Assessments of the Curtin-MacArthur relationship
  More broadly, Horner argues, when citing economic historians Butlin and Schedvin, that 'the structure of command of the direct war effort was in disarray' and with reference to the work of war historian Paul Hasluck that 'the central feature of the whole manpower situation [was] a constant uncertainty in the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet regarding the exact nature of the Australian war effort'. This situation Butlin and Schedvin argued arose because 'an important part of the problem which could not be readily resolved was MacArthur's domination of Curtin'.15 Thus, for example, Horner contends that in mid 1943 MacArthur succeeded in maneouvring Curtin and the Australian Government into maintaining a higher degree of front line commitment for many months longer than would otherwise have been the case even though Australia was officially declared as secure from any threat of invasion.16 He also argues that in early 1944 (in a section of his book headed 'Sagacious advice from MacArthur') that the General had a very one-sided discussion with Curtin and Shedden before Curtin departed on his trip to the United States and UK.17 Edwards summarises these views by suggesting that they amount to an affirmation that Curtin, though a 'decent man', was
overwhelmed by the demands of wartime leadership and unqualified to take on the role of the strong civilian leader who could command the generals and defend the national interest.18

General Douglas MacArthur, c1944.

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. General Douglas MacArthur, c1944. JCPML00376/124.

'To the Prime Minister who saved Australia in her hour of deadly peril. With the admiration and affection of Douglas MacArthur.'

  In his more recent Inside the War Cabinet Horner slightly qualifies his earlier views conceding that
perhaps the government had little option but to place its forces under the command of a foreign general, but nevertheless it was a substantial abrogation of Australian sovereignty.19

This said, the fact remains that problems continued right up to the last weeks of the war, with the Australian involvement in Balikpapan resulting from a situation where the War Cabinet had gradually 'lost control of strategic decision making in favour of a foreign general'. Interestingly in his subsequent biography of Sir Frederick Shedden Horner appears to shift more of the blame to the senior civilian official on whom Curtin so heavily relied.20

David Day is another historian who in his 1999 biography of Curtin wrote of the two men as having a cosy symbiotic relationship'in which

Some of MacArthur's prestige as 'saviour of Australia rubbed off on Curtin'... while MacArthur liked a docile dominion over which he could exercise his military reign.21

For both men there were political advantages in this situation and Day also suggests that Curtin became 'less deferential' from 1943 onwards. Writing a year after the publication of his Curtin biography Day modified his stance further by suggesting that

Telegram from General MacArthur to John Curtin re speech, ca 1943.

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. Telegram from General MacArthur to John Curtin re speech, ca 1943. JCPML00401/39

'Your speech was magnificent measured by any standard of strategy, courage, patriotism or commonsense.
I shall radio Washington at once in strongest support of your statement.

the burden of war leadership was almost more than Curtin could bear... MacArthur not only removed much of the responsibility for strategic decision-making from Curtin's shoulders, but his very presence seemed to be reassuring proof that Australia would not be abandoned by the Allies.22

Twelve years earlier Gavin Souter suggested

It was no exaggeration to say, as MacArthur himself said privately, that Curtin was completely in his hands on military matters' and even the meetings with Shedden present were 'rather like a strong government's dealings with a weak opposition'.23

This applied right from the outset with Curtin informing the Australian military commanders in mid April 1942 that 'they were to regard orders from MacArthur as coming from the Commonwealth Government'.

General MacArthur being greeted in Canberra by PM Curtin, 194? JCPML00265/11.

JCPML. Records of Douglas MacArthur. General MacArthur being greeted in Canberra by PM Curtin, 194? JCPML00265/11. Original held by MacArthur Memorial Library and Archives: MML&A 9750.


One particularly interesting source of information concerning these events can be found in journalist Frederick T Smith's off-the-record notes on the briefings given by Curtin to Press reporters during the war, edited by Clem Lloyd and Richard Hall and published in 1997 under the title Backroom Briefings. John Curtin's War.24 Smith's notes deal with the period dating from 30 June 1942 but the briefings seem to have begun much earlier and were essentially a way for Curtin to keep senior journalists 'in the know' while relying, almost invariably successfully, that the information would not be made public or commented on in editorials.25

Lloyd and Hall contend that MacArthur's admiration for Curtin, though boundless and genuine, was

coloured by his [MacArthur's] own mystique and sense of destiny. In retrospect Curtin had become just another MacArthur factotum, although a cherished one-another strand in the MacArthur legend'.

From their perspective 'there is no question that [MacArthur's] epitomisation of Curtin's role as the "heart and soul of Australia" was both genuine and justified' and to place too much stress on Curtin's reliance on people such as Shedden and Chifley does 'not give a balanced picture... in the context of a vigorous, assertive and often inspirational leadership'.26

In writing about Curtin's 'ingenuity, dexterity and resourcefulness' Lloyd and Hall accept that in the process Curtin felt obliged to 'contrive, improvise, temporize and,, on occasions to manipulate': he was indeed 'a superb political animal'.27 As already indicated , in November 1942 Curtin had told the journalists that the 'request for one army had come from MacArthur' but he did not want this information known publicly because 'technically' MacArthur 'should have no concern with the matter'. Then as on other occasions 'neither the journalists nor the management dobbed him in'.28

Birthday telegram from Curtin to MacArthur, 26 January 1944

Birthday telegram from Curtin to MacArthur, 26 January 1944.

'Australia joins you on your birthday in the hope that you will be spared to carry out your great task and that, on the completion of it, you will enjoy many well-earned anniversaries. The conjunction of your birthday with that of this nation is the best possible augury I know for the success of our arms.
Mrs Curtin joins me in offering you earnest good wishes and asks me to convey her warmest regards to Mrs MacArthur, regards I deeply share.
John Curtin.'

Courtesy National Archives of Australia: M1415, 380


It is therefore all the more interesting that 'perhaps surprisingly, relatively little about the MacArthur-Curtin relationship emerges from the briefings and Curtin's comments about MacArthur in the briefings were 'mostly matter-of-fact' with the 'enthusiastic testimony' saved for 'public statements and personal correspondence with the General'.29 Lloyd and Hall also comment on the lack of enthusiasm on Curtin's part in any of the briefings concerning the relationship with the US overall. Rather there emerges a 'sense of wearied resignation about what must be' with indignation, resentment and a sense of grievance about the the overall war strategy never far from the surface'. Their portrait has been described by Peter Edwards as one of 'an able and confident politician doing what he must do for Australia's sake, while abundantly skeptical about American motives'.30

How are we then to assess the true significance of the relationship between the General and the Prime Minister? The substantial differences in personality and political perceptions could be bridged because each provided the other with what was considered indispensable support and backing; because each needed what the other could bring to the relationship; and because in the end neither posed any real threat to the other but rather a potential source of assistance in securing their overall objectives. Neither in fact was able to deliver all that the other wanted and needed and it is probably fair to say that Curtin was able to do more for MacArthur in removing potential obstacles to his freedom of action than MacArthur was able to do for Curtin in terms of influencing the Allied war strategy and the availability of military resources. On balance, Curtin had definitely to give the most ground and in the process several informed commentators believe he ceded far more Australian sovereignty than was desirable or even necessary.

Telegram from MacArthur in reply to Curtin's birthday telegram, 28 January 1944.

Telegram from MacArthur in reply to Curtin's birthday telegram, 28 January 1944.

'I appreciate most warmly your fine birthday message. It fills me with pride to have my anniversary coincide with that of this great country and to know that I have shared and survived its greatest hour of peril. Mrs MacArthur joins me in affectionate greetings to you and Mrs Curtin.

Courtesy National Archives of Australia: M1415, 380


All this is probably true but at another level Curtin's achievements on the home front were enormous and his handling of the federal party conflict on behalf of the ALP was more skilful and more successful than any other ALP leader ever.

Curtin's enthusiastic public endorsement of MacArthur is surely testament not only to the genuine personal relationship that developed between them but also his awareness of just how important the MacArthur legend was to him and his country, especially in the first twelve to eighteen months after the general reached Australia.

Later in the war their need for each other lessened and their paths moved further and further apart as their differing longer term objectives began to take precedence. The way Australian troops were handled and the treatment of Australian Army commanders by MacArthur were genuine examples of diminished sovereignty though one wonders how unusual this was to an Australia used to its troops serving under British command for so long.

Perhaps the best summary was that provided by Curtin himself at a briefing in August 1942 when he suggested that he

had to maintain MacArthur's authority while at the same time ensuring that Australia's viewpoints and requirements were fully considered. It had not been difficult to maintain this delicate balance because he, MacArthur and Blamey got on [so] well personally.31

Letter from MacArthur to Curtin, 16 November 1943.

Letter from MacArthur to Curtin, 16 November 1943.

'... I believe that the basis of the extraordinary success that we have attained against the enemy has been the complete co-operation, goodwill and understanding which from the very beginning has existed between us. Nothing should be allowed to disturb this harmony...'

Courtesy National Archives of Australia: A5954, 2386/20


It is important also that this relationship be seen in its own context and the context of the situation confronting both men in 1942. To portray the Curtin 'without any pangs' New year message of December 1941 and his relationship with MacArthur as commencing an unbroken sequence of events leading to the signing of the Anzus Treaty in 1951 is both simplistic and in many respects very misleading. The sequence of events was a response to a critical set of events at the time, posing a degree of threat to Australia's national security that has not been exceeded either before or since.