Commentary | 18 November 2017

John Curtin: normal nice human being in world at war

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

In the group photograph of the new ministry taken on the morning of October 7, 1941, 20 men in suits are arranged in two rows, one row sitting and one standing. John Curtin is in front, sitting next to the governor-general, Lord Gowrie. Curtin’s hands are folded, right over left. He has thinning grey hair and wears spectacles. In this photo he cannot hide the cast in his left eye by looking down or turning side-on to the camera. He wears a white shirt and a dark three-piece suit with a high waistcoat. In the breast pocket of his suit is a folded triangle of white handkerchief. It is a black-and-white photograph but we know Curtin is in his good blue suit, not only because it is the one he usually wears on formal occasions but also because he has only three, and this is neither the brown nor the blue with the white pencil stripe. He wears his black shoes, not the brown. Of his six ties he has chosen one that is plain and dark.

In this photograph of Curtin a few moments after his swearing-in as prime minister and minister for defence co-ordination we cannot see what he is, but we can see what he is not. In his expression there is no grandeur, no easy command, no triumph. He looks, as always, ill at ease, as though caught in a conversation from which he hopes soon to excuse himself. Those who know him well will remember his sincerity, his intelligence, his ­reserve. They will not recall him as an imposing man, like his political opponent Bob Menzies. He is, as one of his secretaries, Hazel Craig, would say, “a very, very normal nice human being”. He is also an adroit and accomplished politician, unusually free of vanity or ­illusion. He is often under­estimated, which does not trouble him at all. It was only later, long after this photograph was taken, long after he was buried among the pines and gums at Karrakatta, that Artie Fadden would remember him as the greatest leader of his time in politics, and Harold Cox, an unsentimental reporter who has seen many prime ministers come and go, would say of Curtin that he was the biggest figure in Australian politics since the colonies federated in 1901. Curtin does not look like a great man, Menzies will one day write, though “he ­undoubtedly became one”.

Curtin is Australia’s third prime minister in six weeks. He leads the first federal Labor government in a decade. He is 56 years old and it is the first time in his life he has held ministerial office. Ten years earlier Curtin was so frequently drunk his colleagues referred to him as “Poor John”. He has been sober for the past six years but he is not a healthy man. Patches of his skin are sometimes red and ­inflamed with psoriasis. He has spent many days in the past month lying on his bed at the Hotel ­Kurrajong, tormented by neuritis. ­Already he has heart disease. In the less than four years of life he has remaining he will do things that even now, posing for this ­ceremonial photo and already ­impatient to be driven back to ­Parliament House to chair his first cabinet meeting at noon, he does not intend or expect or even imagine.

Sworn in moments before, the new ministers pose in front of the fluted columns of the portico of Yarralumla, not long ago the home of Scottish settlers who farmed sheep on the high Monaro plains. Of the 19 other men in the photograph, men who are to write themselves into the Australian story over the remainder of the decade, one whose company Curtin finds congenial is Gowrie. Canberra in 1941 has a population of only 9000 people. Curtin hates flying and the journey home by train takes four days, first to Melbourne, then Adelaide, then across the Nullarbor Plain to Kalgoorlie and then to Perth. When parliament is sitting he mostly stays in Canberra while his wife, Elsie, takes care of the family and the cottage in the Perth beachside suburb of Cottesloe. Some weekends, after writing to Elsie from his room at the Kurrajong, Curtin visits Gowrie and his wife for tea. Gowrie is 69 and won his Victoria Cross fighting the Dervishes in the Sudan campaign at the end of the 19th century. At the time Curtin was a 16-year-old messenger boy in a Melbourne club. Blue-eyed, pink-cheeked, white-haired and usually dressed in a superbly tailored pinstripe suit, Gowrie is an English gentleman. His father was a baron, his mother’s father an earl. He pronounces “coming” as “comin” — there are no “gs” to his “ings”. Gowrie respects Curtin but he would very much prefer that ­Menzies was still prime minister, perhaps in an all-party government like Britain’s. He plans to write to the secretary of state for dominion affairs, Viscount Cranborne, suggesting a seat be found for Menzies in the House of Commons.

