Tuesday 3 September 2019

Where We Stood: Chris Trotter Replies To Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

Joining The Fight: Stevan Eldred-Grigg's argument for New Zealand staying out of the Second World War fails not only on the hard-headed grounds of preserving the country’s strategic and economic interests; and not just on the soft-hearted grounds of duty and loyalty to the nation that had given New Zealand birth; but, ultimately, on the grounds of the damage it would have inflicted on New Zealand’s soul – for want of a better word.

SHOULD NEW ZEALAND have declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939? This is the startling question posed by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, one of New Zealand’s more interesting historians, in an essay posted on TheSpinoff. I say “startling” because, while many wish that New Zealand could have stayed out of World War I, the number suggesting we should have stayed out of the existential struggle against fascism is vanishingly small.

The first great global conflict of the Twentieth Century may have been a vicious brawl between competing imperial powers, tricked out in the bunting of King and Country and, later, as a noble crusade “to make the world safe for Democracy”, but the Second World War was the real thing. Adolf Hitler and his regime constituted a clear and present danger to human civilisation which simply had to be stopped.

Eldred-Grigg’s revisionism should not, however, be dismissed out of hand. Nothing is lost by holding the icons of our history up to the light and scrutinizing them closely for flaws and blemishes. Such scrutiny becomes an urgent necessity when the accusation is made that the historical icon in question depicts a lie. Let us then take a closer look at Eldred-Grigg’s argument.

His case against New Zealand’s participation in the war is presented in two parts. The first suggests that the “hard-headed” strategic and economic arguments for joining the fight against Hitler simply do not stack up. Great Britain, he says, was simply too far away to offer the slightest strategic protection, and Nazi Germany too far away to pose a credible threat. Our export trade, he implies, would have prospered regardless of which nation emerged victorious.

The second line of attack is directed at what Eldred-Grigg calls the “soft-hearted” reasons for ranging ourselves alongside the “Mother Country”. Poland, he suggests, wasn’t worth fighting for – being little better than Nazi Germany in terms of its politics. Likewise, the Mother Country, herself. Great Britain remained an imperial power whose hands, vis-à-vis the promotion of freedom and democracy, were still far from clean. “[B]eliefs about freedom and democracy, together with emotions about duty and loyalty”, Eldred-Grigg suggests, were an insufficient justification for plunging New Zealand into someone else’s war.

But, Eldred-Griggs revisionism is wrong on all counts.

Strategically-speaking, Great Britain was not that far away at all. In 1939, the Royal Navy was still capable of considerable force projection – even into the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, if Britain had been defeated by Germany, and the Royal Navy had fallen into the hands of the Kriegsmarine, how long does Eldred-Grigg think it would have taken the Fuhrer’s reflagged battleships to come a-calling?

As for New Zealand’s economic situation on 3rd September 1939 – well, it was parlous. The Labour Finance Minister had earlier that year visited Britain seeking the continued co-operation of the Bank of England and the City of London in extending New Zealand’s lines of credit. This they were most reluctant to do. Labour’s social welfare reforms and her state house construction programme did not meet with the British bankers’ approval. Had war not broken out in September 1939, it is almost certain that British capital would have put a suffocating financial squeeze on the errant left-wing government of its far-flung economic colony.

The outbreak of war radically shifted the pieces on the economic board in New Zealand’s favour. Michael Joseph Savage’s famous declaration: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”, wasn’t simply a “soft-hearted” acknowledgement of “duty and loyalty”. It was also a hard-headed decision to do what was required to keep the workers’ government in office.

