The Truth About Menzies and the Second World War

Menzies at War
by Anne Henderson
NewSouth Publishing, 2014, 272 pages, $34.99

Anne Henderson’s excellent and fascinating book Menzies at War does much to correct a despicable mythology. Assiduously promoted by much of Australia’s Left, the mythology is that the first Menzies government of 1939 to 1941 was a failure which somehow nearly lost the Second World War until the ALP came galloping to the rescue. This is not merely false, but the reverse of the truth. The mythologising of Menzies’s first term has been, among other things, a case study of the venom the Left has been prepared to deploy in its war against “the tyranny of fact”.

Paul Keating once made the pseudo-totalitarian boast or threat that the ALP had the power to rewrite history, claiming in parliament that “the Labor Party makes the political heroes of this country. When people cross the Labor Party they wear the crosses it puts on them …” If the Left has failed to achieve this objective completely, it has not been for want of trying. Another Labor politician, Neal Blewett, claimed: “Labor must corral the symbols of Australian nationalism because they will be crucial elements of what is in many ways a cultural battle.”

Liberals have every reason to be proud of the record of Menzies’s first wartime government in the dark days before America entered the war. The late Professor Patrick O’Brien wrote in his 1986 paper “The Palace of Dreams” that it is extraordinary that with all the money at their disposal, sections of the business community have not financed a film or television series on the life of Sir Robert Menzies:

On the contrary, they have often financed films which portray themselves, what they stand for, and what might defend them, as evil. Moreover, we have been presented with television, cinema and theatre portrayals of Menzies as some sort of embryonic fascist or … dirty old man.

John Pilger has alleged, completely falsely, that Menzies’s wartime journey to the Middle East, Britain and America—when he braved the hazards of fairly primitive flying and the possible attention of the Luftwaffe in a slow, unarmed Vickers Valencia, and then experienced some of the heaviest air-raids of the war in London—was motivated by nothing more admirable than Anglophilic self-indulgence. Pilger is also wrong in claiming that at the time the Japanese struck, Australian warships were far away, due to Menzies. In fact they were nearly all in home or Asian-Pacific waters or proceeding there.

Paul Keating characteristically claimed that Menzies was “One of those craven cowards who wanted to lie down when the fight was really on.” An examination of Menzies’s speeches alone is enough to show the opposite. With almost Churchillian vigour, Menzies ceaselessly called, in the face of much Labor opposition (and almost countless strikes in strategic industries), for resolution and valour to defeat Nazism. In three examples among innumerable others, he claimed, when Poland was defeated on 1939: “there could be no greater error than to think … the cause of this war is finished … the war is only just beginning”; and as Germany overran Denmark and Norway: “This grim savagery will serve to harden our determination to see this war through and to drive the evil out of Germany.” On June 18, 1940, when France surrendered, he declared:

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.

Anne Henderson quotes his letter to Richard Casey on December 8, 1940: “Nothing but a unanimous and maximum effort will save us.”

Compare Menzies’s frequent denunciations of Nazism’s “savagery” with John Curtin’s statement of June 23, 1941: “the Labor Party has no objection whatever to the Germans practising Nazism in Germany”. This statement—desperately naive rather than deliberately wicked—was made before the Wannsee Conference put the extermination of Jews on an industrial production-line basis but when the numbers killed were already in the hundreds of thousands. One can imagine what Menzies’s detractors would have made of this had Menzies said it. As it is, it is suppressed in most histories of the war.

David Day, who appears to believe Britain should have surrendered in 1940, instead of fighting on “at the cost of many millions of lives that might otherwise have been saved” (not many of them Jewish, though) produced a large and absurd book claiming Menzies wished to displace Churchill as British Prime Minister. Just how Menzies, one of the most learned constitutional lawyers in the world, might have thought this could be done, is another matter; moreover, Britain did not lose “many millions of lives” by fighting on.

Judith Brett, inverting an obvious fact, actually claims: “Lifting the spirits of the people of Great Britain” in the darkest part of the war “may have been encouraging to the British people and deeply satisfying for Menzies, but it was no use to Australia.” Unreality on this scale takes the critical faculty captive. It is, however, fairly mild stuff compared to some of Brett’s other pretentious pseudo-psychoanalytical profundities. To say, as Anne Henderson does, that these are “not sustainable” is an understatement.

Robert Manne, in a set of attacks on the Liberals titled The Barren Years, included an essay on Menzies’s political career which failed to mention his first prime ministership at all, apart from mysteriously alleging, on no discernible grounds, that Menzies had stubbornly refused to learn its lessons regarding the evils of racism. This is said of the man who led Australia to war against the homicidally racist Nazi regime, even if anti-racism was not his primary motive.

