Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 8



‘If we get into [a] conflict in Borneo in less than war I would be astounded if Indonesia didn’t retaliate [in] New Guinea. Cost them nothing’.

John McEwen, May 1964

Throughout the campaign leading to the House of Representatives election on 30 November 1963 Menzies spoke repeatedly on defence and foreign policy issues. He argued in favour of close cooperation with Australia’s allies, commenting that ‘we must have their help in times of difficulty and they must have ours. To prepare to defend Australia purely on Australian territory would assume that our allies had been defeated’.1 He laid out the case in favour of the proposed United States–operated North West Cape Naval Communications Station at Exmouth in Western Australia. In doing so he taunted the Labor Party that it was controlled by thirty-six ‘faceless men’ following the release of a photograph of the ALP leaders Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam waiting to receive policy directions from the ALP Special National Conference meeting in Canberra. He questioned Labor’s commitment to a forward defence policy and its preparedness to defend Malaysia. He played up the decision to acquire the F111 aircraft and to boost the strength of the navy and army. He described their need to be mobile ‘in order to cooperate with our allies to keep war out of Australia’.2

In his policy speech on 12 November Menzies said: ‘we have made clear that we will defend Papua and New Guinea against attack as if it were part of the Australian mainland. That promise of ours is as a result of ANZUS, completely backed by the United States’.3 He did not mention Indonesia in his speeches while Barwick later remarked that the Prime Minister had been at pains to resist drawing it into the campaign. Menzies led the Liberal–Country Party coalition to a resounding victory, possibly aided by the shock felt in the community at the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November.

In December Menzies reshuffled his ministry moving Hasluck to Defence. He appointed the Country Party member, Charles Barnes, as Minister for Territories. Menzies moved Hasluck to External Affairs in April 1964 following the nomination of Barwick to be Chief Justice of the High Court.4 Senator Shane Paltridge was appointed Minister for Defence.

The selection of Barnes as Minister for Territories was to prove crucial as he was to hold the portfolio until January 1972.5 Barnes was deeply conservative by nature and saw little need to encourage political or constitutional change in Papua and New Guinea. His poor communication skills and blunt, disdainful manner alienated Papua New Guineans and those wishing to see progress. He was ill-at-ease with the emerging leaders of the Territory and preferred the company of the more conservatively-minded expatriate and indigenous communities in the Highlands. Yet despite his reputation and the criticisms emerging in the media, he retained the strong support of his Cabinet colleagues. None disagreed with policy nor his management of the portfolio.

The new Defence Minister, Shane Paltridge, was to prove a stronger performer in Cabinet than Townley, who had been ill for most of the last year of his appointment. Debates on defence and strategy in the 1950s and early 1960s had been characterised by a lack of involvement and leadership from the Defence Minister who had deferred to his military advisers and left wider strategic issues and assessments to Menzies, McEwen or the Minister for External Affairs. Even the service ministers such as John Gorton (Minister for the Navy from 1958 to 1963) rarely intervened and almost never spoke of wider strategic interests or objectives. Paltridge was to broaden the interventions beyond comments on acquisitions and supplies to include strategic concepts and priorities. Allan Martin has described Paltridge as one of the ‘triumvirate’ with Menzies and Hasluck who were to be of ‘crucial importance in the final shaping of foreign relations’.6 In all, Menzies, McEwen, Hasluck, Paltridge and Holt determined Australia’s response to the worsening regional security situation with McEwen again showing a close involvement in the Cabinet room discussions.

The period was also marked by the retirement of Harold Macmillan on 18 October 1963 as Prime Minister of Great Britain and his replacement by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, an equally close friend of Menzies. In the week before his death on 22 November, President Kennedy had again reviewed US policy towards Indonesia and had reconfirmed the administration’s priority to minimise the influence of the communist party in the politics of the government in Jakarta and not to antagonise Sukarno to the extent that he would shift closer to the communist bloc. The President had tentatively agreed to the suggestion of a state visit to Indonesia in 1964 but his officials had cautioned that this could only go ahead if Confrontation had ceased. The administration had also given some thought to including Australia and other countries in the region in that itinerary.7

Shann and Barwick try to assess Indonesia’s intentions

At this time Shann and Barwick exchanged views on the likely future direction of Indonesia and the options for Australia’s policy response. Shann had been in Jakarta for twelve months and used the anniversary to place before the minister his considered reflections on Indonesia and Sukarno. The exchange reflected the difficulties in finding an appropriate policy response to the increasingly febrile, chaotic and dangerous political and economic environment in Indonesia. As brilliant an analyst as Shann was – and during his time in Jakarta Shann was at his sharpest – he had yet to come to a point where he was completely sure he understood Sukarno and Indonesia.8

Shann described Indonesia under Sukarno as ‘a difficult neighbour’ suffering from ‘delusions of grandeur’ with a population in need of ‘excitement and circuses’ or ‘gimmicks and slogans’ to distract it from internal troubles. Indonesia was pursuing an ‘aggressive anti-colonial nationalism’ and was ‘dangerous, expansionist and uncontrollable either from outside or from within’. He criticised US policy as ‘vacillating and soft’ when firmness was most needed. He anticipated a ‘protracted period of extreme difficulty in our relations with this country’ and was ‘absolutely convinced that if Malaysia fails … we are in for real trouble, and it will not be many years before Australia and Indonesia are snarling at each other across the border between East and West New Guinea’. He did not discount the possibility of Indonesia being prepared to go to war against Australia but warned that if Australia were to initiate a war ‘it would take 50 years to put the pieces together again’. He foresaw relations with Indonesia as ‘difficult, exhausting and extremely worrying’ and requiring a policy response of ‘patience, forbearance and much careful thought’, as well as firmness.9

