In 1940 New Zealand marked the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The government made a great show of national pride and unity at Waitangi. Newspapers talked of Waitangi as the 'cradle of the nation' and the Treaty as the 'foundation of nationhood'. The Treaty and Waitangi began to find a place in the national consciousness, although for most New Zealanders they were of historical interest only.
Maori leaders saw the 1940 celebrations as a chance to challenge the nation's record of race relations. Āpirana Ngata observed that not everyone had something to celebrate, and Waikato tribal leaders refused to go to Waitangi even though they had assisted in building the 30-metre canoe, Ngatokimatawhaorua, that was launched there.
The army used the property at Waitangi during the Second World War. In 1947 the navy erected a new flagpole, and from that year commemorations incorporated a naval ceremony. By 1950 several hundred attended the annual celebration (as it was called) on 6 February. Royal visits were to greatly boost public interest. In December 1953 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stopped at the grounds for an hour. The visit captured the public's imagination. 'At last Waitangi comes into its own and New Zealanders must see that its status is maintained and heightened' reported the Dominion newspaper.
The annual ceremonies at Waitangi expanded through the 1950s. Thousands attended, and the governor-general's speech became a feature. Forging one nation from the partnership of two races by a sacred compact was a common theme, but the often expressed ideal of 'one people' provided an excellent opportunity for Māori to protest at the shortfall between promise and practice in race relations.