Another look at Curtin and MacArthur

Peter Edwards*

Sixty years ago today, on 1 June 1942, the three men who shaped Australia’s wartime strategy had another of their frequent meetings. The significance of what was said at that meeting – and also what was not said – has, I think, been underestimated by most Australians. I would like to explain why I think that.

The three men were the Prime Minister of Australia, John Curtin; the Secretary to both the Defence Department and the War Cabinet, Frederick (later to become Sir Frederick) Shedden; and the Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur. They formed the nucleus of what was called the Prime Minister’s War Conference, which essentially comprised whoever the Prime Minister decided he wished to attend. A body comprising a Prime Minister, a public servant and a foreign general flouts almost every constitutional convention. Nevertheless, this anomalous body was, as David Horner has pointed out, rather more important than the theoretical centres of executive authority – the Cabinet, the War Cabinet, the Advisory War Council – in taking the crucial decisions on Australia’s strategy.1

Last year, when I was invited to give the John Curtin lecture at the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, I was looking at the records of the Prime Minister’s War Conference, among other records. Frankly, I was wondering if there was anything fresh that one could say about a Prime Minister, and a period of Australian history, that have been the subject of so much historical examination. I was quite surprised to come across a passage in the minutes of the conference. The meeting was prompted by the entry of three Japanese midget submarines into Sydney Harbour the previous day, but the meeting addressed much wider strategic concerns. The passage that struck me reads as follows:

The Commander-in-Chief desired to point out the distinctions between the United States and the United Kingdom in their relations and responsibilities to Australia. Australia was part of the British Empire and it was related to Britain and the other Dominions by ties of blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown. The United States was an ally whose aim was to win the war, and it had no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia. Its interest in Australia was from the strategical aspect of the utility of Australia as a base from which to attack and defeat the Japanese. As the British Empire was a Commonwealth of Nations, he presumed that one of its principal purposes was jointly to protect any part that might be threatened. The failure of the United Kingdom and U.S.A. Governments to support Australia therefore had to be viewed from different angles.

The Commander-in-Chief added that, though the American people were animated by a warm friendship for Australia, their purpose in building up forces in the Commonwealth was not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan. In view of the strategical importance of Australia in a war with Japan, this course of military action would probably be followed irrespective of the American relationship to the people who might be occupying Australia.2

I should say immediately that this is not a newly discovered document that has just emerged from archival research. Under the "thirty-year rule" for Australian archives, it has been in the public domain since the 1970s and was published in 1982 in the series of Documents on Australian Foreign Policy.3 The record of the meeting in which this passage appears has been seen by two leading historians, David Horner and David Day, but both of them have referred mainly to matters that arose later in the meeting. As far as I am aware, there has been only the briefest passing mention of this passage in any history of Australia’s wartime strategy, of Australian-American relations, or indeed of Anglo-Australian relations.4 Why do I think that we historians (and I include myself in this criticism) have been guilty of overlooking or underestimating the importance of this document, and especially the passage I have just quoted?

It is necessary to go back and quickly recall some of the main features of the previous six or seven months. Curtin, you will recall, had become Prime Minister on 7 October 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the Japanese thrust southward through east and south-east Asia. Australia had placed its faith in its membership of the British Empire, but the Empire’s Singapore strategy was sunk along with the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse. In the most traumatic months of Australia’s national history, Singapore fell; thousands of Australian troops became prisoners of war of the Japanese; Darwin and other Australian towns were bombed; and the prospect of enemy invasion came ever closer. Many Australians felt that the failure of British strategy at Singapore had left Australia exposed and vulnerable. Curtin and Winston Churchill exchanged telegrams that were often tense and sometimes bitter. In late December Curtin, in what was intended as a routine New Year’s statement for a newspaper, made his famous assertion:

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

This not only angered Churchill but shocked many Australians, who generally thought of themselves as a British community in the Antipodes. Moreover, it was received just as poorly in Washington as it was in London. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that he thought that Curtin’s statement smacked on panic and that he and Churchill would be sticking to their "beat Hitler first" strategy. The war in the Pacific would be regarded as a holding war, while priority was given to defeating the principal enemy in Europe. Australians wondered whether allied forces in this part of the world were strong enough even for a holding strategy. Many panicked and fled inland.