Barwick did not disagree with Shann’s analysis. He accepted that Australia’s support for Malaysia had meant that it was seen by Indonesia as hostile but this was a price he was prepared to pay. He described a possible defeat and crushing of Malaysia as a ‘disaster of the first magnitude and one which could have terrible effects on the security of the region’.10 He acknowledged the ‘threat to Papua/New Guinea which an expanding Indonesia could represent’ and thought it could develop regardless of Confrontation: ‘the tendency to interfere in Papua/New Guinea will develop in any case and … we must be alert to anticipate it’.11 Later, he noted that ‘acute difficulties are bound to arise in New Guinea and they could even lead to hostilities … we must make clear our intentions to defend Malaysia and Papua/New Guinea, no matter how little Indonesia likes this’.12 However, elsewhere in his reply to Shann, Barwick rejected the assessment that Indonesia posed a direct military threat to Australia. While Barwick agreed on the need for firmness he placed importance on maintaining some elements of a bilateral relationship with Indonesia, including a small aid program, ‘to convince them that we are not merely a British outpost but independent and sensitive to our neighbours’.13 As Moreen Dee has argued, Barwick saw continued value in a policy of persuasive but quiet dialogue with Indonesia in order to avoid the possibility of pushing Indonesia further down a more a dangerous path.14

The exchange between Shann and Barwick continued into the New Year with Shann becoming increasingly alarmed at the direction Indonesia was taking and concerned at its capacity to undermine or threaten Australia’s position in East New Guinea.15 Writing on 17 January 1964 Shann agreed with Barwick’s conclusion that Indonesia was not a direct military threat to Australia principally because Indonesia’s economic and industrial base was too weak to sustain a military campaign of such magnitude to threaten Australia. He assured Barwick that ‘there is no need for panic’. However, if Indonesia succeeded in causing the collapse of Malaysia he anticipated a number of countries in Southeast Asia – the Philippines, Thailand and perhaps Burma and Cambodia – would seek an accommodation with Indonesia and, as a result, ‘Indonesian hegemony of the Southeast Asian region would be established’.16 In such circumstances ‘Australia’s capacity to maintain its power in East New Guinea, either directly or through an independent Government closely aligned to us, might be seriously impaired’.17 Shann argued that if one accepted the thesis that Indonesia was ‘seeking to carve out as big a sphere of influence as possible’ then East New Guinea was in its sights and Australia was not only ‘a threat to its ambitions’ but the ‘only country of the South East Asian/South Pacific region which has the military potential to thwart or at least make very difficult, the attainment by Indonesia of its objectives’.18

In his public remarks Barwick referred to the need to maintain a balance in the relationship with Indonesia. In the Roy Milne Lecture on 25 January 1964 he used more diplomatic language when he described the need to balance a ‘policy of friendship pursued with patience and understanding’ with a recognition that ‘wherever the vital interests of ourselves or our allies and friends are concerned we should be firm and unequivocal’. He added that Australia would not tolerate ‘unacceptable international conduct’ and that ‘there must be no interference in the affairs of others and no expansionism’. More specifically, he commented that ‘our own territorial integrity and that of our territories, Papua and New Guinea and our other territories, must be clearly indicated as inviolable’. He did not anticipate war with Indonesia but he made clear to his audience that if it did eventuate then Australia would face it with ‘calmness and resolution’.19

The exchanges between Shann and Barwick, as well as the latter’s public remarks, illustrated the sensitive game Barwick was trying to play in managing Australia’s relations with Indonesia. However, in spite of the inducements he was prepared to offer Indonesia, Barwick (and his colleagues) were determined to respond swiftly and firmly to any Indonesian threat against Papua New Guinea.

How to defend Malaysia

In September 1963, following the official declaration of the establishment of Malaysia and the subsequent attack on the British and Malaysian Embassies in Jakarta, Macmillan sounded out Menzies as to a possible Australian contribution to counter-insurgency operations in the defence of Malaysia. He suggested this could be done by drawing on units from the Australian forces serving in the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve. Macmillan made clear his view that Malaysia was the subject of an external attack.20 Barwick forwarded an interim reply to Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies, noting that Australia wished to examine ‘carefully the international political implications and the timing of any military response’.21 He also told Sandys that Australia had

‘examined the retaliation Indonesia can bring to play such as interference with our civil and military air and shipping connections and meddling in New Guinea, and we are developing plans to meet these contingencies’.22

The newly-established Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet (FADC) considered its response to the British request on 19 December 1963 when it reviewed an assessment prepared by the Defence Committee. The latter had concluded that there was ‘no pressing military need at present for Australian military assistance in eastern Malaysia’ and if the government were to make a military contribution it would be to the detriment of Australia’s ability to make a contribution to any regional SEATO commitment. The Defence Committee drew ministers’ attention to the possibility that ‘Indonesia might engineer diversionary incidents against the Papua/New Guinea border and take obstructive action against our sea and air communications’. The ‘diversionary incidents’ could include ‘attacks by ‘volunteers’ against soft targets near the [New Guinea] border’; infiltration for the purpose of subversion; and subversion by indirect means such as infiltrating local communities. The consequences would be ‘that these would force Australia to disperse her efforts by sending troops to eastern New Guinea’.23

Ministers were faced with the predicament of trying to respond to the British request with limited resources and a number of potential commitments. This dilemma was to preoccupy the Cabinet for the next two years with ministers repeatedly drawing attention to the adverse impact on Australia’s ability to defend Papua New Guinea if it committed troops to Southeast Asia and Indo China. During the period of the West New Guinea dispute Australia had been faced with the sole prospect of deployment to the war in Korea. Following the ceasefire there in 1953 Australia had only relatively minor external military commitments. The government had therefore been able to concentrate the focus of its defence efforts on the possibility of Indonesian aggression in West New Guinea and even East New Guinea. During the period of Confrontation Australia faced a complex set of potential commitments ranging from Indonesian aggression in Malaysia, Indonesian pressure on the border with East New Guinea and the escalating war in Vietnam. Papua New Guinea was one element in a larger, more demanding strategic environment and was ever-present in the minds of decision makers.

