Leading From The Front
‘John Curtin’s War. Volume II: Triumph and Decline’
by ROSS FITZGERALD
History has a surprising way of coming up with individuals who seem able to face momentous challenges on behalf of us all. As we used to say, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Britain had Winston Churchill when it needed him and we had John Curtin. The first volume of John Edwards highly accessible John Curtin’s War showed us how Curtin was the right man at the right time, even if – like all of us – at times he had feet of clay. That book ended with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, an event that led to the fear that Australia could also succumb to a Japanese invasion, sooner rather than later.
This second volume of Edwards’ magisterial political and military history recounts in graphic detail the next four years as Australia’s 14th prime minister, the ALP’s Curtin, grapples not just with our bitterly bellicose Asiatic enemy but also with our relatively new and powerful friend, America. The charismatically narcissistic General Douglas MacArthur, whose military headquarters had moved in July 1942 from Melbourne to be based in Brisbane, personified this important but occasionally strained relationship.
Edwards explains that, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was pursuing a “Hitler first” strategy and in the process was seen by many critics and commentators to be abandoning Australia, Curtin and MacArthur were ensuring that fighting the War in the Pacific was an absolute priority.
As the critical, American-led battles of the Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal were deciding Australia’s fate – and Kokoda was to create a new national legend – Curtin’s resolute and implacable determination lifted him beyond party and parliamentary conflicts to become a great, if not the greatest, leader of 20th-century Australia.
But Curtin’s outward strength and seeming composure during the perilous years of World War II and of severe national political challenge actually disguised his rapidly deteriorating health. During this period he also held some lingering doubts about the long-term efficacy of the Australian-American alliance, although he never let that get in the way of his co-operation with such a major ally.
This book is aptly subtitled ‘Triumph and Decline’. That decline led to national mourning when, on July 5, 1945, in The Lodge, Curtin – himself a long-time-sober alcoholic, insomniac, heavy smoker and Aussie Rules football addict – became only the second Australian Prime Minister to die in office. He died barely six weeks before the Japanese surrender on August 15.
As with the first volume, an array of revealing black and white photographs are a highlight of this one. As well as their uniformly high quality, they are an extremely useful addition to the text. So too is a very detailed index.
Along with two fine photos of a bespectacled Curtin shaking hands with MacArthur and posing with Churchill near 10 Downing Street in 1943 and 1944 respectively, a photographic standout is the last photo of Curtin with his beloved wife Elsie, taken on April 27, 1945 in Canberra – far away from their modest home in the beachside suburb of Cottesloe in Perth. On April 29, 1945, severely weakened by heart disease, the popular and hard-working Labor PM was admitted to a Canberra private hospital.
Yet perhaps the most revealing photograph of ‘Triumph and Decline’ is a group portrait of the all-male pallbearers, including the inaugural leader of the Liberal Party, Robert Gordon Menzies, walking sombrely beside Curtin’s coffin in July 1945.
A relatively minor weakness of this book (unlike the first) is that Edwards sometimes assumes a detailed knowledge of key political players of the period, which the contemporary reader may not possess. Thus a reference to former Queensland Labor premier and former deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, E.G. (“Red Ted”) Theodore, simply refers to him as Ted Theodore.
However, to be fair, when Edwards writes about additions to the influential War Council, he correctly states that Curtin “brought former Treasurer Theodore in, and not only retained but elevated the work of BHP chief, Essington Lewis”.
All in all, this is a well-researched and finely written piece of lucid historical and political analysis. Curtin’s story is important and well worth knowing about in detail. He was a man for his time. Cometh the hour, cometh the person. And not only did Curtin come, just in time, but he stayed on to almost finish his herculean wartime task.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent book, co-written with Antony Funnell, is a political satire, ‘So Far, So Good’ (Hybrid).
The Sydney Morning Herald, SPECTRUM, December 1-2, 2018, p 38.