The Drum (ABC online)

By Tom Switzer

Sixty years ago today, Percy Spender - Australia's external affairs minister who had just become ambassador to Washington - New Zealand foreign minister Frederick Doidge, and Dean Acheson - president Harry Truman's secretary of state - signed the ANZUS Treaty.

The anniversary is worth commemorating as a seminal moment that continues to shape Australian defence and foreign policy for the better.

But several myths shape popular attitudes about Australia's relationship with what Robert Menzies used to delight in calling "our great and powerful friend." Here are four of them:

1.       The Australian Labor Party created the American alliance.

To hear Labor partisans tell it, Prime Minister John Curtin forged the security alliance with the Americans.

It is true that on December 27, 1941 - a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and before the fall of Singapore - Curtin famously "looks to America", a radical departure for a nation whose cultural and strategic outlook had been strongly shaped by the United Kingdom. And it is true that during the next three years of Labor governance, about one million US soldiers were stationed on our shores to help defeat the Japanese.

But as my US Studies Centre colleague James Curran makes clear in his groundbreaking book Curtin's Empire, the Labor PM had also aimed to rebuild and strengthen the British Empire as the foundation of Australia's post-war foreign policy. He was, after all, a creature of his culture.

To be sure, Curtin's successor Ben Chifley had hopes of drawing the US into Australia's defence, but it was not until the election of the Menzies government in late 1949 when the moves towards a formal security treaty gathered momentum. When ANZUS was deliberated and ultimately signed in 1951, the opposition leader Bert Evatt criticised it as "un-British" and pledged that the next Labor government would "attempt to extend this pact to include the United Kingdom".

2.       The ANZUS Treaty provides an unequivocal security guarantee.

Prime ministers from Menzies to Gillard have argued that the alliance constitutes a watertight security guarantee while some historians and commentators have suggested it is as binding as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation security provision, which was signed two years earlier.

But read Article IV in the ANZUS Treaty closely:

Each party recognises that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

Note how the article speaks vaguely of acting to meet the common danger; that is, after the observance of national constitutional requirements. In Washington's case, this would presumably include discussions between the president and Congress. Anyone who has studied US political history knows that nothing is guaranteed in Beltway politics.

Immediately after the treaty terms had been settled, moreover, the US envoy John Foster Dulles told General Douglas MacArthur: "The US can discharge its obligations... in any way and in any area that it sees fit."

Or as former ABC Boyer lecturer Owen Harries and I have argued elsewhere:

As statesmen as diverse as Bismarck, Gladstone and Teddy Roosevelt in their time have had cause to stress, the reserve rebus sic stantibus – while the same conditions apply – is always silently understood in every treaty. In other words, no firm and unconditional guarantees are ever available in international politics.

3.       Australia is subservient to Uncle Sam.

During the Cold War, several intellectuals argued that Australia was "an American lickspittle" (Humphrey McQueen) whose citizens "so willingly and so totally handed over both their sovereignty and their freedom of choice to a foreign power" (Denis Phillips).

In recent times, several writers have kept alive the myth that Canberra is US sycophant: Alison Broinowski (Allied and Addicted), Don Watson (Quarterly Essay Rabbit Syndrome) and Bruce Grant (Fatal Attraction: Reflections on the alliance with the United States).

Even Rupert Murdoch remarked, in 1998, that "Australia can render its most useful service by abandoning its 'all the way with the USA' policy" and that ending Australia's "traditional view of itself as a junior partner of America" was essential to Asian engagement.

But Canberra often did not follow Washington blindly.

Take the Suez crisis in 1956. President Dwight Eisenhower and Dulles, his fervently anti-communist secretary of state, opposed military action against Egypt. However, Australia sided with the British, French, and Israelis against Nasser.

If Canberra was such an American sycophant, why would Menzies, five years after the creation of ANZUS, clash with the Americans over a crisis which the prime minister had described as "more grave than any since the Second World War ended"? Perhaps because the alliance was seen through a regional prism, whereas Canberra still behaved in other parts of the world as if the British connection was paramount. (As Menzies told the British prime minister Anthony Eden at the height of the crisis: "You must never entertain any doubts about the British quality of this country." Or as he told the then-vice president Richard Nixon: "I love America... but I am British to my boot heels.")

In his book A War for the Asking, Michael Sexton provides substantial evidence to show that it was Menzies and several ministers and officials who were not only more worried than Washington about the spectre of falling dominoes during the early to mid 1960s. They also pressed the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to adopt a more hawkish position against the North Vietnamese Communists.

More recently, even as President Obama flags the idea of talking with the Taliban to negotiate some kind of political settlement and withdrawal of troops by 2014, it is the tough-talking Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who wants to stay the course in Afghanistan for another decade.

Add to this the different US and Australian policy responses to the Communist Revolution in 1949 and the Indonesian annexation of Dutch New Guinea (or West Papua) in 1962 - not to mention various trade disputes over the years - and it is clear that Australia has hardly been subservient to Uncle Sam.

4.       Australia increasingly faces a choice between China and America

Some scholars, such as the ANU defence intellectual Hugh White, suggest that Canberra will eventually move into the Chinese sphere of influence as America's post-war regional hegemony comes to an end. Other thinkers such as the Lowy Institute's Andrew Shearer and the Australian's Greg Sheridan are more pro-US. Former prime minister John Howard spoke for a clear majority of Australians this week when he told the ABC1's 7.30:

America and Australia will always be closer than China and Australia because we have shared values.

It is true that, for Washington, the rise of China means the emergence of a potential strategic rival. For Canberra, it is the opportunity for a rewarding commercial relationship. But this should not mean that Australia is faced with a hard, stark choice between "going with America" or "going with China".

The 60-year-old alliance with the US will endure, both because it serves interests (which include favourable access to US technology and intelligence) and because the need for a great and powerful friend is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. But Australia will also need to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will sometimes involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.