In the Cabinet discussions in December 1963, McEwen warned his colleagues that ‘we’ve got political commitments beyond our capacity … we may get [a] diversionary attack on our territory. … What I see is difficulty, all difficulty’.24 Barwick agreed and noted that Britain was looking for partners in Malaysia while Australia ‘on the other hand [didn’t] want to be implicated beyond what [was] necessary’.25 Menzies was more inclined to look for ways to assist Britain and chided the Defence Committee representatives present, saying that they ‘looked for what we can’t do rather than what might be possible’.26 Nevertheless, Menzies accepted the argument in favour of caution and wrote to Douglas-Home on 24 December 1963.27 He told his newly-appointed British counterpart that ‘for lack of clear military justification … (a) further military contribution by us ought not to come at this stage’. He also admitted to Douglas-Home that ‘we are not so flush with forces that we can allot any of them prematurely’.28

The content of Menzies’s message to Douglas-Home anticipated the type of response his government would give to most requests from Britain over the next few months. It was a strategy of balancing the need to stand firm in the face of Indonesia’s provocative acts against Malaysia while, at the same time, maintaining the semblance of a relationship with Indonesia based on a broader, but still very limited bilateral agenda. In managing this strategy ministers showed a keen sensitivity towards the need to defend Papua and New Guinea and the implications which any deployments to either Malaysia or Indo China would have on that requirement. At times ministers were more sensitive to this issue than officials, although some, for example in External Affairs, highlighted Australia’s exposed position. External Affairs argued that:

Indonesia would be tempted by our weakness in New Guinea. The Indonesians could calculate that some interference in border regions would create considerable public unrest in Australia and cause a diversion of troop disposition. The Indonesians are well placed geo-graphically to intrude; several former Dutch administrative towns are near the border and the Indonesian presence is well established in and around them; by contrast Australian border regions are more deserted and our administrative centres further away. Minor forms of Indonesian meddling would be difficult to prevent and difficult to bring effectively to international notice.29

In the first six months of 1964, in an atmosphere of increasingly hostile Indonesian behaviour towards Malaysia, ministers returned frequently to the question of how to respond. Cabinet met on five occasions between December 1963 and April 1964 to discuss its response to Confrontation before announcing on 17 March 1964 and on 16 April its decisions to provide additional military aid to Malaysia.30 In one of the early debates in Cabinet leading up to those announcements Hasluck (Minister for Defence), who, during the West New Guinea dispute had shown a preference for a strong military response against Indonesia, continued to make clear his view that Indonesia had a ‘very ugly and very determined ambition and what will stop them is the certainty that they will not succeed – we must make it clear beyond doubt that we intend to see Malaysia stand’.31 On 28 January when Cabinet considered a program of defence aid for Malaysia, McEwen was more cautious and reluctant to see Australia respond disproportionately to what, at this stage, he considered to be minor incursions by Indonesia. He warned his colleagues that Australia should ‘not get into a military situation with Indonesia in which we’re not sure that the US will back us – keep ourselves under ANZUS umbrella’.32 He urged caution, telling his colleagues that in deciding on the aid package ‘we want to play it in accordance with Australian interests and not with British interests’. He added that Australia should provide the defence aid but ‘give it quietly – don’t flaunt what you do’.33 (He nevertheless held a dim view of Sukarno whom he described to UK Prime Minister Home during a trip to London at this time as a ‘crazy dictator’ whose actions were unpredictable.)34 McEwen continued to urge restraint as Britain placed further pressure on Australia to contribute forces to Malaysia. By May 1964 he warned his colleagues that:

Our area is Malaysia and if something happens there, we’ll be in it. But not anxious to put our toe in unnecessarily – we still have to live with Indonesia and we could, if we act prematurely, get ourselves on world stage as invading Indonesia – may provoke retaliation across Papuan border’.35

McEwen and his colleagues were not appeasers of Indonesia. They were realistic about the low level of Australia’s defence preparedness and, in McEwen’s case, sensitive to the broader implications of Australia acting against Indonesia, either alone or with its allies. McEwen was prepared to act but only if the circumstances fully merited it and the consequences had been thoroughly considered. It was at this time, in June 1964, that McEwen paid his only visit to Port Moresby when he accompanied the Governor-General to the opening of the House of Assembly.

In their discussions in early 1964 ministers juggled with the need to find resources to send to Malaysia while meeting commitments in Papua New Guinea. In the Cabinet discussions immediately before the second announcement on 16 April 1964 ministers had before them a report on ‘the implications for Australian preparedness to meet overt aggression, or the more likely eventuality of covert Indonesian retaliatory and diversionary attacks along the Papua/New Guinea border if Australian forces were committed to anti-insurgency operations in Borneo’.36 The Defence Committee’s report repeatedly drew attention to the fact that Australia would be caught short in responding to any threat to Papua and New Guinea if it provided military assistance to Malaysia. In particular, it noted that the provision of two coastal minesweepers and four Iroquois helicopters to Malaysia would have an impact on the current defence deployments to Papua and New Guinea, on Australia’s ability to monitor the Indonesia/ Papua and New Guinea border and to respond to overt Indonesian naval activity around Papua and New Guinea.37 McEwen, in particular, strongly endorsed the Committee’s assessment and advised Menzies, who was in London attending a Commonwealth leaders’ meeting, that the despatch of the Australian battalion to Eastern Malaysia, as requested by Britain, might lead to Indonesian retaliatory action on the New Guinea border, with the Australian public in turn demanding the deployment of Australian troops to defend the border.38

As a further reflection of Canberra’s increasing sensitivity towards Indonesia, defence officials in April 1964 developed ‘Plan Pygmalion’ designed to meet possible covert Indonesian action along the border and the promotion of insurgency inside Papua New Guinea. The plan reflected the argument that ‘Indonesia may attempt to divert our attention and our forces [deployed to Sabah and Sarawak] by covert action against East New Guinea’.39 The plan was periodically updated over the next few years and formed one of a number of contingency plans developed to meet possible Indonesian military activity in Southeast Asia, including Papua New Guinea.

