Curtin, Churchill and Australian Foreign Policy

Ellen Trevanion, Narrabundah College, 2011


The following essay was written as part of the International Baccalaureate course at Narrabundah College. It was written in response to the following question: 'Did the disagreements between Curtin and Churchill during the Pacific War change Australia's foreign policy with regard to Great Britain? Discuss with reference to the fall of Singapore and the Cable Wars.' Ellen Trevanion won the National History Challenge and was thus adjudged the 2011 Young Historian of the Year. Her success and the support of her teacher, Hilary Brettell, were acknowledged in the 1/12/2011 edition of The Canberra Times; Teacher inspires top junior historian.

Contents
Abstract
Introduction
The Background: Australia's Relationship with Britain and the Empire
The Start of the Second World War to Pearl Harbor
‘Australia looks to America’
The Fall of Singapore
The Cable Wars
The 1944 Imperial Conference and After
Conclusion
Discussion
Bibliography
Appendix A: The Task Ahead, 27.12.1941
Appendix B: Winston Churchill to John Curtin, 20.2.1942
Appendix C: John Curtin to Winston Churchill, 22.2.1942
Appendix D: Winston Churchill to John Curtin, 22.2.1941
Acknowledgements
References
Print



Abstract



This essay considers whether or not the disagreements between John Curtin and Winston Churchill during the Pacific War, particularly the recriminations over the fall of Singapore and, later, the 'Cable Wars' caused a change in Australia's foreign policy towards Great Britain. This is a historically significant issue as World War Two is considered by many Australian historians to be the point at which Australia asserted its independence from Britain.

In order to determine if the events of the early Pacific War changed Australian foreign policy, it was necessary to outline Australia's attitude towards Britain prior to that period, with particular emphasis on Australian defence policy and Australia's view of its role in the British Empire. The effect of John Curtin's article, 'The Task Ahead', the fall of Singapore and the 'Cable Wars' in late 1941 and early 1942 on Australia‟s relationship with Britain was then examined. The long term effect of these disagreements was also considered.

Through this process, the essay reaches the conclusion that Australian foreign policy with regard to Britain did not change substantially as a result of the Pacific War. Although the Australian government wanted more influence over Imperial policy, it intended to be part of the post-war British Empire, rely on a renewed system of Imperial defence and John Curtin stated he believed that Australia was primarily British. This belief was not changed by the Pacific War.


Introduction



On October 7th 1941, John Curtin became Prime Minister of Australia in the midst of the Second World War. Two months later, that war spread to the Pacific Ocean and then to Australian shores. The Pacific War brought Curtin into conflict with Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and the British government. Curtin and Churchill exchanged heated words over the fall of Singapore and the collapse of Australian defence policy and engaged in what is now known in Australia as the 'Cable Wars' over the deployment of Australian troops in 1942. In Australia, these events are widely regarded as heralding a radical change in Australia's relationship with Great Britain. The evidence, however, shows that this is not the case. Although Curtin, and the Australian government, wanted more consultation over policy and strategy, Curtin remained committed to the ideal of an empire bound together by common interest, policy and an essentially British character.


The Background: Australia’s Relationship with Britain and the Empire



Throughout the inter-war years, Australia was subordinate to Britain politically, militarily and economically (Robertson 1981, p. 8). Part of the foundation of this relationship was the Australian government's selective understanding of the system of imperial defence[1] as articulated in the resolutions of the Imperial Conference in 1923 (Hasluck 1952, p.17). Australia, despite a clause stating that "each portion of the Empire represented at the Conference... [is primarily responsible] for its own local defence" (ibid), was heavily reliant on the willingness of the British to provide support if Australia was threatened.

Australia‟s subordinate relationship with Britain was reinforced by Australia's strong social and economic ties to Britain. Between the World Wars, Britain was Australia's largest trading partner and overseas investor (Beaumont 1996, p. 3) and Australia lacked a strong diplomatic service dedicated to advancing Australian interests overseas, relying instead on the British government to represent Australia. Indeed, throughout the 1920s, the Department of External Affairs was incorporated into the Prime Minister's Department and had only one official overseas, stationed in London. This relationship between Britain and Australia was not considered to be a problem by the Australian government, or the Australian people (Hudson 1988, p. 87). During the inter-war period, successive Australian governments acted to ensure that Australia remained legally and economically connected to Britain. When the Dominions were offered the Statute of Westminster[2] in 1930, Prime Minister James Scullin, leader of the ALP, did not enact it, a decision that met with bipartisan approval. The leader of the Opposition stated that Australia was "content to accept Great Britain’s decisions in the sphere of foreign policy" (Meaher 2010, p. 44). In 1937, future Prime Minister Robert Menzies stated that the "independent conduct of foreign policy... would lead to nothing but chaos and disaster" (Hudson & Sharp 1988, p. 127). This was not a contentious statement. Throughout the inter-war period, Australia's dependence on Britain was widely accepted and most Australians identified themselves as being essentially British.


The Start of the Second World War to Pearl Harbor



The Australian people learned that Australia had entered the Second World War on September 3rd, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared:

...Great Britain has declared war upon... [Germany] and...as a result, Australia is also at war...There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands there stand the people of the entire British world’ (Menzies Speech: Declaration of War, 2011).

