Inside Story

Fighting on all fronts

Books | A new biography paints a nuanced picture of the man widely seen as Australia’s greatest prime minister

Norman Abjorensen 3 December 2018 2370 words

Changing world order: British home secretary Herbert Morrison in friendly conversation with John Curtin, with prime minister Winston Churchill looking on. Curtin was in London for a meeting of leaders of Commonwealth countries in May 1944. PNA Rota/Getty Images

John Curtin’s War, Volume II: Triumph and Decline
By John Edwards | Viking | $49.99 | 512 pages

Of the thirty prime ministers who have led Australia since Federation, John Curtin is arguably the greatest of all, and perhaps even the only one who can be called great. Apart from the short interregnums of Arthur Fadden (forty days in 1941) and Frank Forde (seven days in 1945), Curtin was the only substantive prime minister to have spent his entire term at war — all three years and 271 days of it. The strain killed him in the end; he was as much a victim of the war as any fallen soldier.

The death of self-doubting, selfless John Curtin at sixty, exhausted and broken, was not one tragedy but many. He had lived to see victory in the war in Europe, but it would be another month before the conflict in the Pacific, to which he had devoted so much effort, would end with Japan’s defeat and surrender. Only then, after six long years, was the Australian nation released from the thrall of war and, for the first time since Federation, the fear of invasion. Curtin, the man of peace who had been jailed for his opposition to conscription almost thirty years before, was destined never to exercise his considerable gifts of leadership in peacetime; history can only speculate on what might have happened if he had.

Curtin came to lead Australia in its gravest crisis more by happenstance than design. Elected narrowly to the Labor leadership in 1935, he led the party to two electoral defeats, albeit a narrow one in 1940, when the United Australia Party led by Robert Menzies managed to cling to power as a minority coalition government, relying on two independents. The unstable UAP was already unravelling as Menzies travelled to London for top-level war talks, during which time he was ruthlessly undermined at home. Eventually the internal dissent led to his resignation.

Menzies was succeeded by the genial Country Party leader, Arthur Fadden. “Artie” never expected to remain long in the job, and decided against moving into the Lodge. It was later reported that a fellow member of his party, Archie Cameron, had told him he would “scarcely have time to wear a track from the back door to the shithouse before you’ll be out.” Cameron was right: less than six weeks later, Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson, the two independents on whose support Fadden had relied, decided to cross the floor. Labor leader Curtin, whom they considered better able to manage the war effort, was suddenly prime minister.

As the second volume of John Edwards’s meticulously researched study of Curtin at war opens, Australia was facing an existential crisis. The British had lost Singapore and the southward advance of the Japanese was seemingly unstoppable. It was hardly the most auspicious time to become prime minister.

Curtin had never before held ministerial office, having been passed over in the Scullin government thirteen years earlier on account of his fondness for a drink. After losing his seat, winning it back and forswearing alcohol, the former journalist and union official won the leadership.

Despite his inexperience, the unassuming Curtin — who ran the war from Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks, commuting by tram from his city hotel, either alone or accompanied only by his press secretary — was thrust onto the international stage, locking horns with the likes of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His relationship with Australia’s two main allies began badly when he rejected Churchill’s request to send troops brought home from the Middle East to Burma, infuriating the British leader and drawing criticism from Roosevelt. At home, Menzies, now in opposition, attacked him for not doing enough to protect British interests.

Curtin was not fighting alone. On the military front he had the larger-than-life American general Douglas MacArthur, the Australian-based commander-in-chief of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific (who had fled the Philippines in questionable circumstances ahead of the Japanese advance) and the controversial Australian military commander, the party-loving Thomas Blamey. Both were forceful and difficult characters with whom Curtin forged effective working partnerships.

As Edwards points out, Curtin’s position was different from those of the other wartime political leaders, including Churchill, Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, all of whom were military chiefs, through law or force of personality or custom or even terror. On purely military matters, Curtin deferred to his commanders. In terms of grand strategy, Curtin accepted MacArthur’s preference for opening up a second front in the Pacific rather than in western Europe. He also embraced MacArthur’s proposal to seek to have the British eastern fleet, or some of it, based at Fremantle, taking up the idea with Churchill, although without success.

