Gerald Chaudron. New Zealand in the League of Nations: The Beginnings of an Independent Foreign Policy, 1919-1939. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. vii + 270 pp. $55.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-6639-9.
Reviewed by Tom Brooking (University of Otago)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
I must admit that I came to this book with the suspicion that it would add very little to a well-researched aspect of New Zealand history. W. David McIntyre, Ann Trotter, and Malcolm McKinnon have covered the diplomatic history of the interwar period in various publications. Similarly, Ian C. McGibbon has also studied New Zealand’s military preparedness prior to World War II, or rather lack of it, in several studies. Then there are many biographies of leading politicians, including Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Walter Nash, and John A. Lee on the “left”; Joseph Ward in the middle; and Gordon Coates on the “right” that traverse this same ground. A couple of doctoral theses have also examined New Zealand’s role at the Versailles conference, including the contributions of Ward and William Ferguson Massey, and its involvement in the Spanish Civil War. In addition, there are several autobiographies written by such key players as the two main architects of New Zealand’s foreign policy--Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh. In short, it is hard to think of any part of New Zealand history that has a richer archive, or that has been so thoroughly examined by both thesis students and experienced historians. Yet, by focusing on New Zealand and the League of Nations rather than relations with one country, or some single aspect of New Zealand’s emerging foreign policy, Gerald Chaudron’s scholarly and balanced study manages to add something new.
Through his careful examination of a large and sometimes complex archive, Chaudron nuances the standard view that New Zealand had no foreign policy to speak of before 1935 because it left such matters up to the British government. In fact, the author shows that even Massey and Coates realized that membership in the league provided another avenue to exert its influence outside the empire. Working with the league had its uses in securing cheap phosphate from Nauru and Ocean Island and in winning the mandate over Western Samoa. These two ardent imperialists used the league to promote and protect New Zealand’s interests, particularly when those interests differed from those of Britain. The break when Labour took over the reins of government in 1935 was not, therefore, quite as radical as popular orthodoxy has it. Continuities as well as change marked Labour’s efforts to pursue a more independent line from Britain as they deigned to criticize Britain’s soft treatment of Benito Mussolini and the Japanese. Foreign policy also assumed a higher priority under Labour, but not as high a priority as historians sympathetic to Labour have suggested. Chaudron shows that attachment to Britain still remained strong and there was never any argument that New Zealand would support Britain against aggressive European or Asian powers.
Chaudron also succeeds in highlighting the long-forgotten contribution made by the three high commissioners who worked with the league after James Allen: James Parr on behalf of the Reform government, Thomas Wilford on behalf of the coalition government, and William Jordan on behalf of Labour. Most New Zealand historians know quite a lot about Allen, who ran the country for much of the First World War while Massey and Ward were overseas, but Parr, Wilford, and Jordan have remained rather shadowy figures in comparison. Thanks to Chaudron’s labors we now know that all three were men of strong views and high energy who ensured that New Zealand made a contribution to the work of the league out of all proportion to its size. Chaudron also suggests that Jordan sometimes went further than his government wanted, for example, in terms of his criticisms of Japanese aggression, while he compromised more than Savage and the party leadership desired on other issues, such as Italian aggression toward Ethiopia or Mussolini’s involvement in Spain. Despite compromises forced by New Zealand’s loyalty to Britain, Labour nevertheless managed to pursue a “moral” foreign policy, according to Bruce Bennett, in that it adhered to the league’s core policy of collective security more than most countries (p. 205). New Zealand’s loyalty to the league’s covenant and principles may have had very little impact in terms of tempering fascist aggression, but it clearly influenced the polices and processes followed by the United Nations after the war. For example, New Zealand played a key role in securing a voice for the small nations of the world. This suggestion supports the work of other scholars in highlighting New Zealand’s contribution to the development of the United Nations, but Chaudron’s emphasis on the background experience in the league adds another dimension to our understanding of the emergence of a distinctive New Zealand foreign policy.
My only complaint is that Chaudron could have done more with his conclusion, both in showing how his findings add to the rich historiography in this area and by demonstrating how New Zealand’s performance differed from that of the other dominions. The author certainly discusses how New Zealand’s approach compared with that of Canada, Australia, and South Africa at many points throughout the book, but I was looking for him to make a summative statement of that comparison.
This matter aside, Chaudron has produced a scholarly and clearly written account of New Zealand’s relationship with the troubled League of Nations and the move from reluctant to more enthusiastic support, adding in subtle but satisfying ways to the existing historiography on New Zealand’s emerging diplomatic endeavor and search for a foreign policy that reflected national rather than imperial interests.
. W. David McInytre, Dominion of New Zealand: Statesmen and Status, 1907-1945 (Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2007); Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and Foreign Policy: New Zealand in the World since 1935 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993); and Ann Trotter, “New Zealand in World Affairs: Sir Carl Berendsen in Washington, 1944-1952,” International History Review 12, no. 3 (1990):446-489.
. See, for example, Ian C. McGibbon, Blue Water Rationale: The Naval Defence of New Zealand, 1914-1942 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1981).
. Michael Bassett and Michael King, Tomorrow Comes the Song: A Life of Peter Fraser (Auckland: Penguin, 2000); Michael Bassett, Coates of Kaipara (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995); Michael Bassett, Sir Joseph Ward: A Political Biography (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993); Barry Gustafson, From the Cradle to the Grave: A Biography of Michael Joseph Savage (Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986); Keith Sinclair, Walter Nash (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1976); and Erik Olssen, John A. Lee (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1977).
. Richard Kay, “In Pursuit of Victory: British-New Zealand Relations during the First World War” (PhD diss., University of Otago, 2001); and Susan M. Skudder, “Bringing It Home: New Zealand’s Response to the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” (PhD diss., University of Waikato, 1986).
. Ian C. McGibbon, ed., Undiplomatic Dialogue: Letters between Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh, 1943-1952 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993).
. McKinnon, Independence and Foreign Policy; Trotter, “New Zealand in World Affairs”; and Bassett and King, Tomorrow Comes the Song.
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Tom Brooking. Review of Chaudron, Gerald, New Zealand in the League of Nations: The Beginnings of an Independent Foreign Policy, 1919-1939.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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