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Essay: How significant was the contribution of H.V. (Doc) Evatt to the development of Australian foreign policy?

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by Nicholas Klar

Herbert Vere Evatt, or 'The Doc' as he was affectionately known, was an enigmatic political figure. He was variously described as 'the most frightful man in the world', a 'stormy petrel', 'prickly and suspicious', and a 'good hater of his enemies', all with a 'curious lack of grace' Yet for all of the defects he was accused of, he was an extraordinarily gifted man who made an imprint not just on Australia and its government, but on the world stage as well. His driven personality, and assertion of Australian independence and importance in the world, bears a remarkable resemblance to that 'true believer' of the 90's - Paul Keating.

This essay will concern itself firstly with the major policies that Evatt instigated or played a major part in, such as the independent declaration of war on Japan, the 'turning' to America, the ANZAC pact, the expansion of the diplomatic service, and the 1942 ratification of the Statute of Westminster. Next his policies toward other countries, including the USSR, China, Japan, and Indonesia, along with his vision for the south west Pacific island states will be considered. His usually tenuous relationship with the leaders of America and Great Britain, along with his role in the fledgling United Nations will also be discussed.

By this it will be attempted to be shown that Evatt was more farsighted in his foreign policy than anyone could contemplate at the time, and the implications can still be seen today. Foreign affairs had a priority in government that had never been seen before, or perhaps since. Evatt was first and foremost an Australian nationalist concerned for the security of his country. This explains why sometimes his abiding sense of justice appeared to be compromised. A good example would be his support of the White Australia Policy. He was dismayed by the racial violence he had seen on a visit to Hawaii, and resolved that Australia must not be weakened by similar problems.

The onset of the second World War, particularly the aggression of Japan, caused a considerable rethink of previous foreign policy amongst Australia's leaders. Australia had always considered it's defence could be capably handled under the wing of the mighty British Empire. The fall of Singapore, along with the surrender of many thousands of Australian troops, proved that the notion of British protection was merely an illusion. Australia was alone and needed to forge a new direction, no longer following the British lead.

The new Labor government under the leadership of John Curtin was quick to act. Evatt persuaded Curtin to make an individual declaration of war on Japan as a deliberate exercise of Australian sovereignty. Evatt also backed Curtin's recall of Australian troops, and in 1942 wrote his dispatches to Churchill. This was in contrast to Menzies who previously declared that because Britain was at war with Germany, so was Australia. Later in 1950 Evatt wrote in support of John Curtin a lengthy and bitter criticism of Churchill's war policies.

This new attitude led to the famous statement by Curtin in the Melbourne Herald on December 27th 1941 where he declared,

'...we refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as subordinate...therefore [we] regard the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say...

Without any inhibitions...Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

We are, therefore, determined that Australia shall not go...'

Thus began the redefinition of Australian foreign policy, headed capably by 'The Doc' who firmly felt Australia had 'come of age'.

The Australian government was not 'cutting the bonds of Empire' as many claimed, but was in fact sowing the seeds of what Evatt referred to as a '...great South-West Pacific zone of security'. The underlying reason was the security and safety of the Pacific. This was to be the basis of maintaining an independent, yet aligned, foreign policy. Australia was not submitting itself to the U.S., but realistically realised that much of it's future could be decided in Washington.

Australia also strove to have itself seen as the 'leader' or 'voice' of the Commonwealth in the Pacific. This was a major factor in the signing of the ANZAC pact which was purely an Evatt initiative. No two British dominions had ever before signed a treaty without consulting Britain. The pact was maybe Evatt's first really distinctive achievement, and probably largest blunder when viewed from overseas.

This agreement was a sum of the overall views of Evatt, and also embodied his ego, ambitions, and annoyance at the major powers who were ignoring Australia. As a part of the pact Evatt envisaged Australia and New Zealand, who he felt had been left alone in the Pacific, taking control of British Pacific colonies. The U.S. looked upon this as an Australian 'Monroe Doctrine', and began the build up of distrust that America felt for the Evatt and the Labor government.

