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6. Crisis in Southeast Asia

As Australian and New Zealand diplomats contemplated the repercussions of new US national security strategies during the early stages of the Eisenhower Administration, a Communist offensive in North Indochina threatened the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and raised questions about US involvement in Southeast Asia. Before the outbreak of fighting in March 1954, Communist revolutionaries and the remnants of French colonial forces had been locked in a power struggle over Indochina for almost ten years. To a large extent, Eisenhower’s policy options toward this struggle were constrained by the choices of his predecessor. Under Truman, the United States had explicitly stated that France had a right to retake control of Indochina after the Japanese occupation that took place during World War II. From 1950 onwards, the Truman Administration actively aided the French war effort after France’s position in the region looked increasingly unstable. After promising an unwavering commitment to stop the spread of Communist aggression during the 1952 election campaign, Eisenhower had little choice other than to continue supporting the French cause in Indochina even if Paris could not continue to hold its position alone.

Similarly, the Menzies and Holland governments had long been concerned about the deteriorating situation in Indochina and outlined a firm commitment to defending Communist aggression. In March 1950, Australian External Affairs Minister Percy Spender thought that Indochina represented the “greatest present danger point” in Southeast Asia.1 Policymakers in Wellington reached similar conclusions. By 1953, New Zealand High Commissioner in London Frank Corner was convinced Indochina was the “key” to Southeast Asia. He argued that if the Communists were successful in Indochina, Malaya, Burma and Siam would also fall under Communist control. Corner was also hopeful that New Zealand might be able to work closely with Australia on Southeast Asian issues, even though he complained that “the Australians are often more interested in having a voice than solving practical problems.”2

Siege at Dien Bien Phu

On 13 March 1954, tensions in Indochina reached a climax after Vietminh forces led an assault against the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu. The siege caused a major strain in Anglo-American relations, prompting Australia and New Zealand to seriously reconsider how closely, if at all, their respective External Affairs departments were prepared to align their policies with Washington. Moreover, even though the security of both countries rested on combating the spread of Communism Southeast Asia, there was no certainty that Australia and New Zealand could reach common ground as to the most appropriate response. On the contrary, two days after the first day of the siege, Frank Corner warned External Affairs Secretary Alister McIntosh that New Zealand should not involve itself in the conflict purely to protect Australian strategic interests. He also doubted whether the future of Southeast Asia was in fact a vital interest for New Zealand. Predicting that Australia would push for joint intervention in Southeast Asia, Corner wrote on 15 March that New Zealand “should resist being dragged by the Australians […] into premature involvement in Southeast Asia.” He concluded that he felt “very dubious about bustling into commitments in Southeast Asia […] there is no good future for us there.”3

Figure 14. Viet Minh soldiers capture French troops and escort them to a prisoner-of-war camp, 1954. Photo by unknown (1954), Wikimedia,, public domain.

In Washington, JCS Chairman Arthur Radford warned Eisenhower that the United States must be prepared to intervene militarily in order to prevent the loss of all Indochina. In Radford’s own words, the United States “must be prepared […] to act promptly and in force possibly to a frantic and belated request by the French for US intervention.”4 Dulles, however, disagreed with Radford’s proposal. He feared that the United States might get embroiled in another protracted and costly war. He also thought that even if the Administration wanted to act unilaterally, Congress would be unlikely to authorise such action. Dulles’s sharp prediction proved correct; leaders from Republican and Democratic parties told him in early April that they would only sanction the use of US force if the Administration could obtain commitments from other allies, particularly Britain.

