Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965) was an Australian statesman, judge, and author. He laid the foundations of Australia's foreign policy and played an important part in establishing the United Nations.
Herbert Vere Evatt was a noted internationalist. He championed the role of the small and middle powers in the maintenance of world order and sought to advance international protection of human rights and the ideal of full employment in all countries. Believing as he did in the value of regional arrangements, Evatt was the decisive influence in the creation in 1947 of the South Pacific Commission, which has done so much to advance economic and human welfare in the South Pacific region.
Evatt was born on April 30, 1894, at East Maitland, New South Wales. His father died in 1901, and the family thereupon moved to Sydney, where Evatt was educated at Fort Street High School and Sydney University. At this university he achieved a remarkable academic record, consisting of arts and law degrees with multiple first-class honors, a doctorate of laws, and a doctorate of literature. He was admitted to the Sydney bar in 1918 and in 1920 married Mary Alice Sheffer.
Evatt was a man of medium height and solid physique, conveying an impression of rugged strength. He was intensely energetic and was tenacious in pursuing any cause to which he became attached. His public image of dedicated earnestness and seriousness was offset by ability to relax in private, as reflected in an excellent sense of humor and a genuine interest in art, literature, and sport. He had a wide range of friends throughout the world, including U.S. Supreme Court justices Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter. It was Frankfurter who caused Evatt to be introduced to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 and thus to form a personal friendship with Roosevelt which was to facilitate Australian-American cooperation in World War II.
Career as Lawyer and Judge
Evatt had a spectacularly successful career at the Sydney bar, being appointed king's counsel at the early age of 35 and enjoying a large practice in appellate work. In 1930, at the age of 36, he was appointed a justice of the High Court of Australia, becoming the youngest justice ever to sit on that Court. He remained in office until 1940, when he resigned to enter politics in order to assist in Australia's war effort. While on the bench, he brought to his position not only depth of learning but a judicial approach which demanded that judges should not regard legal rules as ultimate ends in themselves but should relate legal and constitutional issues to the demands of society.
In the field of constitutional law, Evatt sought to maintain a balance between the Australian states and federation, while insisting that all federal legislation must be sufficiently related to the subject matter of power relied upon, yet interpreting federal powers expansively for the purpose of compliance with Australia's international obligations.
He returned to judicial office in 1960 as chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales but resigned in 1962 owing to ill health.
Evatt, a member of the Australian Labour party, had his first political experience as member of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales (1925-1930). In the federal sphere, he was a member of the House of Representatives from 1940 until his return to judicial office in 1960. When a Labour government came to power in 1941 under John Curtin, Evatt became attorney general and minister for external affairs, holding both offices until his government was defeated in 1949. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1942 and was deputy prime minister from 1946 to 1949 under Prime Minister Joseph Benedict Chifley.
As attorney general, Evatt was responsible for the amendment to the Constitution enabling the Parliament to legislate in the field of social services. As minister for external affairs, Evatt not only laid the foundations of Australia's foreign policy but completely reorganized its foreign service. In 1942 and 1943 he undertook missions to the United States and Britain and was successful in obtaining essential war supplies, including Spitfire aircraft; and in 1942 he achieved the creation of the Pacific War Council in Washington. In January 1944 he was instrumental in securing the signature of an Australia-New Zealand agreement for political and economic collaboration.
Evatt was a prominent delegate at the San Francisco Conference of 1945, which drew up the United Nations Charter. As spokesman for the lesser powers, he pleaded unsuccessfully for the modification of the veto provisions. Nevertheless, many important clauses in the Charter were due to him, for example, those giving wider powers than first proposed to the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, Evatt unsuccessfully advocated the creation of a European Court of Human Rights; his foresight was later vindicated with the establishment of the Court in 1959. As chairman of the United Nations ad hoc committee on Palestine in 1948, he influenced the adoption of the Palestine partition plan, which led to the creation of Israel as a new state, and Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949. In 1948 he was elected president of the General Assembly for its third session, during which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and Evatt took the initiative of seeking to bring about a peaceful solution of the Berlin blockade situation of 1948 by calling on the Soviet Union and the Western powers to enter into direct conversations.
In respect to Pacific affairs, Evatt sought without success to obtain an early peace settlement with Japan and a Pacific regional security pact. His efforts nevertheless provided the groundwork for the signature in 1951 of the ANZUS Security Treaty, between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Evatt was leader of the Opposition for the Labour party during 1951-1960. In that capacity he unsuccessfully contested several elections against the Liberal party led by Robert Gordon Menzies. A split developed in the Labour party in 1954/1955, and Evatt's leadership came under attack, partly because of his alleged failure to take a stronger anti-Communist line and partly because of his criticism of certain aspects of the Petrov case, which concerned the defection in Canberra of a Soviet diplomat.
The strain of these stormy years and a series of cerebral hemorrhages eventually told on Evatt, and he died in retirement at Canberra on Nov. 2, 1965.
Evatt's books are major works of historical and legal scholarship, reflecting a passionate interest in the upholding of civil liberties. His first book, Liberalism in Australia (1918), is a short historical treatment, from one special angle, of Australian politics down to the year 1915. The King and His Dominion Governors (1936) is an exposition of the royal prerogative powers in the political sphere, with a plea that, for the purpose of clarification, the body of practices and precedents in this domain should be reduced to a set of systematic guidelines. In Injustice within the Law (1937) Evatt examines the case of the six "Tolpuddle martyrs," who were transported from Britain to Australia in 1834 for the offense of forming a trade union, then deemed to be a conspiracy in restraint of trade. Evatt's most popular book is The Rum Rebellion (1938), an account of the rebellion in New South Wales in 1808 against Governor Bligh, better known as Capt. Bligh of the affair of the mutiny on the Bounty. Australian Labor Leader (1940) is a biography of W.A. Holman, a noted Sydney political and legal figure. The United Nations (1947) and The Task of Nations (1949) are useful treatments of the formation and functions of the United Nations. Apart from these books, Evatt was a prolific writer of articles, a number of which, together with certain speeches of 1941-1946, were collected as The Foreign Policy of Australia (1945) and Australia in World Affairs (1946).
Further Reading on Herbert Vere Evatt
A full-length biography of Evatt is Kylie Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice (1970). A general picture of Evatt and his career is given in Allan Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma (1967). Certain aspects of his foreign policy and his part in the formation and development of the United Nations are treated in Norman Harper and David Sissons, Australia and the United Nations (1959); Richard N. Rosecrance, Australian Diplomacy and Japan, 1945-1951 (1962); Joseph G. Starke, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance (1965); Fred Alexander, Australia since Federation: A Narrative and Critical Analysis (1967); and Alan S. Watt, The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy, 1938-1965 (1967). Recommended for general background are Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (1952); Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (1957); and Dudley McCarthy, South-west Pacific Area: First Year (1959).