Commentary | 21 December 2017

Bob Menzies clearly believed Japan could crush us

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

In launching my biography of wartime prime minister John Curtin a few weeks ago, Paul Keating quoted the text of a June 12, 1940, discussion between the chief of the army general staff, General Brudenell White, and the newly appointed director-general of information, Sir Keith Murdoch.

It was a discussion of the gravest importance. In today’s debate about new Pacific threats and Australian defence policy, it has particular pertinence.

In response to direct questioning by Murdoch, White said if Japan were to invade Australia, there would be sufficient ammunition for only one month’s fighting. The intended 130,000-man home army would be sufficient to repel raids but did not “envisage invasion”. An important consideration in White’s mind was that if there was no British fleet to counter it (and assuming the US was not in the war), Japan “could probably subdue us by action at sea”.

White repeated his reasoning to a meeting of the war cabinet six days later. If it defeated the navy, “Japan could bring the commonwealth to terms by the exercise of sea power alone, without the need for invasion”. The implication was that a larger or better equipped home army was unnecessary.

The discussion occurred shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation and while England was under imminent threat of invasion. Australia was rightly concerned that if Japan came into the war to seize the Pacific territories left undefended by the fall of The Netherlands and France, there would be no British fleet to counter it. The US might join a war against Japan — or it might not. In June 1940, Australia had no assurance of American involvement. The scenario described by White might unfold.

Prime minister Robert Menzies was present at the conversation with Murdoch. There is no recorded disagreement with White’s views. Nor was there demur when White later presented his views to the war cabinet.

In the weeks since the launch of John Curtin’s War, Keating’s reference to this transcript has drawn indignant and hostile responses from no fewer than three of The Australian’s columnists, one of them twice. Yet, browsing those contributions, readers would have very little idea of what exactly the writers found objectionable. None of them questioned the veracity of the transcript Keating referred to or quoted its pertinent points.

Gerard Henderson’s most weighty claim (Inquirer, December 2) is that I gave an incorrect reference for this document. My reference is correct. He has a different document from the Menzies papers that contains the same material. Henderson says White’s exchange with Murdoch was during a war cabinet meeting. Plainly it is no such thing because the only ministerial member of the war cabinet present was Menzies, a fact Henderson acknowledges.

I take it as a special briefing arranged for Murdoch, recently appointed to his role. Henderson quotes material that he says I deliberately omitted and that, he suggests, somehow changes the meaning of White’s remarks. The material he quotes does not in any way qualify White’s remarks. In justice to White, he knew what he was saying and he said it with clarity and frankness.

Henderson contests my view that Menzies “surely did not” tell Curtin of White’s view, or Menzies’ apparent acceptance of it. He says “it is likely” Menzies did tell Curtin. The exchange on this was published in The Australian last week, and readers can make up their own minds on the probabilities. Acknowledging that Menzies was a firm advocate of appeasing Adolf Hitler, Henderson counters that Curtin was too. Where is the evidence for this? I once entertained this idea, but on further examination of the record I conclude that as opposition leader Curtin wanted no Australian military involvement in Europe. He was most concerned about the threat to Australia from Japan, not about Europe. He did not support appeasement.

Henry Ergas in his column (Opinion, December 15) refers to a comment shortly after war with Germany began in which Curtin expresses the hope that a discussion might “discover whether, after all, right cannot triumph without being backed by might”.

This, of course, must have been the universal hope, though Curtin would not for a moment have believed it likely. It is a quite different sentiment to that of Menzies, who was shortly writing to Australia’s high commissioner in the UK to urge that the British government very seriously consider a peace offer from Germany that he thought would “guarantee the integrity of Poland”. This when the German conquest of western Poland was nearly complete! Menzies’ support for appeasement not only preceded the outbreak of war but continued after it began.

Menzies was in many ways a great figure in Australian politics but we cannot understand our history if we make it up. Like Curtin, he made errors of judgment. White’s remarks and Menzies’ acceptance of this advice without contradiction are not mentioned in Alan Martin’s two-volume biography. They are not mentioned in Anne Henderson’s more recent Menzies at War.

Nor is Menzies’ letter to Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Australia’s high commissioner in London, urging negotiations with Germany on Poland a week after Germany’s invasion of Poland had begun, mentioned in either account. Why this refusal to examine the record? How else can we understand our history?