Governor General Lord Gowrie (right) signing the proclamation of a state of war with Japan, watched by Prime Minister Curtin and Deputy Prime Minister, Frank Forde December 1941. JCPML00376/102

'If you can imagine it' cartoon by Ted Scorfield, The Bulletin, 25 August 1943.


Until the 1940s Australian governments consistently pursued their foreign policy objectives within the framework of the British Empire. World War Two was the catalyst for creating an Australian perspective in foreign policy.

The Struggle To Be Heard

Australia under John Curtin had two major preoccupations in the closing weeks of 1941:

• The government felt that Australia's concerns were being overlooked by Britain and the United States.

• Australia wanted a greater say in the direction of the war.

In many respects Australia’s fear of being sidelined in decision-making during the war was to be the major factor determining Australian foreign policy until the end of 1945.


Churchill and Roosevelt in effect constituted a joint War Cabinet and they set up the Combined Chiefs of Staff to direct the Allied conduct of the war. The war effort was divided into three zones with the US in command of the Pacific zone, which included Australia. Australia struggled not to be treated as subordinate by Churchill and Roosevelt and the issue became ‘how to interest Washington in Australia’s fate?’

Essentially, the Curtin Government’s problem was that Roosevelt and Churchill were working to their own framework for the higher direction of the war, including the ‘Beat Hitler first’ strategy and the concept that the war in the South-West Pacific was defensive, to be followed by offensive action at a later stage.

John Curtin shifted the direction of foreign policy to include the United States whilst still maintaining Australia’s traditional links with Great Britain.


 Governor General Lord  Gowrie (right) signing the  proclamation  of a state of  war with Japan,  watched by  Prime Minister Curtin and  Deputy Prime Minister,  Frank Forde, December  1941.
 JCPML. Records of the  Curtin  family.  JCPML00376/102

 Commenting on the   perception of how the two   major powers of Great  Britain  and USA overlooked
 Australian affairs, this  cartoon depicts Churchill and  Roosevelt reviewing the  results of the 1943
 Roosevelt: 'Eddie's in and  Curtin's home and dry.' If  you can imagine it cartoon  by Ted Scorfield.
 The Bulletin, 25 August  1943




Postwar Policy

By 1945 Australia was attempting to find security and harmony in what was rapidly becoming a very different and more complex postwar world in which wartime developments, such as the ratification of the Statute of Westminster, the development of the United Nations, the signing of Australia’s first treaty and the Bretton Woods Agreement, would play a pivotal role.


The Statute of Westminster, passed through British Parliament in 1931, is a declaration that Australia is an independent state able to form its own foreign policy and defence free from British control. Initially Australia, unlike Canada and South Africa, made no attempt to ratify the five key sections of the Act which required separate Australian action.

The decision of the Curtin Government and External Affairs Minister Evatt in the second half of 1942 to legislate for the parliamentary ratification of the Statute of Westminster was a major step forward in Australia’s preparedness to forge its own legal identity in the international arena.


The Australia-New Zealand agreement encapsulated the two dominions' concerns about security and status. The agreement was formulated in reaction to a number of important decisions that had been made by larger powers without consultation with either Australia or New Zealand relating to such matters as the future administration and disposal of the Japanese Mandated Territories, the return of Formosa (Taiwan) to China and the future of Korea after the end of the war.

While New Zealand shared Australia's concern at the lack of consultation, Australia took the initiative by arranging for a conference between the two nations to be held in Canberra in January 1944 and then putting forward the suggestion of a treaty.

The proceedings of the conference were considerably expedited by the preparatory work done by the Australian Department of External Affairs and by Minister for External Affairs, H V Evatt. Curtin, who was Minister for Defence as well as Prime Minister, placed the agreement in broad terms when, in a statement to the conference, he indicated that 'security would rest on three safeguards - national defence, Empire cooperation and the system of collective security organised on a world and regional basis'.

The Australian Cabinet ratified the agreement on 24 January 1944 and the New Zealand Government on 1 February.