On the other side of Gowrie, deputy leader of the Labor Party Frank Forde looks unexpectedly glum. Steady, loyal and reliable, Forde is a good deputy. Next to him is the attorney-general and minister for external affairs, Bert Evatt. Even in the still photograph, Evatt seems to bustle with ­impatience. Immensely intelligent and hardworking, he has been a successful barrister and a High Court judge. Soon Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill will be amused by his many peculiarities. Curtin values Evatt’s brilliance but distrusts his common sense. For most of the past year he has been fighting with Evatt over political tactics. Even now he rightly suspects that Evatt believes the Curtin government will not last long and will soon be succeeded by an all-party government in which Evatt hopes to have a prominent place. Curtin knows that Gowrie also believes this, as do the leaders of the United Australia Party and the Country Party. He knows they may well be right.

Treasurer Ben Chifley sits ­beside Curtin, glancing away from the camera. He has been back in federal parliament for only a year but already Curtin thinks of him as his closest lieutenant.

They were allies in the fight against populist demagogue Jack Lang in NSW and his supporters in federal parliament. The leader of the Lang faction now sits with them in the front row of the ministerial photo — Jack Beasley has been back in the Labor Party only since March. Ten years earlier he helped to finish off Jim Scullin’s Labor government and force an election in which Curtin and Chifley lost their seats. In appointing him minister for supply and ­development, Curtin has given Beasley a big job. He hopes he will want to keep it. Lang may be a spent force but Curtin wants to keep Beasley separated from his sometime ally, Eddie Ward, whom Curtin has been unable to prevent from winning a position in the ministry. Ward now stands in the back row, looking down at Curtin before him. His hair is swept back, his boxer’s shoulders set. He is Curtin’s enemy.

Menzies will later tell the US consul at lunch in Melbourne that the new ministers are “scum — positive scum”. In their suits and ties they do not look like radicals. For some of those looking at the camera on the portico at Yarralumla, the pleasure of being sworn in as new ministers on a fine spring morning in Canberra shines through. Australia is at war, so they also strive to be dignified and solemn.

The British prime minister is ­already displeased. In the War Cabinet rooms under Whitehall, shielded by steel and concrete from haphazard night bombing by the Luftwaffe, Churchill can read on the great wall maps the shifting positions of the German, Italian and British armies in North Africa and the Middle East, the clash of Soviet and German armies on the Eastern Front, the dispositions of the British fleet in the North Sea and the Atlantic, the daily tally of merchant ships lost to German submarines, the RAF losses over Europe. On these maps, if it is there at all, Australia is way off to the right and well down. There are no pins, coloured wool threads or other markers there or nearby — there is no war in that part of the world.

Churchill values the Australian troops in the Middle East. As for Australian political leaders, though he does not care for him, Churchill recognises Menzies’ ability. He thinks Australian politicians are otherwise a poor lot. He dislikes former Australian prime minister Stanley Bruce, now high commissioner in London. He ­deplores Curtin’s refusal to be part of a national government, like his. Churchill has never been to Australia or for that matter east of India. Australia is far away and its leaders do not have the full picture. They do not know enough. Only at the centre, only at the very centre of the centre, do leaders know enough. Only he is there.

For the new government, “there will be no half-heartedness” in prosecuting the war, Curtin will sternly tell a War Loan rally in Sydney that night. The new ministers have read reports in the Canberra Times that morning of the progress of the new German drive against Moscow. Hitler promises the offensive will finally destroy what is left of the Soviet armies. If Hitler wins the battle for Moscow and destroys Soviet military power, if he is able to rule most of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, if he has reliable tributaries where he does not actually rule, how can Britain and its ­dominions stand against him?

But for now the war remains in the balance. The Russian winter is coming, and in any case the war is a long way away.

The new ministers fear Japan but they trust the might of the British Empire and the US. Earlier in the year he thought war with Japan likely but now Curtin hopes the talks between the US and Japan in Washington will be successful. Opinions differ. On the same day the new government is sworn in, the Combined Operational Intelligence Centre in Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, reports that Japan’s preparations for war are “considered almost complete”.

