Saturday, March 15, 2014


This column is just an amazing fact that hasn't been written about before and deserves a bigger audience.

It's not my research, of course. Distinguished Professor Robert O'Neill discovered how the ANZUS Treaty actually got started. He incorporated the details in a speech he presented to the Airpower Conference this week, where I heard it.

This is the way I reported it in the Canberra Times today . . .

The ANZUS Treaty

This story’s never been told before. It comes from detailed research by Professor Robert O’Neill, our historian of the Korean War and a distinguished international academic. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that the actions of individuals can make history. It also reveals how the entire course of Australia's history in the 20th century might have been utterly different if the US president’s daughter hadn't been such an atrocious singer, because that’s where the yarn really begins.

Margaret Truman was a young blonde who loved singing. She also happened to be the President’s daughter and even she later admitted that this seemingly irrelevant fact may have assisted her  debut as a coloratura soprano accompanied by the Detroit Symphony in 1947. Nevertheless, she preformed well enough and her career continued to prosper in the regional states. Until, a couple of years later, she hit the big time. Margaret got the chance to sing Constitution Hall in Washington.

Now it’s always possible that Paul Hume, the music critic at the Washington Post, simply didn’t like Margaret’s dad’s politics and decided to vent his spleen on the daughter. After all, the President was a controversial figure and there’d been seething anger at industrial conditions as the country had adjusted to peace. Or perhaps the truth was just that Margaret didn’t actually sing particularly well that night. Nevertheless, and for whatever reason, the next morning Hume’s review was scathing and derisory.

“She is flat a good deal of the time”, he insisted, with “no professional finish”. His killer line was a complete, utter dismissal of the young woman’s cherished hope of an independent career. Quite simply, Hume asserted, Truman’s daughter “cannot sing very well”.

After the President read the review the next morning he was fuming. He would soon sit down to write a response to the critic in which Truman would offer, inter alia, to rearrange Hume’s nose, give him black eyes, and kick his crutch. But first Truman had a brief - no more than fifteen minute - appointment scheduled with Australia’s External Affairs Minister, Percy Spender.

Now Spender had begun life as a lawyer before holding office under Menzies and understood people. The younger man also had his own ideas - he was, for example, far less committed to the British Empire than his Prime Minister (although Spender would have loved to have been appointed a Privy Councillor, an honour Menzies denied him). Importantly, the Minister knew Australia could no longer rely on the Empire for its defence. He was determined to seek a way of obtaining what he saw as a vital security guarantee from America, but Spender faced obstruction from both sides of the Pacific. There was no appetite for any sort of treaty arrangement amongst bureaucratic officials in either Canberra or Washington. Spender was getting nowhere.

O’Neill’s finally managed to track down the missing link that ignited ANZUS, and it was Margaret who gave Spender the opportunity to turn his idea into reality. O’Neill discovered how the Minister had also read the Post’s review that morning and seized the opportunity it provided. He’d been strictly instructed he must, absolutely, not bring up the idea of a treaty. But Spender was a father too, and he saw his opening. Over breakfast he privately developed a far more cunning strategy.

As soon as he walked into the Oval Office Spender dispensed with formalities and instead vehemently protested the ignorance and stupidity of the media generally and music critics more specifically. He found a warm reception. For fifteen minutes the pair fulminated at Hume’s review; then half an hour. Nobody dared disturb the President as the clock ticked on. Eventually, some 44 minutes later, Truman glanced at the watch. He profusely apologised for taking so long. Can I, Truman asked, do anything for you?

This was, of course, the very question a US leader, the most powerful person in the world, is never supposed to ask. But Truman had been receiving such warm sympathy from the Australian, he opened up. Spender jumped at the opportunity. Well, yes, he said, there was something actually. And in that last minute he secured more than he could possibly have hoped for; not a treaty, but an agreement to “negotiate” in case either country was attacked by another.

And that was the beginning of what’s become the foundation-stone of our defence for the past half-century. The weasel words - that promise to “consult” in case of a threat - reveals how, even at drafting stage, considerable suspicion still existed between the US and Australia. There was no guarantee the bedrock of our security would ever take shape, it was only Spender who forced it through. If Margaret Truman had sung a bit better on the night, or if Hume hadn’t been quite so vitriolic, there’s every chance the treaty would never have been signed.

But it was. As a result we’re now firmly embedded in Washington’s orbit. This may have occurred anyway: cultural links are so strong that it’s difficult to imagine our trajectory could have differed too significantly from that of the States. Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing in mind that nothing is inevitable - apart, perhaps, from a fathers love for a talented daughter.

1 comment:

  1. The ultimate device for all journalists mentioned in the media...