Menzies firmly believed that Australia could not remain neutral while Britain was at war and, unlike the governments of Canada and South Africa[3] , moved to support Britain immediately, announcing that Australia was at war with Germany without consulting Parliament (Day 1993, p. 8). Menzies also believed that standing with Britain was essential for Australia's own defence, as the "defeat of Great Britain would... leave us with precarious tenure of our own independence‟(Robertson, p. 6). Menzies' belief that Australia had an obligation to assist 'the Motherland' was shared by most Australians and was also reinforced by the popular press. The Argus published an editorial on September 4th, stating that Menzies "proclaim[ed] clearly the instinctive reaction and the considered opinion of the Australian people" ('The Call Will Be Answered', The Argus, 4/9/1939). In 1939, Australians believed that Australia should follow Britain's lead in foreign policy.

The Menzies government despatched troops to the Middle East where they participated in campaigns in Greece, Crete, Libya and Egypt. The use of Australian troops in the 1941 campaigns in Greece and Crete did, however, become a source of resentment within the
government (Horner, 2001). Although the Australian government publically endorsed Churchill's actions, Menzies believed that the Australian troops had not been given adequate air support and that the campaign had been based on wishful thinking (Freudenberg 2008, p. 271). The campaigns in Greece and Crete played a part in bringing about the downfall of the Menzies government ('Robert Menzies: In Office', nd), but Australian attitudes towards Britain did not change.

On October 7th 1941, John Curtin was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia following the collapse of Menzies' UAP-Country Party[4] coalition government (Black 2010). Two months later, on December 7th, Japanese forces attacked and bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, crippling a significant part of the United States' Pacific Fleet. On the 8th, Curtin announced that "we are at war with Japan... because our vital interests are imperilled... We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race" ('Japan Enters Second World War', 2011). Although Curtin declared war independently of Great Britain, he never the less made it clear that he regarded Australia primarily as a British nation, a statement consistent with the sentiments expressed by Australian governments throughout the inter-war period and upon the outbreak of war in 1939.


‘Australia looks to America’



Winston Churchill greeted the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the opening of the Pacific theatre with jubilation as Japan's actions brought the United States into the war as a British ally, something he had been working to achieve since the beginning of the war (Freudenberg, p. 326). On December 10th, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines and seized Guam. In the following days, Japanese forces invaded Burma, Borneo, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Wake Island ('Timeline of Events: 1941-1945', 1999). Meanwhile, Churchill travelled to the United States for the 'Arcadia Conference' to gain President Roosevelt's backing for his 'Beat Hitler First Policy' (Freudenberg, p. 332). Curtin, concerned that Australia's interests were not being considered at a major conference that would determine Allied war policy, cabled both Roosevelt and Churchill on December 23rd calling for

... ‘air support; [in Malaya] otherwise there will be repetition of Greece and Crete, and Singapore will be gravely threatened... The reinforcements earmarked by United Kingdom Government [sic.] for despatch seem to us to be utterly inadequate, especially in relation to aircraft, particularly fighters’ (ibid., p. 335).

Churchill resented Curtin's allusion to the campaign in Greece and Crete and was angered by Curtin's decision to write directly to Roosevelt rather than trust Churchill to consider Australian views when shaping Imperial policy. His reply, in which he told Curtin "you may count on me doing everything possible to strengthen the whole front from Rangoon to Port Darwin" (ibid., p. 336), indicated his irritation at Curtin's belief that he was not representing Australian interests.

This episode is indicative of Curtin and Churchill's very different ideas of Australia's role in the Pacific. Curtin felt that, as Australia's vital interests were at stake and Australia would, potentially, be used as a base of operations, Australia should be afforded a greater influence over strategic decisions in the Pacific. Churchill, on the other hand, felt that the Pacific War was merely an extension of the war he was already fighting and that there was no need for a change in command or consultation.

On December 24th, Vivian Bowden, the Australian Government Representative in Singapore, cabled Curtin, stating "as things stand at present, fall of Singapore is to my mind only a matter of weeks " (ibid., p. 339). Three days later, on the 27th, Curtin published an article in The Herald, a Melbourne newspaper, titled 'The Task Ahead'. In a passage that is popularly regarded as a turning point in Anglo-Australian relations and has since become a point of contention among historians, he wrote:

... we refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict...

The Australian Government, therefore, regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies' fighting plan.

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.[5]

We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces... but we know too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on... (Appendix A: Curtin, J., The Task Ahead, The Herald, 27/12/1941).

This passage was published by many newspapers in Britain, and was greeted with fury by Churchill, who saw it as a blatant, and unwelcome, attempt by the Australian government to enter the Anglo-American alliance in its own right. It was also a badly timed challenge to his claim to speak on behalf of the British Empire (Freudenberg, p. 344). In a cable to Curtin he wrote:

... such a statement will cause resentment throughout the Empire and had a very poor reception in high quarters in the United States...I do not understand the reason for this mood of panic which I am sure is not shared by the people of Australia’ (Letter from Churchill to Curtin, 29/12/1941).

Curtin's article did not mark the point at which the Australian government traded its ties with Britain for an American alliance (Curran, 2011, p. 11). On the contrary, two days later Curtin stated:

There is no part of the Empire more steadfast in loyalty to the British way of living and British institutions than Australia. Our loyalty to His Majesty the King goes to the very core of our national life. It is part of our being...’ (ibid., p. 14).

He stated in private that the phrase ‘without any lessening of the bonds with the United Kingdom’ (Freudenburg, p. 343) would have been preferable to ‘free of any pangs’ (Freudenburg, p. 343) and, much later, referred to the furore caused by his statement as a ‘misunderstanding’ (Curran, p. 108).

