historical perspectives, latest

New Zealand – The ebb & flow of History

Hugh O’Neill

Large crowds turned out in both Auckland and Wellington in early 1940 to welcome home the crew of HMS Achilles after its return to New Zealand following the Battle of the River Plate. This photograph was taken as the ship’s officers and crew marched along Lambton Quay on 2 April. Image source.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.” Julius Caesar, Act iv, Scene iii

After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the British Empire had few rivals in the first half of the 19th Century, but when Britain allied with France in the Crimean War against Russia, they realised that wooden ships were no match for French iron ships. The Industrial Revolution was spreading and other empires were rising: Russia, Japan, America, France and Germany all wished to join the global game of chess. Russophobia thrived in NZ since the Crimean War, encouraged by newspapers e.g. Daily Southern Cross whose 1873 ‘hoax’ report of Russian ship “Kaskowiski” invading Auckland caused panic.

When the Russian Empire did collide with the British in Northern Afghanistan (Pandjeh Incident 1884), the NZ public demanded protection in the form of coastal batteries, torpedo boats and militia training, all at huge taxpayer cost. The money wasted on these useless defences ought to be a stark warning to current ‘defence strategy’ but since when did common sense (or decency) ever penetrate paranoia, or the self-interests of the military industrial complex?

Japan meanwhile, was provoked from 250 years of self-imposed isolation from European barbarians by the threat of destruction by US Navy under Admiral Perry in 1853 (during the Crimean War). This existential threat eventually led to the 1869 Meiji Restoration and Japan’s Imperial ambitions. So successful was Japan’s jump from mediaeval to modern, that she defeated the Russian Imperial Navy in 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima. (Russia, with Germany and France had opposed Japan’s acquisition of Manchuria, whilst the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 was designed to counter Russian expansion). Meanwhile, sharp operators like W.H. White (1845-1913), a salaried British Admiralty constructor, was secretly earning royalties on British-built warships he sold to both Japan and China, personally stoking suspicions between them to increase his sales revenue. “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose”. He was knighted for his services to his country.

Later, these aspiring empires were heavily influenced by the ideas of American naval officer and geo-strategist, A.T. Mahan. His 1890 analysis of Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence suggested that the possession of global bases enabled control of the sea-lanes: dominance of the sea-lanes gave control of world trade and unhindered exploitation of numerous colonies abroad. To ‘navallists’ such as Theodore Roosevelt, this need for bases required the Spanish-American War of 1898 (for which the ‘casus belli’ was the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbour), which gave America bases throughout the Caribbean, the ‘acquisition’ of Hawaii, the Philippines and Guam.

These possessions then created the need to build the Panama Canal to swiftly project naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific theatres without the month-long detour around Cape Horn. Before the canal was completed, Roosevelt sent his “Great White Fleet’ on a grand tour to show the world – particularly Japan – that America was now a naval force to be reckoned with. American strategists reckoned that war with Japan could also mean war with the British Empire. When the US fleet made its courtesy call to Auckland in 1908, her officers gathered intelligence for possible future invasion of the port. Thus in 1908, our allies were Japan, whilst our potential enemy was America.

With the 1905 building of the oil-fired battleship HMS “Dreadnought”, Britain had made the first move in destroying her strongest competitor, Imperial Germany. How could Britain – with no oil – base her imperial defence strategy on oil-fired ships? The major sources of oil then were Russia and America, though in 1871 huge reserves had been discovered in the Middle East, then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Clearly, for Britain, Germany and France to continue to play the game, they had to access oil. Germany, with the agreement of Turkey, was building a railway from Baghdad – Berlin (with drilling rights alongside the railway track) which by 1914, was nearing completion. The debacle of Gallipoli was actually about oil, but it is a complex story .

Britain and France (in 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement) secretly carved up the Middle East: their promise to the Arabs to free them from the Turkish yoke offered a new yoke. The only reason we know of this treachery against the Arabs is that in 1917 the Bolsheviks found a copy [of Sykes-Picot] in the Czar’s papers and published them in Pravda, (later re-printed by the Manchester Guardian).

In the long build-up to the First World War, NZ’s PM Sir Joseph Ward in 1909 generously offered that NZ pay for one (or maybe two?) new battleships for Britain. The offer was accepted and NZ borrowed 2 Million pounds for the 1911 building of HMS New Zealand. Although the ship made a pre-war visit to NZ, she was kept in the UK where she saw action in the North Sea, then scrapped in 1922. NZ meanwhile were still paying off the loan until 1944. Some parts were returned to NZ, including the ship’s laundry – a very expensive washing machine.

