Looking For Australia
Menzies' solution to the hung parliament of 1940 had been that a national government should be formed, as had been done in Britain. But it was a Labor principle not to cooperate in office with any other party. Curtin gave voice to the party's view: 'I refuse to desert the great body of Labor to prop up political parties of reaction and capitalism.' But Curtin himself was more responsible and did not believe that Labor should never cooperate with the class enemy, even at the expense of the nation's war effort. He proposed to Menzies that an advisory war council be established, composed of the leading men of both parties. Menzies agreed and so before he became prime minister Curtin had been privy to the diplomatic cables flowing between Australia and Britain concerning the war in the Middle East and the preparations, or lack of them, for the likely war against Japan.
Curtin distinguished himself on the council by his close concern for the defence of Singapore and his urgings that Britain send a fleet as it had promised to do. This seems odd for a man who was notorious as a critic of the Singapore strategy, but it was the government's policy that had been followed and not his own. It is more puzzling that when Churchill said in September 1941 that there would be a force of capital ships placed in the Indian Ocean before the end of the year, Curtin immediately assumed that it would happen and that it would work as a deterrent to the Japanese. He recommended a reduction in the number of men called up into the militia and the period of their training. Men taken out of the army could make munitions. Curtin was never happier than when it seemed Australia's role in the war was to grow food and make munitions.
Curtin was so desperate to protect Australia and to have other people do the fighting that he could lose all judgment. While still Opposition leader he tried to negotiate a deal with the Japanese envoy: in the coming war, Japan would spare Australia in return for Australia supplying it with iron ore. (To appease was not unusual; a separate peace for Australia was.) As prime minister after the war with Japan had begun, Curtin urged Churchill to encourage Russia to attack Japan by agreeing to all Stalin's territorial claims in Eastern Europe, Iran and the Far East. Churchill reminded him that the forcible transfer of people was against the principles of the Atlantic Charter.
Against Admiralty advice, Churchill did send to Singapore, not a fleet, but two capital ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Sadly the aircraft carrier that was to protect them did not come too. Three days after Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes sank them from the air. That ended Singapore's career as a naval base, but Curtin and his ministers sent more Australian troops there and redoubled their efforts to get Churchill to reinforce it, though its function was now symbolic only. Churchill sent the Eighteenth British Division, which he would rather have sent to Burma. The convoy carrying them was attacked by the Japanese from the air—so much was this a lost cause. Then the Australian government learnt from Earle Page, its minister in London, that there was talk of evacuating soldiers from Singapore, as the Japanese drive down the Malayan peninsula could not be halted. The Australian government was incensed and replied that this would be 'an inexcusable betrayal.' These words came from Evatt, the foreign minister, not Curtin. The prime minister, as often happened in a crisis, had become ill and had retreated to his home in Perth. Churchill switched tack and gave the order that Singapore must be defended. He was worried about giving up the fight when the Americans were defending to the last in the Philippines and because the Australians were pressing him to stay, but in his words, 'There is no doubt what a purely military decision should have been.' So thousands of British and Australian soldiers went into captivity.
Curtin is credited with being prescient about the fall of Singapore, but when the event was in prospect he showed no sign of independent thought. Churchill considered getting the troops out so that they could fight another day; Curtin could not. When the Singapore strategy had failed (as he had predicted), Curtin wanted the British to stick to it because that is what they had promised—and so he helped make the disaster more complete. This is not to say that any other Australian leader would have reacted differently. They had all been involved in pressing Britain to defend Singapore and had a huge emotional commitment to its survival. It is to say that Curtin had no more thrown off the mind-set of colonial entitlement than the rest. He suffered deeply for it; the fate of the prisoners of war was always in his mind.
With the fall of Singapore Curtin announced that the 'Battle for Australia' was about to begin. The recurring nightmare of an enraged yellow nation taking vengeance on white Australia was about to be realised. Except that the Japanese were not intending to invade Australia. They wanted the rubber, tin and oil in South-East Asia. It was hard for Curtin and his ministers to accept that Australia was not the goal despite Churchill, Roosevelt and MacArthur telling them it was most unlikely. Of course, if there was a doubt they could not lay the prospect aside, but this fear was beyond the reach of military appraisals.
The Japanese advanced so quickly through South-East Asia that, briefly, elements in their navy advocated an invasion of Australia. The army quickly had this plan rejected; bogged down in its war in China, it did not want another difficult campaign. The strategy remained to isolate and harass Australia but not invade it. The advance along the Kokoda Track in the direction of Port Moresby was not intended as an advance into Australia, which is how it was popularly seen at the time and since. It was to extend and secure the southern perimeter of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The official war historian Lionel Wigmore says the leaders of the Australian army were not thrown by the collapse of Singapore because this is what they had predicted. But the situation at the fall of Singapore was very different from the scenarios they had entertained. When Japan moved south, it had another war on its hands in China, where most of its army remained. When the British failed at Singapore, Australia was not alone. The United States was in the war; it had already been planning joint operations with the British for twelve months and Roosevelt was pledged to the defence of Australia. All this they knew; they could not know at first that the Japanese were not intent on invasion, but even if that was the aim, the other factors in play made that threat very different from what they had envisaged. Australians fighting alone on their own soil against the yellow hordes was an image not readily erased. The view of army leaders is important, for the army chief of staff, Vernon Sturdee, was advising Curtin in the first months after Pearl Harbor.
The myths about Curtin are so strong that it might still be believed that he had to fight Churchill to get the soldiers of the AIF returned from the Middle East to defend Australia against the Japanese. Churchill himself proposed the move; two divisions, the sixth and seventh, left the Middle East early in 1942, with Curtin agreeing that the Ninth Division could remain. The dispute was over where best the returning divisions could be deployed against the Japanese. On its way across the Indian ocean, Churchill proposed that the Seventh Division could best be used to defend Rangoon in Burma. With all the outer defences of Australia falling, Sturdee urged that the troops must come home and threatened to resign if they did not: Curtin was happy to follow the advice; it chimed with his own view that the defence of Australia was his first duty and, after another near mental collapse, he told Churchill that the men must come to Australia. Roosevelt, at Churchill's urging, put pressure on Curtin to change his mind. The president offered to send American troops to Australia in place of those diverted to Burma and tried to calm Curtin by saying that despite the rapid Japanese advance the vital centres of Australia were not
Churchill and Roosevelt regarded the war as one and since finding ships to move troops was always a problem, the troops, of whatever nation, nearest to the action should do the job. The reason they were so keen to prevent a Japanese takeover in Burma was that the so-called Burma Road could then be kept open, by which the allies were supplying China with the materials of war.
The dispute went on for days and was referred to the Advisory War Council, where Menzies and Fadden urged that Churchill's request be granted. Curtin stood firm. Meanwhile Churchill, assuming that Curtin could not resist the pressure, ordered the ships to sail to Rangoon. All the Australian leaders were properly outraged at this and when Curtin insisted, Churchill of course complied—and became more deeply hostile to the Australians who had pushed him the wrong way on Singapore.
Today the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra stages re-enactments of this dispute in the Cabinet Room at Old Parliament House and visitors then decide who was in the right. Museum staff report that Australians always take Curtin's part. This is not surprising since even such an eminent historian as Geoffrey Serle, who wrote the entry on Curtin in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, didnot understand the issues at stake. He conceives the dispute as between British imperial and Australian interests. British imperial!—when the United States' president was urging Curtin to agree. And not in Australian interests!—what country had a greater interest than Australia in keeping China in the war and so reducing the capacity of Japan to move south?