Curtin's reaction to the controversy shows that the article was not a turning point in Anglo-Australian relations and did not mark a fundamental shift in the conduct of Australia's foreign policy. It was, however, further evidence of the government's growing belief that Australia's needs and interests should be more strongly articulated and given greater weight in London and Washington.

In January and early February 1942, a series of cables from the Australian government to Churchill in London and Roosevelt in Washington, arguing that Australia should have more influence over decisions about the direction of the war (321. U.K. 'Dominions Office to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 7/2/1942), led to the creation of the Pacific War Council in London ('Fact File: Formation of the Pacific War Council', 2005). It was designed to enable greater consultation and discussion between the countries involved in the war in the Pacific.

Curtin's article, and his argument with Churchill in December 1941, did not lead to a fundamental shift in Australian foreign policy. As subsequent events showed, Curtin wanted greater influence over British strategic policy, not a completely separate one.


The Fall of Singapore



The importance of a naval base in Singapore to Australia was established at the Imperial Conference in 1923. Clause 4. (a) of the resolutions of the conference acknowledged the "deep interest of the Commonwealth of Australia... in the provision of a Naval Base at Singapore, as essential for ensuring... the security of the territories... in... Eastern waters" (Hasluck, p. 17). The understanding that a British fleet would be dispatched to Singapore if Australia was threatened remained the keystone of Australian defence policy until the start of the war in the Pacific (Schreuder 2008, p. 246).

The failure of this strategy became clear on December 10th when Japanese planes sank the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse, which had been based at Singapore (Freudenberg, p. 329). When Curtin cabled London, asking for an urgent reassessment of the situation in the Pacific, the Dominions Secretary, Lord Cranborne, referred him to the Far East Appreciation prepared by the British Chiefs of Staff in 1940 (ibid., p. 330). This clearly stated that, in the absence of a fleet in Singapore, "we cannot prevent damage to our interests in the Far East" ('Far East Appreciation', August 1940). Throughout January 1942, as British forces retreated towards Singapore and it became clear to Curtin that 'Fortress Singapore' would not withstand the Japanese (Freudenberg, p. 363), Curtin sent a series of heated cables to Churchill, expressing his dismay at the collapse of the foundation of Australian defence policy. On January 17th, he wrote:

... as far back as 1937 the Commonwealth Government received assurances that... Singapore [would be made] impregnable... [T]he... defence system of Australia was based on... Singapore and the presence of a capital ship fleet there" ('278. Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister', 17/1/1942).

Churchill replied by briefly describing and defending his defence policy and offering an optimistic view of the course the war would take in 1942, concluding "we must not be dismayed or get into recrimination but remain united in true comradeship. Do not doubt my loyalty to Australia and New Zealand" ('281. Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 19/1/1942). Curtin continued to cable Churchill, warning him that, in his opinion, a defeat at Singapore would result in the invasion of Australia, an invasion Australia would not be able repel.

On January 22nd, Sir Earle Page, Special Representative to the United Kingdom, cabled Curtin, warning that the British were considering evacuating troops from Singapore in order to reinforce British forces in Burma ('292. Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 22/1/1942). Curtin, furious that his opinion of the importance of Singapore to Australia was not taken into account, wrote to Churchill, stating: "After all the assurances we have been given, the evacuation of Singapore would be regarded here and elsewhere as an inexcusable betrayal" ('294. Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister', 23/1/1942). The British, and Australian, forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on February 15th after a siege lasting fifteen days (Coulthard-Clark 2002).

The fall of Singapore did not, in itself, result in a change in the Australian government's attitude towards Britain, but it did cause resentment which would spill over in the 'Cable Wars' and, to Curtin's mind, emphasised the need for greater consultation between the British government and Australia.


The ‘Cable Wars’



Even before Singapore was taken by the Japanese, the defence of Burma, and the Burmese Road used to supply China, was regarded as an issue of vital importance by the Americans and, as a result, by the British (Freudenberg, p. 373). On the February 17th, two days after the surrender at Singapore, Curtin cabled Churchill to request that the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions in North Africa be returned to Australia, rather than Java as the British High Command originally intended (ibid., p. 376). Archibald Wavell, the British commander in Java, also cabled Churchill, advising that any reinforcements would come too late to make a difference and recommending they be sent to Burma, which was under threat, or to Australia (ibid., p. 376).

Late in the evening on the 17th, Australian time, Richard Casey, the Australian Ambassador to the United States, asked if the diversion of ‘two Australian divisions from Middle East... to India or Burma’ ('340. Mr. R.G. Casey, Minister to the United States, to Department of External Affairs', 17/2/1942) would be possible. Very early the following morning, Page cabled Curtin, informing him that the Pacific War Council in London had concluded that the 7th Australian Division, already embarked, should be sent to Burma ‘until other troops are available from elsewhere’ ('341. Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 18/2/1942), provided the Australian government agreed. He immediately followed this cable with another stating that, since:

... the road for supplies to China must be kept open at all costs...[and] Australian troops...[are] the only body of troops that could possibly get to Burma in time...I stated that I would strongly recommend...that you should concur in this arrangement...’('342. Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, 18/2/1942')

Stanley Bruce, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, also advised Curtin to agree to the proposal, partly on the grounds that it would give Australia greater claim to similar assistance if it became necessary ('344. Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 18/2/1942).