At the time, political discussion about combatting Communism and US defence was very heated. The Eisenhower Administration was under constant attack from hardline senators such as Joseph McCarthy who argued strongly that the United States was not doing anywhere near enough to combat Communism at home and abroad. Much to Eisenhower’s annoyance, these attacks separated the House of Representatives and Senate on almost every issue and often froze Congress so that it became an impractical and unmanageable sector of government. In short, Congressional backing for any short-term policy in Indochina was close to impossible. “It is close to disgusting”, Eisenhower wrote angrily, “it saddens me that I must feel ashamed for the United States Senate.” Already in his own fight with Congress, the President wrote in frustration several days later on 18 March that the Indochina Crisis was “just another of the problems dumped on [his] lap.”5

In an effort to alleviate any domestic criticisms of US inaction, Eisenhower declared publicly that his government was committed to preventing the spread of Communism. He warned that the loss of French Indochina would have a domino effect that would leave the rest of Southeast Asia vulnerable to Communist control. In order to respond to this threat as well as curb domestic concerns of unilateral action, Dulles then proposed that the United States should act jointly with its allies in preventing the loss of Indochina to Communist forces. Advising the NSC that “there was no need” for immediate unilateral action, Dulles suggested making US intervention provisional on whether US allies would be willing to support such action. After Eisenhower agreed to this approach, Dulles followed up the “domino theory” speech with his own public call for a multilateral response to Indochina. Privately, plans were also made between Eisenhower and Dulles to use ANZUS meetings to consult with Australia and New Zealand. Knowing Canberra’s earnest desire for closer consultation with the United States, Eisenhower commented that this plan would make the Australians “terribly excited.”6

In order to convince Canberra and Wellington that their participation in Indochina was important, Dulles made a decided effort to urge the respective Australians and New Zealand Ambassadors in Washington, Percy Spender and Leslie Munro, that the loss of Indochina would directly threaten the security of both of their countries. “If Indochina goes”, Dulles told Spender and Munro, “Australia and New Zealand will be directly threatened.” Dulles had already built a strong reputation as an astute diplomat with the Tasman countries following ANZUS negotiations several years earlier, which he surely hoped would work in his favour when speaking directly about the importance of multilateral participation with Australian and New Zealand representatives in Washington.

Still concerned that London would not be willing to participate in multilateral intervention, Dulles also requested that US Ambassador to Australia Amos Peaslee make similar efforts to persuade policymakers in Canberra to support the American plan rather than aligning with British policy. “I hope you will take appropriate occasion to spell out our views in discussions with top officials”, Dulles told the US Embassy in Canberra, as he was concerned that the Australians would take a “similar line to [the] British.” It is indeed telling that Dulles made a point to stress directly that Peaslee should clearly outline US views on this topic, since it would already fall well within the scope of expected ambassadorial duties to share such views with top Australian officials. It suggests how important he thought it was to secure their support. Dulles, to be sure, remained hopeful that Australia and New Zealand could convince policymakers in London to participate. Whilst predicting there would be “great difficulties” in securing British support, Dulles thought that Australia and New Zealand would be “willing to urge the British in the right direction.”7

Dulles, who shrewdly assessed that the Britons were highly unlikely to agree to his plan, highlighted the increasingly untenable position the Americans found themselves in regarding Indochina. Indeed, while the British were certainly keen for the French to retain control of Indochina, they were not prepared to use force due to fears that this could escalate into a larger war in the region. Even US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Arthur Radford, who visited London in April to convince the British to support military action, could not sway Churchill or Eden to back the American proposal. Instead of a military approach British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden reasoned that a better course of action was to pursue a negotiated settlement, particularly because there was a conference in Geneva scheduled in a few weeks that would involve deep discussions about the situation in Indochina. If there was any possibility to steer British views toward a military solution before Geneva, Dulles saw Australia and New Zealand, two countries that still held strong ties to the British Commonwealth, as key negotiators that might be able to stress the value of a united military response in London.

