Robert Menzies has generally received a bad press as prime minister in the first two years of the war. But, contrary to myth, it was only after pressure from Britain and promises of security against a possible Japanese threat that he raised an expeditionary force for service in Europe. He visited London in early 1941 specifically to try to gain reinforcements for the defence of Malaya. His government made significant steps in preparing Australian industry for war. His main failure was his inability to maintain the support of his party. By declaring that it was ‘business as usual’ he made it difficult to inspire the nation to greater sacrifices while the war seemed distant from Australian shores.
By contrast, Curtin has received a favourable press. He put aside the party’s socialist agenda to rally the country at a time of dire threat; he introduced stringent controls over the economy; and presided over an ‘all in ‘war effort. In demanding the return of troops to Australia he stood up to Churchill and Roosevelt and put the security of Australia first. He broke with party policy to allow conscripts to serve in the islands to the north, and died in office, worn out from his exertions. Yet he had weaknesses as a war leader. He probably had no option when he handed command of Australian forces to General MacArthur, but lacking military knowledge he allowed the situation to continue when MacArthur’s policies were not always in Australian interests.
Professor David Horner