Hasluck broadens the policy debate

Hasluck had taken over as Minister for External Affairs on 24 April 1964 and soon after left for meetings in Jakarta, London and Washington. In his talks in Jakarta Hasluck referred to Papua New Guinea only in passing. With Subandrio he discussed the need to push ahead with the demarcation of the boundary between Irian Jaya and Papua and New Guinea and other practical administrative issues concerning management of the border. He did raise with General Nasution whether Indonesia would ‘arrogate to itself a right to support any dissident movement which might grow up against Australian Administration in East New Guinea’ to which Nasution replied ‘no, not there’.40

Hasluck’s visit to Washington was to attend a meeting of the ANZUS Council with the New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and the US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The war in Vietnam dominated discussion. In his bilateral conversations before the Council meeting Hasluck did not pursue the forceful line of argument that Barwick had set out six months earlier over possible Indonesian threats towards Papua and New Guinea. He made no mention of Papua and New Guinea during his meeting with President Johnson.41 He told Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defence) that Australia had ‘no wish to be an aggressor and had no designs whatsoever upon Indonesian territory’.42 For his part, McNamara told Hasluck that the United States did not think Australia’s defence budget and forces were adequate for the international situation facing the country.43

At the ANZUS Council meeting Hasluck did not mention Papua New Guinea or possible Indonesian threats. He described the military situation in Malaysia as ‘manageable’ and that ‘patience would be required over a long period while Sukarno continued to irritate’.44 Perhaps showing the influence of McEwen on his thinking, he added that ‘Australia faced the long-term question of living in perpetuity with Indonesia. Australia would strive to survive the current crisis without doing lasting damage to relations with Indonesia’.45 As Gregory Pemberton has observed, events were moving quickly and Washington’s attention was now dominated by Vietnam. Hasluck followed suit and increasingly moved Australia’s focus towards Indochina and the war in Vietnam.46 By the time of the next ANZUS Council Meeting in June 1965 the debate over the future course of the war in Vietnam was almost the sole focus of discussion and only minimum mention was made of Confrontation.

The Australian Government was faced with increasing pressure from Britain for a greater defence effort in Malaysia. It also anticipated US overtures for an increased contribution to the war in Vietnam. The government’s response was to continue to draw attention to the pressures it perceived in Australia’s own strategic environment. In Menzies’s absence in London, Cabinet considered a further request from Britain for the deployment of, firstly, the Australian battalion in the Commonwealth Brigade and later the whole Brigade to Borneo. McEwen, who was acting Prime Minister, made clear to his colleagues that Australia did not have the resources to conduct a war in Borneo and meet its SEATO commitments. He also made clear his concern that ‘if we get into [a] conflict in Borneo in less than war I would be astounded if Indonesia didn’t retaliate [in] New Guinea. Cost them nothing. Retaliation to hot pursuit’. An an earlier Cabinet meeting McEwan had said that ‘we still have to live with Indonesia and we could, if we … prematurely get ourselves on [the] world stage as “invading” Indonesia [over Malaysia] Indonesia may provoke retaliation across Papuan border’.47 McEwen conveyed his views to Menzies while noting that ‘Indonesia could organize retaliatory incidents even with nationalistic West Irians, cross border raids and general harassment in the New Guinea border regions. While these would not constitute a real military threat they might give rise to an immediate and irresistible clamour in Australia for the posting of Australian troops to meet what the public would regard as an imminent threat of invasion’.48

As an indication of the concern within Cabinet to defend Papua and New Guinea, ministers in August quickly approved a submission from the Minister for Air (Peter Howson) to rehabilitate the airfield at Nadzab near Lae to enable it to serve as a transit or ferry airfield to allow flights from Australia to Southeast Asia by Mirage aircraft and thereby bypass Indonesian airspace.49 Separately, the Defence Minister sought approval for the proposed airfield at Boram near Wewak, which was to be used in both covert and overt operations against Indonesia in Irian Jaya if these were required, to be completed earlier than planned but to a less sophisticated standard. He advised his colleagues of an intention to seek ministerial approval to develop a chain of airfields near the border area to allow for enhanced mobility and flexibility in the deployment of troops to meet both covert and overt threats.50 Both submissions were approved with the minimum of discussion.

Juggling commitments

The sense that Australia was facing too many security challenges and was being asked to contribute forces simultaneously in a number of areas increasingly preoccupied the Menzies Cabinet. As Woodard and Edwards have argued, there was ‘certainly a sense of apprehension (in Cabinet) that Australia was faced with more threats than it had the capability to meet’.51 On 3 September 1964 ministers examined the issue of a possible commitment to the war in Vietnam. In doing so they also discussed the range of commitments facing Australia. Paltridge told his colleagues that Australia ‘did not have the military resources to become seriously involved with combat forces in all three areas’, i.e. South Vietnam, Malaysia and in Papua/New Guinea. He added that ‘any substantial contribution to mainland South East Asia even in an insurgency situation would be at some expense to our present contribution to the defence of Malaysia and could affect our ability to provide forces for Papua/New Guinea’.52 In the discussion in Cabinet McEwen questioned how Australia would respond ‘if we get into a SEATO plan and are faced with activity in New Guinea as well – we will have extra forces north of Malaya and will need extra forces for New Guinea’. Menzies also acknowledged the dilemma and suggested ministers ‘decide which is our priority commitment’. He identified South Vietnam as the ‘most urgent situation’. McEwen agreed on the need to identify a priority and added ‘we could be in for great torment. We must not be in a position where in a crisis we fail US, UK or ourselves’. He said that he did ‘not think Borneo [was] first priority – Malaysia could well be – Vietnam could be’.53 The Cabinet decision noted that ministers had agreed that Australia’s formal commitments ‘would in total be beyond our capacity to satisfy’.54 The Cabinet discussions also canvassed the possibility of introducing some form of military conscription, including for overseas service, to overcome the shortfall in manpower in the army.

The debate about concurrent and conflicting commitments continued in the Cabinet’s discussion of the 1964 Strategic Basis Paper.55 The paper concluded that Australia’s strategic environment had undergone a ‘further substantial deterioration’. It reviewed security developments throughout Indochina and Southeast Asia and, in particular, warned that ‘Indonesia will aim to achieve regional hegemony and to eliminate from the area the British or any other influences inimical to her’. Indonesia posed the only direct threat to Australia and its territories. It anticipated that Indonesia would continue a policy of confrontation against Malaysia and argued that Sukarno was moving ‘steadily into a closer association with the communist powers’. It warned that Indonesia was ‘likely to interfere increasingly in Papua/New Guinea’ and argued that Indonesia could place pressure on Australia if ‘anti-Administration movements’ were to develop. Once Papua and New Guinea was independent it could ‘exploit emerging political parties opposed to Australia’s aims for the area’. The paper suggested that, if the United States were heavily committed elsewhere, Indonesia might be tempted to step up her activity to a type of military confrontation in Papua New Guinea similar to that now being conducted in Borneo. It noted that ‘in Papua/New Guinea it is conceivable that an insurgency situation stimulated and assisted by Indonesia could also require the commitment of Australian forces’. The paper ascribed a level of vulnerability to Papua New Guinea which had not been present since the Second World War.