On its surface, it was somewhat naïve of Dulles to think the two small Tasman countries may succeed where the United States could not in assuaging British concerns regarding Indochina. His initial discussions with Australian and New Zealand diplomats did, however, illustrate the increasingly important role that Canberra and Wellington could play in mitigating tensions in the Anglo-American relationship. It is also important to note that Dulles fully recognised the potentially disastrous consequences of a unilateral military response and that the American public had no appetite for another protracted war like the one fought on the Korean peninsula. Conceding that British acquiescence to the proposals of the United States would be extremely difficult to obtain, it is fair to assess that Dulles had few other options at his disposal to gather support for multilateral intervention. The stakes were extremely high, especially since US military planners had been seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina while simultaneously questioning the usefulness of their alliance with Great Britain.8

In this light Dulles formally proposed “United Action” to Spender and Munro in early April, a term that referred to the US plan for a multilateral response in Indochina. Echoing Eisenhower’s earlier words, Dulles said that if Australia and New Zealand were not prepared to be “excited” by the coalition then the United States would not take action.9 Again, Dulles stressed that British participation in this plan was crucial. He told both Spender and Dulles that a new military force was needed in Indochina and it “had to include Britain.” That being the case, Dulles asked both men to meet with diplomats in the British Embassy in Washington and urge them that the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand must all unite for the defence of Indochina to repel the Communist advance in Southeast Asia.

As far as the Australian position was concerned, Spender told Dulles that he could not commit his government while it faced a general election for the House of Representatives which was set for 29 May. On the surface, Australian reservations about a multilateral response appeared less about British inaction and more about domestic policy. Another domestic concern was the recent development of the Petrov Affair in early April, an event that saw Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra Vladmir Petrov offer details of Soviet espionage in Australia in exchange for political asylum. The Petrov Affair sparked considerable public outcry in Australia that the Menzies Government must do more to combat Communist threats domestically instead of focusing solely on overseas developments in Indochina. As one American report concluded, Petrov’s defection was the “biggest story of its kind that has ever happened in Australia.” As a result, Indochina had been “all but shoved of [the] front pages of newspapers by [the] Petrov Affair.”10

Once Spender described his conversation with Dulles to Casey, however, he urged that Australia should accept this proposal as a means to increase US interest in defending Southeast Asia. As he told Casey,

One of the primary aims of our policy over recent years has been, as I understand it, to achieve the acceptance by the USA of responsibility for [South East] Asia. It is for consideration whether, if we fail to respond at all to the opportunity now presented, what US reactions are likely to be if and when areas closer to Australia are in jeopardy.11

Casey agreed it was crucial for Australia to support the US position in Indochina. As he penned in his diary one day after receiving Spender’s message, the United States “won’t go in alone” in Indochina and if “Australia and others don’t respond they may change their South-East Asia attitude.”12 As the defence of Southeast Asia was crucial to Australian security, any decline in US interest in the region was a very serious concern. Casey tried to urge the seriousness of the Indochina situation to the Australian public in the event that Australia might have to follow the United States into a war there. Gathering public support was crucial, as a large segment of the Australian public were still confused about what United Action entailed and what Australia’s role would be in such a plan. “If Indochina were to fall to the Communists the whole of Southeast Asia would be threatened”, Casey proclaimed in the House of Representatives on 7 April.13 This statement mirrored Eisenhower’s sentiments about the loss of Indochina having a potential domino-like effect on the rest of Southeast Asia.

Yet despite how seriously Casey feared the deteriorating situation in Indochina and any decline in US interest in Southeast Asia, he was unsure whether the United Action proposal was the best course. After speaking with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden on 15 April, it was clear to Casey that Britain would not participate in the plan regardless of Australian efforts to encourage a military response. In any case, Casey thought personally that were substantial risks involved if Australia participated in joint military intervention without Britain. Describing the American plan for mass intervention as “wrong”, Casey stressed that United Action would not stop the fall of Dien Bien Phu and risked putting Australia “in the wrong with world opinion particularly in Asia.” He also thought such action could potentially risk war with China.14

