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Remembering Neville Meaney, FAIIA

Published 16 Jun 2022
By Colin Milner

The late Neville Meaney was an eminent historian, especially of Australia’s international relations, who made an important contribution to intellectual life in Australia. His legacy includes the many diplomats, journalists, public servants and scholars he mentored during his lifetime.

First anniversaries are a time of special remembrance, and it is important to remember the contribution of Neville Kingsley Meaney (1932–2021), who passed away just over a year ago on 30 May. Meaney was made a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) in 2011.

Born in Adelaide, Meaney’s paternal heritage was Irish Catholic, but he attended the Anglican St Peter’s College as a scholarship student. He took a Master’s degree in History at the University of Adelaide, with a thesis focused on the Church of England in colonial South Australia, supervised by Douglas Pike, and then pursued studies at Duke University in North Carolina. In 1959, Meaney became the first Australian to gain a Doctorate in History in the United States, and he later did much to foster academic contacts between the two countries. For more than four decades, Meaney taught at the University of Sydney. His courses focussed on Australian and American foreign policy history and were particularly popular with aspiring diplomats, amongst others. Meaney was active as a supervisor of postgraduate and honours students, and remained a mentor to many as they pursued various careers. They include James Curran and Stuart Ward, who have achieved distinction in academia, and Tom Switzer, who made his name in journalism.

Meaney’s many books included the definitive two-volume A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901–23, and several important studies on Australia’s relations with Japan. He took lessons in the Japanese language to increase his understanding of that key bilateral relationship. He also wrote numerous, perceptive essays on diverse subjects, including the American Revolution, Asia and White Australia, Woodrow Wilson and Frederic Eggleston. A 2001 article in Australian Historical Studies on ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, for example, has had wide influence, with numerous citations. One of Meaney’s final essays, on H. V. Evatt, appeared as a chapter in Australia and the United Nations, edited by James Cotton and David Lee, and sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), published in 2012. I recall Meaney speaking eloquently on the fruits of his research for this essay at a well-attended AIIA seminar about the book held at Stephen House.

Notably, Meaney rescued from oblivion the contribution of E. L. Piesse, the able foreign policy analyst who led the Pacific Branch in the Prime Minister’s Department after the First World War. Dennis Richardson, subsequently Secretary of DFAT and the Department of Defence, and Ambassador to the United States, had written a thesis on Piesse, as one of Meaney’s honours students. As Meaney wrote in an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Piesse was ‘a practical scholar, a man of independent mind who believed that public policy must be based on knowledge and understanding’. Many of Meaney’s students would move to the Canberra region and pursue careers in the Australian Public Service, inspired by his vision of what, at their best, public servants could be, and public service might achieve. Those still in harness include Matthew Jordan, who leads the Documents on Australian Foreign Policy project in DFAT, and Matthew Neuhaus, Ambassador to the Netherlands. Following a conference held in Meaney’s honour at the Australian National University, a festschrift volume was published in 2013, edited by Joan Beaumont and Matthew Jordan, with a foreword by Dennis Richardson. A companion volume of selected essays by Meaney himself, edited by James Curran and Stuart Ward, was published in the same year.

In 1984, Meaney was appointed an inaugural Fellow at the National Library and researched there during the following extended summer. Allowed to work back after closing time, Meaney is reputed to have been the person who alerted security guards one evening to a dangerous fire which had broken out on the top floor and threatened the building, thus helping to limit the damage. He also took time off to hike up Mount Kosciuszko to Australia’s highest point, an expedition on which I accompanied him. In 1986–87, Meaney conducted biographical interviews with 23 senior Australian historians, a valuable addition to the Library’s collection. Overall, the great cultural institutions in Canberra, including the collections in the National Archives, the National Library, and the Australian War Memorial, were in Meaney’s view the principal repositories of the Australian Commonwealth’s memory and thus primary sources of insight and wisdom for later generations.

Meaney was particularly concerned about how little consciousness there had been among Australian policymakers, in the field of international relations, of an evolving tradition in their practice, although he was happy to give them credit for their achievements where he thought this was due. But too often, in Meaney’s view, a lack of historical perspective had led Australians to pursue what he described, in the introduction to his edited volume Australia and the World: A Documentary History from the 1870s to the 1970s, as ‘a crude “realism” … which in its one-dimensional single-mindedness has often threatened to bring on the very events it professes to avert.’ Instead, he sought a ‘greater consciousness of Australia’s past’, recognising that this was ‘only a beginning point, but a necessary beginning point, in the development of a wider and wiser vision of international relations.’ It is a measure of his devotion to Australia and Australians that Meaney’s research, teaching and writing, over so many years, were primarily directed towards this end. Those of us who hold Australia’s interests at heart are all the richer for his efforts.

Neville Meaney died aged 88 in Sydney on 30 May 2021. He was survived by his children, Patrick, Tamsin and Kevin, and grandchildren, Michael, Tomas and Miguel.

You can hear a 2012 address Neville made to the AIIA in Sydney here.

Formerly a diplomat and public servant, Colin Milner is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University. He was one of Neville Meaney’s honours students at the University of Sydney.