Although, for the first time ever, Australia had entered into an international agreement to which Britain was not a party, the agreement was generally welcomed by the UK Government and the British press. By contrast the United States' unsympathetic attitude to aspects of Evatt's diplomacy was only exacerbated by this 'regional presumptuousness'.

The Anzac Agreement foreshadowed the fact that Australia, through Evatt, was prepared to put Australian interests forward on postwar settlement issues. The agreement can also be regarded as the forerunner of the ANZUS treaty signed between Australia, New Zealand and the United States in 1951. As Evatt contended in 1944 'it is necessary to get rid once and for all of the idea that Australia's international status is not a reality and that we were to remain adolescent forever'.
(CPD Vol. 179, 19 July 1944, p.229).


The idea of the United Nations (UN) as an international peace-keeping organization was first spelt out at the Big Three wartime Allied Conference held at Moscow in October 1941. Previously, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed on a number of broad principles including national self-determination for colonised countries after the war and provision for some sort of permanent security system and these became known as the Atlantic Charter. Australia pledged its support for these principles early in 1942.

By this stage of the war Australian foreign policy was increasingly focussed on dissatisfaction with the Allies' repeated failure to consult with Australia on issues affecting Australia's interests. Both Prime Minister Curtin and Minister for External Affairs Evatt saw part of the solution in improved consultation within the British Commonwealth. This line was pursued, but failed to attract support, when Curtin attended the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in 1944. Evatt came to see that the proposed United Nations organization might give smaller nations, such as Australia, more opportunity to voice their concerns.

The United Nations Conference was held in San Francisco in 1945 and was attended by representatives of 50 nations including Australia. On 26 June the Charter of the United Nations was signed and, following ratification by the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the other signatories, the UN came into existence on 24 October 1945.

The Australian delegation was led by Evatt and Deputy Prime Minister Forde. At the conference, Evatt displayed enormous physical and mental energy and emerged as a champion of the 'small powers'. According to Evatt the central problem was to ensure that the doctrine of equality was maintained. He argued strongly for adequate representation of small and middle powers on the executive authority to ensure that 'no important group of nations' should be left unrepresented.

Australia proposed 38 amendments of substance and 26 of these were either adopted without significant change or achieved by other means. Furthermore, Australia, through Evatt, was elected to the Executive Committee of 14 which prepared the final draft of the UN Charter. Although the big powers refused to give up their power of veto, Evatt did achieve a decision that the veto could not be imposed when countries were negotiating to resolve disputes. In 1948 Evatt became President of the United Nations, a position of much prestige for Australia.

After Curtin's attempt at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference to improve Empire cooperation failed, Evatt more strongly pursued the United Nations as an organisation that might give smaller nations, such as Australia, an opportunity to voice their concerns

  Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942. National Archives of Australia: A1559, 1942/56   The Statute of Westminster Adoption Act, passed by the Curtin Government in 1942, provided that in future the Imperial Government could only legislate for Australia at Australia's specific request. The Act applied only to the Commonwealth Government, leaving the States in Australia to relate directly to the Imperial Government on certain issues and vice versa.

   Statute of Westminster Adoption  Act 1942.
 Courtesy National Archives of  Australia: A1559, 1942/56

      New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser (standing) addresses Parliament during the Australia-New Zealand conference. National Library of Australia: MS 4936
       New Zealand Prime Minister Peter  Fraser  (standing) addresses Parliament during  the Australia-New Zealand conference.
 JCPML. Records of Robert Menzies.
 JCPML00544/10. Original held by
 National Library of Australia: MS 4936
 Series 31 folder 15

  The Australian delegation to San Francisco for the United Nations conference.  National Library of Australia: Pic an23236247.   Prime Minister John Curtin (seated) flanked by Minister for External Affairs Dr Evatt (left) and New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser signs the Anzac Agreement. MacArthur Memorial Library and Archives: MML&A 20082.
  The Australian delegation to San  Francisco for the United Nations
 conference. Left to right: Deputy  Prime Minister Frank Forde and  Minister for  External Affairs, Dr
 Herbert Evatt
 Courtesy National Library of
 Australia: Pic an23236247

   Prime Minister John Curtin (seated)
 flanked by Minister for External Affairs
 Dr Evatt (left) and New Zealand Prime
 Minister Peter Fraser signs the Anzac
 JCPML. Records of Douglas
 MacArthur. JCPML00265/20.
 Original held by MacArthur Memorial
 Library and Archives: MML&A

  The concert of Europe cartoon by Ted Scorfield. The Bulletin, 10 October 1945.  