The weakness of Eldred-Grigg’s argument lies precisely in its refusal to acknowledge the political context in which the decision to go to war was taken. Does he really suppose that a left-wing New Zealand government which refused to join Canada, Australia and South Africa at Britain’s side could have endured in office for more than a few days? Has he forgotten that, as Mickey Savage was committing New Zealand to a war against fascism, the Soviet Union was preparing to roll across the Polish border in fulfilment of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact? Can he not see that the National Party and the newspapers would have accused the Labour Party, with ample justification, of taking up a position indistinguishable from that of the Moscow-aligned Communist Party? An historian of Eldred-Grigg’s standing must, surely, acknowledge that Savage, Nash, and the prime-Minister-in-waiting, Peter Fraser, would not have been able to convince their own Labour caucus – let alone the broader New Zealand electorate – that such a position was even remotely tenable?

A decision to remain neutral in September 1939 would have produced only one thing – a crushing victory for the right of New Zealand politics. All of Labour’s work between 1935 and 1939 would have been undone. The state housing programme would have been abandoned, and what the National Party leader, Sid Holland, described as the “applied lunacy” of the Social Security legislation would have been swept away.

That is the price the New Zealand working-class – whose interests Eldred-Grigg has long and honourably championed – would have had to pay. Not for peace, because peace was never on the agenda; but for the utter foolishness of those who thought they could stay out of the most important moral struggle in human history.

And therein lies the clinching argument. Staying out of the war fails not only on the hard-headed grounds of preserving New Zealand’s strategic and economic interests; and not just on the soft-hearted grounds of duty and loyalty to the nation that had given New Zealand birth; but, ultimately, on the grounds of the damage it would have inflicted on New Zealand’s soul – for want of a better word.

No possible outcome of the war could have left us unsullied in the eyes of the civilised world. Had Britain accepted Hitler’s generous surrender terms in 1940, we would have fallen under the sway of the very worst elements in British – and New Zealand – society. Why? Because a British Empire in thrall to Nazi Germany would have been a fascist empire. And, if Britain had won the war without us? What would we be then? Certainly not the widely respected “social laboratory of the world” whose Prime Minister spoke up successfully for the rights of small nations at the San Francisco Conference which gave birth to the United Nations. No, New Zealand would have found itself lumped in with the likes of Eamon De Valera’s Ireland, and Juan Peron’s Argentina: countries not-so-secretly regretful that Hitler had been defeated.

How would Stevan Eldred-Grigg feel, I wonder, writing the history of a nation like that?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 September 2019.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Interesting thoughts. Much of Europe was a mess in the 1920s and 30s, partly as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and the patchwork of nationalities which nobody really put much effort into sorting out. Eastern Europe wasn't particularly democratic, tending towards the authoritarian, but even so there was nothing approaching the Nazis for expansionism and let's face it genocide.
Personally I think we would have all been a lot better off had Britain not entered World War I. France would have been defeated as it was in 1870/1 and France would have been punished as in 1871 but much of Europe would have gone on the same. Certainly emerging nationalism would not have been nearly as bad as emerging fascism, and Hitler probably would have been totally irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

We also needed to be aligned clearly & committed on the allies side in WW2 after Nanking 1937 demonstrated the Japanese willingness to scorch both earth & it's peoples in it's ruthless quest for Asia/Pacific domination as an Axis power. Pearl Harbour end of 1941 brought in the USA as the only country who could mobilise enough resources to defeat Japan into the war, 6 months later the Battle of Midway turned the tide of war in the Pacific before it lead to NZ becoming a battlefield.

S. E-G has always had a somewhat blinkered view of NZ colonial history, it colours his perspective & blinkers him to the realities of dealing with unconstrained evil - which flourish when "good men do nothing".

greywarbler said...

A convincing rebuttal of Eldred-Grigg's contention. Chris. Wishful thinking never won fair lady. We used to have a passion to be a wonderful country where everyone had a place and was expected to have a job and be a contributing and reasonably happy NZr. I thought that was tattooed on our soul. And I think that was what my father died thinking.

Now, just as wind and weather have obliterated words on headstones until you must peer at them to get the gist; the lyric has faded. But words on headstones can be refreshed, made clear again. There is hope that we can find the soul of NZ, a holy grail to search for, a Pilgrim's Progress.

John Hurley said...