The concerns expressed in the Strategic Basis Paper regarding Indonesia were matched by continuing expressions of alarm from within the bureaucracy. In briefing the Prime Minister on the 1964 Paper, officials from his department emphasised their deep concern at the competing demands of dealing with Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and the management of the tensions and pressures within a tri-polar security environment. They argued that ‘the real commitment we have entered into in terms of current demand is in respect of Malaysia which in turn involves us with Indonesia which in turn places a priority on New Guinea defence’.56 They drew attention to the critical assessment in the paper that ‘for the first time a direct threat’ to Australia had clearly been identified – Indonesia. The officials asserted that the ‘defence of New Guinea … is emerging as the real claimant for priority attention in the present defence review’. They argued that:

Australia now has a long frontier in New Guinea with Asia. The extent to which Australian defence is divisible from New Guinea defence is the only adjustment which we can make to the concept that Australia has a common land frontier with Asia. From this kind of consideration, it emerges that we must accompany a forward defence policy with a policy of territorial defence based on the defence of New Guinea.57

The briefing note also argued that the Chiefs of Staff had not allocated sufficient resources to the defence of Papua New Guinea and, indeed, that the Australian Army was understaffed to meet the needs of the strategic environment. The Department advised the Prime Minister that an army of 55,000 was needed, not 33,000, ‘if we are to take our obligation to New Guinea seriously’.58

From his perspective in Jakarta, Shann contributed a pessimistic assessment of Sukarno and Indonesia.59 He described Sukarno following his ‘hysterical, chauvinistic harangue’ speech on 17 August 1964 in which he had launched his ‘Year of Living Dangerously’, as in an ‘egotistical mood’ with ‘delusions of importance’. He added that ‘Indonesians like turmoil and excitement. … If they do not have West Irian, then it seems they must have a Malaysia. If they do not have a Malaysia, I think they will have to have an Eastern New Guinea, or something like that’. He assessed Indonesia to be a ‘thoroughly unpleasant neighbour’. He concluded that it would be a ‘tragedy for Australia’s position in this part of the world to become involved in hostilities with Indonesia … but I conclude with some regret that we have to prepare against such an eventuality … and that such a war may, as things turn out, be quite hard to avoid’.60

Ministers were in broad agreement with the analysis in the Strategic Basis Paper. Menzies described the situation as ‘deteriorating to serious proportions’.61 McEwen said the overall situation had ‘dramatically changed’. Holt reminded his colleagues of the increased defence budgets approved over the previous two years, although Paltridge responded by telling his colleagues that ‘our picnic is over’ and more resources had to be found.62 There was a general acceptance of this argument although it served to lead once again to the question of whether compulsory military service was needed to boost the Army.

In terms of specific issues, Menzies, reflecting the brief from his department, asked ‘have we paid enough attention to the possibility that Indonesia may stir the pot in our New Guinea?’.63 McEwen shared Menzies’s concern and told his colleagues that:

in a situation of escalation in New Guinea we haven’t the equipment there to handle a guerrilla war – Australian public would however insist that we fight it – the US won’t come into it – What I [look] … for is a separable, detachable unit which would cope with a New Guinea situation. We ought not to rush into bombing Indonesian bases without endorsement of US but we must have provision to fight a guerrilla action in New Guinea – public opinion will demand it – this New Guinea aspect is the new strategic factor – perhaps political factor more than military. We must provide for that.64

Menzies agreed fully with McEwen’s comment and posed the question to General Sir John Wilton, Chief of the General Staff, who was present during the discussions, whether ‘we could put into New Guinea a force of any substance’. Wilton replied that a battalion and support units could be deployed to assist the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR). He described the PIR as best at ‘reconnaissance, screening and activity operations and was not sure as to their capacity as assault troops or defending troops. But with Australian regulars behind them would be effective’. In response to McEwen’s question, Wilton said the PIR could respond to ‘probing incidents’ by Indonesia into New Guinea.65 Ministers endorsed the Strategic Basis Paper but, in keeping with the remarks by Menzies and McEwen, flagged in their decision the question of whether ‘the possibility of Australian forces being required to act without the assistance of the United States armed forces against Indonesian activities in Papua New Guinea is sufficiently recognized and sufficiently provided for in military planning’.66

Compromised by obligations

The government responded to the question of whether the resources allocated to the defence forces were sufficient when it introduced the 1964 Defence Review into Parliament on 10 November 1964. Menzies spoke at length about the deteriorating regional security environment, the tension between Indonesia and Malaysia and the risk of war. He announced a further 50 per cent increase in the defence budget and the introduction of selective military service which might involve deployment overseas. The Prime Minister reflected the conversations in the Cabinet room and assessment in the Strategic Basis Paper when he rated the defence of Papua New Guinea as one of the three principal obligations of Australian defence planning in 1964, along with Malaysia and South Vietnam. He specifically linked the actions of Indonesia in the region to the need to defend Papua New Guinea and warned that ‘we must prepare for all eventualities including the control and, if necessary, defence of the frontier between West New Guinea and the territory of Papua New Guinea’.67 Subritzky has argued that the announcements made on 10 November were both a reflection of Menzies’s influence and powers of persuasion in Cabinet and an acknowledgement of the ‘genuine fears’ of both himself and his ‘contemporaries concerning recent political developments in their region of the world’.68 In listing the ‘contemporaries’ it is important to acknowledge the role of McEwen, a hitherto hidden voice in guiding the development of Australia’s foreign and security policies.