While Curtin came in for criticism for handing authority over Australian military forces to MacArthur, Edwards argues that it was “both a clever and obvious decision” in the circumstances prevailing in early 1942. It was not without precedent, either: Australian land forces had been under the operational control of British commanders during the Great War and in the Middle East and Malaya during the current conflict. For his part, Curtin had suggested an American commander for the region from the outset of the Pacific War, and with MacArthur in that role he had direct access to the Allied commander and, through him, an additional and important channel of influence over strategic decisions in Washington and London.

The personalities of both MacArthur and Blamey inevitably created storms. MacArthur constantly fought with his fellow American service chiefs, demanding a separate naval force under his command, while Blamey’s relations with the Australian military hierarchy were frosty at best. Throw into this volatile mix the redoubtable and opinionated Fred Shedden, defence department head and Curtin’s chief adviser, and Edwards gives us a sense of the roiling storms forever surrounding the prime minister. They were not helped in the least by sniping from Menzies and another former prime minister, Billy Hughes, not to mention Curtin’s own difficult colleagues, notably Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell. Curtin’s external affairs minister H.V. Evatt, meanwhile, had been an early advocate of a national all-party government, opposed by Curtin, and his brusque diplomacy did not always make for calm waters, as Curtin was later to find in Washington.

Even though it was a key ally, Australia was very much on the fringe of the action, especially as Churchill was determined to pursue his “Germany first” strategy of defeating his European foe before turning his attention to Japan. Despite the imminent threat of invasion, Australia was not always kept informed of crucial developments in the region. Curtin depended heavily on MacArthur, from whom he learnt of the sinking of HMAS Canberra in the Savo Island battle after the landing at Guadalcanal, information MacArthur’s staff had gained by intercepting British messages.

MacArthur maintained his barrage of requests for more forces while Curtin chafed at the holding operations in the region decreed by both Churchill and Roosevelt. Like MacArthur, he wanted to go on the offensive. MacArthur, meanwhile, was annoyed by criticism from members of Australia’s War Council, which he believed to be ill-informed. When he asked Curtin if he still enjoyed his confidence, the prime minister replied, yes, “to the fullest extent possible.” Curtin, meanwhile, was stung by a report in the New York Times claiming that “Australia is not a vital area, and it is a great mistake that so many troops have been sent there.”

Curtin’s incomplete knowledge of events continued to trouble him. Not only did he know little about Japan’s intentions but he also lacked detail about Allied strategy in the Pacific — a point he made forcefully to Roosevelt in August 1942. He was poorly served by those overseas whose job was to inform him: Sir Owen Dixon in Washington was ineffective and former prime minister Stanley Bruce in London was loathed by Churchill, who obstructed his access to government.

Roosevelt, for his part, was critical of Australia, its soldiers and its leaders. But in 1942, according to the Canberra-based US minister Nelson Johnson, MacArthur and Curtin together had rallied the country. Johnson wrote to Roosevelt that “the year… has been dominated by one man, John Curtin,” who had with “honesty of purpose and earnestness” done “an admirable job.”

But Curtin’s biggest battle was still to be fought. Jailed for his opposition to conscription during the first world war, he now found it necessary to introduce conscription for overseas service to stem the Japanese advance. Persuading a sceptical Labor Party took all of his skills. It was not only Curtin’s own history that was important here: he was conscious of the fact that conscript divisions from America were being deployed to Australia and he was uncomfortable welcoming them while retaining a restriction on where members of Australia’s Citizen Military Forces could be sent. As Edwards notes, removing the ban on overseas service for the CMF was a question of political tactics, not political principle.

Curtin took his fight to the Labor Party rather than to the parliament. With the left in favour of a change in policy now that the Soviet Union was on the Allied side, Curtin campaigned state by state, putting his leadership on the line. Eventually he prevailed, and the Defence Act was duly amended in February 1943, the day after the 9th Division returned home.

