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John Curtin's turn to America, 75 years on

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COMMENTS

1 October 2016 12:00

This December will mark the 75th anniversary of one of the most momentous developments in Australian foreign policy, war-time Prime Minister John Curtin's famous turn to America.

As we relax after Christmas and tune in to the Boxing Day Test, it may be worth reflecting on Curtin's New Year's message to the Australian people, published in the Melbourne Herald on 27 December 1941. Writing three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Curtin declared: 'Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.'

Curtin meeting with US General Douglas MacArthurat Parliament House, 1942. Photo: National Archives of Australia

His statement was attacked by conservative political opponents, angered the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and astonished the American president Franklin Roosevelt. 

For Curtin was ahead of the US in his thinking about strategy and priorities for the war in the Pacific. Yet his initiative boosted Australia's defences against the threat of invasion, laid the ground for the post-war ANZUS treaty, and forged an alliance which has been central to Australian foreign policy and defence strategy ever since.

It is often said that the most weighty decision for any government is sending armed forces into harm's way. These decisions involve the need to assess national interests, the security of the Australian people, the risk to defence personnel, the prospects of success and the risks and consequences of failure.

But Curtin's decisions were on an entirely different plane. National interest can be a complex, multi-layered and often contested concept. Yet everyone would agree that a country's most fundamental interest is to maintain its territorial integrity and political independence. This is the challenge that confronted Curtin. He remains the only prime minister to have led our nation through an existential threat, the only prime minister to have contemplated the imminent invasion, devastation and destruction of Australia.

He rightly described this as our darkest hour. 'Men and women of Australia,' Curtin said in a broadcast address to the nation to announce that Australia was at war with Japan. 'The call is to you, for your courage; your physical and mental ability; your inflexible determination that we, as a nation of free people, shall survive. My appeal to you is in the name of Australia, for Australia is the stake in this conflict.'

A passionate anti-war campaigner during World War I, Curtin became an advocate of greater defence self-sufficiency for Australia in the face of Japanese militarisation in the 1930s. His decisions following the outbreak of the Pacific War were driven by a relentless focus on the defence of Australia. He defied Churchill by insisting on the return of Australian troops from other theatres; he forged a new military partnership with the US; and he insisted on a role for Australia in decision-making on the course of the war in the Pacific.

Forged in the crisis of the Pacific War, the alliance has endured and has been immensely valuable to both countries. The alliance's enduring nature reflects the fact that Australia and the US have shared histories, mutual interests and common values. Those values include our commitment to democratic political systems, open economies and free and just societies.

The alliance remains as central to Australia's security today as it was in Curtin's time. It acts as a deterrent to potential aggressors, provides our defence forces with leading edge technologies and opportunities for cooperation, training and intelligence sharing, and gives Australia an ability to influence the world's leading great power.

For the US, Australia is a trusted partner with a sophisticated and professional defence force capable of taking part in joint operations, a source of independent advice and counsel, and an important country in a region which is critical for world affairs.

It is in the US's best interests for Australia's voice to be an independent one, and for our perspective on the region to be unique. The US is better served in this region by an independent and confident Australia. This is why, for modern Labor, the US alliance is one of the three pillars of our foreign policy, along with strong relationships in our region and multilateral engagement with the world. However, being in an alliance does not mean Australia must agree reflexively with every aspect of American policy or make its foreign policy subservient to that of our partner.

Historically, Liberal governments have tended to treat Australia's role in the alliance as one of subservience, from Holt's 'All the way with LBJ' to Howard's 'deputy sheriff' doctrine. But, as Kim Beazley has said, Australians want an alliance, not compliance. Labor has remained committed to the alliance while being willing to disagree with American policy when we judge that it does not reflect Australian interests, as in the cases of Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Simon Crean told George W Bush when he addressed parliament: 'Of course, on occasions, friends do disagree – as we did, on this side, with you on the war in Iraq. But such is the strength of our shared values, our interests and our principles that those differences can enrich rather than diminish, can strengthen rather than weaken, the partnership.'

So as we approach the 75th anniversary of Curtin's message, we should reaffirm Australia's commitment to a strong alliance with the US. The US alliance remains critical to Australia as we face today's challenges: the threat of terrorism, the emergence of a multipolar strategic environment in Asia, regional military build-ups and territorial disputes, the dangerous behaviour of the regime in North Korea, the need to ensure stability and prosperity for our Pacific neighbours, and cross-border issues ranging from cyber security to climate change.

President Obama's pivot to Asia recognises both the region's importance to US strategic interests and, in turn, the importance of US engagement to the region's security. After the presidential election, and regardless of the outcome, Australia should continue to work closely with America. We should urge the new administration to maintain a focus on the Asia Pacific, given the region's role as a key driver of geopolitical and geoeconomic change. We should encourage the US to continue to support a rules-based international order capable of evolving and reforming in response to the aspirations of emerging powers. And we should remind our friends that providing leadership on international security and stability not only serves America's own interests but creates the fundamental preconditions for freedom and prosperity around the world.

As the Lowy Institute's Michael Fullilove has argued, the alliance not only serves Australia's interests by providing protection from strategic threats. It also supports progressivism in foreign affairs through America's role in promoting democracy and human rights and providing an umbrella of security and prosperity under which these values can thrive.

The contemporary relevance of Curtin's remarkable turn to America is the need for Australia to pursue its interests through independent foreign policy and defence self-reliance within an alliance framework. Seventy five years on, Australia still looks to America as its key partner in global efforts to ensure stability, security and peace.

Senator Penny Wong is Opposition Leader in the Senate and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. She is visiting the US from 2-4 October for discussions on security and trade issues at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue's annual Honolulu Leadership Dialogue.

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