In the course of the campaign for the half-Senate election held on 5 December 1964, Menzies showed a new willingness to criticise Indonesia publicly. He had by now lost all respect for Sukarno and had earlier described him as the ‘ineffable Dr Soekarno’.69 In his opening address in the campaign Menzies referred to ‘the truculence with which Soekarno and those with him speak to us and to the world’. He told the electorate that ‘a nation which will not hesitate in breach of all the rules of international conduct to invade, even in a small way, a peaceful neighbour, won’t have too many doubts about making some infiltration into our side of New Guinea if they think it is profitable’. He added ‘and therefore in our programme we have had to step up, quite materially, what we are doing to defend New Guinea and Papua’.70 In the course of the campaign Menzies repeated his earlier statement that ‘we have declared that we will defend the frontiers of New Guinea and Papua just as we would the frontiers of our own country. … any attack on our territories in the Pacific invokes the operations of the great ANZUS pact to which the United States is a party’.71 He also used the need to defend Papua and New Guinea to justify the introduction of selective military conscription, stating ‘we need this higher figure because we have obligations to perform to our own country, to Papua and New Guinea, to Malaysia … to Vietnam’.72 Menzies also began to articulate more forcefully the view that Australia had a number of defence obligations which needed to be met, including ‘developing our strength in Papua and New Guinea’.73

The election result was mixed for the Liberal/Country parties, with Labor campaigning heavily against the introduction of conscription. Menzies failed to gain the resounding victory he had achieved in 1963. Instead the two parties were tied in numbers in the Senate with the government now dependent on the support of the anti-communist and pro-defence spending Democratic Labor Party. Nevertheless, when addressing regional security issues, Menzies and his colleagues continued to employ the argument they had used during the election campaign that Australia faced a range of commitments which strained its ability to respond to regional developments.

On 15 January 1965, the newly elected Prime Minister of Britain, Harold Wilson, wrote to Menzies suggesting that a more robust response to Indonesia’s threats against Malaysia was now necessary. Australian ministers were again cautious in their response. Hasluck commented that Australia was being asked for resources ‘in two areas’ – battalions for Borneo and South Vietnam. He added that ‘we alone in Australia [are] in this position’.74 McEwen told his colleagues that Sukarno would ‘suck us dry by present tactics’ and suggested that instead of Malaysia, ‘our vital interest is that they [USA] remain there [in Vietnam] fighting’.75 In his reply, McEwen, as Acting Prime Minister, told Wilson that Australia’s obligations in Southeast Asia were ‘tending to run in two directions’. He noted that ‘in addition to our commitment to assist you in the discharge of your defence obligations to Malaysia we feel a deep concern over the situation developing in Vietnam and a strong desire to help our American allies in that theatre within the limits of our resources’. He also drew Wilson’s attention to the fact that Australia ‘must also bear in mind the possibilities of events on our frontier in New Guinea should relationships further deteriorate’.76

While McEwen’s message could be seen as prevaricating he had no such hesitation when it came to assessing requests for military assistance in Vietnam from the United States. In response to the escalation of fighting and anticipating a likely request from the United States (and South Vietnam) for a commitment of forces, McEwen’s views were clear: ‘if the US become engaged with formations and they ask us to be in. This is the acid test. The only barrier between us and China. Either we go in or crawl out. I would go in almost asking no questions’. His only caveats were the need for South Vietnam to ask for Australian involvement and the desirability of broadening the list of countries providing troops. He bluntly told his colleagues that it was desirable to ‘get some brown skins in if you can: Thais, Philippines’77 The caution Australia had shown in responding to Britain’s requests for assistance during Confrontation was not evident when the United States broached the question of a contribution to Vietnam.

In his meetings in London in February 1965, while attending the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, Menzies continued to highlight the competing commitments now facing Australia and its defence force. In a discussion on 1 February with Wilson, senior UK ministers and New Zealand Prime Minister Holyoake, Menzies noted, according to the British record of the meeting, that Australia had a number of ‘obligations’. The first was the ‘almost instinctive obligation, unwritten but nonetheless, to do all … to help Britain’. Second, ‘there were the contractual obligations under ANZUS’. Third, ‘there were the Treaty obligations of SEATO’. Fourth, ‘there was the commitment to Malaysia itself’. Fifth, there were Australia’s ‘obligations to defend Papua and New Guinea’, and finally there was the ‘question of the territorial defence of Australia itself’. He told his British colleagues that ‘he found it very difficult to get clear in his own mind what the priorities were’ and suggested that in such an environment ‘it was all the more important that there should be a closer possible political consultation … to get quite clear an agreed order of priorities’. Menzies also drew attention to the 50 per cent increase in the Australian defence budget and the introduction of compulsory military service overseas. Later in the conversation, after agreeing to consider the possible deployment of sixty SAS troops to Malaysia, Menzies said, according to the UK record, that ‘as far as Australia was concerned the last thing [it] wanted was a war with Indonesia. It was not merely because Indonesia had 100 million people but because, for Australia, a war with Asia was a bad prospect. He, for his part, felt that the right way to avoid such a war was to demonstrate that we were not frightened of one. He described Mr Subandrio as an eel soaked in oil and President Soekarno as a nut’.78

Hasluck employed a near-identical argument when he told the United States Chargé d’Affaires in Canberra in February 1965 that:

Australia was being required to consider requests for help or to maintain its commitments in respect of Malaysia, South Vietnam, SEATO planning, the defence of the New Guinea border and the defence of Northern Australia. There was a consequent risk of a dissipation of our limited resources without advantage either to our allies or to ourselves.79

By making these connections he sustained the view that the need to defend Papua New Guinea had to be acknowledged when making judgements about commitments to the more violent confrontations happening in Southeast Asia. However, Hasluck’s broader philosophical approach to foreign policy and security issues was revealed in his first major address on foreign policy to the House of Representatives on 23 March 1965. In that speech Hasluck established a theme that was to dominate his time as minister: the war in Vietnam and the threat posed by China to the region. These issues steadily took the place of Indonesia and Confrontation.80

Critical decisions

1965 was a critical year in the development of Australia’s foreign and defence policies. Confrontation escalated and Australia responded by agreeing to the deployment of an SAS squadron to Malaysia and for the Australian battalion (3 RAR) serving with the Strategic Reserve to be made available for active deployment in Malaysia. The Australian Cabinet took the decision to despatch a battalion to Vietnam. Singapore and Malaysia separated after a difficult period as a Federation. Lastly, the attempted coup in Jakarta on 30 September/1 October 1965 by pro-communist party sympathisers saw the end of Sukarno’s period of undisputed leadership and his replacement within a few months by General Suharto. It also signaled the eventual end of Confrontation as Suharto began to reverse many of the elements of Sukarno’s foreign and defence policies and to repair relations with Malaysia.