For these reasons, Casey thought that United Action should not be pursued and probably did not push the importance of this plan to the Britons as strongly as the Americans had hoped. This action—or lack thereof—did little to foster closer Anglo-American relations, but Casey’s mindfulness about the direct political and strategic consequences for Australia was commendable. His recognition of the implications should Asian countries develop a poor opinion of Australia also dovetailed with his broader efforts for a strategic refocus toward Southeast Asia. Casey aptly recognised that Australia’s future would depend on peace and stability in this part of the world and took a keen interest in cultivating closer relationships with Southeast Asian countries. He travelled regularly throughout the region and even published a somewhat insipid yet purposeful book appropriately titled Friends and Neighbours, in which he made a case for wanting Australia to live peacefully with Asian countries amidst increasing nationalistic and Communist-driven insurgencies.15 These efforts did little to convince other Australian cabinet members of the importance of fostering friendlier relationships with Asian countries, but at the very least helped encourage more positive perceptions of Australia at a time when Australian views about Asian people were often noticeably racist. Casey even had to condemn Australian newspapers for using the term “White Australia”—an immigration policy implemented in the early twentieth century that aimed to exclude people from non-Anglo backgrounds—due to concerns that it would be “most offensive to all Asian peoples” even though a more relaxed form of the original immigration policy was still in effect during the 1950s.16

Nevertheless, Casey’s arguments regarding Indochina were successful and the Australian government agreed that it could not commit to the United Action proposal in the current political climate. While the Cabinet concluded that Australia should encourage the French to continue fighting and support US military involvement in the region, it could not commit to Dulles’s plan for multilateral intervention because of the political pressures leading up to a general election in May. The Cabinet also concluded that because Australia had defence arrangements with Britain in the region it would be unfavourable to join in a US military response if Britain did not participate. Overall, the Cabinet decided Australia could not commit to the plan but still must somehow show the United States that it was “not lukewarm in supporting proposals designed to ensure that Communism in Southeast Asia is checked.”17 With regards to Indochina and US interest in Southeast Asia, Australia simply wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

Meanwhile, policymakers in New Zealand wanted to know the British response before they made any decision. Writing to the New Zealand High Commission in London, McIntosh told Corner that his personal preference was that New Zealand should “tell the Americans we will join them on the understanding that the British […] come in also.”18 In Washington, New Zealand Ambassador Leslie Munro suggested that Dulles’s plea for United Action signalled a new course of American policy in Indochina, indicating that the United States could not accept under any circumstances that Indochina fall completely to the Communists. As a result, Munro concluded that New Zealand “had little alternative but to join the coalition” because New Zealand valued its close relations with the United States especially due to Indochina’s proximity to Australia and New Zealand. Munro, however, thought along similar lines to McIntosh and attached one very important condition to New Zealand participation: the United Kingdom “must also participate.”19 McIntosh also thought that New Zealand should encourage the French to commit to the US plan for multilateral intervention. He reasoned that this response would prevent New Zealand from falling out with the Americans (who desperately wanted the French to continue fighting in Indochina) while simultaneously meaning that New Zealand would not commit without British support.

On 7 April, Australia and New Zealand exchanged some of their defence policy conclusions with respect to Indochina. The Australian position, which was developed by the Joint Intelligence Committee and primarily focused on broader strategic and military considerations, determined that every effort must be made to strengthen the will of the French. It also determined that “Australia should also encourage Indochina governments to reach agreements with the French in establishing their independence and continue the Communist resistance.” In order to achieve this objective, the document even concluded that “Australia should participate in United Action because doing otherwise might compromise the present helpful trend of American policy towards the security of the Pacific.”20 This was in glaring contrast to Casey’s views on the untenability of United Action, highlighting that the Departments of Defence and External Affairs held noticeably different views on the strategic benefits of a military response. In short, military planners instead proposed a two-fold objective in the Indochina Crisis: encourage the French to continue fighting, and assure the Americans that Australia was committed to the defence of Southeast Asia even though upcoming elections delayed an immediate public response. British participation was desirable for the Australians, but not essential.

In contrast, the equivalent New Zealand policy document on Indochina revolved around British participation, UN involvement and avoiding a confrontation with China. It determined that New Zealand would only participate in United Action “under the condition that Britain [was] also a participant” and such a coalition fell under the “aegis of the United Nations.” Moreover, due to concerns that intervention might escalate into a wider war, the document claimed that a Western multilateral response must make “every effort to avoid confrontation with China.”21 Much like British views, New Zealand prioritised a diplomatic solution over a military response.