An author was speaking about his book on the Spitfire. A WW2 Ace from NZ said he went to war because Britain was "the mother country". Whatever the theories of nationalism are in vogue I think primordialism is a large part of it. Not so much for the Vice Chancellor (or company director) earning $1500 every day of the year.

Nick J said...

I have not read Stefan's book to decide but Chris puts forward a powerful argument. The important bits are our colonial status and financial arrangements at the time.

What has changed? We are still a nation that is largely foreign owned, part of the periphery of a colonial wealth pump centred on the major financial exchanges of London and New York. Our political masters are now Washington rather than London, where they go we follow (Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam). Bankers from New York dictate what is in reality possible in our internal socio political arrangements. We still export sheep and bovine products and little else competitive.

We sit again in turbulent seas as China rather than Japan grows in power with no tangible defense against aggression other than colonial big brother and distance.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Chris
One would assume that everyone who has commented on this article would have read the Stevan Eldred-Griggs' article. Yet Nick J admits he has not. I wonder about some of the others as well.
You do not actually rebut Stevan's arguments, which are based on an analysis of the New Zealand's objective economic and strategic situation in 1939. Your response is really just an indignant assertion that the New Zealand political establishment of the time, principally the Labour Party, did not see things as objectively as Stevan does now.
Neutrality, or at least non-belligerence, was the route taken by Ireland and Switzerland, Sweden and Portugal, the United States and virtually all of Central and South America. South Africa, a part of the Empire, came very close to remaining neutral in the conflict.
The non-belligerent states did not suffer through the war, and neither would New Zealand have suffered as a non-belligerent. The idea that Germany or Japan, could have conquered the entire world, or even the entire British empire, is completely fanciful, as both German and Japanese military strategists well knew.
In New Zealand Christian pacifists of many denominations, socialists, anarchists and nationalists (led by Te Puea) were opposed to war. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who had directly or indirectly suffered through the trauma of the First World War were reluctant to go to war once more. Their numbers were not, and are not "vanishingly small". The degree of coercion which Peter Fraser's government needed to apply in order to prosecute the war testifies to that.
Your arguments, like the argument you have used in favour of the Labour government's decision to go to war against Afghanistan, are a repetition of the mantra that "there was no alternative". There were alternatives to the Afghan war and there were alternatives to the Second World War, just as there were alternatives to the economic re-structuring of the Lange-Douglas Labour government.
Labour refused to consider the alternatives for reasons which had nothing much to do with national interest. There was a degree of political self-interest involved, but more importantly a blind refusal (or perhaps an incapacity) to criticize the ethno-nationalist and economic dogmas of the British imperial system.
Stevan is really suggesting that as early as 1939 Labour was leading New Zealand in a wrong direction.
You continue to hold out hope that despite having led its people through a wilderness of wars, economic deprivation and social discordance for the past eighty years, Labour can take us to the promised land.
I believe in miracles, but not in miracles of that sort.
Stevan is right.

AB said...

One of the least discussed Nazi policies was the return of Germany's pre-WWI colonial territories. NZ had the League of Nations mandate for Samoa. If did not go where Britain goes, NZ would still have had to deal with Nazi Germany's demand for, and possible occupation of, Samoa.
Labour had made commitment to Samoa under Harry Holland, this continued with the Savage / Fraser governments.
If NZ had not joined the allies after the invasion of Poland, would we have for Samoa? Or does Eldreg-Grigg favour Studetenland appeasement for Samoa?

Robert said...