Relief seemed to be at hand in March 1942, when the American commander in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur, was ordered to escape the disaster in that American colony and to proceed to Australia, to become the Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed command known as the South-West Pacific Area. The Australian public received him with rapturous acclaim. Supremely confident in demeanour, looking every inch the masterful commander, MacArthur seemed to personify the figure of whom Australians had long dreamt – the American who would save Australia from the depredations of the Japanese. At their initial meeting, MacArthur told Curtin: "You take care of the rear and I’ll take care of the front, and we’ll see this through together." To all appearances, the two men quickly formed a close working relationship, which was institutionalized in the Prime Minister’s War Conference. As I have mentioned, this comprised Curtin, MacArthur, Frederick Shedden and anyone else Curtin decided to invite.

By the end of May Australia’s position remained delicate. Japan’s naval attack had been blunted in the battle of the Coral Sea, but the naval battle that would prove to be truly decisive in the Pacific – Midway – was still a few days away. The Japanese thrust through New Guinea, leading to crucial battles on the Kokoda Track and elsewhere, were still to come. To underline Australia’s vulnerability, on the last day in May three midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour, missing their principal targets but causing some loss of life.

This was the position when the Prime Minister’s War Conference met in Melbourne on the morning of 1 June 1942. Those present were Curtin, MacArthur, Shedden, and MacArthur’s chief of staff, Major General Sutherland. They discussed whether there should be a public statement on the midget submarine raid, then MacArthur was shown Australian telegrams to and from the Minister for External Affairs, Dr H. V. Evatt, who was in London seeking reinforcements from the British. The cables showed that Evatt was having little success. This prompted what was evidently a long monologue by MacArthur on the strategic position. The summary in the minutes (presumably prepared by Shedden) cover three and a half pages, with no evidence of any intervention or response by Curtin. It begins with the two paragraphs that I have read out.

Why does this passage deserve more attention than it has yet been given? There are several points that need to be made. At the broadest level, this puts a nail through the heart of a popular myth, which professional historians have been qualifying or rejecting for about thirty years but which still holds a strong place in popular thinking. It is still repeated, as recently as last month’s celebration of the Coral Sea anniversary or last year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of ANZUS and its formal invocation after the events of 11 September. The myth traces the origins of the Australian-American alliance to the events of 1942, especially Curtin’s appeal to the United States, his relationship with MacArthur, and the battle of the Coral Sea. The myth comes in two versions, to meet conservative or radical political tastes. The conservative version says that the Curtin-MacArthur combination bore fruit when Australians and Americans joined forces on the Coral Sea to defeat the Japanese threat. Since then, Australians and Americans have fought side by side to defend freedom and democracy in every major conflict, from Korea to Afghanistan. The left-wing or radical nationalist version said that Curtin broke the imperial mould of Australian thinking by appealing to America and then forged a close alliance with the United States, based on mutual support and respect. This endured, but unfortunately conservative governments turned Australia into a mere satellite, continuing the tradition of Australians fighting "other people’s wars". I would suggest that both are wrong. MacArthur, as much as Roosevelt, made it clear that the United States did not see Australia as anything more than a temporarily convenient base. It was a later Liberal-Country party government that secured the ANZUS alliance and a Labor government in the 1980s that reshaped it to suit the times.

This passage also gives us a new perspective on the relationship between Curtin and MacArthur. We have always known that President Roosevelt did not welcome Curtin’s statement that "Australia looks to America", which he thought smacked of panic. We have long known that military planners in Washington, including a rising general named Dwight D. Eisenhower, saw Australia principally as a convenient base. But Australians have not been told that MacArthur himself told Curtin that the Americans saw Australia only as a convenient base, not as a people who deserved American support. This message was being delivered, not by officials in Washington or diplomats in Canberra, but by the very man who worked so closely with the Australian Prime Minister that Curtin was accused of surrendering Australian sovereignty to the American general.6 Australian foreign policy throughout the twentieth century can be seen as, in part, a constant search for influence at the policy-making heart of its principal "great and powerful friend", first Britain and then the United States. Curtin was trying to use MacArthur as an avenue to influence the political and military figures in London and Washington who shaped Allied strategy. This passage shows that this tactic was fruitless.