Australia and New Zealand greatly differed in their assessments about the possibility of Chinese intervention. The Australians were aware of New Zealand’s policy position that “armed intervention in Indochina may lead to involvement with China and possibly even with the Soviet Union itself”, as an Australian Joint Intelligence Committee report concluded, adding that Wellington was “more doubtful whether it could be possible to avoid conflict with China.” Australia predicted instead that it “was not likely that the Chinese would abandon their profitable policy for one of open intervention which carries the risk of retaliation.”22

Irrespective of whether China would act in Indochina after possible Western intervention, the British strongly opposed the United Action proposal. As part of his initial pursuit of United Action, Dulles met with British Ambassador Roger Makins on 2 April. During the meeting, Anglo-American differences over supporting French action in Indochina were sharply exposed. While Dulles warned against the “dangers of a French collapse” and that the “French accepting a settlement would be disastrous for the free world”, Makins responded that his government regarded “the deteriorating situation in Indochina in more pessimistic terms” and was inclined to accept a settlement in Indochina.23

Shortly thereafter, Eisenhower wrote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and declared that his Administration had no intention of searching for a peaceful solution. Churchill, however, was reluctant to commit to any action. Churchill told Eisenhower directly that he feared multilateral intervention would lead to a wider war and threaten British interests in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. In short, Churchill said that the US plan for multilateral action simply “raised too many problems” for Britain. Privately, Churchill confessed that he had no interest in putting British troops “in the jungle” and thought that Malaya could still be held even if Indochina fell.24

As the weeks passed and the US mustered little support for United Action, the situation in Indochina worsened. Eisenhower again wrote to Churchill, hoping that the British might reconsider their position on Indochina as the Geneva Conference approached. “I am deeply concerned by the seemingly wide differences in the conclusions developed in our respective governments”, Eisenhower wrote to Churchill on 26 April, “especially as these conclusions relate to such events as the war in Indochina.”25 Even though France was quickly losing control over Indochina, Eisenhower had problems convincing the French to consider multilateral support for their position. “For more than three years I have been urging upon successive French governments the advisability of finding some way of ‘internationalising’ the war”, Eisenhower confessed, but:

The reply has always been vague, containing references to national prestige, Constitutional limitations, inevitable effects upon the Moroccan and Tunisian peoples, and dissertations on plain political difficulties and battles within the French Parliament. The result has been that the French have failed entirely to produce any enthusiasm on the part of the Vietnamese for participation in the war.26

Eisenhower concluded that the situation in Indochina had gotten to a point where “the French have used weasel words in promising independence and through this one reason as much as anything else, have suffered reverses that have really been inexcusable.”

Figure 15. French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault (left), British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (centre), US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (right). Photo by unknown (n. d.), Wikimedia,,_Anthony_Eden_and_John_Foster_Dulles.jpg, CC BY 3.0.

As American frustrations with British and French policies toward Indochina increased, the possibility of unilateral action resurfaced in Washington. During an NSC meeting on 29 April, Vice President Richard Nixon and Director of the Mutual Security Agency Harold Stassen argued that the United States “should not let the British have a veto over our freedom of action.” Eisenhower disagreed, believing that the United States was not able to be the non-Communist world’s sole policeman and would be looked upon unfavourably by the rest of the world if it took unilateral action. “To go in unilaterally in Indochina”, Eisenhower said, “amounted to an attempt to police the entire world.” He added that if the United States attempted such a course of action, “we should everywhere be accused of imperialistic ambitions.”27

Meanwhile, the Geneva Conference began on 26 April 1954. Two weeks into the Conference, after the US refused to act unilaterally and did not gather support for United Action, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Communists on 7 May 1954. Although American delegates continued to press the British for joint military action and urged the French to continue fighting, by June the Eisenhower Administration abandoned its plans for multilateral intervention and instead looked towards finding a diplomatic solution in Indochina. As with the post-war division of Korea, delegates at Geneva agreed that Indochina would be divided into two regions, with the Vietminh occupying the North and the French occupying the South. The decision awarded the Soviet bloc a major diplomatic victory in the face of French defeat. Likewise, the decision was a significant blow to Western prestige. After having failed to defend Dien Bien Phu, the Eisenhower Administration then turned its attention to the possibility of a collective defence arrangement in Southeast Asia.