Evatt played an especially prominent role at the April 1945 San Francisco meeting for the establishment of the United Nations, arguing that the veto proposal should be limited 'except in cases of emergency' and with provision for 'a majority of the great powers to take enforcement action against aggression' notwithstanding a veto by one or more of the great powers. He also opposed the big powers having 'unrestricted power' to veto any proposed change to the United Nations Charter. [Crockett, Evatt A Life, p. 215] More broadly, he urged that the General Assembly should 'be given powers and functions which would enable it to be the central body of the world organisation' [Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 504]; and that 'Australia and other lesser powers exercise leadership so as to moderate big power supremacy'. [Crockett, Evatt A Life, p. 216] Evatt certainly made his mark at the UN conference and the New York Times told its readers:

When Dr Evatt came here he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate, with the background of a professor and Labour politician. He leaves, recognised as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world's conscience' [Lowe, Australia in the World, p. 181].

[F]or ceaseless determined activity I have never seen anything like his [Evatt's] performance. Coming to the conference an almost unknown man internationally, he made himself one of the better-known figures in that multitude of people all striving to impress themselves on others. He made Australia the acknowledged aviator and often the spokesman of the small powers. [Hasluck, Australia and the formation of the United Nations, p. 173.]

   At the United Nations Evatt argued
 unsuccessfully that the 'big
 five' powers should give up their
 power of veto.
 The concert of Europe cartoon by
 Ted Scorfield.,The Bulletin, 10
 October 1945.


The term 'United Nations' itself seems to have been first suggested by US President Franklin Roosevelt and was also the term that the Allies used to refer to their alliance against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

  Australia's Champion in the Councils of the World.  Advertisement from The Bulletin 11 September 1946, p.27  

   Australia's Champion in the  Councils of  the World.
 Advertisement from The Bulletin,
 11 September 1946, p.27

  Evatt as President of the United Nations. National Archives of Australia: A6180 23/8/79/118  
   Evatt as President of the United  Nations.
 Courtesy National Archives of  Australia: A6180 23/8/79/11






United Nations General Assembly Medallion presented to
Dr Evatt in 1948.
Courtesy Flinders University Library.
United Nations General Assembly Medallion presented to Dr Evatt in 1948. Flinders University Library.

Prime Minister Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley, April 1946. JCPML00376/155 Christmas in the Gashouse cartoon by Ted Scorfield.  


Despite some reservations within Cabinet about the direction the major powers were taking, Australia sent a four person delegation of experts to attend the Bretton Woods United Nations's Monetary and Financial Conference which began on 1 July 1944. The Bretton Woods Agreement developed from this Conference. Securing Australia's ratification of the Bretton Woods Agreement was one of the most politically difficult but important achievements of the Curtin and Chifley Governments in preparing Australia for its place in the postwar world of international trade and economics.

The prime purpose of the conference was to discuss the establishment of an International Monetary Fund which would:

• promote international monetary cooperation;
• facilitate the expansion and balanced growth of international trade;
• influence countries to correct maladjustments in their balance of payments and fulfil their obligations under the fund.


However, there was much anxiety within Australia, particularly within the Australian Labor Party (ALP), that a major effect of the agreement would be pressure for Australia to reduce its tariff protection levels and forego its trading advantages with Britain. It was not until March 1947, after a long and tense set of negotiations within the ALP, that Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley was finally able to secure parliamentary acceptance of the Bretton Woods Agreement.

In his speech during the closing stages of the parliamentary struggle Chifley told the house that:

I think of the advantages that the whole of mankind should derive from any such international agreement. On that basis the Bretton Woods Agreement is justified…If we have any love for mankind and a desire to free future generations from the terrible happenings of these last thirty years, we must put our faith in these organisations…in order to allow future generations…to attain a reasonable and decent standard of living to which every human being, black or white, is entitled.
[Crisp, Ben Chifley: A Political Biography, p. 210]

 Prime Minister Joseph Benedict
 (Ben) Chifley, April 1946.
 JCPML. Records of the Curtin  family. JCPML00376/155.

