It is unfortunate that a man who has held the office of Prime Minister like Paul Keating does not exhibit a greater acquaintance with history and the truth in his wild and insulting attack on Sir Robert Menzies. Menzies was by any reckoning Australia’s greatest Prime Minister and a brave and resolute leader in the darkest days of World War II, when the British Empire stood alone against Nazism.
As I made clear in my book Australia’s Secret War (Quadrant Books, order it here), the Labor Party at the outbreak of war attacked the war effort in every way. It opposed conscription even for home defence, let alone sending troops overseas, and opposed the compiling of a war-book organising Australia’s assets. Labor front-bencher Eddie Ward called Australian servicemen “four bob a day murderers” and encouraged strikes in vital defence industries.
Two days after the outbreak of World War II the Australian Labor Party Executive passed a resolution, endorsed unanimously by Caucus, which was evidently intended to bring Hitler and the Panzer divisions smashing into Poland smartly to heel without the necessity of further exertion. It began: “The Australian Labor Party affirms its traditional horror of war and its belief that international disputes should be settled by negotiation.”
Unfortunately, any heart-searching or second thoughts which this ringing declaration caused at Fuhrer Headquarters or the Oberkommando Wehrmacht seems to have so far escaped the attention of historians.
Labour and union strikes during the war in coal-mines, the waterfront, ship-building and repairs and in other vital industries would cost the hideously ironic figure of 6,000,000 working days directly lost from the war-effort, with days indirectly lost through flow-on stops to production a multiple of that. One example of the effect on Australia’s wartime production was that it sometimes took longer to build a corvette in Australia than an aircraft-carrier in America.
Keating calls Menzies cowardly and defeatist
Here is the actual record of what Menzies said at the most crucial moments in this dark period. It shows a virtually Churchillian determination to fight on, no matter what.
On October 3, 1939, with the rapid defeat of Poland, Menzies said:
“There could be no greater error than to think that because Poland lies defeated and dismembered, the cause of this war is finished … on the contrary, the war is only just beginning … we are now hearing that the war may bring Bolshevism to Europe … It is an extremely subtle piece of propaganda, and like all such propaganda, has just enough truth in it to make it appear palatable if it is not scrutinised closely …”
The Nazi invasions of Denmark and Norway shocked the world. Prime Minister Menzies said on April 10, 1940:
“As far as Australia is concerned, this grim … savagery will harden our determination to see this war through and to drive the evil spirit out of Germany.”
When the great German offensive through Belgium and France began, Menzies made a renewed call to arms on May 10, 1940:
“We are facing the greatest danger in our history. We must give our last ounce to the cause … If Britain herself were defeated, or even substantially weakened, our day as an independent nation might well be a brief one …”
On June 18, 1940, when France surrendered, a stunning blow to the alllies climaxing an unbroken series of German victories, Menzies said:
“This is not the end of the war. On the contrary, it is the beginning of its bitterest and most crucial phase. So long as Great Britain is unconquered the world can be saved, and that Britain can or will be conquered is unthinkable. We must take up our courage and work like tigers because the fate of humanity now rests with us …”
Such is Keating’s version of “defeatism.”
During heavy air-raids on London, with hundreds killed every night, Menzies, this “vacuous dandy” and “coward”, as Keating charmingly calls him, remained in the city, working to lift morale with his speeches and to remind Britain it was not alone. No other Australian Prime Minister (and certainly not Mr Keating) has come under enemy fire while in office.
And John Curtin, the ALP leader whose patriotism Keating tries to contrast with the “defeatist” Menzies, and who left 1,500 men with the meagre air-defence of 10 Wirraway trainers to be uselessly slaughtered by the Japanese at Rabaul?
Well, as late as June 24, 1941, John Curtin would state in Parliament that: “The Labor Party has no objection whatever to the Germans practising Nazism in Germany.”
While this statement — to be fair to Curtin, naive rather than deliberately wicked — was made shortly before the Wannsee conference put the Holocaust on an industrial production-line basis. Jews and others in Germany were known to have been systematically persecuted and murdered there since the day the Nazis took power, and civil liberties of every kind to have been crushed.
One can imagine how Australian historians would have endlessly pilloried Menzies had he ever made such a statement, and what Keating would have made of it if only it had not come from the Labor side of politics. As it is, the legion of leftist and Labor historians have buried it.
Finally, Keating’s claim that Menzies neglected defence preparations against Japan is also simply false. Australia, despite the obstruction of countless strikes, had a strong home defence force by the time Japan entered World War II, and Japan appears to have never seriously contemplated invasion.
Sir Percy Joske, a distinguished judge and politician, has said in Sir Robert Menzies, 1894-1978 (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1978):
“The fact is that the war effort of the Menzies Government had been magnificent. Great judgement had been shown both in the organization of the armed forces and the civilian effort … The forces, raised from nothing, and in the face of tremendous opposition from opponents in Parliament and in the trade unions, had achieved great and glorious successes … Five months before October, 1941, when he became Prime Minister, Curtin, the Labor leader, said: ‘[I claim that the war has been prosecuted to the maximum of Australia’s capacity’.”