Formation of SEATO

Having to resort to reaching a diplomatic solution in Indochina was disappointing for US policymakers. After sending the French $2.6 billion in military assistance between 1950 and 1954, Washington’s failure to prevent a Vietminh victory in Indochina damaged Eisenhower’s credibility in fulfilling his promise to limit Communist expansion. Nevertheless, the end of the fighting and the formalisation of a North Vietnamese Communist state enabled the Eisenhower Administration to pursue a broader collective security pact for Southeast Asia, especially because the Five-Power Staff Agency talks had produced few tangible results since its inception a year earlier. Rather than dwell on the loss of Indochina, the United States needed to seize the opportunity to deter the expansion of Communism in Asia through a regional defence arrangement.

Discussions for such an arrangement in Southeast Asia began in the National Security Council. From a military point of view, questions were raised about the desirability of a pact when few states in the region were capable of defending themselves. At an NSC meeting on 23 July, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Arthur Radford said that “we [the United States] are now talking about an area where there are no developed military forces.” He added that the US could build military power in the region, but “only at considerable cost.” Overall, he argued that the United States “should take a good look at the idea of a defence alliance for this area to be sure we are not making a mistake […] from a military point of view a Southeast Asia defence pact seems undesirable and unwise.”28

The State Department, however, saw clear advantages in concluding a defence pact. Such a pact would signal an evident US willingness to prevent the spread of Communism and ensure that countries at risk of Communist subversion would be provided with American assistance. At a follow-up meeting about American policy toward Southeast Asia on 24 July, Dulles argued that a defence pact would have two significant advantages: it would give Eisenhower discretionary authority (which he did not already have) to use in the event of overt Chinese aggression in the area, and it would ensure that Washington had the support of other nations in any action it might be forced to take. Moreover, as a means to offset Radford’s concerns about an undesirable military commitment, Dulles suggested that the treaty would not be drafted in such a way “so as to lead other signatories to expect large amounts of US military assistance.”29 In order for such a pact to be effective, it would require support from other countries willing to enter into the agreement.

Most importantly for the prospects of concluding a regional defence treaty, Britain quickly signalled its willingness to enter into a defence pact despite sharp differences with the Americans over Indochina in Geneva. Fearing that British bases in Malaya and Hong Kong were at risk, Churchill wrote to Eisenhower on 21 June stating that Britain and the United States should “establish a firm front against Communism in the Pacific sphere.” More specifically, Churchill suggested that there should be a Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) similar in structure and purpose to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation for Europe.30 Concerned that the Communist diplomatic victory in Geneva might spur further aggression in the region, there was a clear sense of urgency about Churchill’s efforts to secure the treaty. New Zealand Ambassador in Washington Leslie Munro reported to Wellington that at a luncheon meeting in Washington a week later, Churchill said that plans for the defence of Southeast Asia would be “pressed forward now, immediately.”31

Meanwhile, an ANZUS meeting took place in Washington on 30 June. Dulles told Casey and Munro that as agreements for Indochina took place in Geneva, the United States was “very deeply concerned” about developments in the area. Moreover, he stressed that the United States could not “fight their own way into the area, alone, and under conditions by no means clear.” Dulles then suggested that it would be especially useful for the United States to be briefed on Australian and New Zealand views on Indochina, because France was “fading away” and Britain was “badly overextended.”