Under Evatt the External Affairs office rapidly expanded it's diplomatic representation. Previously Australian diplomacy had been handled through the representatives of the United Kingdom. Partly because of this Evatt experienced difficulty convincing foreign nations that Australia was not merely an appendage of Britain. Therefore, under his leadership was built an effective department of External Affairs that was to be so important in the post WWII world. Also Evatt could not claim 'middle power' status for Australia without adequate representation. By 1949 the number of independent overseas diplomatic missions had reached 25.

Evatt was prepared to grasp the political independence offered by Great Britain. Previous governments had used the Statute of Westminster as a political football, not wishing to look disloyal to the Empire. Yet Evatt, being the lawyer that he was, felt he could not bring the changes needed for the war effort without the proper support of the constitution. Consequently the Bill for the adoption of the Statute of Westminster was presented to Parliament by Evatt in October 1942.

With regard to the USSR Evatt felt much less threatened by them than America did, which proved a constant source of tension. Evatt questioned the Russian's expansionist motives, asking if it was to,

' the political domination of other countries or merely to protect Russia against any repetition of the so-called cordon sanitaire...'

Evatt probably felt the Soviets were only establishing defensive zones of influence, not unlike Australia was trying to do in some way.

Evatt, like many Australians at the time, felt more threatened by the 'yellow peril' than by the USSR. He angered the Americans by saying he wanted to work with the Chinese communists, who he considered were not pushing the same line as the USSR. Unlike the U.S. who saw 'Reds under every bed', Evatt saw real differences between nationalist and communist movements in the new emerging states.

Australia was most afraid of a resurgent Japan. Evatt demanded the '...complete elimination of Japanese imperialistic militarism as a basic condition of pacific security and an '...effective voice in the peace settlement'. Evatt felt the Allies did not understand Australian concerns and pressed the U.S. to impose harsh conditions. Through it's status as an 'active belligerent', plus Evatt's pressure and bullying, Australia won a part in the Japanese surrender and Far East Commission.

By 1947 Evatt enunciated the basic principles of Australian foreign policy toward Japan. These were,

'...the disarmament and demilitarisation of Japan, destruction of it's capacity to wage war, prevent the regrowth of war-making capacity... [and] the encouragement of democracy in Japan, which involves the gradual growth of the social, political, and economic system.'

After the war the Australian government had to decide their policy on the Indonesian independence movement which was rapidly gaining strength. Evatt initially supported a balance between the Dutch and republican forces with gradual autonomy being granted. This support moved quickly over to the republicans after brutal Dutch 'police actions'. Australia asked for adjudication under article 39 at the United Nations, and went as far as wanting The Netherlands expelled from the UN.

There were probably three reasons for the change of tack. One was the basic issue of justice which Evatt had pushed so hard for in San Francisco. Secondly it was considered Indonesia could become a solid trading partner, which today has proved correct. Lastly, by supporting independence movements, not only in Indonesia but throughout the Pacific, it would mean better defence for Australia. The Japanese had encountered little resistance as they marched down through Asia.

If these former colonies could be 'better looked after' Evatt considered they would remain loyal to the West. The question of Dutch New Guinea (Irian Jaya), which would have to be confronted later, was being looked as vital for the security of Australia and ensured continuance of the White Australia Policy. Australia sought effective control of not just Dutch New Guinea but also Portuguese (East) Timor, the Solomon Islands, and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). To this end Evatt laid out Australia's envisaged role in the Daily Telegraph on 18th August 1943.

The Allied Supply Council (an Australian idea) was set up in 1942 by America and Australia. It's job was to develop Australia into a major operation and supply base for the Pacific theatre. It was also to coordinate procurement for the Allied Forces, help increase Australian war production, and determine broad economic policies for the south west Pacific. This is an important last point because it was definitely considered that this role would continue (with America's blessing) after the conclusion of hostilities. The U.S. alliance was not really wanted after the war and reflected a traditional anti-American feeling in the Labor Party. The ANZAC pact came from Evatt's displeasure of constantly 'being brushed aside'.

