A sensitive soul at the helm in wartime
John Curtin’s War, Volume 1
Review by Ross Fitzgerald
People have different ideas about turning points in our history. I would argue that John Curtin’s leadership during the Pacific War was pivotal. Gallipoli is a legend, the Western Front is important and Federation in 1901 is crucial but, as with John Edwards in his most recent book, I think it’s the ALP’s John Curtin who really helped secure our future.
On October 7, 1941, a mere eight weeks before Japan launched its war in the Pacific, Curtin became Australia’s 14th Prime Minister at the age of 56.
He was an intriguing bloke, imperfect – a sober alcoholic who was often very fearful – and so far the only PM to represent a Western Australian seat in the House of Representatives, that of Fremantle. Supporters and opponents alike mourned when, on July 5, 1945, Curtin became only the second Australian PM to die in office. The Japanese surrender was announced on August 15, 1945.
While previous biographies of Curtin, particularly those by Lloyd Ross and David Day, broke new ground, ‘John Curtin’s War’ makes a huge and highly accessible contribution to Australian political history. Edwards charts Curtin’s fascinating political and personal life from his birth in Creswick, Victoria, in 1885 and his involvement in the late 19th-century socialist ferment in Melbourne, through the horrors of the Great Depression. The book also charts his struggles for power both inside the ALP and against two prime ministers, namely the Labor rat Joe Lyons, who hailed from Tasmania, and the founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Gordon Menzies, the Melbourne barrister who was in so many ways his polar opposite but who always treated Curtin with the utmost courtesy, a courtesy that was reciprocal.
Edwards examines and explores in depth Curtin’s relationship with his future Treasurer, the New South Wales-based Ben Chifley, whose political career he nurtured and whose abilities and friendship he valued. Edwards also documents in loving detail Curtin’s close relationship with his son John and especially with his wife and daughter, who were both named Elsie and from whom he was so often separated by distance.
Curtin was the son of working-class Irish immigrants and a firm supporter of White Australia who had left school at 14. He possessed outstanding abilities and debating powers, ascending to the prime ministership and becoming our greatest wartime political leader and a beacon of hope for the labour movement and especially for the ALP.
The book finishes with Australia in peril and the heavy-smoking Curtin – who was prone to nightmares and had a morbid fear of flying – sleepless and haggard with worry about the fate of his ships and troops.
Perhaps the book’s most revealing photograph is a close-up of an animated Curtin delivering a radio broadcast to the nation warning Australians that “every human being here is henceforth at the Government’s service, and every material thing in the country can be diverted to war purposes at the government’s direction”.
Edwards concludes that by early 1942 Curtin feared that “Japan would follow its conquest of Singapore, Java, Rabaul, and north-east New Guinea with an attack on Port Moresby and an invasion of Australia”. Hence it is no surprise that Curtin placed more faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s America than in a waning Britain led by Winston Churchill.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University.
The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Brisbane Times, February 17-18, 2018.