Professor David Lowe marks the 70th Anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty, asking what we can learn from the treaty for building and sustaining strong co-operative relationships with near neighbours, including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and countries of the South Pacific.

September 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Since then, ANZUS has frequently been held up by commentators as a cornerstone of the Australian-US relationship. In recalling the circumstances leading to the signing of the treaty, Australian External Affairs Minister Percy Spender laid claim to a moment of Australian diplomatic triumph. In the face of Prime Minister Menzies’ scepticism, and against the grain of American inclinations, Spender negotiated a security treaty of lasting value. In case historians missed this, in his memoir he was sure to reproduce comments by Menzies and officials crediting him with a major role in bringing ANZUS into existence.

As Spender’s biographer, I think some of this celebration of his work is justified. From the time of his arrival in Federal Parliament in 1937 he was outspoken about what he saw as the inadequacies of Australia’s defence plans, and was one of the most Pacific-minded thinkers of his generation. His time as Minister for the Army at the start of the Second World War confirmed his doubts about the readiness of the British Navy to defend Australia, and about the need for Australia to draw closer to the United States.

When the North Atlantic security treaty was concluded in 1949 between the US, Canada and European countries, Spender fixed on securing something similar for the Pacific. And it needed to involve the United States. Returning to government, with Menzies, in 1950, he proclaimed that he wanted Australia and the United States to develop ‘Somewhat the same relationship as exists within the British Commonwealth’. Soon afterwards he offered bases to the American military in ‘North Australia’, without eliciting interest.

Spender was also a terrier, unrelenting in his calls for a Pacific security pact. He tailored his pitch to his audience, even telling a group of US Congressmen that a Pacific pact might include Canada, Mexico and littoral Central and South American nations. To others he held out the prospect of British membership.

It is tempting to focus on the derring-do of someone like Spender, as there are jousts with Menzies, behind-the scenes late night talks, radio phone calls to ships on the high seas and congratulatory brandies to emerge from memoirs written of the time. But, although it might be edifying for Spender fans and lends to a self-congratulatory tale of Australian diplomacy punching above its weight, it pays not to exaggerate Spender’s role in the conclusion of the ANZUS Treaty.

Percy Spender (AWM)

In fact, the treaty was only made possible by a combination of regional and global security concerns that led the Americans and British to conclude that a new type of guarantee of Australia’s security was needed. To recall this is to be reminded that Australian foreign and defence policies are most successful when they also address the needs of others. Although the Cold War context of ANZUS is gone, this lesson, and the related suggestion that persistent, continuous relationship building within Australia’s region and with other allies, remain instructive.

The circumstances surrounding the signing of ANZUS include the Korean War, the uncertain future of Japan, and Australia’s promise to send troops to the Middle East upon the outbreak of another war. All were important in convincing the Americans and British of the logic of something like ANZUS. The outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950 came soon after a sweeping US national security policy paper, NSC-68 envisaged vastly expanding US defence commitments across the world, to stop the spread of communism. The eruption of fighting between communist North and pro-American South Korea bolstered the case for tying up different parts of the world that could logically be the subject of security guarantees or treaties.

Such a treaty was struck with Japan in 1951, confirming that Japan was, in Washington’s ideal world, to develop as an anti-communist bastion in Asia. Others, including the Australians, might still point to Japan’s recent history of aggression as a potential threat rather than a bastion, but this would not prevent a US security treaty and a ‘soft’ general peace treaty with Japan.

Both the Americans and British were deeply worried about the potential of a third world war involving the Soviet Union and both were keen to lock the Australians into playing an important support role in this eventuality. Historians have overplayed the level of British antagonism towards ANZUS. Admittedly Churchill, in power soon after the treaty was signed, huffed and puffed about Britain’s exclusion, and ascribed Australian behaviour to their being of ‘poor stock’, but the lead up was very different. During 1951, both British and US governments agreed that in the event of global (most likely nuclear) war, the best role was for the Australians to help defend British military bases in Egypt and air bases in Cyprus and Iraq, from which air strikes would be launched against the Soviet Union.

While the Menzies government seemed to accept this logic, Spender and a small number of others held out for fear of what might happen in the Pacific, lest something like a replay of the Second World War unfold again. After ANZUS was signed on 1 September, the Australians had their guarantee (or as the British noted approvingly, ‘their back door was bolted’). The case for holding out on the Middle East commitment was gone, and in December that year, Cabinet agreed that in the event of global war, the first contingent of Australian forces would go to the Middle East. Changing Cold War circumstances soon overtook the logic of this Middle East strategy and it was quietly dropped, but it was a crucial part of the road to ANZUS in 1951.

I suggest we are well-served by seeing as ANZUS as an example of adroit Australian manoeuvring joining with more broadly-shared security concerns. Percy Spender, the minister who negotiated the treaty, described it as ‘bones’ in need of ‘flesh’; and he worked as Australia’s ambassador in Washington during the 1950s to add flesh.

This task of continuous relationship building is often overlooked. Far from a stable ‘insurance policy’ Spender and others knew that ANZUS, with its watery commitment to ‘act in accordance with constitutional processes’ should one member be attacked, was in danger of being defined narrowly by the Americans. What was needed was constant work in trying to enlarge its scope, draw on it for regular meetings in which more strategic information would be shared and from which military resources might flow. In this quest, Spender and his successors had some success and some frustrations, but the Australian work was constant.

Therein lie the lessons that reach beyond the Australian-US relationship. Australia’s efforts relating to ANZUS in these two ways – embedding its overseas policies with broadly shared concerns, and investing in relationship building with important others – have fallen short recently when we look beyond the US relationship.

The ‘Quad’ comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States in cooperative security talk is significant, but much else is less impressive in Australia’s diplomatic report card. Examples are Australia’s reluctance to meet ambitious carbon reduction goals, its under-resourcing of its diplomatic staff, and its insufficient efforts to build and sustain strong co-operative relationships with near neighbours, including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and countries of the South Pacific. All of these loom large in an increasingly unstable world order. To neglect them and the bigger contextual picture in which they loom, is to narrow not only our view of what matters but our chances of diplomatic success akin to the ANZUS story.


This piece draws on David Lowe’s ‘Percy Spender’s Quest’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 55, 2, 2001, 187-198; and his biography of Spender, Australian Between Empires: the life of Percy Spender, Pickering and Chatto, London, 2010.

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David Lowe
David Lowe

David is Chair of Contemporary History at Deakin University and co-founder of the Australian Policy and History Network. His research focuses on modern international history, including Australia’s role in the world, and the remembering of prominent events. Recent books include (with Carola Lentz) Remembering Independence, Routledge, 2018 and (edited, with Cassandra Atherton and Alyson Miller) The Unfinished Atomic Bomb, Rowman and Littlefield, 2018. He is currently working on three projects: an international history of the Colombo Plan for aid to South and Southeast Asia; a history of Australia’s foreign aid; and histories of Australia’s overseas embassies.