Curtin’s political position had been precarious since he came to office without a majority of his own. Preparing for the election in 1943, he argued that the previous government, led by Fadden and Menzies, had left Australia unprepared for the Pacific War. When the Japanese threatened Australia, he had brought back troops from the Middle East, struck an alliance with the United States, and defended against the threat of Japanese invasion. Now Australia would take part in an offensive to defeat Japan.

Curtin led Labor to a landslide win, capturing forty-nine of the seventy-four seats in the House of Representatives and all nineteen of the Senate seats up for election. Edwards calls it “a great election victory,” noting how Curtin both perplexed and dominated his opponents in the campaign. Unassuming in manner, respected by his opponents, he rarely made big mistakes, and when he did he quickly recovered.

Invited by Roosevelt to visit Washington in 1942, Curtin had declined, keenly aware of how Menzies had been undermined while overseas. Now, with his position secure, he accepted a further invitation, no doubt encouraged by Roosevelt’s remark that Australia was “pulling its weight in the boat” and that Americans were “very keen on the splendid work” done by Australia.

Curtin’s fear of flying meant that the trip was undertaken by sea. It was, Edwards records, a small party and not a particularly happy one. Blamey’s gregarious bonhomie grated on the orderly mind of Shedden, who resented the fact that his wife had not been not invited. Curtin’s press secretary, Don Rodgers, didn’t enjoy the company of either Shedden or Blamey, both of whom resented Rodgers’s relationship with Curtin. Separated from his beloved files and increasingly irritated by the high spirits of Elsie Curtin, a morose Shedden took to writing a detailed diary of his travelling companions — “the most acidulous domestic observations recorded on any Australian political leader,” according to Edwards.

Curtin was by now a very sick man. His meetings in Washington did not go well, and reports of his health referred to rising blood pressure and an attack of neuritis when it was probable that he had suffered a heart attack. Flying on to London, he joined other Commonwealth prime ministers in meetings with Churchill and other British leaders, irritating Churchill with his praise for the Americans while “British resources were largely committed elsewhere.” The world order was changing and while Curtin and others acknowledged this, Churchill could not.

Australia had come into its own in the Pacific War, and Curtin was keenly aware of this. Kokoda, Milne Bay, Buna, Lae and Finschhafen were the first major land battles in Australian history in which British forces and British commanders were entirely absent. While Churchill displayed his undoubted strategic understanding of events unfolding in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, it was Curtin who now held the cards in regard to the Pacific and the likely course of events. Churchill and others were not pleased; a senior official thought Curtin too blunt.

When the British proposed a reorganisation of command in the Pacific, detaching Australians from MacArthur’s command and putting them under British orders, Curtin rejected it outright. Edwards sees this as one of the most important decisions he made. To the usually phlegmatic Shedden, the British proposal “ignored the recent facts of history.”

Back home in Australia, Curtin’s health deteriorated further. He was admitted to hospital in April 1945 suffering from congestion of the lungs. He knew the end was near, remarking, “I’m too tired to live.”

Curtin and his place in history have been well illuminated by John Edwards. The humility of the man is depicted in telling vignettes, his unfeigned empathy for the ordinary people never leaving him. This was true even at the height of the crisis in February 1942, when Curtin, taking a walk outside the Lodge in Canberra, struck up a conversation with a woman in a bus shed. When she told him she was on the way to register her baby’s birth at a government office that would soon close for the week, Curtin returned to the Lodge and came back with his car and driver. He got her to the registrar of births right on closing time, and even witnessed the form.

Edwards describes the problems Curtin faced, and the powerful personalities with whom he worked, with startling clarity reinforced by a finely nuanced understanding of the intricate politics. His prose is crisp, and the pace of his engrossing narrative is measured but often enlivened by a short, telling sentence that subtly shift the mood.

John Edwards has written a great study of our greatest prime minister and a detailed chronicle of Australia’s gravest peril. This is Australian history at its finest. •

The first volume of John Edwards’s biography of John Curtin was awarded the Prime Minister’s History Prize this week.