On 7, 20 and 21 April 1965 the Cabinet considered the question of nominating a battalion to serve in Vietnam.81 In a briefing note to Menzies, the Secretary of his Department, Sir John Bunting, assured the Prime Minister that an increased commitment to Vietnam had ‘no unacceptable implications’ for Australia’s responsibilities towards Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.82 In the meeting on 7 April Hasluck, who at the time was developing the concept that Southeast Asia should be looked at as one single security-related area and not different theatres of operation, questioned whether the deployment of the battalion to Vietnam would ‘involve a dissipation of our forces’.83 Both McEwen and Menzies, who fully supported the despatch of the battalion, took the view that any dispersal of Australia’s forces ‘should be against an assurance of our allies that they will take the place of our battalions or release them in time of need’.84 Menzies was firmer in his view that ‘we should mention East New Guinea – our problem there must be understood and assistance assured’.85 Ministers rejected a proposal from Hasluck to develop a ‘paper’ setting out Australia’s responsibilities and seeking assurances of assistance in other theatres if Australia were pressed. McEwen argued that Australia’s ability to respond to problems in New Guinea and Oceania would be delayed but not ‘removed’ by having a battalion in Vietnam. He added ‘if Indonesia becomes active we need assistance – US more certain to provide it if we have supplied a battalion to Vietnam than if we haven’t’.86 The question of the US and UK providing some form of assurance that they would provide military support if Australia faced problems in East New Guinea was included in the decision reached by Cabinet and conveyed to both governments.87 The British Government declined to give an assurance, citing the need to be prepared to deploy troops to Borneo and the Persian Gulf. The US Government was more sympathetic.88

In his public comments following the decision to despatch a battalion to Vietnam Menzies continued to refer to the difficult relationship with Indonesia. In May 1965 he told an audience in Melbourne that Australia ‘continued to do everything in our power to maintain some friendly contacts with Indonesia. … Nothing could be more terrifying for us than to think we might by erroneous judgements or foolish actions find ourselves in conflict with the whole of the people of Asia’. He went on to say that nevertheless ‘our objective is to defend our own security and that of our territories’.89 Later in the year Menzies returned to the theme and spoke of Australia’s ‘obligations’, including ‘the defence of New Guinea and Papua which we have accepted as part of the defence of Australia’.90

While ministers focused on military developments in the region, they were taken by surprise at the announcement that Singapore had left the Federation with Malaysia. Hasluck told his Cabinet colleagues that the break ‘involves very real risks – that Singapore will go Communist … that confrontation will be dodged, that Singapore and Malaysia become at loggerheads. These are risks over five years’.91 He recommended that Australia put the best possible face on the news and adopt an air of confidence when answering questions about the future of the two countries. McEwen said the ‘only crisis out of this is if Singapore goes Communist – vital to us. UK and USA to see that Singapore remains as is’.92 Menzies agreed. McEwen, reflecting the sudden and unexpected nature of the break, added that the lesson learned was that ‘it is impossible to be close to Asians. We believed we were on closest terms. But we were ignored and dumped’. Menzies again agreed and added that ‘part of this lesson is that we need to be more wary still and recognize that we don’t necessarily understand Asians even when we think we do’. McEwen concluded the conversation by suggesting that ‘we go on co-operating but within the limits of our self interest, not in a “do-good” context’.93 Menzies and his senior colleagues had believed that they were developing an understanding and a relationship with a good number of countries in Asia, notably Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. The shock of Singapore’s departure showed how sensitive they were to events in the region and not quite at ease with the politics of many of the new and developing nations in Southeast Asia.

If Australian ministers were distressed at the news of the break-up of the Federation, they were equally concerned at developments in Indonesia. Robert (Bob) Furlonger, a senior officer in External Affairs and later Ambassador to Jakarta, looked back on the period and described the prospect of Indonesia moving in one of three different directions: ‘becoming a thoroughgoing communist state in close alliance with Peking and Hanoi’; short of that outlook, ‘to become a kind of Cuba on the early Castro pattern … intent on driving Western influence out of South East Asia and on fomenting revolution throughout the region’; or ‘if neither of these happened, to drift towards internal chaos, probably civil war, and perhaps disintegration. … in any of these eventualities, Indonesia would have been a major problem for Australia’.94 Australia faced a set of dangerous challenges.

The concerns of the Australian Cabinet were in time allayed. The developments in Indonesia following the abortive coup of 30 September 1965, including the eventual replacement of Sukarno by General Suharto and the repression of communists or communist sympathisers throughout Indonesia, were, as Edwards has described, ‘a major turning-point in the politics of Indonesia and all of Southeast Asia’.95 Edwards is perhaps a little too quick off the mark with his further conclusion that ‘as far as the Australian public … were concerned, the preoccupation with Indonesia was over’.96 The possibility of Indonesia applying pressure on Papua New Guinea continued to be a feature of assessments, as evident in a further review conducted in February 1966 by the Defence Committee and in March of that year by the Cabinet.97 In the still uncertain outlook for Indonesia, defence planners persisted with the argument that Papua New Guinea was a potential target for Indonesian ‘hegemony’ and that Indonesia could have a potential interest in subverting the emerging indigenous political leadership of the country and in undermining Australia’s interests there.

However, Australia’s regional security focus was in the process of shifting quickly to the war in Vietnam and, in this new environment, concerns about Indonesian interest in or threat to Papua New Guinea began to be redirected to the question of the management of the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea border rather than threats of overt incursions. Australia’s immediate security concerns were soon reduced to an overwhelming preoccupation with the war in Vietnam and the impact of Britain’s decision to withdraw its military forces ‘East of Suez’.