Manning Clark attempted to flatter Menzies while he was alive (speaking for example of his “tragic grandeur”) but as soon as he was safely dead defamed him as having “prostituted his great talents to the service of a corrupt and doomed society”. Clark claims that in 1941 Menzies paid a “terrible price” for his “arrogance and allegiance to the old dead tree”. Clark was speaking of Menzies’s first term of office during the war, so “prostituting his great talents to the service of a corrupt and doomed society” had to mean leading Australia in the war against Hitler.

Menzies, with the limited military assets at his disposal, showed a praiseworthy grasp of strategy, recognising the importance of Timor and sending an Australian force there to deny it to the Japanese, as well as using the cruiser HMS Adelaide to clean out the Vichy French bases in the Pacific Islands. The Japanese aircraft which sank Prince of Wales and Repulse and cleared the way to Singapore had taken off from Vichy French bases in Indo-China.

Anne Henderson’s book, despite what is sometimes an unnecessarily apologetic or defensive tone, does justice to the complex story of Menzies’s achievements in the darkest part of the war, which were in fact heroic. When the war broke out, Menzies had been Prime Minister only a few weeks. He was suddenly charged with leading in total war a country almost completely disarmed by a succession of caitiff governments which had not merely neglected, but in the case of some Labor politicians actually despised, their duty to defend their people. Thanks to Labor opposition, it was not until 1940 that the first batch of men were called up for compulsory military training for home defence.

During the Depression defence spending had sunk to less than 1 per cent of the shrunken national budget. Pleas by Britain, itself struggling with the Depression, to help finance or garrison the Singapore base had been refused. Against professional advice, the Navy and Army colleges had been closed, the Navy had shrunk to just four ships, not fully manned (several, including Australia’s only capital ship, and a flotilla of almost unused fast destroyers, had been towed out to sea and sunk), the Air Force barely existed and at one point the entire Army strength totalled about 1500 men.

Yet by the time Menzies went out of office in October 1941, the local defence force and local materials for war were such as had never before been dreamt of in Australian history. He said of the Labor government which succeeded him:

They inherited an AIF which they never succeeded in adding to, a reputation for Australia’s feats in the Middle East from which they withdrew, and a munitions effort which they only had to leave untouched to see it ring forth its fruits.

While Henderson states that “By 1939 Labor’s defence policy had boiled down to one of isolationist homeland defence, opposed to Australia’s involve­ment in what might be termed ‘other people’s wars’,” the fact is that at that time Labor could be said to have no defence policy at all, except to oppose government initiatives. When he was Labor Attorney-General, Frank Brennan had actually boasted of Labor’s behaviour, warning the few dedicated people remaining in the armed forces that they had no career paths before them, and claiming to the League of Nations:

Australia tells the world that as a gesture of peace she is not prepared for war … we have drawn the pen through the schedule of military expenditure with unprecedented firmness. We have reversed the policy which has subsisted in Australia for 25 years of compelling youth to learn the art of war.

Brennan claimed at the time of Munich that parliament was wasting time:

on matters which really have very little concern at all with Australia, notwithstanding the fact that there are many pressing and urgent matters awaiting attention that do intimately affect the people of this country.

Menzies’s UAP predecessor, Joseph Lyons, had hardly been outstanding in preparing Australia’s defences. Lyons, however, had at least overseen the creation of the rudiments of a ship-building and aircraft industry and other elements of a defence infrastructure, in the face of loud protests by treacherous bodies such as the communist-front Movement Against War and Fascism (an oxymoronic title like a Movement Against Surgery and Cancer). In May 1939, the ALP’s ineffable Maurice Blackburn claimed: “No great difference exists between democracies and totalitarian States … There is no great difference between Mr Chamberlain and Herr Hitler.”

After Hitler’s annexation of the rump of Czechoslovakia showed the policy of appeasement to be in ruins and war imminent, Labor opposed the government’s proposal for a national manpower survey and registration of manpower. On March 20, 1939, Britain informed Australia and New Zealand that it could no longer guarantee to send a fleet to aid those countries if Japan threatened them. Even at this late hour this did nothing to move Labor into a more pro-defence position.

It was the greatest achievement of John Curtin, said Menzies in paying tribute to him, to gradually lead Labor out of a hard-line pacifist position, though he never properly confronted the many communist-inspired strikes and had only limited success in obtaining conscription for overseas service. Labor, against Curtin’s wishes, retained the irrational position of Australia having two armies.

