Spending the summer in the 1950s
Cultural diplomacy in the Menzies era
Khylie Daws is a PhD candidate in History at Deakin University. She is examining how Prime Minister Robert Menzies supported Australia’s involvement in key international events and initiatives to promote Australia through cultural diplomacy. Ms Daws is based at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute. Her earlier research includes a study on how embracing the motor car in the 1920s led to a range of social changes in Australia.
Sometimes good government involves foresight—the need to initiate a long range plan which may not bear fruit for decades. Robert Menzies had been Prime Minister for little more than a month when he sent his new Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, to Colombo to work out what should be done by way of aid for the South East Asian countries.
It was decided, amongst other things, that Australia should offer university places to students, providing training not available in South East Asia. One student who graduated with an engineering degree went on to become a senior manager in the Singaporean government. By the 1980s construction boom, and the increase in high rise buildings and safety concerns, it was decided to introduce steel scaffolding and phase out the traditional bamboo. So when faced with writing the new legislation, the Colombo Plan graduate called the Australian High Commission asking for their specifications on steel scaffolding. He hoped to get the Australian regulations and adapt them for Singapore.
The Commission supplied him with the Australian standards and the Victorian building regulations governing its use. They subsequently became the Singapore standards which of course gave Australian manufacturers a considerable advantage in responding to tenders for supply of scaffolding to a booming market and to Australian builders who were familiar with those regulations!
I have spent the summer exploring Australian cultural diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s. Incidents like these are the exact reason cultural diplomacy is important. The financial benefit to steel scaffolding and construction companies came from the positive experience of one student. There is no way Menzies could have predicted this benefit nearly thirty years after the project began, but he had the foresight to encourage the project based on future benefits.
I am using oral histories, interviews, biographies and collections of personal papers to unearth these stories. I am examining the real value of personal relationships in the formation of policies and agreements: made on political terms but carried out by friends. Menzies encouraged Australia’s international relationships with travel himself and for his ministers. The immigration policy was altered allowing more cultures to learn about Australia. Treaties were negotiated in the Pacific and Asia.
In my PhD thesis, ‘Advancing Australia: Cultural Diplomacy in the Menzies era’, I am highlighting ways in which the policies and programs of the Menzies government were combined with an understanding of international cultures to produce the best results for Australia—over the long term.
Robert Menzies and the United States
Andrew Kelly is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Western Sydney. He is assessing the personal contribution of Prime Minister Robert Menzies to fostering a trilateral relationship between Australia, America and New Zealand from the signing of ANZUS in 1951 to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Andrew works as an adjunct faculty member with the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney and is a senior editor for History in the Making.
As the longest ever holder of Australia’s top office (1939-1941, 1949-1966) and the founding father of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies has undoubtedly been one of Australia’s most revered and studied prime ministers. As a testament to his legacy on Australian politics, John Howard (Australia’s second longest serving prime minister) concludes in the Museum of Australian Democracy’s current exhibition on Menzies that he was in fact Australia’s “greatest ever prime minister.”
While many Australians acknowledge Menzies’ contribution to Australia, what did others outside of Australia think of him? More specifically, in one of Australia’s most important relationships during the early Cold War, did Menzies make a good impression on policymakers in the United States when he visited? How did Menzies view the Australian-American relationship and was he a strong supporter of closer ties with Washington? As a summer scholar here at Old Parliament House, I investigated these questions.
Menzies first visited the United States formally in mid-1950 in order to apply for loans for the Snowy Mountain Scheme and Australia’s defence expansion programs. He was warmly received in Washington and took an instant liking to U.S. President Harry Truman, describing him as “one of most under-rated men in history.”
Reciprocally, Menzies also made a strong impression on the Americans. “He made an excellent impression on all officials,” U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson noted, adding that he was particularly liked by many members of Congress. A State Department file on Menzies reached similar conclusions about Australia’s prime minister, describing him as “brilliant, self-confident, industrious, and an eloquent and persuasive speaker.” Before returning to Australia, Menzies was ultimately successful in obtaining a loan of $250 million dollars.
From then on, the Australian-American relationship reached an unprecedented level of intimacy and closeness. In 1951, Australia concluded along, with New Zealand, a formal defence treaty with the United States (ANZUS). This treaty committed Australia and the United States to respond to mutual security threats in the Pacific region. In this instance, however, Menzies emerges as a somewhat ambivalent figure. He suggested to Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Fadden that Australia “did not need a pact with America” because “they are already overwhelmingly friendly to us.”
After the treaty’s conclusion, Menzies was also one of the strongest supporters for including Britain in the ANZUS Treaty in some capacity despite U.S. objections. As he told External Affairs Minister Richard Casey and Australian Ambassador in Washington Percy Spender, Australia “should not place any obstacle in British efforts to join the ANZUS Council meetings as an observer.”
Nevertheless, Menzies accepted how important the United States was to Australia and became a frequent visitor to Washington. He played an active role in a number of crises, including the 1954 Indochina Crisis and the 1945-55 Quemoy-Matsu Crisis. Like under Truman, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Administration (1953-1961) also admired Menzies. As a background State Department paper on Australia described,
Tall and distinguished in bearing, the Prime Minister is an excellent speaker with impeccable diction, great intelligence and a self-assured and courteous manner … he is a brilliant lawyer and tactician with a forceful personality.
That said, a high U.S. opinion of Menzies did not always translate into benefits for Australia. For instance, at the height of tensions during the 1954-55 Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, Menzies visited Washington in March 1955 in the hope of mending the rift in Anglo-American relations over China. While U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appreciated Menzies’ views on the crisis, he was unable to convince the Americans to avoid defending Taiwanese-held offshore islands amidst attacks from mainland China. In subsequent meetings, he was also unable to gather further aid to the defence of Malaya through the Far East Commonwealth Strategic Reserve. As part of Australia’s forward defence policy in Southeast Asia, Australian and British defence talks had been moving towards creating a Far East Strategic Reserve that would entail a joint military force stationed in the region to protect Malaya and other Commonwealth interests. Unfortunately for Menzies, he convinced neither Dulles nor the American Joints Chiefs of Staff to commit to Malaya’s defence or a broader defence scheme outside of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation.
Overall, Menzies’ relationship with the United States during the early 1950s was generally positive, but he also acted somewhat indecisively about how closely Canberra should associate itself with Washington. Menzies was certainly well-liked in the United States and in many ways enabled Australia to play a more important role in international affairs. Yet, at the same time, he also questioned Australia’s close ties with the United States at critical moments and was not always able to convince U.S. policymakers to address Australia’s primary interests. In short, Menzies certainly deserves praise for his efforts with the Americans during this period but there are also notable exceptions that must be acknowledged.