On February 19th, Curtin cabled London to inform Page that the Australian government did not consent to the planned diversion (345. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom', 19/2/1942). He sent another on the 20th, irritated by Page's, and Lord Cranborne's, attempts to dissuade him and suspicious that Page had not informed the British of his decision. It would later emerge that this was indeed the case.

In response, Churchill, who had not yet appealed directly to Curtin, wrote:

I suppose you realise that your leading division... is the only force that can reach Rangoon in time...

... you said that the evacuation of Singapore would be 'an inexcusable betrayal’... we therefore [put] the 18th Division and other important reinforcements into Singapore. They were lost... [6]

Your greatest support in this hour of peril must be drawn from the United States... if you refuse to allow [the diversion]... a very grave effect will be produced upon the President... on whom you are so largely dependent. See especially the inclination of the United States to move major naval forces from Hawaii into the Anzac area (Appendix B: 352. 'Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 20/2/1942).

The cable was a clear attempt to coerce Curtin and the Australian government. Churchill blatantly stated that a refusal to divert the 7th Division to Burma could result in the withdrawal of American support for Australia. It also reveals the strain the fall of Singapore put on the relationship between Britain and Australia and, on a more personal level, the relationship between Churchill and Curtin.

Although Churchill had demanded an immediate answer, Curtin did not reply until the 22nd of February, two days after the receipt of Churchill's "strongly worded request" (Appendix C: 357. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs', 22/2/1942). He reiterated his refusal, arguing that sending Australian troops to Burma would expose them to undue danger and that they were needed in Australia to repel a Japanese invasion (ibid). At 3:00pm that day, Curtin received a cable from Churchill, informing him:

We could not contemplate that you would refuse our request and that of the President of the United States for the diversion... We therefore decided that the convoy should be temporarily diverted... [to Burma. There are]... a few days for the situation to develop and for you to review the position should you wish to do so... (Appendix D: 362 'Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 22/2/1942)

Bruce, who saw a copy of the cable in London, was furious that the troops had been diverted in spite of the Australian government's wishes, but counselled restraint, acknowledging that they were on the brink of "a crisis in the relations between Australia and the United Kingdom... a first-class row" (364. 'Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', 23/2/1942). Curtin replied, restating his main arguments and demanding the convoy be sent to Australia (366. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs', 23/2/1942). Churchill backed down. A month later, Curtin allowed part of the 6th Division to garrison Colombo in Sri Lanka, which, following the loss of Burma, was under threat (Freudenberg, p. 390).

The 'Cable Wars' were a remarkable episode in Anglo-Australian relations but their importance should not be overstated. They did not prompt serious discussions about the merits of separation or distancing from Britain (Curran, p. 86). In April 1942, barely two months after his dispute with Churchill, Curtin stated, "Australia is a British land of one race and one tongue" (ibid., p. 84) and, on a separate occasion, "Australia is a great bastion of Empire...Australia is proud of its sonship to the Motherland" (ibid., p. 87). The dispute also had no effect on Australian foreign policy. In 1943, he stated that Australia had to have "the advantage of concerted Empire policy" (Curran, p. 90) in its future foreign policy and he appointed the Duke of Gloucester, the King‟s brother, to the post of Governor-General of Australia. This appointment met with widespread public approval but caused outrage in Labor circles (ibid., p. 92). The 'Cable Wars' did not change Curtin's belief that Australia was British, or that Britain should continue to play an integral part in shaping Australian foreign policy. It did, however, reinforce his conviction that Australian opinions should be sought and considered by the British, a position he had held since the outbreak of the Pacific War.


The 1944 Imperial Conference and After



In 1944, Curtin travelled to London for an Imperial Conference, advocating, as he had done since December 1941, greater consultation between Australia, Britain and the other Dominions ('Mr Curtin’s Report to the Australian Parliament of the Prime Minister’s Meeting', 9/9/1944). On May 4th he stated in a speech:

... what I am seeking is better machinery for the discharge of the consultations that are inevitable in closer and more frequent collaboration... I am not afraid of being misjudged when I say that I am a supporter of, and believer in, the British Empire... (Black, 1995, p. 241).

More strikingly, he reflected that the war had "heartened... our association, has strengthened... that association [the British Empire]... the greatest confraternity of governmental relations the world has yet witnessed" (ibid., p.242), making it quite clear that, in his opinion, the Pacific War had not weakened Australia's relationship with Britain. At the conference in London, he proposed that there should be "machinery...to provide for full and continuous consultation" ('Mr Curtin’s Report to the Australian Parliament of the Prime Minister’s Meeting', p. 8). The idea was not accepted, particularly by the Prime Ministers of Canada and South Africa (Curran, p. 112-3), neither of whom had any intention of following common Empire policy.[7]

This rejection did nothing to weaken Curtin's commitment to the idea of a united British Empire. It is indicative that when Curtin gave his opinion on future foreign policy in a post-conference report to the Australian War Cabinet, he did not mention Australian foreign policy, describing instead the policy of the British Commonwealth as a whole ('Mr Curtin’s Report to the Australian Parliament of the Prime Minister’s Meeting', p. 5). This clearly shows that Curtin believed Australia should be seen internationally as part of the British Empire.

