that Indonesia could turn to the use of force became an issue of immediate concern as Indonesia threatened to initiate a military offensive to secure West New Guinea. With this development came the vital question of whether Western leaders were prepared to act to deter Indonesia. In early October Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Dr Subandrio, warned Australia’s Ambassador in Jakarta, Patrick Shaw, of a ‘break’ between the two countries and even the possibility of ‘hostilities’ following Australia’s advocacy of self-determination during the UN debate on West New Guinea.78 Newspaper articles in Jakarta and speeches by Sukarno and other leaders advocated direct confrontation as the only way to resolve the dispute. Following an alarming report from the US Ambassador in Jakarta of an imminent Indonesian attack, President Kennedy on 9 December sent a personal message to Sukarno urging restraint and also hinting at the possibility of further US involvement in finding a settlement to the dispute.79 Britain reinforced the US message and also discussed with Subandrio possibilities for the commencement of a round of negotiations leading to a settlement.80 Sukarno agreed to respect Kennedy’s request. Nevertheless, on 19 December, in his Heroes Day speech he issued a rhetorical ‘command’ for a general mobilisation to retake West Irian in the near future and for the Indonesian flag to be raised over the territory.

Sukarno’s ‘command’ coincided with a scheduled meeting in Bermuda of President Kennedy and Harold Macmillan on 22 December 1961. The subject of West New Guinea had not been included on the meeting’s original agenda and the UK delegation hurriedly had to ask London for briefing on Australia’s policy position. The discussion was to prove a turning point in London’s and Washington’s attitudes towards the dispute and in the search for a settlement. It would also be a turning point for Australia.

At Bermuda, where the other issues discussed included the Berlin Crisis, the war in the Congo, the Indian takeover of Goa and the resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere, both leaders placed the West New Guinea dispute in the context of East–West relations and the Cold War.81 They were not prepared to create a new area of crisis in Southeast Asia nor to offend Indonesia and thereby possibly force Sukarno into the arms of the communists. While alert to and possibly sympathetic to Australia’s security concerns, they were not willing to allow those concerns to dominate the course of events if the consequence were to be the emergence of the third largest communist state after the Soviet Union and China. After ten or more years of continuous diplomacy and representations, Australia’s declared interests were to be abandoned, as London and Washington were not prepared to oppose Indonesia directly and militarily. Kennedy is reported to have confided to Macmillan prior to India’s annexation of Goa in December 1961 and before the conference in Bermuda, ‘let’s face it, if at the end of the day Goa becomes Indian and West Irian becomes Indonesian, neither you in Britain or we in America are going to suffer any irrevocable damage. We must keep a sense of perspective about this’.82

According to the more detailed British record, the meeting was told that the US assessment, following recent talks with the Dutch Ambassador in Washington, was that the Dutch would be ‘glad to extricate themselves … if they could do so without national humiliation’ and that they ‘were prepared for a negotiated settlement which would leave the Papuans with a right of self-determination’.83 The Dutch were reluctant to discuss these questions with the Indonesians alone and had said they would prefer to engage the ‘good offices’ of one or more representatives of another country. In response, Kennedy said that if the Dutch were now only concerned with finding an honourable way out then ‘it would be a mistake for the Western Powers to involve themselves in supporting the Dutch in military operations’. He added that his administration had accepted ‘no commitment to help the Dutch even by logistic support to resist such an attack and they would not wish to become involved in any new commitment of this kind’.84 Macmillan noted Britain’s obligation to provide logistic support but that he ‘would be sorry to have to do this as it would have the effect of increasing tension between Indonesia [and] … Malaysia and Singapore’. Kennedy added that ‘the most likely result of military operations would be to strengthen the Communist position in Indonesia – which would be contrary to the interests of the West as a whole’.85 Both leaders agreed that the position the Dutch had taken had ‘largely’ been due to the ‘personal influence of … Luns’s and it was possible that other members of the Dutch Government would be prepared to look for ways to extricate the Netherlands from the territory. They suggested a direct approach be made to the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan de Quay, and the Minister of Finance, Jelle Zijlstra, thereby circumventing Luns. They also agreed that Dutch commercial representatives could be used as a lobbying mechanism to ‘supplement’ the approaches.