Following the outbreak of war with Germany, the ACTU demanded a campaign of civil disobedience, which would have made the country ungovernable. When Menzies tried to address striking coal miners early in the war, he was pelted with metal nuts and lumps of coal. Labor MP Eddie Ward called Australian troops “Five-bob-a-day murderers”.

In the political sphere, the greatest tragedy for Australia in the Second World War was the replacement of the Menzies government with a bumbling Labor government. Several senior members of the Curtin government were of dubious loyalty. Their leader, though decent and well-meaning, was handicapped by a fatal weaknesses of personality, including a great load of ideological baggage. He suffered the disloyalty of subordinates in its way at least as great as that endured by Menzies himself, and by the structure and flaws in the party machine forced upon him.

Henderson shows clearly that Menzies’s sojourn in wartime London had two main objectives. First, determined to assure the hard-pressed British people that they were not alone, he subjected himself to a punishing schedule of speeches and public appearances. Menzies was well aware that Australia’s survival depended on Britain’s survival. After the losses at Dunkirk, he had Australia send Britain 30,000 rifles and ammunition.

His other main task in Britain was to lobby for strengthening defences in the Far East, particularly the Singapore base, in the face of the growing Japanese menace. This latter task was not made easier by the fact that, despite repeated warnings from Britain that it might not be able to bear the cost alone, Australian governments had refused to contribute men, money or ships to Singapore. Australia, refusing conscription for overseas service in its own backyard, was expecting Britain to send its conscripts to the other side of the world to defend it.

Both Menzies and Curtin had to cope with disloyalty and infighting among their own party members, who respectively put personal interests and class-warfare ideology above national unity. Henderson writes:

Curtin assured the House that, during the Prime Minister’s trip abroad, he and his Labor team had supported the government’s war efforts, adding that neither he nor any of his colleagues “engage in idle, cheap or miserable disputation”. Two days later, Labor’s Frank Baker … gave the lie to all that by attacking Menzies and his government for failing to overcome poverty, allowing war-profiteering scandals, and leaving eight of the returned soldiers from Bardia to travel from Sydney to Brisbane in a second-class compartment.

The gloves were off, and just days after the Prime Minister’s return to Australia with a call for national unity.

The Country Party does not emerge here in a better light. It was obsessed with the most parochial issues. The Canberra air disaster, in which three senior ministers and the chief of the Army were killed, robbed Menzies of irreplaceable talent as well as being a stunning personal blow. I have written in Australia’s Secret War that there is evidence that the strain of dealing with the Left probably contributed to Curtin’s death at the age of sixty. Menzies was of less vulnerable personality, but was still left “battered and weary” by the attack that toppled him in 1941.

Henderson has done an excellent job of documenting the unsavoury infighting that preceded and followed Menzies’s return from overseas. The press barons turned against him, not because there was a better alternative war-leader on the horizon—there wasn’t—but because the Menzies government, like the British and probably all other wartime governments, rationed paper.

In his first term Menzies did not help himself by his lack of the people-skills he later mastered. According to anecdote, he made one political enemy on his own side when at a dinner a senator suggested he did not suffer fools gladly. Menzies replied: “And what, pray, do you think I am doing now?”

It is recounted that Menzies’s critics accused him of “paranoia over communism”, as if opposition to an ideology which killed about 100 million people is paranoia. The war had shown just how powerful the communist control of certain key unions was. Further, according to his enemies, Menzies “robbed Australia of a Labor prime minister for 23 years”. Robbing Australia of a government led by the demented and disloyal Evatt or the crashingly mediocre Calwell was nothing to be ashamed of.

Areas in which he could well be criticised, such as a tendency to corporatist government control, a slowness in moving against industry protectionism (he could have done more to help Bert Kelly’s long, lonely, low-tariff crusade), and going along with socialist rather than private-enterprise university and airlines systems, belong to his second term of office, a period in which, despite these and other shortcomings, Australia enjoyed a sort of Golden Age.

Henderson shows that attempting, as Judith Brett does, to psychoanalyse an intensely private man like Menzies is futile. He lived before the days when politicians wore their hearts on their sleeves. He was not always as imperturbable as he looked, however. One very senior Liberal senator told me that after Menzies’s speeches “they could ring a cup-full of sweat out of his shirts”.

The magnitude of the Menzies government’s war effort in 1939–41 remains a cause for great pride. This is an excellent and overdue book, and Anne Henderson has done the country a service by writing it.

Hal G.P. Colebatch’s two notable recent books are Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books) and Fragile Flame: The Uniqueness and Vulnerability of Scientific and Technological Civilization (Acashic).


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