Equally significant is his statement that "the security of any part of the British Empire in the future will rest on... the system of collective security... [and] bilateral or multilateral planning’ (ibid., p. 10). This is clear evidence of his belief that, despite the events of 1941-2 and the fall of Singapore, the system of Imperial defence would remain a key part of Australian defence policy. Sir Ronald Cross, the British High Commissioner in Australia, cabled that he "confidently... expect[ed] that cooperation in the future will be smoother, more sympathetic and pliant" (Curran, p. 115), adding that members of the press gallery had told him they considered Curtin "as British as Churchill" (ibid) and that Curtin's

first act on resuming the reigns of office was to... give them [the press gallery] a good drubbing on the ground that their papers gave insufficient publicity to the British share on the Western Front and gave too much space to the USA (ibid).

The Imperial Conference, and subsequent events, clearly demonstrated that the disagreements between Churchill and Curtin in 1941 and 1942 did not cause a profound shift in Australia's relationship with Britain. On the contrary, Curtin believed that Australia should be internationally regarded as part of the British Empire, albeit with a greater influence over Imperial policy, and that the system of Imperial defence should be the foundation of post-war Australian defence.


Conclusion



In the years between the First and Second World Wars, Australians, and the Australian government, saw themselves as a loyal part of the British Empire. Australia's economy was dominated by Britain, the government followed British foreign policy and Australia's military planning was based on the doctrine of Imperial defence. In late 1941 and early 1942, the Pacific War brought Prime Minister John Curtin into conflict with the British government of Winston Churchill. The sinking of British ships in the Pacific and the success of the Japanese led Curtin to appeal to the United States in an article which has been interpreted as a profound change in Australian policy, although Curtin stated that his belief in the Empire was undimmed and that the article had been misinterpreted. The Japanese attack on Singapore resulted in a heated exchange between Curtin and Churchill and led to the 'Cable Wars' that followed the British government's decision to send Australian troops to Burma rather than returning them to Australia. Although it has been argued that these events were a turning point in Australia's foreign policy with regard to Britain, they merely convinced Curtin that Australia should be consulted by, and not separated from, Britain and the Empire. In 1944, he stated that Imperial defence should be the foundation of Australian military planning in the post-war world and that Australia would be, first and foremost, part of the British Commonwealth. Above all, he believed that Australia was essentially British, a belief that, like Australia's relationship with Britain, was unchanged by the Pacific War.


Discussion



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Annotated Bibliography



Secondary Sources

Books

Beaumont, J., Australia’s War 1939-45, Allan & Unwin, Sydney, 1996

Black, D., In His Own Words: John Curtin’s Speeches and Writings, Paradigm Books Curtin University, Bentley, 1995

Curran, J., Curtin’s Empire, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2011
A fascinating study in Curtin‟s attitude towards Britain, it is disappointingly short and passes over the period from 1941 to 1944. As a consequence, it does not consider the effect of the Pacific War on Australia. It does, however, provide a thorough analysis of the course and implications of the Imperial Conference in 1944.

Day, D., Menzies and Churchill at War, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993

Freudenberg, G., Churchill and Australia, Macmillan, Sydney, 2008
Although Freudenberg is primarily concerned with Churchill's relationship to Australia, the section dealing with 1941-45 is detailed and contains a fascinating examination of Anglo-Australian relations during that period. As a long standing supporter of the Labor Party and a self-confessed admirer of John Curtin, he paints a complementary picture of Curtin as Prime Minister and is very critical of Churchill's account of events. Despite this, there is little sense of the obvious bias that is present in works by many other historians dealing with the period.

Hasluck, P., The Government and the People 1939-1941, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952

Hudson, W.J. & Sharp, M.P., Australian Independence: Colony to Reluctant Kingdom, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988
Although mostly concerned with the legalities of the Australian relationship with Britain and the evolution of the Australian constitution, it also contains interesting information about the politics of the relationship.

Meaher, A., The Road to Singapore: The Myth of British Betrayal, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2010
Repudiating the theory advocated most prominently by David Day (that Britain cynically betrayed Australia's trust in Imperial defence), Meaher argues that Australia was remiss in its own obligations and that the Australian government was warned repeatedly throughout the interwar period that Britain would not be able to send a fleet to Singapore. It is an interesting study, but, like Curran's Curtin’s Empire, is disappointingly short and does not directly consider the effect of the Pacific War on Australia's relationship with Britain. It is also unfortunate that Meaher dismisses the theories of many other historians as being founded on a faulty understanding, without explaining their opinion of the particular issue or why it is incorrect.

Robertson, J., Australia at War 1939-1945, William Heinemann Australia, Burwood, 1981

Websites

With author -

Black, D., 'Biography of John Curtin', 2010, [Online], http://john.curtin.edu.au/resources/biography/details.html, Accessed 11/06/2011

Coulthard-Clark, C., 'Remembering 1942: The Fall of Singapore', 15 February 1942, 2002, [Transcript Online], http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/remembering1942/singapore/transcript.asp, 18/7/2011

Horner, D., 'Strategy and Command in Australia’s Campaigns of 1941', 2001, [Transcript Online], http://www.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2001/horner.asp, 16/7/2011

Without author -

'Fact File: Formation of the Pacific War Council', 2005, [Online], http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/timeline/factfiles/nonflash/a1141958.shtml, Date Accessed: 20/7/2011
Although the website does not attribute the article to a particular author, the BBC is a reputable source and the facts presented in the article are consistent with those in other sources.

'Robert Menzies: In Office', [Online], http://primeministers.naa.gov.au/primeministers/menzies/in-office.aspx, Date Accessed: 19/7/2011
As this source is from the National Australian Archives, I felt justified in using it, even though no author is listed.

