The dominant interpretation of ANZUS origins is as old as the alliance itself. Most writers on the subject have accepted the view held by Australian policymakers in 1951: that in February of that year Australia’s external affairs minister, Percy Spender, in negotiations with his New Zealand counterpart Frederick Doidge and US special envoy John Foster Dulles, skilfully extracted a defence arrangement from a reluctant United States, exploiting Washington’s desire to gain Australia’s signature to a lenient peace treaty with Japan and American gratitude for Australia’s assistance in the Korean War. This interpretation seemed to receive confirmation from Spender’s 1969 memoirs, Exercises in Diplomacy: The ANZUS Treaty and the Colombo Plan (Sydney, 1969), pp. 13-190, which gave the most detailed account then available of the 1951 negotiations.The same perspective is found, for example, in Robert O’Neill’s Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, vol. 1: Strategy and Diplomacy (Canberra, 1981), pp. 185-200 and W. David McIntyre, Background to the Anzus Pact: Policy-Making, Strategy and Diplomacy, 1945-55 (New York, 1995).
The orthodox interpretation has not gone unchallenged. As early as the 1960s J.G. Starke and Erik Olssen questioned the emphasis on American reluctance, suggesting that Washington had its own reasons for wanting to enlist Australia and New Zealand in a security arrangement – reasons that went beyond the desire to persuade these countries to accept a soft Japanese peace treaty. See J.G. Starke, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance (Melbourne, 1965), pp. 1-75 and Erik Olssen, “The Origins of ANZUS Reconsidered”, Historical and Political Studies, 1 (1970), pp. 102-10.
The declassification of US, Australian and New Zealand records for the period in the 1970s and 1980s offered further support for such scepticism. David McLean argued that the idea of US reluctance to agree to ANZUS was hard to reconcile with clear evidence that from October 1950, with China’s entry into the Korean War, US policymakers were keenly aware of the advantages that the United States might gain from a Pacific alliance system. Such advantages included above all the perceived political and psychological benefits of encouraging friendly countries in Asia and the Pacific to play their part in resisting communism. American officials kept an open mind on the form that an alliance system might take. At the beginning of 1951 their preference was an “offshore island pact”, including the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and perhaps Indonesia. British opposition persuaded the Americans to reconsider this concept, but they remained eager for a Pacific pact in principle, and the idea of a tripartite treaty between the United States, Australia and New Zealand as a possible alternative to the offshore island proposal was initially suggested not by Spender but by the US State Department. David McLean, “Anzus Origins: A Reassessment”, Australian Historical Studies, 24, 94 (April 1990), 64-82.
Philip Dorling challenged another aspect of the orthodox interpretation, questioning “whether the American desire to secure Australian agreement to a non-restrictive Japanese peace treaty was a sufficiently strong bargaining lever to secure a defence arrangement.” The United States could, after all, have proceeded with its plans for Japan regardless of Australia’s and New Zealand’s views.See Philip Dorling, The Origins of the Anzus Treaty: A Reconsideration (Bedford Park, 1989), pp. 88, 120.
According to these “revisionist” interpretations, the Japanese peace treaty and the security agreements negotiated with Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines in 1951 were all aspects of the US attempt to contain communism in Asia. Strengthening Japan’s ties with the West was central to the strategy; but the consolidation of US leadership of the smaller Pacific powers was a necessary corollary. Viewed in this perspective, ANZUS was not a triumph of Australian foreign policy, achieved in the face of American reluctance, but an alliance which both Australia and the United States wanted, albeit for different reasons.