 There was much anxiety within the
 Australian Labor Party about the
 effect of the Agreement on Australia's
 Ward: ' We don't WANT your
 Christmas puddin'. Christmas in the
 Gashouse cartoon by Ted Scorfield.
 The Bulletin 11 December 1946






Communications in World War Two

Three sets of commemorative stamps were issued during and just after World War Two.

The first featured the nursing and fighting services and is known as the 'AIF' set. Four values: 1d, 2d, 3d and 6d, were issued on 15 July 1940. The stamp's design was loosely based on a painting by Virgil Reilly and used as a cover illustration for The Australian Women's Weekly. The figures were based on photographs and all three men survived the war.

Left: Facsimile of a keyline drawing for 2d stamp die engraving showing the 1940 Australian armed forces and nursing service. Courtesy Australia Post

Facsimile of a keyline drawing for 2d stamp die engraving 1940; Facsimile of a keyline drawing of the 2½d master stamp die engraving  1945; and Block of nine 2½d, 3½d, 5½d 1945 peace issue stamps 1946.

A set of three values; 2½d, 3½d and 5½d depicting the inauguration of the new Governor General, the Duke of Gloucester, pictured with his wife, was issued on 19 February 1945. The Prime Minister's Department sought agreements from the King and the Duke in late 1944 for permission to issue the commemorative stamp. Sales broke all records in Australia and a second printing of the 3½d denomination was needed by March 1946. Prime Minister John Curtin received a die proof set mounted in a card presentation.

Centre: Facsimile of a keyline drawing of the 2½d master stamp die engraving of the 1945 inauguration of the Duke of Gloucester as Governor General of Australia. Courtesy Australia Post

Finally, another set of three stamps with the same values, known as the 'Peace' set, appeared on 18 February 1946. The additional ½d was the War Tax which was not repealed until 1 July 1949. The Peace set was a first for Australia in that different designs were used for each denomination. There was some controversy over the design of the stamps, with an official protest from the Contemporary Art Society of Australia: 'The stamps are obviously still being designed by persons who are not in touch with modern trends…' while the Herald of 30 January 1946 stated: 'They simply do not measure up. In a world showing showing of stamps they go pretty close to the bottom.'

Right: Block of nine 2½d, 3½d, 5½d 1945 peace issue stamps. Courtesy Australia Post.

Short wave radio played an important role in communications between POWs and their families.

A number of amateur radio operators were allowed to listen for broadcast names and messages. These were then delivered through the civilian postal service.

In September 1943, the Japanese radio in Java offered to accept messages and deliver them. If delivery could not be made, the reasons would be broadcast. In exchange, Japan wanted Australia to reciprocate. Regrettably, the Australian Government refused to allow such broadcasts from Australia as it was considered to be an unacceptable form of direct contact.

By late 1939, Australia had an internal telephone and telegraph network, an international cable facility and a railway system linking both sides of the continent. With the outbreak of war communications issues such as censorship and secret cables became vitally important.

Telephone similar to one used in Prime Minister John Curtin's office c. 1940s; Telephone similar to one installed in Prime Minister John Curtin's Cottesloe home 1940s; and Airzone wireless capable of picking up short wave broadcasts, c.1935.

Left: Telephone similar to one used in Prime Minister John Curtin's office c. 1940s. Courtesy Telstra.

Middle: Telephone similar to one installed in Prime Minister John Curtin's Cottesloe home to allow him to keep in contact with his family and to be contacted from Canberra whilst he was in Perth, c. 1940s. Courtesy Telstra.

Right: Airzone wireless capable of picking up short wave broadcasts, c.1935. Courtesy Fremantle Light and Sound Discovery Centre.

View some of the documents which support this section of the exhibition and which reveal Australia's growing independence in foreign policy directions. Most of these records are from the Department of Foreign Affairs Historical Documents Project working papers used for the compilation of Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, 1937-1949.