'Timeline of Events: 1941-1945', 1999, [Online], http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/pacificwar/timeline.htm, Date Accessed: 14/7/2011

Primary Sources

Articles

'The Call Will Be Answered', Published: The Argus, 4/9/1939, National Library of Australia
This article was a response to Menzies‟ address to the Australian public on the declaration of war in Europe. It provides a fascinating insight into the way this event was portrayed in the media, particularly the conservative media (The Argus was generally considered a right-leaning paper).

Curtin, J., 'The Task Ahead', Published: The Herald, 27/12/1941, National Library of Australia
This contained Curtin‟s ‘Australia looks to America’ statement and is regarded, in Australia at least, as one of the most important documents in Australian political history. It is quite controversial and is used as evidence to support a wide range of views and theories. The problem with the article lies in the ambiguity of the statement ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links...’. Many historians have interpreted this as marking the point at which those traditional ties were severed. As I have shown in my essay, Curtin meant the opposite, stating that a move towards an American alliance was not a turn from Britain. Those historians who subscribe to the former interpretation almost all attempt to cast Curtin as the first champion of Australian nationalism and 'The Task Ahead' as the defining moment at which Australia cast off the shackles of “British Imperialism” and became aware of its “national identity”. Perhaps the most prominent exponent of this idea is David Day, who
theorised that the Pacific War was the point at which the Australian government started to aggressively pursue its national interest regardless of British opinion and turned to the United States.

Cables & Letters

278. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister', Dated 17/1/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A3196, 1942, 0.1701

281. 'Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 19/1/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A3195, 1942, 1.2352

292. 'Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 22/1/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A2937, A.B.D.A. STRATEGIC AREA, 1941-1942

294. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Winston Churchill, U.K. Prime Minister', Dated 23/1/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A981, WAR 33, ATTACHMENT B

321. 'U.K. Dominions Office to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 7/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A2937, A.B.D.A. STRATEGIC AREA, 1941-1942

340. 'Mr. R.G. Casey, Minister to the United States, to Department of External Affairs', Dated 17/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A981, WAR 33, ATTACHMENT B

341. 'Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 18/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A816, 52/302/142

342. 'Sir Earle Page, Special Representative in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 18/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A816, 52/302/142

344. 'Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 18/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A816, 52/302/142

345. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Sir Earle Page', Special Representative in the United Kingdom, Dated 19/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A3196, 1942, 0.5088

352. 'Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 20/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A816, 52/302/142

357. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs', Dated 22/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A3196, 1942, 0.5403

362. 'Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 22/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A816, 52/302/142

364. 'Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister', Dated 23/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:M100, FEBRUARY 1942

366. 'Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs', Dated 23/2/1942, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Historical Publications, Catalogue Reference: AA:A3196, 1942, 0.5424

'Letter from Churchill to Curtin', Dated 29/12/1941, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Catalogue Reference: JCPML00869

Documents & Reports

'Far East Appreciation', Dated August 1940, The National Archives [Britain], Catalogue Reference: cab/66/10/33

'Mr Curtin’s Report to the Australian Parliament of the Prime Minister’s Meeting', Dated 9/9/1944, The National Archives [Britain], Catalogue Reference: cab/66/55/10

Audio

Curtin Speech: 'Japan Enters Second World War', 2011, [Audio Online], http://aso.gov.au/titles/radio/curtin-japan-second-world-war/clip1/, Accessed 12/6/2011

Menzies Speech: 'Declaration of War, 2011, [Audio Online], http://aso.gov.au/titles/radio/menzies-speech-declaration-war/clip1/, Accessed 1/5/2011



Appendix A


'The Task Ahead'
[First published in The Herald (Melbourne), 27 December 1941]
By John Curtin

That reddish veil which o'er the face
Of night-hag East is drawn ...
Flames new disaster for the race?
Or can it be the dawn?

So wrote Bernard O'Dowd. I see 1942 as a year in which we shall know the answer.

I would, however, that we provide the answer. We can and we will. Therefore I see 1942 as a year of immense change in Australian life.

The Australian government's policy has been grounded on two facts. One is that the war with Japan is not a phase of the struggle with the Axis powers, but is a new war. The second is that Australia must go on a war footing.

Those two facts involve two lines of action - one in the direction of external policy as to our dealings with Britain, the United States, Russia, the Netherlands East Indies and China in the higher direction of the war in the
Pacific.

The second is the reshaping, in fact the revolutionising, of the Australian way of life until a war footing is attained quickly, efficiently and without question.

Now with equal realism, we take the view that, while the determination of military policy is the Soviet's business, we should be able to look forward with reason to aid from Russia against Japan. We look for a solid and impregnable barrier of the Democracies against the three Axis Powers, and we refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict. By that it is not meant that any one of the other theatres of war is of less importance than the Pacific, but that Australia asks for a concerted plan evoking the greatest strength at the Democracies' disposal, determined upon hurling Japan back.

The Australian Government, therefore, regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies' fighting plan.

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces. We know the constant threat of invasion. We know the dangers of dispersal of strength, but we know too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on.

Summed up, Australian external policy will be shaped toward obtaining Russian aid, and working out, with the United States, as the major factor, a plan of Pacific strategy, along with British, Chinese and Dutch forces.

Australian internal policy has undergone striking changes in the past few weeks. These, and those that will inevitably come before 1942 is far advanced, have been prompted by several reasons. In the first place, the Commonwealth Government found it exceedingly difficult to bring Australian people to a realisation of what, after two years of war, our position had become. Even the entry of Japan, bringing a direct threat in our own waters, was met with a subconscious view that the Americans would deal with the short-sighted, underfed and fanatical Japanese.