Conclusion and the fading spectre of Indonesia

The gradual fall from power of President Sukarno following the attempted coup of 30 September 1965 and the retirement of Menzies on 26 January 1966 brought to an end a sixteen-year period of parallel, though contrasting, careers. In the sixteen years of tension between Australia and Indonesia, first over the issue of West New Guinea and then Confrontation, Menzies had not changed his mind about Australia’s northern neighbour. He knew, and said publicly, that Australia had to develop and sustain a relationship with Indonesia. In this he recognised the inevitability of geography. But he did little personally to promote a positive relationship. He travelled out of Australia on a regular, almost annual basis throughout his term as Prime Minister but only once visited Indonesia. His comments and attitudes towards Sukarno and Indonesia in general, as revealed in the discussions in the Cabinet room, instead suggest that Menzies remained suspicious and wary of Indonesia under Sukarno throughout his term as Prime Minister. In 1950 Menzies had regarded Sukarno as a wartime collaborator with the Japanese who could not be trusted. By 1959 the Australian leader was at least prepared, albeit reluctantly given his aversion to travelling in the tropics, to journey to Jakarta to meet him. The visit represented a temporary pause in Menzies’s attitude and by the early 1960s he was again openly critical of Indonesia and the threat it posed to the region. He saw Sukarno as a quasi-dictator and demagogue who was ambitious, expansionist and intent on building an ‘Indonesian Empire’. He saw him in much the same light as he had President Nasser of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Menzies and his senior ministers, notably Paul Hasluck, rarely moved beyond this deeply-held feeling of mistrust. McEwen on the other hand showed more pragmatism and flexibility.

In this unstable environment Menzies and his colleagues were consistently mindful of the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s security environment and the need to defend it. In part, Menzies reflected the attitude of the generation of Australians who had endured the campaigns of the Second World War in New Guinea. He felt obliged to say publicly on at least five occasions that Australia would defend Papua New Guinea against Indonesian infiltration or aggression. He was also acutely aware of the strain that such an obligation placed on Australia’s other commitments in the region, although it could be said that he used this card to his advantage in arguing against a sizeable deployment of Australian troops to Malaysia, as sought by Britain. Papua New Guinea and, more broadly, New Guinea, also had a place in Menzies’s view of Australian defence planning. It was, as Greg Pemberton has described, a casus belli should Indonesia threaten it. The mood in Cabinet throughout the 1950s and 1960s was such that it was unlikely that ministers would have hesitated to defend Papua New Guinea if Indonesia had threatened it militarily. By the mid-1960s it was both an island to be defended but also a platform from which Australia could shift defence assets to Southeast Asia and Indo China.

Historians such as John Subritzky and Greg Pemberton and others have rightly examined Australia’s response to developments in the region in the mid-1960s through the perspective of Australia’s immediate response to events in Malaysia and then Vietnam. It is clear that these were the dominant foci for Australian decision-makers. However, it is also true that Australian ministers, as revealed in the conversations in Cabinet, were highly sensitive to the place of Papua New Guinea in this picture and rarely concluded an analysis of developments and their repercussions without drawing attention to it and the need to provide for its defence.

The assumption of power by General Suharto began a slow but, in time, fundamental change in Australia’s assessment of the place of Indonesia and, by extension, Papua New Guinea, in Australia’s strategic environment. Indonesia remained the close object of Australia’s concerns and suspicions but now on a gradually decreasing scale. The emphasis shifted, as will be seen in subsequent chapters, from concerns about an ambitious, expansionary Indonesia to one focused on the internal problems of Papua New Guinea as it moved to self-government and independence. By 1983 the Strategic Basis Paper setting out Australian Defence Policy asserted that ‘at best a strong, stable and friendly Indonesia could be a defensive shield between Australia and hostile developments further north. At worst, a belligerent, or weak and divided, Indonesia could seriously threaten our security’.98 The replacement of Papua New Guinea with Indonesia as the ‘defensive shield’ represented a transformation in Australia’s defence thinking.


Australia’s wartime leaders in London, 1918. In civilian dress from left to right: Sir Joseph Cook (Minister for the Navy), William Morris Hughes (Prime Minister), Andrew Fisher (former Prime Minister and serving as High Commissioner in London) and Senator George Pearce (Minister for Defence). Source: National Archives of Australia; M4063, 1.


Australian Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender with President Sukarno and Fatmawati Sukarno at the Istana Merdeka, Jakarta, January 1950. Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Prime Minister Menzies on arrival in Port Moresby on 24 April 1957 for his first visit to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. He is seen accompanied by the Police Commissioner C. Normoyle. Pacific Islands Monthly, Vol. XXVII No 10 May 1957, page 19; reproduced courtesy Fiji Times, Suva.


Indonesia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Subandrio being met on arrival in Australia by R. G. Casey, Minister for External Affairs and John McEwen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, February 1959. Source: National Archives of Australia; A8281, 13, IFM 1/1.


President Sukarno welcomes Prime Minister Menzies, Istana Negara (State) Palace, Jakarta, December 1959. Source: National Archives of Australia; A1775, RGM2.


Prime Minister Robert Menzies with President Sukarno at Istana Negara, Jakarta, December 1959. Source: National Archives of Australia; A1775 RGM 1.


John McEwen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade with President John F. Kennedy, The White House, 1963. Source: National Archives of Australia; M60, 100.


Menzies Cabinet in November 1963. Prime Minister Menzies is seated at the centre of the table with John McEwen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade on his right, and Harold Holt, Treasurer on his left. Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories is on the far right at the table. William McMahon, Minister for Labour and National Service is seated at the far left. Source: National Archives of Australia; A1200, L45498.


Paul Hasluck, Minister for External Affairs, with President Sukarno, Presidential Palace, Jakarta, June 1964. Standing in the background are Keith Waller, First Assistant Secretary, Division 1, Department of External Affairs, and K. C. O. Shann, Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and National Archives of Indonesia.


Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, PNG Chief Minister Michael Somare and Minister for External Territories, Bill Morrison, January 1973. Source: National Archives of Australia; A6180, 18/1/73/30.


Minister for Defence, Lance Barnard and PNG Chief Minister, Michael Somare, Port Moresby, January 1973. Source: Post Courier, page 3, 26 January 1973.


Arrival in Port Moresby of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, September 1975. Met by Chief Minister Michael Somare and T. K. Critchley, High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea. Source: National Archives of Australia; A6180, 22/9/75/28.


Minister for Defence, James Killen and PNG Minister for Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Sir Albert Maori Kiki, Parliament House, Canberra, 1976. Source National Archives of Australia: A6180, 6/7/76/11.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt