Menzies and Curtin contemporary perspectives: Geoffrey Bolton

Surprisingly few of Australia's twenty-five prime ministers have seen active service in wartime. Bruce, Gorton and Whitlam are the only names coming readily to mind, though Holt and McMahon were both called up in the 1939-45 war. It is not surprising that the three prime ministers who held office during that war, Menzies, Fadden, and Curtin, lacked first-hand combat experience. Fadden did not last long enough for the issue to arise, but both Menzies and Curtin took criticism on this score, Menzies because his family agreed that in the 1914-18 war he should be the son who stayed at home, and Curtin because of his strong stand against conscription. Yet both gave good service as wartime prime ministers. The first Menzies government (1939-41) coincided with the phase of the war fought mostly in Europe and North Africa, so that it seemed a re-run of the 1914-18 war, with the major decisions made overseas. Menzies accordingly spent several months in Britain, and was criticised for it; but under his government much was done to create the essential infrastructure for the armed forces and their support systems.

As a new prime minister Curtin was confronted by the crisis in the Pacific after Japan entered the war. He is remembered for a clear acceptance of the need for Australia's steadfast adhesion to the American alliance, symbolised in his unlikely but effective partnership with General Douglas Macarthur, and for the skill and courage with which he persuaded the Australian Labor Party to accept conscription for service in the South-West Pacific. Like Menzies he tried to preserve Australia as a third force between the great allies, the United States and Britain. Like Menzies also, he offered Australians sincere and acceptable leadership and a government able to earn trust in a time of crisis. But it was Curtin who earned his party a record victory at the federal elections of 1943.

Professor Geoffrey Bolton
Murdoch University


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