Both leaders were uncertain as to whether Australia would initiate any unilateral counter-measures against an Indonesian attack and agreed that they ‘should each impress on the Australian Government the desirability of avoiding military operations in West Irian and … it would be preferable that the Western Powers should refrain from offering to support the Dutch in resisting an Indonesian attack’. They also noted that the Australian Government ‘could be reminded … that active Western help to the Dutch … was likely to provoke the Indonesians to take retaliatory action against Western interests in Indonesia which would be even more damaging to Australia than Indonesian occupation of West Irian’.86

In keeping with his undertaking to the President, Macmillan wrote to Menzies on 27 December with an account of the meeting. He told Menzies that if the West helped the Dutch in military operations ‘we must assume that retaliatory action would be taken against Western interests in Indonesia. … The President and I were inclined to think that the preservation of those interests and the discouragement of Communist influence in Indonesia are more important to the West than the maintenance of the Dutch position in Dutch New Guinea’.87 As a result the Dutch should be persuaded to find a ‘tolerable means’ to ‘extricate themselves’ from the present position. Macmillan added ‘we realize of course that Indonesian ambitions in New Guinea present special problems for you and the recent developments must be causing you a good deal of anxiety. I fear that we are faced here with a choice of evils’.88

A choice of evils

Tange told the US Chargé d’Affaires that ‘Australia [had] bowed to what appeared to be inevitable’ following news that the United States, Britain and the Netherlands all favoured negotiations. He added that Australia’s attitude had not been arrived at ‘without considerable misgivings’.89 The misgivings were that ‘the negotiations were likely to lead to Indonesian control of West New Guinea and that in this event Australia was faced with a real prospect of continuing friction with Indonesia in New Guinea’. Tange went on to say that ‘what was on his mind was that in the long term given present Indonesian leadership, the ideologies being cultivated in Indonesia, the immensity of domestic Indonesia problems which would be a continuing temptation to resort, as a means of distraction, to external issues – we were bound to expect difficulties with Indonesia’.90 Tange, possibly reflecting a degree of bitterness, directly asked for the United States to make clear whether it would respond with military action should Indonesia resort to force to secure West New Guinea. He added ‘it was one thing to keep Indonesia uncertain and another to leave Australia so’.91

On 12 January 1962 Cabinet began a two-day meeting to consider its response to developments. It was the third time in twelve months that ministers had discussed the dispute in detail as well as its impact on Australia’s security environment. In preparation for the meetings the ever-realistic John Bunting, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Secretary to Cabinet, advised Menzies that ‘we have to begin to break down in the public mind the idea that the retention of West New Guinea in friendly hands is essential to our defence’. He noted that Australia ‘remain[ed] opposed to the use of force and we expect both undertakings – as to the avoidance of force and as to no claims on East New Guinea – to be honoured’. He reflected on the outcome of the discussions in Bermuda and noted ‘we march with the US and the UK on all matters. It is not in our interest to act alone’.92

Cabinet had before it a long and detailed submission from the newly-appointed Minister for External Affairs, Sir Garfield Barwick.93 Barwick, a brilliant Sydney barrister, had been elected to Parliament in 1958 and had immediately been appointed Attorney-General. He had acted as Minister for External Affairs during Menzies’s absences overseas and had been appointed Minister for External Affairs on 22 December 1961. Historians such as Peter Edwards and Garry Woodard have argued that ‘Barwick gambled his political career in unhesitatingly making [the West New Guinea dispute] the first matter on which he set out to change policy and Australia’s regional image’.94 Moreover, ‘he ‘turned his government around’ on the issue and that ‘no one else could have done it’.95 Stuart Doran has pursued a different line of argument to that of Edwards and Woodard. He has argued, without the benefit of the Cabinet Notebooks, that the decisions by Kennedy and Macmillan in Bermuda had isolated Australia and that it was forced to ‘surrender’ its position on West New Guinea to the decisions taken by Kennedy and Macmillan. In Doran’s opinion, ‘the notion that Barwick’s personal influence was decisive in changing Australian policy is incorrect. … At most he added his voice to the general agreement that Australia was alone’.96 Like Doran, Edwards and Woodard did not have access to the Cabinet Notebooks when drawing their conclusions. If they had they would have been alert to the changes in ministers’ attitudes which had been occurring over the previous two to three years. A pragmatism had emerged in the approach of influential ministers, such as McEwen. In short, Barwick was facing a sympathetic audience.