The timing is significant. This meeting took place after the battle of the Coral Sea, but MacArthur pays little attention to that. Later in the meeting he told Curtin that the truly important naval battle in the Pacific was about to take place, and that this would decide whether Australia was cut off from the United States. He was right. The battle of Midway took place a few days later. Fortunately for Australia it was an American victory, but it was an American victory, in which the Australians played no major part. Only much later was the battle of the Coral Sea elevated to iconic status in Australian-American relations.

The terms in which MacArthur delivered what was clearly a carefully prepared message deserve attention, especially his reference to the "ties of blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown" that linked Australia to Britain. Curtin’s statement about looking to America gave voice to a strand in Australian official and public thought that goes back at least as far as 1908, when Alfred Deakin risked the wrath of British imperial authorities by inviting President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet to visit Australia. That fleet visit attracted huge crowds, whose enthusiasm was encapsulated in a song called "Big Brother", written by a Western Australian newspaperman while the fleet was anchored off Albany. The chorus went:

We’ve got a big brother in America,
Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam!
The same old blood, the same old speech,
The same old songs are good enough for each,
We’ll all stand together, boys,
If the foes want a flutter or a fuss,
And we’re hanging out the sign
From the Leeuwin to the Line
This bit o’ the world belongs to us!7

From Deakin to Curtin, Australian leaders looked anxiously for evidence that Americans saw Australia not just as a friend and ally but as kith and kin, another predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, Judaeo-Christian civilization, a younger brother who deserved to be saved from an oriental enemy.

Now, with the most feared oriental foe on Australia’s doorstep, Curtin had made his appeal, and MacArthur was spelling out America’s rejection of it with brutal clarity. To borrow a phrase from a later period of Australian-American relations, Australia was seen as nothing more than "a suitable piece of real estate", conveniently placed to be the base for the counterattack against the Japanese. Americans could not care what colour the Australians were, nor what language they spoke; they did not see them as kith and kin. The Australian landmass offered a geographically convenient base for American forces, and that was all that mattered to American policy-makers.

All too clearly, MacArthur was throwing Curtin’s reference to "traditional links [and] kinship with the United Kingdom" back in the Prime Minister’s face. He was asserting that it was precisely to those links and that kinship that Australia should look for its security. Curtin and MacArthur were equally frustrated by the reluctance of either Britain or America to give greater support to the South-West Pacific Area, but MacArthur was drawing a moral distinction between Britain and America. According to MacArthur, if Britain provided too little military support for Australia, it was failing in its moral duty, its fundamental obligation to a fellow member of the British Empire and Commonwealth. By contrast, he argued, Washington was perfectly entitled to make cold-blooded decisions about the deployment of American forces in the light of its global strategy, without the slightest sense of obligation to Australia for its own sake. Australia had ties of blood and sentiment with Britain, but not with the United States.

What MacArthur said to Curtin helps to explain many things, both in the tragically short remainder of Curtin’s life and in subsequent decades. We can now better understand why Curtin turned so emphatically to praise Australia’s "traditional links [and] kinship with the United Kingdom" in the next couple of years. For the rest of the war, and especially during the election campaign of 1943, he identified himself whole-heartedly with British race patriotism. He became the only Australian Prime Minister to appoint as Governor-General, not a minor British aristocrat, but a royal duke. In 1944 he took to the Prime Ministers’ Conference in London a proposal to coordinate even more closely the foreign policies of the member nations of the British Empire. Historians have sometimes puzzled over this shift in Curtin’s supposed leanings. We can now assume that he "wrapped himself in the Union Jack", as some commentators described it, precisely because MacArthur had told him so bluntly that Australia had no other choice. It should certainly not look to Uncle Sam as a protective big brother.

Moreover we now have a clearer understanding of Curtin’s own relations with, and attitudes towards, the Americans for the rest of the war. In 1997 the National Library published a collection of notes on the off-the-record briefings given by Curtin to a group of reporters. The editors, Clem Lloyd and Richard Hall, claim that these briefings present a picture, not of "a man struggling with illness and crushed by the burdens of wartime leadership" but rather of "a Prime Minister acute in analysis, vigorous in language and confident of his decisions". But they note that Curtin said remarkably little about MacArthur in these off-the-record briefings, and that he was "mostly negative about the American war leaders and their policies". He showed, they say, not "the veneration and gratitude of an Australian Prime Minister for a great and powerful friend" but "a sort of wearied resignation about what must be… [or] a sardonic emphasis on motivations and outcomes that borders on contempt".8 Lloyd and Hall do not explain the basis of that attitude. Perhaps a close look at the meeting of 1 June 1942 helps to explain it.

