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Sir Alan Stewart Watt (1901–1988)

by Garry Woodard

This article was published:

Sir Alan Stewart Watt (1901-1988), public servant and diplomat, was born on 13 April 1901 at Croydon, Sydney, ninth of ten children of Scottish-born George Watt, condiments manufacturer, and his wife Susan Stewart Robb, née Gray, born in South Africa. Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1921), Alan was a New South Wales Rhodes scholar for 1921 and entered Oriel College, Oxford (BA, 1924; MA, 1960), where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He represented the university at tennis in 1922-24 and was captain in 1924. That year he reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. In 1925 he travelled to Germany on a Bishop Fraser scholarship.

Returning to Australia the next year, on 19 December 1927 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Wahroonga, Sydney, Watt married Mildred Mary Wait, a tutor, with whom he shared a love of literature and music. Employed first as an education tutor (1928-32) for workers at the British Tobacco Co. (Australia) Ltd, he became an associate to Justice (Sir) Percival Halse Rogers of the New South Wales Supreme Court, and was admitted to the Bar on 25 May 1932.

Watt was recruited to the fledgling Australian Department of External Affairs in December 1936 and made permanent in the Commonwealth Public Service on 26 April 1937. Profiting from staff shortages, relative maturity and first-hand knowledge of Germany, he made his mark during the Munich crisis in 1938. Although officials then had little influence on foreign policy, Watt’s ‘prickly [Scottish] integrity’, singled out by the journalist Peter Hastings as a defining trait later in his career, was evidenced in his determination to ensure that the government better explained to the Australian people its popular appeasement policy. He believed it was misguided.

In 1940-45 Watt was first secretary in the Australian legation in Washington, DC, where he served in succession three distinguished chiefs, R. G. (Baron) Casey, Sir Owen Dixon and Sir Frederic Eggleston. There, and at the early meetings of the United Nations, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the minister for external affairs from 1941, H. V. Evatt — a view that hardened into a conviction that he must not be elected prime minister. Watt seemed nevertheless to have harboured hopes that Evatt would appoint him, in recognition of his seniority, to head the department; instead Watt was sent well away, to Moscow, where he served as minister (1947-48) and ambassador (1949-50). He emerged as a confirmed Cold War warrior with a fetish about security.

When the Australian Labor Party was defeated in December 1949, Watt’s appointment as secretary (1950-54) of the Department of External Affairs was generally anticipated, but there was a nerve-wracking period of six months before he was promoted. His achievements were defence related: a week after he assumed office North Korea invaded the Republic of (South) Korea. Unable to consult Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, who was at sea, Watt was a significant influence on his minister, (Sir) Percy Spender, in the decision that Australia should quickly offer ground troops to United Nations forces resisting the invasion. One motive of both men was to strengthen Australia’s case for a security pact with the United States of America, which was achieved in the following year, the Australia-New Zealand-United States treaty being the price the USA was prepared to pay for Australia’s acceptance of a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan.

Watt harboured a fear that Australia would be engulfed by Asia and ‘disappear’. He maintained good relations with the Department of Defence and the chiefs of staff, who, based in Melbourne, were geographically remote from government. Invited to attend meetings of the Defence Committee, he gently encouraged defence and military attention to Asia rather than the Middle East. He was appointed CBE in 1952 and knighted in 1954.

Unrivalled at seeing all facets of an issue—a virtue in Cold War crises—Watt tended to begin alternate sentences with ‘on the other hand’, thus fitting the stereotype of a British Foreign Office official, as portrayed by Sir Winston Churchill. Menzies dubbed Watt a ‘belt and braces’ man. Watt conceded that he was a poor administrator, whose bulging safe had to be cleared when he left on his frequent overseas trips.

In 1954-56 Watt was Australian commissioner in Singapore, a position with regional responsibilities, created especially for him. He participated during 1954 in the Geneva Conference on Korea and Indo-China, and in negotiation of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization in Manila, where he played a key role in circumventing instructions that would have at least delayed Australia’s accession. Away from the centre of power in Canberra, however, he found that his authority declined. Australian heads of mission in South-East Asia, confident in their own local knowledge, were unwilling to accept an intermediary between themselves and the Commonwealth government and he was constantly irritated that his status within the protocol of the colonial society equated him to middle-ranking commissioners for various municipal services.

Ambassador (1956-60) to Japan at a time when the momentum in the bilateral relationship was in trade discussions, Watt felt that he was inadequately consulted and left uninformed when the path-breaking Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce was signed in 1957. He was ambassador (1960-62) to the Federal Republic of Germany, to which he was pleased to return. However, during the growing crisis in 1961 concerning the separation of West and East Berlin, intimate intergovernmental consultations and exchanges took place in Washington, DC, London and Canberra, and not in Bonn.

Retiring in 1962, Watt was a visiting fellow (1962-82) in the department of international relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, and the director (1963-69) of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, to which he gave a high profile. He was a director (1964-73) of the Canberra Times. The author of numerous journal articles, he published Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965 (1967), Vietnam (1968) and The United Nations (1974). His memoirs Australian Diplomat (1972), while full, require supplementing by other sources.

Small, of slight build, Sir Alan was hard-working and secretive. Predeceased by his wife (d.1983) and survived by their daughter and three sons, he died on 18 September 1988 at Aranda, Canberra, and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness (1980)
  • R. Harry, No Man is a Hero (1997)
  • J. Legge, Australian Outlook (1999)
  • D. Lowe, Menzies and the ‘Great World Struggle’ (1999)
  • Quadrant, vol 23, no 7, 1989, p 45
  • G. Woodard, ‘Ministers and Mandarins’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol 54, no 1, 2000, p 79
  • Canberra Times, 20 Sept 1988, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 1988, p 16
  • B. Miller, interview with A. Watt (typescript, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • I. Hamilton, interview with A. Watt (typescript, 1983, National Library of Australia)
  • A3318, item WATT ALAN STEWART (National Archives of Australia)
  • Watt family papers (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Garry Woodard, 'Watt, Sir Alan Stewart (1901–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alan Watt, 1960

Alan Watt, 1960

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L34244

Life Summary [details]


13 April, 1901
Croydon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 September, 1988 (aged 87)
Aranda, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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