Barwick took ministers back to basics and argued against the continuation of a decade-long policy approach. He acknowledged the ‘two policy targets’ which had guided Australia throughout the 1950s, notably that the Dutch remain in West New Guinea and Australia’s wish to build a positive bilateral relationship with Indonesia. These ‘targets were in truth from the beginning antithetical’ and they were ‘now fast moving to the point where they are mutually exclusive, if indeed that time has not already passed’.97 His assessment was that ‘the point has now arrived … when the Dutch inevitably must go. … The choice either now or in the near future is whether the Dutch go before or after a military attack or go in pursuance of a negotiated settlement’.98

The argument then turned to the question of Australia’s interests and Barwick argued that ‘Australia’s real interest lies above all with a friendly and cooperative, and if at all possible, a non-Communist, Indonesia’. This was the ‘paramount policy to be pursued’. In part, he argued that a friendly Indonesia would be a ‘greater bulwark against the southward march of Communism than a Papuan State of New Guinea created and existing without Indonesian goodwill could ever prove’.99 He also told Cabinet that his ‘fundamental conclusion [was] that whatever else we must avoid a white-coloured war over New Guinea especially as the Asian’s view is that the logic is with Indonesia’.100 The hard-line Hasluck questioned Barwick’s last statement, arguing that ‘we should not act by our estimation of the Asian mind … we must adhere to principles of international conduct – if we don’t we throw civilization overboard’.101

The immediate objective according to Barwick was to resolve the dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia. It could no longer drift or wait for a start of hostilities. He suggested that Australia break with its long-standing practice of remaining on the sidelines as an interested observer and instead take the initiative and join Britain and the United States in searching for the terms of a negotiated settlement. He acknowledged that the public held very strong views as to the importance of the island for Australia’s security, describing it as ‘a frontier beyond the frontier’. The public had been warned that an Indonesian takeover of part of the island would have consequences for East New Guinea and that Indonesia also held ambitions to secure the whole of the island. Barwick offered no suggestions as to how to manage this aspect of the issue except to argue that Australia would contribute to any United Nations force formed to suppress aggression and to maintain peace in the area.

The Cabinet agreed with the assessment that West New Guinea would sooner or later pass to Indonesia and, with the exception of Hasluck, most agreed that it was no longer ‘vital’ to Australia’s security outlook. Ministers also agreed with Menzies’s assessment that ‘we must not get into a position where we have military obligations to fight the Indonesians on behalf of the Dutch in West New Guinea – we would be on our own and there is no need for us to get into that position’. For the first time Menzies suggested that ‘if there is any remaining doubt in Dutch mind we should tell them plainly that we won’t be aiding unilaterally if there is fighting – we can’t ourselves promote what would be a Dutch surrender’. He added that a war with Indonesia ‘won’t be an affair of outposts and West New Guinea [would] therefore not [be] vital’.102 Ministers also endorsed Menzies’s view that the United States should be told that Australia firmly believed that the use of force [by Indonesia] should be prevented. Menzies even proposed to the Cabinet that ‘we ought to stop using [the expression] “self-determination” but if we do we’ll be in trouble with having abandoned the ark of the covenant – problem therefore [is] to get less ambiguous expression’. Senior officials in the Department of External Affairs had been the strongest advocates of promoting the principle of self-determination. At this critical point in the development of policy towards the West New Guinea dispute they had lost their influence and their views were replaced by others in the Department.103 While ministers acknowledged this change of sentiment, Menzies took the opportunity to reaffirm the assessment that:

East New Guinea is Australian territory – for us to take an attitude that we would not defend it would be unthinkable – we must defend it and we would – nothing else would satisfy either our obligations or our conscience – so an attack on East New Guinea is an attack on us – we would have allies if ANZUS and SEATO mean anything – but even if not we would defend.104

As he had done when responding to Casey’s submission in early 1960, Hasluck held firmly to the established Cabinet line and showed little inclination to modify it. He argued that ‘neat capitulation is not a method of getting success in negotiations … we have a considerable rearguard action to perform … I would look for some check to Soekarno’, possibly through the UN. He expressed his disquiet that Barwick proposed to ‘run away from our obligations to the Dutch’, even though he (Hasluck) accepted that the Dutch would not be present in West New Guinea forever. He argued that ‘if Dutch colonization is not acceptable why should we facilitate Indonesian colonialism?’ He objected to rewarding ‘Soekarno’s antics and threats of war’ by offering a solution to the dispute and suggested instead that the issue be referred to the United Nations.105

