How Sir Percy Spender brought Australia closer to the United States

17 June 2010

"The most kissable member of the diplomatic corps" - Washington Post.

“The most kissable member of the diplomatic corps” – Washington Post.

Sir Percy Spender’s biographer, Professor David Lowe, smiles at the thought.

“Yes, when he served as Australia’s ambassador to the United States, he was adjudged as the most kissable member of the diplomatic corps by the Washington Post,” Professor Lowe said. “And there might have been a few moments at some major diplomatic social events to justify that reputation.

“However, I think we can be certain this wasn’t the only reason that during his time as ambassador there, and also before that as the Minister for External Affairs, that Australia’s relationship with the United States became closer than ever before. In fact, a feature of the book was the strong partnership between Percy and his wife Jean, an accomplished author in her own right.”

Australia Between Empires – The Life of Percy Spender is the formal name of Professor Lowe’s biography of one of Australia’s most active foreign ministers.

The monograph was officially launched on May 31st by Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI) in Geelong.

Greg Sheridan is also reviewing the book for The Australian Literary Review.

“Even though he was only the Minister for External Affairs for 16 months between 1949 and 1951, there is no doubt that Sir Percy Spender is worthy of a biography and the sort of recognition that Greg Sheridan’s review will provide,” said Professor Lowe, who is also the inaugural Director of ADRI.

“In that short time as Minister for External Affairs, Percy helped create the Colombo Plan which completely re-shaped Australia’s relationship with Asia.

“There’s no doubt he had a more progressive attitude to Australia’s involvement in Asia than had existed in the past.

“Through the Colombo Plan, young people from Asia were offered scholarships to come and study in Australia.

“In many ways it changed the face of a country which still had a white Australia policy.”

Although serving in the Government of arch-Anglophile Sir Robert “I Did But See Her Passing By” Menzies, Sir Percy Spender was also instrumental in moving Australia away from Britain towards a closer alliance with the United States.


“Percy played a pivotal role in setting up the ANZUS Treaty,” Professor Lowe said.

“Australia was just emerging from World War II in which it was the Americans rather than the British who had played the crucial role in defending Australia.

“Percy saw that the British Empire was a fading one and that the United States was becoming the new global power and thought it more than wise for us to develop that relationship.”

While he served as a vice-president of the United Nations, Spender thought building bonds with individual powerful nations was more strategically sensible than working through the UN, an organisation which he thought may “contain those who are at work to disrupt the order we believe in".

Sir Percy Spender received many awards during his career, including 10 honorary doctorates. He was the first Australian appointed to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

He is a Australian worthy of remembering.

An interview with Professor David Lowe about his research will appear on the Deakin Research Channel on YouTube in the near future.

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Professor David Lowe and Greg Sheridan Professor David Lowe and Greg Sheridan

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