When Britain requested volunteers to “serve king and country” huge numbers responded, though significant numbers refused. Ten troops ships assembled in Wellington, but were unable to sail because they had no armed escort against a suspected German Naval presence in the Pacific. The NZ cabinet initially refused British pressure to sail unescorted. Eventually, our Japanese allies provided the battleship Ibuki which remained with the fleet all the way to Egypt then onto Gallipoli. That Japan was an ally in WWI was quickly forgotten by WWII. Likewise, Russia (the bête noir since 1850) was our ally in both world wars.

After the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Truman and Churchill agreed that Russia was once again the enemy, despite her having lost 25 million dead in defeating Hitler. Another little known truth is Churchill’s 1945 plan “Operation Unthinkable” intended to re-arm conquered Germany to fight alongside Britain and America to destroy Russia; thankfully, his generals doubted their chances and Truman vetoed the idea, but Stalin understood Churchill’s treachery, thus signaling the start of the Cold War. Churchill was also responsible for the famine deaths of 4 million Indians in 1942-3. Famine Relief sent by NZ and Canada were diverted by Churchill and stock-piled for the British Army. Churchill’s dictum that truth in wartime be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies still holds true, since most US and UK politicians speak glowingly of his legacy, whilst two recent films burnish the myth. How ought we to remember this amoral, utterly ruthless and inhuman character? Is the bodyguard of lies too powerful still?

The British Empire was finally bankrupted by WWI and WWII, having borrowed heavily from American banks, exhausting Britain’s gold reserves. The Anglo-American Establishment had tilted heavily in America’s favour and Britain had lost her Empire. While the rest of the world wished only for Peace, American armaments manufacturers were in no mood to close down a very profitable business. In keeping with Mahanian doctrine, empires need bases from which to effect control destroy any who dared question the status quo. With the Cold War, Communism was the enemy hence wars in Korea and Vietnam. The war on drugs (Central and South America) was followed by the global war on Terror (GWOT) and the destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, Syria, Yemen and perhaps Iran next. To understand the game, it is of no consequence to US arms business how many Americans die (and who even counts the enemy?) or who ‘wins’ the war: all that matters is that business continues.

Wars are fought on many fronts, but covert warfare had assumed huge significance during WWII. The US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) became [in 1947] the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Untrammeled by any laws anywhere, it is devoid of any governmental oversight so as to give American politicians ‘plausible deniability’. Such absolute power can only corrupt, making psychopaths of men like Allen Dulles whose brother John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State. Both men enjoyed power and their arrogance was colossal; trained as Wall Street lawyers, they held laws and lawmakers in contempt. Although Truman had set-up the CIA, in a newspaper article (exactly one month after the assassination of President Kennedy) he called for an end to CIA covert ops.

Because we are dealing with the most dishonest and secretive of agencies, what little we know can only ever be the tip of the iceberg. Yet the known record fills hundreds of books, and details the constant interference in every country on earth: blackmail, disinformation, torture and assassination are the tools of their trade, as is made explicit by the latest appointment of Gina Haspell as head of the CIA. No other country in history has ever operated at this level of depravity and yet they are never held to account for these crimes against Humanity.

It is at this point that I make a plea to our elected leaders. The historical record shows that an alliance with the devil is a dangerous arrangement: those who foolishly seek power and ride the back of the tiger end up inside. New Zealand is a small, friendly and decent country with no obvious enemies in sight; this reputation for good neighbourliness, justice and fair play, once lost, would be very hard to regain. If our erstwhile allies (US/UK) have been complicit in every international crime imaginable: torture, indefinite detentions, incarceration of refugees, illegal invasions, starving of populations, drone strikes, white phosphorous, depleted uranium, cluster bombs, napalm, agent orange, nuclear weapons etc. It is long overdue that we broke free from this ghastly association.

New Zealand has stood tall many times in the past and punched well above her weight in many ways. The non-violent resistance of Parihaka (before Gandhi was born); women’s suffrage, the 8-hour working day, the opposition to Apartheid, our revulsion of nuclear weapons. What would those giants of our past have to say about today’s toadying lack of moral courage, our slavish devotion to two degenerate empires, our choosing the wrong side – both of history and of our own survival? Never forget that if Blair had stood up to George W. Bush, there would have been no 2003 invasion of Iraq nor the resultant Hell throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Why should we spend billions on anti-submarine aircraft when we cannot pay the salaries of nurses, teachers, police, and all the other services which our taxes ought to cover? Why should American arms manufacturers profit by selling us weapons that do nothing whatsoever to protect us, but everything to destroy us – physically, morally, spiritually and financially?

There is a tide in the affairs of men and the sea is full (and getting fulller). Just as the British Empire collapsed under the weight of its own gilded armour, soon too will the American Empire. We would be better alone than dragged down by such company. Both China and the Pacific Ocean are rising. As has been noted: no country has allies, only interests. Let us look to those interests and build a future for our children. It is no comfort that no child would be around to ask what we did to stop WWIII.

For in the final analysis, we all share the same small planet. We breathe the same air. We cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” JFK, June 10th, 1963

Hugh O’Neill holds a Master’s degree in maritime history. He is a Master Mariner himself and a member of the New Zealand Maritime Pilots Association, whose Pilot Magazine he also edits.


  1. vexarb says

    If NZ is now feeling old enough to cut loose from Brittannia’s Leading Strings it might consider joining this new South-South cooperation group with South African, South American and South Pacific countries; as introduced here by the ever-prescient Pepe Escobar of Asia Times. Make some new friends, outside the old, exclusive Five Eyes Spy Club.


    • BigB says

      Vex: the South -South cooperation (BEAMS /BRICS+) …the Goldman $uchs marketing ploy formerly known as the New World Order? ; -)

    • BigB says

      I notice from the BRICS 2018 Declaration: they’ve dropped the “economic” from “global economic governance” …it’s now just “global governance” they are committed to. Along with Agenda 30 SDGs, WTO, IMF, etc. And this:

      BRICS economies continue to support global economic expansion and outlook. We advocate continued use of fiscal, monetary and structural policies in concert, to forge strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.

      When you are at least 50% beyond the margins of strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth …only cancers are impelled to continue to grow?


      Pepe may laud and exalt: but I’m reading humanities death warrant.

  2. In Ardern, NZ has a PM with integrity and, if as seems likely, Corbyn wins the next UK election, at least there’ll remain two decent democracies, even if they’re at opposite ends of the earth.

    • Ardern is as pro-capital as Key was. And that Minister of Finance is a neoliberal true believer.

      Meet the new boss.

      • Oh dear!
        So it’s out of the frying-pan into the fire for NZ?
        If what you say is so, and Corbyn is as “Labour” as Ardern, then UK is headed down the tubes whatever happens.

    • Hugh O'Neill says

      Morning Rilme. Many thanks for correcting my hastily constructed script. It was of course Commodore Perry. The name Jacob Schiff sounded familiar, but I had not fully appreciated just how crucial his role had been. Finance is the indispensable commodity for waging war.

  3. The notion of Blair ‘standing up to’ Bush was always, of course, an impossiblity. Both men were subject to people and forces well beyond their control.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      Rather like Mussolini refusing to support Hitler in attacking the Soviet Union.

    • Oh, so why did the UK not join with the Americans in Korea and Vietnam?

      Blair is guilty.

      • sailor1031 says

        the UK did take part with the United Nations “peacekeeping” force in the war in Korea. Ever heard of the Imjin river? As for Viet-Nam the USA already had allies involved including Australia, NZ and S Korea and by then the UK had no forces to speak of having abandoned national service in the fifties and using instead the all-parasite volunteer force. The ANZACs, recognising a lost cause, later bailed from Viet Nam and left the yanks to do it alone.

        • Big B says

          The UK played a minor, but significant, part in the Vietnam War. Though not directly involved, the entire Strategic Hamlet Program (Operation Sunrise) was copied from the British counter-insurgency strategy in Malaya …right down to Operation Ranch Hand: the use of a ‘rainbow’ of chemical defoliants – of which ‘Agent Orange’ was the most obvious. It was instigated under advice to the Diem regime by Sir Robert Thompson – a Malayan veteran – and head of the British Advisory Mission (BRIAM).


            • “Clean-green” NZ is also the world’s sole user of 1080, a poison otherwise banned by the UN.

              • Mulga Mumblebrain says

                I believe 1080 is still used in Tasmania where the motto is ‘If it moves-shoot it. If it doesn’t-chop it down’.

    • Hugh O'Neill says

      Morning war dropper. Who really knows, but it was assumed that when David Cameron put the question to Parliament of whether to bomb Syria for an alleged use of CW, the British public let their MPs know to oppose bombing. Perhaps, as in Brexit, Cameron did not get the vote he expected, but once the indispensable ally said No, then it made it very hard for Obama to continue the mission. Perhaps Cameron had the toxic legacy of Blair in mind and may not have wished to share that fate, or maybe the Establishment had realised its own limitations in bulldozing public opinion. I always wondered why Blair had acceded and could only assume he was being blackmailed with some grainy polaroid photos from his past…The point is: one man can make a difference, and everyone should try.

  4. The ‘5 eyes’ mass surveillance alliance (Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada, US) is illustrative of the downwards spiral of the global empire, as people resist from within.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      In Austfailure the political, business and fakestream media elites do not suffer from ‘dual loyalties’ to both Austfailure and the US Empire. Their loyalties, primary and often solely, are to Thanatopolis DC. The servility of the groveling is loathsome, but universal. And in business and in large parts of academe, the Americans have, often enough, taken over directly. The head of the WestPac Bank ludicrously and insanely declared the other day that China, our greatest trade partner with whom we have a huge surplus, the provider of over one million high-spending tourists (the most of any country)and tens of thousands of tertiary students, was ‘..the greatest threat to Australia’s economy’. He was, unsurprisingly, a Yank, like so many other ‘business leaders’ in our vassal state.

  5. For New Zealand, its strongest defence must be neutrality.

    It cannot rely on any other country coming to its defence and any defence force would only be token in nature.

    Be like the ancient Greeks. Accept invasion by Rome and subvert from within.

    Living in an internet age, the best thing for New Zealand would be as a tech hub for innovation rather like Silicon Valley but on a more civilised scale.

    • Today’s Rome and Athens have little worth subverting from within – or from without, for that matter.
      They are both pale shadows of their former selves. That said, I heartily agree with what you say about neutrality. Hopping onto the NATO bandwagon, or its equivalent elsewhere in the world – which is no kind of ‘treaty organization’ at all – simply leaves a country at the mercy of US whims.

  6. Achie1954 says

    Yes, we are all mortal but unfortunately, we are not all moral! The belief that somehow Americans are exceptional is a myth that is both immoral and unethical, let alone a blatant lie! This World would be a much better place if the US would just butt out of many other nations’ internal politics. The day is coming though when the wasteful expenditures on America’s military will come back to haunt the US. Other developed nations are making life better and better for their citizens while the US is crumbling, violent and dystopian!

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      The frenzy of US ordered hatred being directed at Russia and China throughout the puppet regimes of the West tells you that the US ruling elite will destroy the world if they cannot rule over every square inch of it, with ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’. The internecine war between factions of the ruling US elite over Trump is between those who simply wish to destroy Russia before moving in on China, and those who think that Russia can be induced to join the White Man’s alliance to destroy the Yellow Peril.

      • rilme says

        Rather than the USA or white people ordering this hatred, might it not be zionists and Jews? From the white American Jew “Jacob Schiff” to the white American Jew “Victoria Nuland”, these people have two sides. We can see they are against Russia, but we have to ask which side they are batting for.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says

          Zionist elites are vastly over-represented in the ranks of the malignant Western overclass, but other Jews are well represented in the ranks of those opposing them, so I can no more blame ‘ the Jews’ as a whole for the crimes of the worst among them than I could do so with any other group.

  7. bevin says

    “What makes us great is that we’re descended from a conquering empire, not because we (foolishly) gave women the vote…”
    It wasn’t the British who took smallpox and other plagues to America, but the Spanish and Portuguese, so the credit of conquest, by epidemic, followed by ecocide, belongs to them.
    What “we’ are descended from is a nation whose ruling class, after stealing everything that our forefathers owned, pressed into service as mariners and soldiers, because they needed porters and cannon fodder to bring the loot home.
    You want more of the same?
    Well it will come, if the pseudo fascistic views that you spout prevail, and the tiny elite-the 1%- will laugh as they watch you, in the odd hours that you don’t spend rushing from gig to gig, worrying about whether the slave in the galley, at the oar next to yours, is circumcised, eats pork or hides his hair beneath a turban- workers all taste the same to the cannibals who devour them.
    But don’t let me interrupt your dreams of being part of a master race, marked by God with pale skin, to lord it over anyone the Boss orders you to.

  8. summitflyer says

    So much common sense .If only the elected officials heeded these wise words .

  9. Lemur says

    We’re reaching levels of self-hatred in this article that shouldn’t be possible. What makes us great is that we’re descended from a conquering empire, not because we (foolishly) gave women the vote. Lack of self-belief is why we’re turning into a multicultural shithole. It’s also why we undermined our European compatriots in South Africa. Well, boomer traitors, your time is fast coming to a close, and a new generation is rising which has no time for your decadent liberalism.

    • Brian Harry, Australia says

      The next generation will be the same as us. If you want to know what someone else’s motives are, always back “self interest”.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says

        On the balance of probabilities, the ‘next generation’ will be short-lived and probably the last.

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