Oceania During the Cold War

Oceania During the Cold War

Who are We?: Oceania in the Cold War


The militaries of Australia and New Zealand played a significant role in the Pacific Theater of World War II. They had firmly supported and led Allied resistance against the Imperial Japanese forces. In effect, they had held their own and proved as strong as any Western European nation. Following World War II’s Allied victory, Australia and New Zealand began to question their status and position in global affairs—particularly with the advent of the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, both countries experienced numerous challenges and triumphs as they searched for identity. Similarly, many Pacific Island nations sought fought for and won their independence from their European colonizers, notably Indonesia. For much of Oceania, the Cold War was a time wherein the search for identity was paramount.


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate the challenges faced by Australia and New Zealand during the Cold War.
  • Analyze the independence movements in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

ANZUS: Australia-New Zealand-United States defense alliance

Australia Act of 1986: document that cuts all legal ties between Australia and Great Britain

Cultural Assimilation: Australian attempts to assimilate Aborigines into Western lifestyles

Child-removal: Australian program in which white Australians forcefully removed Aborigine children from their homes

Indonesian War of Independence: war between Indonesia and the Dutch, 1945 – 1949

Māori urbanization: New Zealand programs in the 1960s to assimilate and westernize Māori people

Papua New Guinea: independent, Pacific Island established in 1975

Statute of Westminster Approval Act: 1947 act that cut all legal ties between New Zealand and Great Britain

Stolen Generation: name given to Aborigine children who were removed from their families and placed into white, Australian homes to assimilate into western culture

The Republic of Indonesia: independent Indonesia state established in 1949


Australia during the Cold War


During the Cold War, Australia faced many of the same challenges domestically and internationally as the United States. It underwent its own version of the Red Scare, as fear of communism spread. Moreover, Australian forces served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Because of increased tension in Asia and Europe, Australia signed a military alliance, ANZUS, with the United States in 1951. Separately, New Zealand would also sign ANZUS, thus forming a military alliance between the United States and Australia, and New Zealand and the United States.


Immigration to Australia


One of the earliest developments Australia faced during the Cold War was increased immigration. Eastern Europeans immigrated to Australia following the creation of the Soviet Bloc, while Chinese immigrants fled during the ascension of communist leader, Mao Zedong. In a reversal of previous policy, Australia welcomed immigrants from throughout the Pacific and Asia because they needed a labor force to help with the development of Australian industry and infrastructure following World War II. Most of the immigrants were hired to work in unskilled manufacturing.

In response to the growing immigration, the Australian prime minister passed the Migration Act of 1958 which undid many of the restrictive clauses of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, thus significantly diminishing the “White Australia” policies. By the early 1970s, the policies had vanished entirely and a multicultural Australia was born.


Australia and the "Stolen Generation"


When Australia was opening its arms to immigrants from Asia and the rest of the world, it was still failing to open its arms to its own people. Aborigine land reserves were governed by the federal government. The reserves were also considered public land that could be used for additional purposes without Aboriginal consent. Moreover, the federal government had no power to make treaties or negotiate with the Aborigines. Those powers rested alone with the governments of Australia’s six states. Until the 1960s, the governments refused to grant rights or negotiate with the Aborigines. Instead, they continued to allow low wages to be paid to Aborigine workers on cattle ranches and forbade them from consuming alcohol.

One of the most contentious, and now embarrassing moments, in Australia’s history began in 1951 when the Australian government passed legislature in favor of cultural assimilation. Under official government policy, Aborigines would be forced to adopt western practices and live as white Australians.  Several measures were placed on the Aborigines to try and “westernize” them, with mixed success.

Most heinous of the actions carried out by the Australian government were the practices and policies of child-removal. From the 1910s to the 1970s, children of Aborigine descent, especially mixed-race children, were removed from their Aboriginal homes and placed in state-run facilities. Often these facilities were hundreds of miles from their families. As wards of the state, these children were taught to dress, act, and think as if they were white Australians. They were forced to speak only English, relinquish their former identities, and learn white Australian professions.


Poster illustrating the “Sorry Day” that marked Australia’s official apology to the “Stolen Generation.” Notice that the hand is painted in the colors of the Aboriginal Flag. The names represent the different Aborigine clans.



By the time the practice of child-removal ended in 1973, roughly 10 – 15% of Aborigine children had been removed from their parents and their homes. These children are remembered today as Australia’s “Stolen Generation.


The Australia Act of 1986


Australia had emerged as a strong, Western power during the World Wars and the Cold War. As such, it also craved independence from Britain. In the 1980s, Australia followed the pattern of Canada and New Zealand and prepared to sever its legal connections to Great Britain. In 1986, two acts were passed, collectively known as the Australia Act of 1986. This legislation granted full legal rights to Australia and effectively ended any legal and constitutional ties between Australia and Great Britain. Australia emerged as a totally sovereign commonwealth free to exercise independence in law-making, although the Queen of England remains a figurehead monarch.


New Zealand in the Cold War


Despite their close connections, New Zealand is a country quite different from Australia in its people and politics. During the 1940s, it, like many western nations, experienced relative prosperity. But after the war, New Zealand also struggled to establish its purpose and identity.


The Early Cold War and the Quest for Identity


After World War II, New Zealanders enjoyed relative economic stability and growing nationalism. As such, it was unsurprising that they also sought greater independence from Great Britain. In 1947, it signed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act. This promoted New Zealand to the status of a Commonwealth in the British Empire, rather than a Dominion. Additionally, the passage of the act gave New Zealanders three new measures that increased their independence: citizenship as New Zealanders (rather than British), a reformed and updated constitution, and the exclusive right for New Zealand to make and administer its own laws. In this fashion, New Zealand established itself as an independent nation-state.

One of the first acts undertaken by the freshly created New Zealand parliament was to push for stronger military connections. With the rise of communist China and Soviet-led Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s, New Zealand realized that it needed protection in case a world war should again erupt. As its counterpart Australia had done, New Zealand signed a military alliance with the United States, ANZUS, in 1951. Simultaneously, this aligned the country with Western powers and solidly against communism.


Map of the ANZUS alliance.


New Zealand's Social Challenges


From the 1940s to early 1960s, New Zealand was a peculiar place for foreigners because of it was seemingly locked in a time warp. Hotels closed at 6 PM, restaurants did not sell alcohol, and shops were strictly controlled. Families were expected to be at home on the weekends. 

Once mass travel began, New Zealand society changed. People, especially young men, traveled abroad. Mass communication arrived and pulled New Zealand into contact with the rest of the world. And by the 1980s, New Zealand was booming as a tourist destination, one that could boast of sophisticated wines and exquisite dinners for those seeking a cosmopolitan experience. It also grew to cater to extreme athletes because it promoted itself as “the adventure capital of the world.”


Māori Urbanization


Historically, New Zealand has proven more liberal and progressive than Australia in its attitudes toward its indigenous peoples: the Māori. Generally, white New Zealanders had worked with the Māori, instead of considering them a primitive exhibition. And many Māori fought with the white New Zealanders during World War II.


Māori man in traditional dress.


In the 1960s, the Māori began moving into New Zealand’s cities, and Māori urbanization took off. This movement marked a significant departure from the traditional way of life for the Māori, who had been primarily hunter-gather peoples or farmers prior to World War II. Although the Māori thrived in the cities, with increased pay and improved education, they were not free from racial discrimination. In contrast to the Aborigines, though, the Māori proved far more willing and able to adapt to Western culture, while still promoting their heritage. Their culture is nationally renowned through the Haka dance performed by New Zealand sports teams before each match; this is most famously done by the All Blacks—New Zealand’s national rugby team.


The Indonesian War for Independence


Australia and New Zealand were not the only countries searching for independence and identity after World War II. In fact, most of the Pacific Island nations were. Most of them were still under European control following World War II. After decades of colonial exploitation, bitter occupation, and combat during World War II, nearly every Pacific Island nation desired freedom. More than most, Indonesia stood ready to fight for their independence.


Indonesia's Battle for Freedom Begins


The Indonesian War for Independence began in August 1945. Two days after the surrender of Japan to the Allies, the Indonesians declared independence from Holland. The subsequent war pitted the Indonesian forces against their old colonizers, the Dutch. Although the war was drawn out over four years, it was evident from the beginning that the Dutch did not have their heart invested in the battle. They were, instead, recovering from years of Nazi German occupation and the loss of many of their own people in World War II. And public sentiment was never in favor of yet another war. Dutch troops arrived war-weary and weak. Indonesian troops were inexperienced but high-spirited. For the next four years, the two sides were relatively evenly matched.

The new world order proved as essential to an Indonesian victory as the battlefield. The United Nations and the UN Security Council severely criticized Dutch involvement in Indonesia. The United States, Australia, and India voiced criticism of Dutch actions in Indonesia. Under pressure from the United Nations, the Dutch withdrew in 1949. That same year, the Republic of Indonesia was created.

Map of the Republic of Indonesia.

Indonesia established itself as a republic following the Dutch departure. It also established a model of Pacific Island independence that many smaller island nations would follow. Today, it is the world’s largest island nation, consisting of 17,000 islands. It also constitutes the world’s largest Muslim country and is the fourth most populous in the world.


Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea is an island nation north of Australia that is famous for its rich biodiversity, tropical waters, and dense rainforests. It is equally rich in its languages, religions, and cultures. Historically, however, this large island nation has struggled to retain its independence.

During the late 1800s, Papua New Guinea was divided and colonized by both England and Imperial Germany in the eastern half of the country, and Holland in the western half.  From 1919 – 1975, New Guinea was under control of its powerful southern neighbor, Australia, and by extension became a possession of the British Empire. During World War II, New Guinea was at the heart of a major campaign between the Allies and the Japanese that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Following World War II, New Guinea sought independence. The effort to secure independence was not smooth. It was fraught with political and social upheaval and discord.

In 1975, New Guinea achieved independence from Australia with its promotion to the status of the Commonwealth. By achieving this status, New Guinea can create and administer its own laws and government. It also joined the Commonwealth of Nations as an independent state and is a member of the United Nations.


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