The Manus Island dispute was a symbol of post-war discord between Australia and the U.S.A. The underlying current of discord between the U.S. and Australia seems to have been evidenced by several clashes - of interests, of personalities, of priorities, and ideologies. The Labor government was obviously more concerned than the U.S. about a re-armed Japan, with their first principle being the security and safety of the Pacific. The emerging cold war meant America was more interested in the threat from Soviet communism.

Evatt's aggressive pursuit of his ideas, policies, and theories annoyed most high ranking Americans who felt the Australian government should be more compliant. The ultimate effect of this, along with 'The Case', was to have the Chifley government alienated because of 'communist influence'. Labor was seen by the American ambassador as riddled with communists and fellow travellers. Australia was '...weaken[ing] the democratic front...' and the US sought to '...discourage Australia from taking positions that hinder us...'. Not that the Australian cause was helped by the incompetence of the American representatives.

The U.S. wanted to devote it's energies to the rebuilding of Europe and security interests in the Northern Pacific. The South-West Pacific was returning to being a 'backwater'. America did not share Australia's enthusiasm for a NATO style pact, particularly with themselves as junior partners. Neither did the US want a Manus Island base badly enough as a trade off for an ANZUS treaty. The Americans did not realise the deep hurt that Australia felt after being let down by London. It did not want to experience the same thing with Washington.

At the same time Australia did not want to lose control of their territories. Evatt had no qualms over a US presence in the North Pacific because it would strengthen Australia's first line defence. Because Labor (with Evatt) were pursuing an independent foreign policy, demanding input on questions like the Japanese Peace Agreement, and giving firm support for the U.N., America took a somewhat dim view of the Australian government. Upon Labor's defeat the American ambassador sent a congratulatory telegram to Menzies - even before the victory was won!

Australian ties with the U.K. were also somewhat strained after the war. Australia and New Zealand resented being left out of decisions made at the Cairo conference in 1943, but nonetheless wanted some British presence in the Pacific to counter the Americans. The British government also resented the attempts by Arthur Calwell to encourage the emigration of Britons to Australia, they wanted their citizens to stay and assist in reconstruction efforts. Calwell's policy was to build population for the purposes of defence, thereby supplementing Evatt's policies.

Evatt was not without his critics at home either. The Murdoch press blasted him for 'nationalist larrikinism'. Leader of the opposition Menzies also disagreed with much of Evatt's policy, particularly it's 'utter independence' and Evatt's support of the Indonesians. Yet unlike Evatt, Menzies could not see the changing of Britain's fortunes in the world and the coming change in Asia. Evatt saw that while Australia was directly affected by events in Europe, it's stake in the Pacific was paramount.

Yet in was on the world stage that Evatt really shone. His efforts at the United Nations complemented the broad objectives of his foreign policy. These were meant to help bring about world conditions in which Australia may secure peace, national development, and prosperity in accordance with the ideals of democracy.

He developed the idea trusteeships, partly to help fulfil Australia's 'Pacific destiny'. Here he appeared more as an enlightened colonial than an anti-colonialist. Evatt made clear his stand for justice as part of his mission at San Francisco,

'While security is the first task, it is not enough to plan for security alone; economic and social conditions are potent factors in international relations. poverty and unemployment are the worst menace to peace.'

The world press loved Evatt. He made a huge impact giving numerous press conferences frankly outlining his aims. In all, the Australian team successfully sponsored 20 amendments to the proposed charter. As a reward Australia was given the honour of sitting on the Security Council. The New York Times summed up Dr. Evatt's standing at the conference thus,

'When Dr. Evatt came here he was a virtually unknown second string delegate...He leaves, recognised as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world's conscience

He saw his election to the presidency of the UN not as a prize for himself, but to Australia.

Many from both within and without Australia do not remember many of the less conspicuous things Evatt did for his country, such as his bravery during WWII, constantly flying the Pacific in Navy planes that could be shot down at any time. As put by Jack Beasley,

'If medals for bravery were given out, poor bloody Evatt would have as many as a dray horse's harness.'

After searching Canada for war supplies Evatt introduced a Bill during 1944 to set up an aluminium refinery in Tasmania. He was determined that Australia would never have to 'beg' again. He also ensured by his partial separation of the diplomatic service that potential employees would be rigorously screened, and worthy of their appointment.

Gough Whitlam, when still leader of the opposition in 1971, was perhaps referring to the efforts of Evatt when he was denigrating the Liberal's foreign policy thus, 'The foreign policy of this nation is in ruins: the foundations on which it has rested for twenty years has crumbled'. Renouf contends that Evatt was only harking back to pre-1923, and to the policies of nationalist leaders like Billy Hughes. Perhaps Evatt saw his role in the context of history.

When the Labor government of the period was dramatised in the ABC mini-series 'The True Believers' the character of Evatt, now opposition leader, plays in a poignant final moment. He is standing alone in Kings Hall of the Old Parliament looking at the portraits of the great Labor leaders, Chifley and Curtin. Out of the darkness comes a fellow Labor M.P. Knowing what Evatt is thinking he simply says, 'Don't worry Doc, history will be kind to you'.

A measure of his influence on future Australian foreign policy can be seen in a speech read by him, but actually penned by Paul Hasluck, later to become Minister of Foreign Affairs in a Liberal government,

'No sovereign state, however small, will wish to think that its destiny has been handed over to another power, however great. Nor does history at all support the view that wisdom is confined to the strongest nations or that knowledge is found only at the centre of power'

Perhaps his greatest failing was not his ego, his impetuosity, or verbal imprecision, but his unfailing faith in law, justice and reason. He always considered that the law could over ride raw power, which is plainly and unfortunately untrue. After Ben Chifley's death Evatt went on to lead the A.L.P., though never into power, and eventually to the split with the Catholic Right (D.L.P.). Although Evatt was able to claim victory on the communist referendum in the 50's, Robert Menzies was too easily able to exploit Evatt's shortcomings, and he retired dispirited from politics.

Many Australians today do not recognise the huge influence of 'The Doc' either nationally, or internationally. He may have misjudged many things, but he also was correct in many others. He foresaw working with China long before Nixon or Whitlam, he saw Australia as an independent nation in the Asia/Pacific region long before Keating, and the decline of British influence in the same, he saw that the USSR was not about unbridled global expansion unlike many in the West, and he saw through the sham of unchecked power that has today brought the 'New World Order'.

He proudly established an Australian foreign policy based on principle, and not on selfishness. Most importantly he showed the world that Australia had it's own distinctive contribution to make, and demanded it's treatment as an equal. The conservative governments that followed may have rejected some of Evatt's policies but never repudiated the security conscious foundations he had laid.

The influence of The Doc was all pervasive from 1940-49, and still is in many ways today. On his gravestone are the simple words 'President of the United Nations Assembly'. For all his faults Herbert Vere Evatt stands as a true Australian statesman, and second to none as a fighter for Australia, and its place in the world.


A. Primary sources (Documents)

W. J. Hudson and Wendy Way (ed.), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, Canberra, 1989

Neville Meaney (ed.), Australia and the World, Melbourne, 1985

Kylie Tennant, Appendix (A-E) in Evatt: Politics and Justice, Sydney 1970

B. Primary sources (Books)

Warner Levi, Australian-American Relations, Minneapolis, 1947

C. Secondary sources (Books)

Glen St. J. Barclay, Friends in High Places, Melbourne, 1985

Carl Bridge, Herbert Vere Evatt, in Leonie Kramer, et al, (ed.) The Greats, Sydney 1986

Richard Hall, The Rhodes Scholar Spy, Sydney, 1991

W. J. Hudson, Australia and the Colonial Question at the United Nations, Sydney, 1970

Robert Manne, The Petrov Affair, Sydney, 1987

Alan Renouf, Let Justice Be Done, Brisbane, 1983

Kylie Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice, Sydney 1970

Gary Woodard, Evatt's Manifesto - The ANZAC Pact, Sydney, 1987

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "How significant was the contribution of H.V. (Doc) Evatt to the development of Australian foreign policy?" - + date accessed

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