As had been evident in the earlier Cabinet room discussions, McEwen showed greater flexibility in his thinking than his colleagues. He argued that ‘as between the two alternatives of yielding to the threat of force in order to save fighting or to uphold the principle of not yielding at the risk of war, I would take the first. It means … international safety and also political sense’.106 He acknowledged that ‘possession of West New Guinea in Dutch hands may not be critical in same degree that it is critical to have friendly power in Indonesia. If we continue to frustrate Indonesian ambition to have West New Guinea we will be in state of unfriendliness’. Defence Minister Townley agreed with McEwen while Hasluck maintained his hard-line attitude and told his colleagues that ‘the defence significance is not that we don’t have West New Guinea but that some unfriendly power does’. He acknowledged the intelligence assessment before them that East New Guinea interests would be damaged if Indonesia secured control of West New Guinea. He asked ‘what happens to East New Guinea if Indonesia gets West New Guinea?’ to which McEwen replied ‘frankly I leave that to history’.107 Hasluck continued to argue against the idea of placing Indonesia as a first priority. He told his colleagues that ‘we shouldn’t assume that we can buy Indonesia’s friendship by some assisting action now – if their self-interest or ambitions inclined them to some other course in future they will follow that’.108 McEwen accepted Hasluck’s logic but added ‘while you can’t win friendship necessarily you can win animosity if you frustrate’.

A policy of ‘doing nothing’

Ministers did not, however, support Barwick’s proposal for Australia to look for ways to promote a formula to solve the dispute. McEwen convinced his colleagues that ‘we ought not to think that having no policy and having a policy of doing nothing are synonymous. … my policy is [to] know what I want (which I do) but to do as close to nothing as possible, except in the direction of developing public opinion’.109 Ministers agreed that an initiative such as that proposed by Barwick was ‘unnecessary and inappropriate’ but also wanted the US and UK to be advised of ‘the enduring importance to the Western world of the principle of strength in the face of threats of aggression for territorial purposes and to the possible embarrassment to Australia of the continuance of threats of the use of force.110 Menzies released a public statement on 12 January which summarised the Cabinet’s views and reminded Indonesia of its ‘explicit assurances’ that it would not use arms to enforce its claim to West New Guinea and that it ‘did not and would not make any claim to that portion of Papua and New Guinea for which Australia had direct responsibility’. He added that Australia ‘recognizes and will discharge its prime responsibility for the security of Australia, its territories and its people’.111 Hasluck made a similar statement in Port Moresby in February 1962 and Barwick told the House of Representatives that ‘we have territorial rights which we will defend to the utmost’.112

Australia’s continuing alarm at the possible use of force by Indonesia was made known to the US State Department when Beale called on Rusk on 16 January 1962. Barwick had cabled instructions to Beale for his use in the meeting. His tone was forthright and robust, perhaps more so than the more nuanced conversation in the Cabinet room. Barwick nevertheless drew on those discussions and referred to Australia’s anxiety at the absence of a response from the international community to Indonesia’s threat to use force. He described Indonesia’s own response when assurances not to use force were sought as ‘evasive and almost contemptuous’.113 Australia was worried that Indonesia’s ‘demagogic and irresponsible leader’ would be unable to resist the temptation to use force. Australian public opinion felt a ‘profound uneasiness at the implications for the world in the 1960’s if this kind of sword-waving passes without rebuke, much less warning of consequences if force is used’. This would lead the Australian community to ask ‘why President Sukarno should be believed when he says there is no Indonesian interest in Australian New Guinea, and what other expansionist pretensions we may expect in the air and sea spaces and territories adjacent to Indonesia’.114 Barwick urged Beale to tell the United States to use its influence to turn Indonesia away from the threat to use force and towards negotiations, otherwise ‘it may be difficult for us to maintain our policy’ of recognising a settlement arrived at without duress.115

Rusk responded to Beale’s representations and the expressions of concern at possible future Indonesian ‘aspirations’ by asking whether Australia had sent reinforcements to Australian New Guinea and whether we had suffered any inconvenience in the use of sea or air communications.116 Beale advised that the government had not sent reinforcements although he did not ‘discount the possibility of this happening’. Rusk asked Beale whether ‘there was any nervousness in Australia about whether the United States would assist in protecting Australian territory’ to which Beale had replied that ‘many Australians’ held some doubts. Beale later told Rusk that there was a feeling in Australia that the United States, in respect of the New Guinea problem, was ‘ignoring vital Australian interests’. Rusk took offence at the suggestion and, according to Beale, ‘cut back quickly and curtly with a rhetorical question as to whether Australia itself had mobilized’ and that if it had done so ‘it would be more persuasive’.117 Rusk concluded by telling Beale that the United States preferred not to deliver ultimatums to Jakarta but would instead focus on creating the atmosphere to promote negotiations. He told Beale ‘why should the United States fight and give up any hope of good relations with 100 million Indonesians for the sake of a few people in West New Guinea’. Beale concluded his report of the conversation by noting that ‘Rusk [had] added that the United States was not ignoring our part of the world – the despatch of 3000 American troops to Vietnam was evidence of this’.118

The difficulty with Australia’s argument was that it did not have the military means available to initiate or sustain a military response, even if it were so inclined. Menzies and others may have referred to the government’s determination to defend Australia’s interests but they had few options available to them to do so.119 The choices amounted to declarations without real substance, particularly military substance, to support them. The government had embarked on a build-up of the navy but this would take a number of years. In contrast to that decision, in one of the few defence-related initiatives at this time specifically related to Papua and New Guinea, Cabinet rejected a proposal from Senator John Gorton (Minister for the Navy) to close the naval base at Manus Island on the grounds that it had not been adequately maintained. Most ministers opposed the idea. Holt described the base as a ‘political asset’ and said that ‘to abandon it would be a mistake’. Townley agreed, while Menzies summed up his views by noting ‘the overwhelming political view is that we should not be giving any impression of withdrawal from Manus’.120

As events unfolded throughout 1962 leading to the initiative to appoint the American diplomat Ellsworth Bunker to act as a mediator in the negotiation of a settlement to the dispute, Australia continued to highlight the threat to use force. This was discussed at the ANZUS Council meeting in Canberra in May, with Barwick warning of the consequences but also reminding the US of Australia’s concern that, as an outcome of a settlement, ‘instead of a friendly power to our north we had the prospect of an Indonesian West New Guinea and an Indonesia under communist domination’.121 The communiqué issued following the Council meeting drew attention to the application of the ANZUS Treaty to the ‘island territories under the jurisdiction of any of the three governments’.122 Barwick drew specific attention to this reference in his press conference following the meeting.

Barwick paid his first visit to Jakarta in July 1962 as part of a tour through Southeast Asia. The visit was intended to try to pave the way for a more balanced and productive relationship between the two countries but the tensions which were accompanying the negotiations over a settlement to the Dutch New Guinea dispute overshadowed the visit. In his conversation with Sukarno, Barwick made clear Australia’s opposition to the use of force, arguing that such actions ‘bred suspicion of Indonesian motives and doubt of its good faith … [it] endangered the friendship of the Australian people’.123 In response to Barwick’s question, President Sukarno confirmed that Indonesia had claims only to the former Dutch East Indies, while Subandrio, who was present at the meeting, added that Indonesia had no claim to North Borneo or to East New Guinea.124 Subandrio repeated this statement during his separate meeting with Barwick, adding that a claim to East New Guinea would be inconsistent with the principles underlying Indonesia’s claim to West New Guinea.125 On his return to Australia Barwick provided the press with an outline of his conversations in Jakarta, including ‘an assurance (from Subandrio) that Indonesia had no claim nor design upon any Australian territory and in particular East New Guinea’.126

While senior officials, such as Tange, were sceptical of Indonesia’s intentions, Indonesia’s repeated assurances must have gained some acceptance in Canberra as Menzies had told his British counterpart in June that he did not think Indonesia would assert any claim to East New Guinea and that communist opinion would be satisfied by the acquisition of West New Guinea. Menzies added that ‘if the Indonesians had further territorial ambitions they were more likely to look to the north. They might be tempted to attack Timor or even the Borneo Territories. This was one of the reasons why he favoured the creation of a Greater Malaysia’.127

After a round of difficult negotiations marked by Indonesian intransigence and requiring the intervention of President Kennedy with the Indonesian Foreign Minister, agreement on the terms of a settlement was reached on 31 July and formally signed on 15 August. West New Guinea would be placed under a UN Temporary Authority on 1 October 1962 and transferred to Indonesian control on 1 May 1963. An exercise in self-determination would be held before the end of 1969. Barwick briefed his Cabinet colleagues on the terms of the settlement on 6 August with Holt asking the only question on the financial arrangements governing the cost of the UN administration.128 On 17 August Barwick wrote to Subandrio welcoming the settlement and promising a ‘spirit of continuing cooperation’ between the administrations of both halves of the island.129


The settlement of the West New Guinea dispute ended a difficult twelve-year-long period in Australia’s relations with Indonesia. In Woodard’s assessment, ‘the New Guinea dispute [had] carried enormous baggage arising out of Australia’s deep-seated fear of threats from Asia and from Sukarno’s Indonesia in particular; the doubtful dependability of great and powerful friends and the invidious responsibilities of orderly decolonisation at the height of international anti-colonialism’.130 Edwards has added a further dimension by arguing that ‘the divergent policies of the US and Australia towards West New Guinea established a major concern, seldom expressed publicly, for the Australian Government … [as] the Americans were taking a different stance on an area of extreme strategic sensitivity to the Australians’.131 Pemberton agrees with this analysis and has noted that ‘the US alliance was of little value as an instrument of Australian policy because of the conflict in Australian–US interests’. He has also argued that Indonesia’s responses during the US-sponsored negotiations were a ‘further humiliation’ for the Menzies Government and ‘cruelly expos[ed] its impotence’.132

The fourth historian who has examined the dispute in detail, Stuart Doran, as noted in Chapter 3, has argued that in the early phases of the dispute Australia sought to project itself as a ‘preeminent power’ in Southeast Asia and that it behaved with a sense of ‘imperial authority’. He has concluded that by 1962 ‘Australia’s view of itself as the power south of Singapore was utterly destroyed’.133 Moreover, the ‘country was now completely dependent in the area – both militarily and politically – on its two main allies. … Australia was no longer allowed to determine its own path in offshore SEA [Southeast Asia] and, for the first time, it shared a land border with a threatening Asian power’.134 Doran’s thesis that Australia claimed the status of a preeminent power in Southeast Asia is, as argued earlier, wide of the mark and not substantiated by the debates in Cabinet. It is true, however, that as a result of the West New Guinea dispute Australia was now increasingly dependent on the policy directions to be pursued in Asia by its two allies. This was to become evident in the months immediately ahead.

Australian leaders, scarred by the events of the Second World War but also protective of the fundamentals of the White Australia policy, elected to treat Sukarno’s Indonesia as a threat. A distrust of Indonesia was fundamental to Australia’s strategic outlook in this period. Alan Renouf, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, has described the Australia of this period as ‘The Frightened Country’.135 This is an apt description of Australia’s approach throughout the 1950s towards Indonesia and towards a settlement of the West New Guinea dispute. The British Labour Government in 1950 had told Spender and Menzies that Australia’s long-term interests were best served by building a relationship with Indonesia. Menzies and his colleagues, supported by the Labor Opposition and the Australian press, preferred to keep Indonesia at a distance, and certainly as far removed from Australian territory as possible, despite occasionally admitting to themselves the need to build a positive relationship with Australia’s northern neighbour.

Australia’s need to defend Papua New Guinea had played a significant part in the response to Indonesia’s campaign to secure West New Guinea. It was a constant in assessments beginning in 1950 through to the end of the decade, a fact highlighted by Edwards in particular. It rose to sharper prominence as the decade progressed and the prospect of Indonesia securing West New Guinea appeared closer. It formed part of the political argument employed by Menzies, Spender, Casey and Barwick in conversations with Australia’s allies, as well as part of the assessments prepared by the country’s military advisers. It featured repeatedly in discussions in the Cabinet room with ministers unanimous in their view that Australia was not only obliged to defend Papua New Guinea against Indonesia but that this was a fundamental element of Australia’s national identity and interests. Pemberton has drawn on the views of General John Wilton, Chief of the General Staff, to conclude that for Australia, ‘if Indonesia’s takeover of West New Guinea had been its “Munich”, then an Indonesian threat to Papua New Guinea would be its “Poland”: a casus belli’.136

Australia had faced a complex set of international and regional security problems in the 1950s. It was soon to find that the regional and international environment was to become even more dangerous. Militarily, Australia had been unprepared for the challenges of the 1950s and was soon to find itself even more exposed as a new episode of confrontation with Indonesia erupted and it faced new defence obligations in Vietnam.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt