ANZUS at 70: Curtin, MacArthur and the Pacific War
13 Aug 2021|

This post is an excerpt from the new ASPI publication ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, released on 18 August. Over the next few weeks, The Strategist will be publishing a selection of chapters from the book.

When was the Australian–American alliance founded, and by whom? Over the past eight decades, those questions have often been debated, usually with an eye to current politics and partisan loyalties. This chapter and the next address the two main rivals for a foundation narrative—the assertion that the alliance was established by Prime Minister John Curtin and General Douglas MacArthur in 1942, and Percy Spender’s claim to be ‘the onlie begetter’ in 1950–51.

In the decades after World War II, Australians were often told that the alliance was founded by Curtin and MacArthur. The origin, the story went, was Curtin’s statement in late December 1941 that ‘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.’ That realignment was cemented in the succeeding weeks, as the Japanese cut through the British and Dutch territories to Australia’s north.

The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, described by Curtin as an ‘inexcusable betrayal’ of Australia by Britain, not only condemned tens of thousands of Australian and allied troops to the ordeal of prisoner-of-war camps but also destroyed a generation of British and Australian strategy. Darwin and other Australian towns were bombed, and Australians feared an imminent Japanese invasion.

Then, the foundational narrative continues, MacArthur arrived in Australia as the commander-in-chief of all allied forces, including Australia’s, in the Southwest Pacific. MacArthur put his arm around Curtin’s shoulder and said that the two men would ‘see this thing through together … you take care of the rear and I will handle the front.’

And in due course MacArthur started his victorious advance northwards from headquarters in Melbourne, then Brisbane, and imminent defeat was turned into ultimate victory.

At the time, and for decades afterwards, Curtin’s supporters said his wartime leadership, especially the relationship with MacArthur, made him the saviour of Australia. His critics alleged that he had made an unconscionable ‘surrender of [Australian] sovereignty’ to the vainglorious general, and therefore to the emerging global superpower.

Historians have pointed to many flaws in the Curtin–MacArthur narrative. The statement that ‘Australia looks to America’ didn’t appear in a major strategic statement but in a New Year message, destined for the magazine pages of an afternoon newspaper, until an alert editor was struck by its tone and made it a front-page story around the world.

Much less well publicised was MacArthur’s statement to Curtin in a private meeting on 1 June 1942, hours after three Japanese midget submarines had entered Sydney Harbour. In lamenting the failure of Australia’s efforts to gain more military support from either Britain or the US, MacArthur said that Australia was linked to Britain and the Empire by ties of ‘blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown’. The US, by contrast, was interested in Australia solely as a ‘base from which to hit Japan’, and not out of any relationship with the Australian people. MacArthur wasn’t only telling Australia that the presence of American forces was merely temporary, and that it should look to Britain for ongoing support; he was also using Curtin’s own phrases to deliver this lesson in realpolitik.

In the following years, to the surprise and consternation of some of his colleagues, Curtin ‘wrapped himself in the Union Jack’, making effusive statements about Australia’s links with Britain and the Empire while demonstrating much less enthusiasm for the Americans. His private strategic and diplomatic discussions were aimed at developing close links with Britain’s political and military leaders, while seeking not to offend MacArthur and the Americans. On his only overseas voyage as prime minister, he tried to resurrect the idea, beloved of earlier conservative prime ministers, of machinery to coordinate the foreign policy of the entire Empire/Commonwealth. He even arranged the appointment of a royal duke as governor-general, defending that move as one of many measures to improve strategic links with Britain.

Curtin’s efforts in that direction were complicated by the ability of his foreign minister, HV Evatt, to infuriate both British and American leaders. In style and substance, Australia often appeared to have two external policies, personified by Curtin and Evatt. When accepting appointment as Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Owen Dixon insisted that he would report to Curtin, not Evatt. Australia succeeded in having the Pacific War Council (the body that would supposedly shape allied strategy) located in Washington rather than London, but Dixon’s reports made it clear that, while Dixon himself was well regarded, President Franklin Roosevelt had no intention of allowing Australia, or any ally other than Britain, to contribute substantially to strategic decision-making.

In the immediate postwar years, Curtin’s successor, Ben Chifley, maintained close and friendly relations with a like-minded Labour government in Britain while keeping some distance from the US. Conservatives criticised Chifley’s government for failing to persuade the Americans to maintain their wartime naval base on Manus Island, but that simply didn’t fit into the US Navy’s postwar strategy. More broadly, the efforts of Evatt and his departmental head, John Burton, to establish an independent position between the US and the Soviet Union in the incipient Cold War did nothing to win American favour.

In later decades, references to the Curtin–MacArthur relationship often reflected the conflicting demands of party loyalty and support for the alliance amid changes in domestic and global politics. Never was that better illustrated than in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Defence Minister Kim Beazley skilfully used the Curtin narrative as a way to demonstrate, both to anti-American elements in the Labor Party and to conservative critics of Labor’s commitment to the alliance, that it was both possible and desirable for a Labor government to endorse a close Australian–American defence relationship.

The Curtin–MacArthur relationship reflected a genuine Australian desire to establish a close strategic partnership with the US, but it didn’t lead to a lasting relationship. As MacArthur pointed out with brutal clarity, the American view was that Australia was (to borrow a phrase from a later period in the relationship) a ‘convenient piece of real estate’, a base from which to begin the counterattack against Japan, but not a long-term strategic partner. While some Americans, including MacArthur himself on one occasion, found it useful to speak of the ‘consanguinity of race’ between Americans and Australians in the struggle against an Asian enemy (with characteristic disregard for those in both forces who weren’t of Caucasian descent), the Americans felt no sense of obligation to secure the future of fellow white men.

Nevertheless, as his most recent biographer, John Edwards, has shown, Curtin’s management of the MacArthur relationship was astute and far-sighted. He supported the public manifestations of the close relationship with MacArthur while suppressing his resentment at their strategic disagreements, their personal tensions and MacArthur’s vainglorious posturing.

In so doing, he made it possible for later leaders, of all political persuasions on both sides of the Pacific, to speak of the two nations standing side by side in every major war of the 20th and 21st centuries, and even of ‘a century of mateship’. The accusation of a ‘surrender of sovereignty’ was one that the leader of a small and highly exposed ally of an emerging superpower simply had to swallow.