The announcement that no further appeals would be made to the Australian people, and the decisions that followed, were motivated by psychological factors. They had an arresting effect. They awakened the somewhat lackadaisical Australian mind the attitude that was imperative if we were to save ourselves, to enter an all-in effort in the only possible manner.

That experiment in psychology was eminently successful, and we commence 1942 with a better realisation, by a greater number of Australians, of what the war means than in the whole preceding two years.

The decisions were prompted by other reasons, all related to the necessity of getting onto a war footing, and the results so far achieved have been most heartening, especially in respect of production and conservation of stocks.

I make it clear that the experiment undertaken was never intended as one to awaken Australian patriotism or sense of duty. Those qualities have been ever-present; but the response to leadership and direction had never been requested of the people, and desirable talents and untapped resources had lain dormant.

Our task for 1942 is stern ... The position Australia faces internally far exceeds in potential and sweeping dangers anything that confronted us in 1914- 1918.

The year 1942 will impose supreme tests. These range from resistance to invasion to deprivation of more and more amenities ...

Australians must realise that to place the nation on a war footing every citizen must place himself, his private and business affairs, his entire mode of living, on a war footing. The civilian way of life cannot be any less rigorous, can contribute no less than that which the fighting men have to follow.

I demand that Australians everywhere realise that Australia is now inside the firing lines.

Australian governmental policy will be directed strictly on those lines. We have to regard our country and its 7,000,000 people as though we were a nation and a people with the enemy hammering at our frontier.

Australians must be perpetually on guard; on guard against the possibility, at any hour without warning, of raid or invasion; on guard against spending money, or doing anything that cannot be justified; on guard against hampering by disputation or idle, irresponsible chatter, the decisions of the Government taken for the welfare of all.

All Australia is the stake in this war. All Australia must stand together to hold that stake. We face a powerful, ably led and unbelievably courageous foe.

We must watch the enemy accordingly. We shall watch him accordingly.


Appendix B



Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister
Cablegram 233 LONDON, 20 February 1942, 9.13 p.m.
MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET

Following for the Prime Minister from the Prime Minister. (Begins):
I suppose you realise that your leading division, the head of which is sailing south of Colombo to N.E.I. at this moment in our scanty British and American shipping [(MOUNT VERNON)], is the only force that can reach Rangoon in time to prevent its loss and the severance of communication with China. It can begin to disembark at Rangoon about 26th or 27th. There is nothing else in the world that can fill the gap.

2. We are all entirely in favour of all Australian troops returning home to defend their native soil, and we shall help their transportation in every way. But a vital war emergency cannot be ignored, and troops en route to other destinations must be ready to turn aside and take part in a battle. Every effort would be made to relieve this division at the earliest moment and send them on to Australia. I do not endorse the United States' request that you should send your other two divisions to Burma. They will return home as fast as possible but this one is needed now, and is the only one that can possibly save the situation.

3. Pray read again your message No. JOHCU 21 in which you said that the evacuation of Singapore would be 'an inexcusable betrayal'. Agreeably with your point of view we therefore [put] the 18th Division and other important reinforcements into Singapore instead of diverting them to Burma and ordered them to fight it out to the end. They were lost at Singapore and did not save it, whereas they could almost certainly have saved Rangoon. I take full responsibility with my colleagues on the Defence Committee for this decision; but you also bear a heavy share on account of your telegram No. JOHCU 21.

4. Your greatest support in this hour of peril must be drawn from the United States. They alone can bring into Australia the necessary troops and air forces and they appear ready to do so. As you know, the President attaches supreme importance to keeping open the connection with China without which his bombing offensive against Japan cannot be started and also most grievous results may follow in Asia if China is cut off from all allied help.

5. I am quite sure that if you refuse to allow your troops to stop this gap who are actually passing and if in consequence the above [evils] affecting the whole course of the war follow, a very grave effect will be produced upon the President and the Washington circle on whom you are so largely dependent. See especially the inclination of the United States to move major naval forces from Hawaii into the Anzac area.

6. We must have an answer immediately, as the leading ships of the convoy will soon be steaming in the opposite direction from Rangoon and every day is a day lost. I trust therefore that for the sake of all interests, and above all your own interests, you will give most careful consideration to the case I have set before you. (Ends).


Appendix C



Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs
Cablegram 136 CANBERRA, 22 February 1942
MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET

For the Prime Minister from the Prime Minister.
Reference your 233 and 235.

I have received your rather strongly worded request at this late stage, though our wishes in regard to the disposition of the A.I.F. in the Pacific theatre have long been known to you and carried even further by your statement in the House of Commons. Furthermore, Page was furnished with lengthy statements on our viewpoint on 15th February (repeated to Dominions Office in No. 123), 17th February (repeated to Dominions Office in No. 127) and 19th February (two cablegrams).

2. The proposal for additional military assistance for Burma comes from the Supreme Commander of the A.B.D.A. Area. Malaya, Singapore and Timor have been lost and the whole of the Netherlands East Indies will apparently be occupied shortly by the Japanese. The enemy, with superior sea and air power, has commenced raiding our territory in the north-west and also in the north-east from Rabaul. The Government made the maximum contribution of which it was capable in reinforcement of the A.B.D.A. Area. It originally sent a division less a brigade to Malaya with certain ancillary troops. A machine gun battalion and substantial reinforcements were later despatched. It also despatched forces to Ambon, Java and Dutch and Portuguese Timor. Six squadrons of the Air Force were also sent to this area, together with two cruisers from the Royal Australian Navy.

