Labor leaders, Prime Minister John Curtin with Treasurer Ben Chifley, 1940s. Rev. Hector Harrison leading pall bearers and casket containing the body of Prime Minister John Curtin after the official service in King's Hall Canberra, July, 1945. JCPML00376/170  

Between 1941 and 1945 Australia took the first decisive steps towards a more independent world view, moving away from total reliance on Britain for its foreign policy and defence. After the Pacific war Australians were only too aware of the extent to which their future security would depend on the direction of developments in south-east Asia and of the importance of continuing involvement by Britain and the United States.

Postwar Transition

Politically Australia made a smooth transition into the postwar world in August-September 1945 despite the death of Prime Minister Curtin. The new leader Ben Chifley (1945-49) had been a close associate of Curtin throughout the war and was a key figure in postwar planning while Herbert Evatt remained as Minister for External Affairs.


Despite these continuities the world after 1945 was very different from that which existed in 1939. While ties with Britain and the Commonwealth were not discarded, especially during Menzies' prime ministership (1949-66), the foreign policy realities which had confronted Curtin at the end of 1941 guaranteed that inevitably the United States would become the most significant of Australia's 'great and powerful friends'.

The central problems faced by Curtin during World War Two are essentially the same problems Australians face today:

• the need to resolve Australia's geographic position in Asia in relation to its European demographic makeup; and

• the need for security by a small to middle power.

 Labor leaders, Prime Minister John
 Curtin with Treasurer Ben Chifley,
 JCPML. Records of the Curtin
  family. JCPML00376/132

Rev. Hector Harrison leading pall bearers and casket containing the body of Prime Minister John Curtin after the official service in King’s Hall Canberra, July, 1945.
JCPML. Records of the Curtin family. JCPML00376/170

At the death of Prime Minister John Curtin on 5 July 1945, Ben Chifley became Prime Minister of Australia and led the country into the first postwar years, with Herbert Evatt continuing as Minister for External Affairs.




Asian Independence

Prior to European colonisation, the nation as a concept had not been a feature of Asian societies. It was not until the Japanese attempted to create the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Zone and release the peoples of the area from European rule that a widespread desire for national identity and independence awakened. The nationalist movements which developed during these years when European rule was displaced, ensured that colonial control could not be readily re-established after the war.

Australia’s interests in, and attitudes towards, the process of decolonisation need to be seen against a background of changing policy focus during and after World War Two. During the war the Curtin Government had put great emphasis on selfdetermination in the wording of the Atlantic Charter and in the aims and objectives of the United Nations. However, there is little doubt that Evatt, while accepting that India, China and the Philippines would determine their own destinies, initially welcomed the prospect of compassionate colonial administration. Nor was there any hint by either the Curtin or Chifley Governments of Australia’s intention of ending its own colonial rule in Papua and New Guinea.

By 1947, however, Evatt’s policies changed to an emphasis on Australia replacing European powers in Asian councils and the need for Australia to regard Asian nationalism ‘realistically and with understanding’. Economically too, Australians came to see the importance of developing trading ties with their Asian neighbours.


Curtin met regularly with journalists throughout his prime ministership. His briefing to journalists in November 1943 showed his awareness that in a postwar world trade and economic interaction with our Asian neighbours was going to be crucial even if he could not have foreseen the speed with which Japan rose to become the country’s leading trading partner. Indeed, by the turn of the 20th century free trade agreements with the United States would be sought with the same vigour, and with the same problems, as was the case with Britain at Ottawa in 1932. Similarly, his concern in 1943 about the impact of the concept of ‘White Australia’ on these developments suggests that had he lived long enough he would have come to embrace his party’s conversion to the concept of multiculturalism.

  Giving away New Guinea cartoon by Ted Scorfield. The Bulletin 6 February 1946  

In 1884 New Guinea was divided between Britain and Germany. From 1902 the Commonwealth of Australia took over the administration of British New Guinea and in 1905 the Papua Act was passed renaming it the Territory of Papua. After World War One, Prime Minister W M Hughes managed to annex Germancontrolled New Guinea because of its importance to Australia’s defence. When the Japanese invaded in World War Two, the strategic importance of Papua and New Guinea was again highlighted. Maintaining Australia’s interest in the Territory, Dr Evatt stressed that ‘we must found the future Pacific policy on the doctrine of [colonial] trusteeship for the benefit of all Pacific peoples’ [CPD, vol. 172, p. 83] although selfdetermination was not an option for the immediate future.

   Self-determination was not considered an option
 for New Guinea and Evatt recommended colonial
 trusteeship as supported by the UN. Evatt: 'No
 moreum 'perialism, no moreum League, God
 saveum UNO - fifty-one big new fella masta,
 Giving away New Guinea cartoon by Ted
 Scorfield. The Bulletin 6 February 1946

  Prime Minister Robert Menzies (right) laying a wreath at the Monument of the Proclamation of Independence in Djakarta, 1959. National Archives of Australia: A1775, RGM38  

After the war Evatt and Australia came to play a significant role in the achievement of Indonesian independence by opposing Dutch military actions against the nationalists from 1947 onwards. At one stage Australia even suggested the Netherlands be expelled from the United Nations. Australia’s support for the independence movement was so significant that Australia was nominated along with India to sponsor the Indonesian delegation to the UN in 1949. When the Indonesian delegation took its place in the General Assembly its spokesman thanked Australia and India for carrying the nationalists’ case.

   Prime Minister Robert Menzies (right) laying a
 wreath at the Monument of the Proclamation of
 Independence in Djakarta, 1959.
 Courtesy National Archives of Australia: A1775,
  Prime Minister John Curtin chatting with the Canberra Press Gallery, known as ‘the Circus’, c. 1944. JCPML00376/2.      
   Prime Minister John Curtin chatting with the
 Canberra Press Gallery, known as 'the Circus',
 JCPML. Records of the Curtin family.


View some of the documents which support this section of the exhibition and which reveal Australia's attitude to the trusteeship of dependent territories and its sponsorship of Indonesian independence. 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.