Historians have disagreed on the nature of these reasons in the Australian case. It is not disputed that in Australian leaders’ eyes one of the most important parts of the ANZUS treaty was the provision for a council of foreign ministers or their deputies. The Australians hoped that such a council would give them a direct voice in Washington on global as well as regional defence planning. That this mattered so much reflected the experience of the previous two decades, in which Britain and the United States had proved unwilling to take Canberra into their confidence and ready to subordinate Australian concerns to the demands of global strategy. But there is no scholarly consensus on the nature of the security threats that ANZUS was intended to deal with or on the broader significance of Spender’s achievement. One contentious issue concerns the relative importance for Australian policymakers in 1950-51 of fears of a revival of Japanese militarism on the one hand, the search for protection against Chinese communist expansionism on the other; and for that matter the extent to which fear of an expansionist Indonesia figured in the Australian campaign for ANZUS. A more fundamental question is whether ANZUS arose from forward or backward looking thinking – whether it should be regarded as the product of strategic far-sightedness, or as an attempt to superimpose on the 1950s strategic lessons formed in the 1930s and no longer appropriate in the post-war world.
Essays published in 2001 by two leading historians of Australian foreign relations show that these questions were still alive a half century after the making of the alliance. David Lowe emphasised the Cold War context in which ANZUS was created, viewing Australia’s search for a US security agreement as above all the product of fears of a monolithic world communism, and especially, in Spender’s case, of fears of communist expansion in Southeast Asia. For Lowe, Spender was “one of the sharpest strategic thinkers in Australian politics mid-century”. Spender realised that for a small country such as Australia, at least in certain conditions, “it was an asset to be considered like-minded by a powerful ally.” It was largely because of Spender’s efforts, according to Lowe, that ANZUS became “the basis for an expanding range of Australian-US contacts”, and in this way “its significance stretched beyond the particular circumstances of its creation.” David Lowe, “Percy Spender’s Quest”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 55, 2 (2001), pp. 187-98. The quotations are from pp. 196-97.
Neville Meaney provided a very different perspective on Spender’s handiwork. Meaney saw the Australian quest for an American security agreement as the result not of the new circumstances of the Cold War but of “Australia’s compulsive fear of Japan”. In view of the “self-evident geo-political reality that since America was committed to containing Communism in the region it incidentally provided Australia with the most foolproof protection that it had ever enjoyed”, Meaney asked “why Spender at the very time Australia least needed an American alliance so tenaciously pursued it, why he was willing to pay almost any price for the alliance, including eventual Japanese membership and why he wanted limits on Japanese rearmament as well as the alliance”. The explanation, he suggested, was to be found in the history of European Australians’ fear of Asia and in particular their long-standing fear of Japan’s military threat to Australia; it was for this reason that they adopted policies more suited to the 1930s than the post-war period. Questioning whether Australia gained anything from ANZUS “which it would not have had without it”, Meaney wondered “whether Spender’s absolute commitment to achieving the American alliance was not a rather misguided endeavour”. Neville Meaney, “Look Back in Fear: Percy Spender, the Japanese Peace Treaty and the ANZUS Pact”, in Roger Buckley et al. San Francisco: 50 Years On, Part 2 (London, 2001), pp. 42-43.
In the case of ANZUS origins as with historical controversy generally, the growing availability of sources has not resolved conflicts of interpretation. Although the archival sources for the period were made available to scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, the contentious issues in historians’ interpretation of the origins of the alliance remain contentious. Historians are well aware that sources do not speak for themselves, and that the interpretation of sources is influenced by the historian’s political, ideological and moral views. Although it would be wrong to infer that conflicting positions on ANZUS origins relate directly to support for or opposition to the American alliance, it is no doubt the case that attitudes to the alliance have influenced historical interpretations. But the reverse also applies: informed judgments on the purpose, nature and desirability of Australia’s alliance with the United States in the early twenty-first century depend on an understanding of the reasons for the creation of ANZUS as well as of its subsequent development. For example, the belief that the United States in 1951 agreed to ANZUS only reluctantly - and was only tenuously committed to it –, and that the treaty’s origins demonstrated the efficacy of actions calculated to earn US gratitude (actions such as sending Australian forces to the Korean War), encouraged the view that Australia should seize every opportunity to accumulate political credit with US leaders. The assumption that the payment of insurance premiums for protection requires subservience to the United States has been a prominent strand in Australian attitudes to the alliance and has informed government policy. Whether such assumptions are warranted is primarily a historical question.