Why has this this encounter between Curtin and MacArthur not become more prominent when we discuss history of Australian-American relations? We know that Curtin was a sensitive man who felt deeply the responsibilities of wartime leadership. We can only guess at how keenly he must have been hurt by this uncompromising rejection of his appeal to the United States. Nevertheless, he kept resolutely quiet about it, as did that epitome of the discreet bureaucrat, Frederick Shedden. They probably did themselves, the government, the Labor Party and the nation a service by so doing. It would have been much more difficult in later years to establish, and then to maintain over half a century, an alliance which governments of all persuasions have seen as vital, if Australians generally had known that MacArthur had told Curtin that the United States saw no interest in preserving Australia’s territorial integrity and that Americans had no special regard for the Australian people. The myths of the Curtin–MacArthur relationship have played an important part in the rhetoric of Australian-American relations for half a century, but they are none the less myths.

When I made many of the points I have just made in my John Curtin lecture last year, my friend David Day, Curtin’s most recent biographer, wondered aloud whether the Perth water had done something to my brain. He said that there was nothing new in the document because it had already been published in the Documents on Australian Foreign Policy series and because he had quoted it in his book The Great Betrayal. As I have already said, the first point is correct, but I was noting that the passage had been little addressed by historians, and the passing reference to it in The Great Betrayal does not invalidate that point. But more importantly Day said that it only goes to show that the Americans will always act in accordance with what they perceive to be their own national interests at the time. In essence, therefore, nothing has changed since June 1942. I beg to differ. The big difference is that, since September 1951, Australia has had an alliance relationship with the United States. The Americans have an interest in preserving their reputation as a reliable ally, and consequently they have a different sense of their obligations to Australia. Because there is an alliance, and now an alliance that has been invoked following an attack on the American homeland, it is unlikely that any American official will talk to an Australian leader in the same terms as MacArthur used to Curtin, precisely sixty years ago today.

But for the decade between Curtin’s appeal and the negotiation of the ANZUS Treaty, Australia was not able to gain any assurance of American strategic support. This passage does much to explain why. I suggest that, whenever Curtin’s statement of December 1941 is quoted as a turning-point in Australian-American relations, we should remember the terms in which MacArthur spoke to Curtin on 1 June 1942

Footnotes

  1. David Horner first drew attention to this body in High Command: Australia and Allied Strategy 1939-1945 (George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1982), and reiterated it in Inside the War Cabinet: Directing Australia's War Effort 1939-1945 (Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW, 1996) and Defence Supremo: Sir Frederick Shedden and the Making of Australian Defence Policy (Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW, 2000).
  2. Minutes of Prime Minister's War Conference, Melbourne, 1 June 1942, p. 2: JCPML.
  3. W. J. Hudson and H.J.W. Stokes, eds., Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, volume V, AGPS, Canberra, 1982, Document 510, pp. 818-23.
  4. The only reference of which I am aware is David Day, The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia & the Onset of the Pacific War 1939-42 (Angus & Robertson, Sydney and London, 1988), pp. 338-39, which quotes a couple of phrases from this passage, but does not discuss its significance in Australian-American relations.
  5. Norman Harper (ed.), Australia and the United States, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 135-39, includes the full text and a reproduction of the Melbourne Herald article of 27 December 1941.
  6. Norman Harper (ed.), Australia and the United States, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 135-39, includes the full text and a reproduction of the Melbourne Herald article of 27 December 1941.
  7. "Dryblower" Murphy's song, quoted in Neville Meaney, The Search for Security in the Pacific 1901-1914 (Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1976), p. 169.
  8. Clem Lloyd and Richard Hall (eds.), Backroom Briefings: John Curtin's War (National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1997), pp. 13-14; 31-35.

* Professor Peter Edwards AM is a consultant historian specialising in Australian defence and foreign policy. He is currently Honarary Professor at Deakin University and also Visiting Professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.