In reply to AB.Surely it was a mistake to be so enthusiastic about acquiring our own colonial empire in 1914 by grabbing the remnants of the German Empire, in the area Samoa, Tonga and Niue. In 1914 following the despatch of the German Far East fleet (the two armoured cruisers , Schnarhorst and Geinesau- diverted elsewhere and sunk ) New Zealand was able to grab this territory but other than the fertilizer rich Niue it is nothing but a liability and given the USA already owned the conjoint part of Samoa, we could have found some constitutional pretext to gradually transfer it to US trust despite the problem the US was neutral to 1917.
Ever since the appearance of the Great White Fleet in 1908, New Zealand and Australia probably looked to the USA as much as Britain as the USA was growing stronger and a much closer nation. The US Navy and US Government of Theadore Roosevelt actually despatched the Great White Fleet in 1908 to invade New ZEaland according to Australian Navy Histories like Southern Trident, NZ was viewed in Washington and Frisco as an extreme left wing socialist country, according to numerous US publications and left wing authorities and also in the view of NZ writers and authorities like Downie Stewart, Clearly we had not done the sensible thing and privatised our Railways and sold them to the Southern Octupus , Southern Pacific. The American analysis was that private railways in NZ should be perfectly succesful if not wanted by the locals who endlessly developed totally unprofitable rural branch line which could never pay. New Zealand, Australia and London had allied themselves with Japan percieved as the number one potential enemy of the US in LA and Washington. Therefore the United States Orange war plan for war with the UK and Japan in 1098 and much laterm called for the immediate US Invasion of New Zealand as the naval and later air base for the launching pad for the following invasion of Australia. The arival of the Great White fleet in 1908 with simulataneos two sided arrival of the fleet in onehunga and auckland harbour was the two sided naval and marine solftly softly invasion of Auckland and NZ. On arrival and having effectively occupied all the key points in Aucckland the US Navy decided after a week that the socialist rot was not yet as extensive as feared and we were quite nice people and therefore decided not to announce we had been conquered and sailed off.
By 1937 the left wing situation seemed to have deteriorated considerably in NZ and was of deep concern to Paris, London, Berlin ( the NZ German embassy in Brandon st, Wellignton was very active in spreading Naxi and Kreigsmarine propoganda ) and Washington. By 1938 serious US Navy units a, heavy 8 inch gun cruiser and even a French 8 inch cruiser ( both packed with hundred of very serious right wing officers) one that was part operational, training and also spent most of its time in South America promoting revolution ( 17-20% or Argentinians have some French anceesty and speak French - the 1970s French dirty war was supervised by the French special forces on the basis of Frrench counter terrorism in Vietnaam and Alegria in the 1950s) . Britain was probably by 1938 seriously thinking of giving the Frrench what they had wanted since 1830 and handing the country over to Paris as then and now New Zealand was far too far from London, Southhampton or Liverpool for any ocnvoy protection against raiders or submarines and cruisers were very expensive. Even under Vichy the French still retained a powerful navy and Chruchills decision in late 1940 to attack the Frrench fleet in its ports in South of France and North Africa not only singled to Roosevelt their was life in the old dog but also removed the naval power other than Japan at the time with the greatest interest in this far flung colony whose meat, wool and cheese was a vary marginal economy in the gravity trade miles to ship to Britain. Of course it you fly over the south pole to Buenos Aires it might be only 4000 miles to the Argentine capital and plate.

sumsuch said...

Been going through Mum's vast (sigh) archives. A collection of photos depicting my mother's family at the Waipiata TB Sanitarium. They seem jolly as it's possible to be, the Depression, the War, TB be ignored.

The War was the only idealistic moment of the British Empire. In which the uncle I was named after died. It made the West and, here in NZ, as much as the first Labour Govt. Can't regret it.

The neutral countries, Portugal aside, were scunges. The Nazi sympathies of Sweden for instance. Materially comforting but no way for St Peter to allow you in.

Unknown said...

I make no comment on whether NZ should have taken the mandate for Samoa. The Samoans where not consulted and petitioned the League of Nations to end our mandate. While matters had improved under the Labour/ Ratana coalition, NZ's colonial history in Samoa was shameful.
My point, however, us that we did have the mandate for a former German possession the Nazi government had a policy for its return. While the war was seen as a European conflict, my point is that even if NZ had not joined the Allies, we would still have been in the position where a decision on Nazi German expansion would still have to be made.