3. It was suggested by you that two Australian divisions be transferred to the Pacific theatre and this suggestion was later publicly expanded by you with the statement that no obstacle would be placed in the way of the A.I.F. returning to defend their homeland. We agreed to the two divisions being located in Sumatra and Java and it was pointed out to Page in the cablegram of 15th February that should fortune still favour the Japanese this disposition would give a line of withdrawal to Australia for our forces.

4. With the situation having deteriorated to such an extent in the theatre of the A.B.D.A. Area with which we are closely associated and the Japanese also making a southward advance in the Anzac Area, the Government, in the light of the advice of its Chiefs of Staff as to the forces necessary to repel an attack on Australia, finds it most difficult to understand that it should be called upon to make a further contribution of forces to be located in the most distant part of the A.B.D.A. Area. Notwithstanding your statement that you do not agree with the request to send the other two divisions of the A.I.F. Corps to Burma, our advisers are concerned with Wavell's request for the Corps and Dill's statement that the destination of the 6th and 9th Australian Divisions should be left open, as more troops might be badly needed in Burma. Once one division became engaged it could not be left unsupported, and the indications are that the whole of the Corps might become committed to this region or there might be a recurrence of the experiences of the Greek and Malayan campaigns. Finally, in view of superior Japanese sea power and air power, it would appear to be a matter of some doubt as to whether this division can be landed in Burma and a matter for greater doubt whether it can be brought out as promised. With the fall of Singapore, Penang and Martaban, the Bay of Bengal is now vulnerable to what must be considered the superior sea and air power of Japan in that area. The movement of our forces to this theatre therefore is not considered a reasonable hazard of war, having regard to what has gone before, and its adverse results would have the gravest consequences on the morale of the Australian people. The Government therefore must adhere to its decision.

5. In regard to your statement that the 18th Division was diverted from Burma to Singapore because of message No. Johcu 21, it is pointed out that the date of the latter was 23rd January, whereas in Winch No. 8 of 14th January you informed me that one brigade of this division was due on 13th January and the remainder on 27th January.

6. We feel therefore, in view of the foregoing and the services the A.I.F. have rendered in the Middle East, that we have every right to expect them to be returned as soon as possible with adequate escorts to ensure their safe arrival.

7. We assure you, and desire you to so inform the President, who knows fully what we have done to help the common cause, that, if it were possible to divert our troops to Burma and India without imperilling our security in the judgment of our advisers, we should be pleased to agree to the diversion.

CURTIN


Appendix D



Mr Clement Attlee, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister
Cablegram 241 LONDON, 22 February 1942, 3 p.m.
MOST IMMEDIATE MOST SECRET

Following from the Prime Minister [1] for the Prime Minister. (Begins):-
We could not contemplate that you would refuse our request and that of the President of the United States for the diversion of the leading division to save the situation in Burma. We knew that if our ships proceeded on their course to Australia while we were waiting for your formal approval they would either arrive too late at Rangoon or even be without enough fuel to go there at all. We therefore decided that the convoy should be temporarily diverted to the northward. The convoy is now too far north for some of the ships in it to reach Australia without refuelling. These physical considerations give a few days for the situation to develop and for you to review the position should you wish to do so. Otherwise the leading Australian Division will be returned to Australia as quickly as possible in accordance with your wishes. (Ends).


Acknowledgements



This essay would not have been possible without the help and support of several people to whom I owe a great deal of thanks.

Firstly, and above all, the wonderful Hilary Brettell. With her knowledge and her passion for the subject, she has always made studying history a privilege and a joy. Without her advice and feedback this would have been a far more difficult task than it was.

Secondly, Anne Glavimans and all the librarians, who have been a source of unceasing support for everyone in the IB.

Thirdly, my parents and my brother, for putting up with the swings between sheer frustration, mostly brought about the seeming inability of historians to agree, and the giddiness that comes from tracking down sources or documents.



References


  1. ^ Imperial Defence was a system in which the Dominions and colonies of the British Empire would aid each other if one was threatened. It was, however, founded on the assumption that states were primarily responsible for their own defence and for equipping their own forces.
  2. ^ The Statute of Westminster was a British Act of Parliament granting the Dominions legislative independence and theoretical equality with Britain within the Commonwealth.
  3. ^ The Canadian and South African governments both consulted Parliament and voted to declare war. Historically, both countries had lobbied for greater independence from Britain and were certainly far more independent than Australia.
  4. ^ The United Australia Party (UAP) was the forerunner to the modern Liberal Party in Australia. It had been in coalition with the Country Party (now known as the National Party of Australia) since 1934.
  5. ^ Bold present in the original article as published in The Herald.
  6. ^ As Curtin pointed out in his response, the timeline of events shows this was not the case and Churchill himself stated later that the Australian government‟s cable had no influence on that particular decision.
  7. ^ The governments of South Africa and Canada had both campaigned for greater freedom from Britain. The Statute of Westminster, which Australia did not accept, was a response to demands from Canada and South Africa. Both governments assumed that Curtin's proposals for a permanent Imperial council would result in the development of a common policy they would have to accept. The Canadian government was also concerned that the United States would react badly to the formation of a British power bloc.