In response, Casey suggested that reaching a SEATO-type arrangement would be useful for Australia. However, he thought that a temporary “ad-hoc SEATO” would be practical until a formal multilateral agreement could be agreed upon by Washington and London. He proposed a public non-aggression pact with as many Asian countries as possible. “Such a document would have no teeth and involve no obligations for its parties”, Casey conceded, but once a more binding agreement could be reached, he thought that “the teeth of an alliance would be in SEATO.”32 Casey, in short, was in favour of an immediate defence structure for Southeast Asia that included countries in that region and hoped both Britain and the United States would be involved. “We could not be belligerent while the United Kingdom was not”, Casey wrote in his diary after the meeting. He added, almost excitedly, that since Australia was “poised rather delicately” between the United States and Britain in international affairs, Canberra was “in a position to exercise some influence on each.”33

Speaking on New Zealand’s behalf, Munro mirrored Casey’s sentiments and suggested Wellington was in favour of an immediate defence arrangement in Southeast Asia. He noted New Zealand’s concerns about Communist aggression in the area and argued that his country would “firmly resist” any further advances. However, he made two unique points. Firstly, he thought that any immediate aggression before SEATO could be established should be referred to the United Nations rather than dealt with through Casey’s proposed temporary non-aggression pact. Secondly, he reiterated that New Zealand would only participate in SEATO if Britain was also a member. “It was a principle of our policy and negotiation that [Britain] should be a party to the SEATO arrangement.” Munro told Dulles on 30 June 1954.34

Dulles, however, made it clear that the United States would only commit to an arrangement that specifically aimed to stop Communist aggression. “The United States would be prepared to take positive action if there were any substantial extension of Communist power”, Dulles said to Casey and Munro, but he stressed “there would be nothing in the nature of a blanket commitment.”35 He repeated these views later on 28 July to US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Roger Aldrich, requesting he make it clear to London that the United States “did not envisage the Southeast Asia pact developing into a NATO-type organisation with [a] large permanent machinery [and] substantial US financial support.”36 The US military supported this limited commitment. The SEATO machinery “should be similar to the ANZUS arrangements”, US Acting Secretary of Defense Robert Anderson told the State Department, insofar as it should function more as a “consultative arrangement” rather than representing definitive American military commitments in Southeast Asia. Anderson went on to suggest that these views reflected “the thinking of this Department at this time.”37

While Australia and New Zealand reasoned that their influence on US policy was perhaps greater than it had ever been, neither government could convince Washington to sign anything other than a very limited defence treaty. The United States, in short, would only commit to respond to Communist aggression. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation was subsequently signed into effect on the 8 September 1954 at the Manila Conference between the ANZUS powers as well as Britain, France, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. The three Associated States, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, were also awarded observer status and included under the area protected. Its scope was very similar to ANZUS, stating that all signatories would respond to meet a common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

Overall, SEATO’s conclusion was ultimately born out of Western failure in Indochina and concerns about further Communist aggression in the area. It had a number of weaknesses: its scope was limited, and there was no clear machinery for intelligence cooperation or military consultation between the signatories. Ultimately, even though the siege at Dien Bien Phu and the conclusion of SEATO offered Australia and New Zealand an opportunity to play more important roles in US strategy, there were few positives that could be drawn from the ANZUS response to the crisis.

1 Spender Statement, 9 March 1950, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 627.

2 Corner to McIntosh, 20 February 1953, in Unofficial Channels, 122-127.

3 Corner to McIntosh, 15 March 1954, in Unofficial Channels, 158.

4 Radford to Eisenhower, 24 March 1954, NARA, RG 59, 751.00/3-2454.

5 Eisenhower to Hazlett, 18 March 1954, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 6, EL.

6 Eisenhower-Dulles Conversation Memorandum, 3 April 1954 Dulles Papers, Telephone Conversation Series, Box 6, EL.

7 Dulles to Peaslee, 1 April 1954, FRUS 1954 Vol. XIII Part I, 1204.

8 Matthew Jones, “Great Britain, The United States, and Consultation over Use of the Atomic Bomb”, The Historical Journal 54, no. 3 (2011), 797-828,

9 Memorandum of Meeting with Dulles, Spender and Munro, 4 April 1954, NARA, RG 59, 751.00/4-454.

10 Report from the United States Naval Attaché in Melbourne to the Department of Army, 2 April 1954, NARA, RG 59, 743.00W/4-254. For more on the Petrov Affair, see David Horner, The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014); Robert Manne, The Petrov Affair (Sydney: Text Publishing, 2004).

11 Spender to Casey, 6 April 1954, NAA, A5462/1, 2/4/1 Part 2.

12 Casey Diary Entry, 7 April 1954, NAA, M1153, 34.

13 Casey Statement, 7 April 1954, Commonwealth House of Representatives Debates, Vol. 3, 122-126.

14 Casey Diary Entry, 15 April 1954, NAA, M1153, 34.

15 R.G. Casey, Friends and Neighbours: Australia and the World (Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire, 1954). For a more detailed analysis of Casey’s international outlook and views on Australian engagement with Asia, see J Cotton, “R.G. Casey and Australian International Thought”; James Cotton, “R. G. Casey’s Writings on Australia’s Place in the World”, in Melissa Conley Tyler, John Robbins, and Adrian March eds. R.G. Casey: Minister for External Affairs, 1951-1960 (Sydney: Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2012),

16 “Offends Asia”, The Courier Mail, 7 June 1952. The White Australia Policy and its implications for Australia’s relationship with the world have been dealt with extensively elsewhere. See, for example, James Jupp, From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

17 Minutes of Cabinet Meeting, 6 April 1954, NAA, A1838/276, TS383/4/1 Part 1.

18 McIntosh to Corner, 12 April 1954, in Unofficial Channels, 164.

19 Munro to Corner, 6 April 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 316/4/1 Part 6; Munro to Webb, 6 April 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 316/4/1 Part 6.

20 Australian Policy on Indochina, 7 April 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 316/4/1 Part 2. See also Joint Intelligence Committee Report, 14 April 1954, NAA, A5954, 2298/2.

21 Collective Action in Indochina Policy Document, 6 April 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 316/4/1 Part 6.

22 Joint Intelligence Committee Report, 14 April 1954, NAA, A5954, 2298/2.

23 Conversation between Dulles and Makins, 2 April 1954, FRUS 1954 Vol. XIII Part I, 1216.

24 Churchill to Eisenhower, 7 April 1954, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 6, EL; James, Churchill and Empire, 379. See also Daniel Williamson, Separate Agendas: Churchill, Eisenhower and Anglo-American Relations, 1953-1955 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006).

25 Eisenhower to Churchill, 26 April 1954, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 6, EL.

26 Eisenhower to Hazlett, 27 April 1954, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 6, EL.

27 NSC Meeting, 29 April 1954, Ann Whitman File, NSC Series, Box 4, EL.

28 Memorandum of a Department of State-Joint Chiefs of Staff Meeting, 23 July 1954, NARA, RG 59, Lot 61, D 417.

29 Minutes of a Meeting on Southeast Asia, 24 July 1954, NARA RG 59, Lot 60, D 627, CF 348.

30 Churchill to Eisenhower, 21 June 1954, FRUS 1954 Vol. XIII Part II, 1728.

31 Munro to Holland, 30 June 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 434/8/1 Part 4.

32 Notes of the ANZUS Meeting, 30 June 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 434/8/1 Part 4.

33 Casey Diary Entry, 30 June 1954, NAA, M1153, 34.

34 Notes of the ANZUS Meeting, 30 June 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 434/8/1 Part 4.

35 Ibid.

36 Dulles to Aldrich, 28 July 1954, FRUS 1952-1954 Vol. XII Part I, 680.

37 Anderson to Murphy, 19 August 1954, FRUS 1952-1954 Vol. XII Part I, 767-768.

© 2018 Andrew Kelly, CC BY 4.0