Of course, preparations for war do not necessarily mean war. In Manila the previous day General Douglas MacArthur had told the visiting Australian representative, Sir Earle Page, that Japan was ­already “overextended” and “facing a critical situation”. In Singapore the British are confident the Japanese will not move for months. Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the British commander-in-chief in the Far East, has told Curtin that the northeast monsoon makes naval operations off the east coast of ­Malaya almost impossible from November to March. When the Japanese do move, they are more likely to attack the Soviet Union than Malaya. In the Middle East the commander of Australia’s divisions, Field Marshal Thomas Blamey, is confident the Japanese will not attack south. He thinks the 8th Division, now in Malaya, should be sent on to him in the Middle East, as promised.

Many of Curtin’s colleagues are confident in the might of the British Empire and the great British naval base at Singapore. Japan would be very foolish to attack south when a British fleet, sailing from the Mediterranean to Singapore, could destroy the Japanese ships and cut off the Japanese ­invading forces. Curtin, Forde, Evatt and Beasley, members of the Advisory War Council, know otherwise. They know that while Britain is sending a few big ships into the Indian Ocean, it will not send a powerful fleet to protect them. They know the military planners have recognised that the defence of Malaya ­depends on planes rather than ships, and they also know the British command in Singapore has less than a quarter of the fighters and bombers needed to repel an attack by Japan.

Even so, Curtin has been assured by British military commanders that the combat effectiveness of the Japanese navy is below the standard of even the Italian navy. Japanese naval pilots, he has been told by the British military headquarters in Singapore, are poorly trained. The Japanese-manufactured Zero fighter plane is no match for the American-made Brewster Buffalo, now being provided to the British ­forces in Malaya.

None of those posing on the steps of Yarralumla knows that two months ago Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto submitted to the ­Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff plans for a five-pronged Japanese Pacific offensive, or that two days ago General Hideki Tojo, the minister for war and leader of the army party in the Japanese government, called a meeting of his ­allies in his office in Tokyo, and ­decided the emperor must be persuaded to approve the attack. Even now preparations are being made so that next month the Japanese attack fleet under Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo can leave its home waters and sail in complete radio silence, shielded by foggy weather in the North Pacific, ­towards a position 443km north of Hawaii.

They do not know that in eight weeks Curtin will be woken by his press secretary in his room in the Victoria Palace Hotel in Melbourne to be told that Japanese planes were attacking the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, or that a little later he will be told that Australian bombers had already attacked Japanese transports landing troops on the east coast of Malaya, and sunk the first Japanese ship lost to hostile fire in the new war.

They do not know that a few days later the newest and most ­formidable battleship in the British fleet, HMS Prince of Wales, sent to the Far East to deter Japan from war, will be sunk off the east coast of Malaya by Japanese dive bombers as it attempts to oppose more landings. Or that, despite their ­superior numbers, Australians and other British Empire troops will be forced down the Malay Peninsula by Japanese troops, that in five months the great British naval base in Singapore will surrender to Japan, and that the survivors of Australia’s 8th Division will be marched into Japanese prison camps.

They do not know that Japanese troops will soon invade the Netherlands East Indies, land in New Guinea and bomb Australian towns. They do not know that in a few months their generals will tell Curtin that Japan is at liberty to attempt to invade Australia “if it so desired” and Australia must prepare to resist.

The new ministers looking at the camera wonder how long it will take them to learn the business of their departments. They want to see preference for union members strictly enforced. They think soldiers’ pay and old age pensions should be increased, that the rich should pay more for the war. They think the economic ­arrangements in Australia are ­unsatisfactory, though without a Labor majority in either of the parliament’s two chambers, they ­realise there may not be much they can do about them. They ­believe that Australia should ­remain white and British. They think of themselves as Australians but also as Britishers in the South Seas, as a self-governing ­dom­inion, part of a vast empire that ­includes India, Burma, ­Malaya and Hong Kong.

They do not know that the war will destroy the empire as surely as it destroys Hitler and Japan’s prime minister Tojo. They do not know that while they are British, their children will not be. They do not know that Australia, so remote from the centre of British civilisation, will soon find itself in quite another world, one in which it is not at all remote. They do not know that they are about to discover who they are, and what Australia will become.

Sitting at the centre and front of the group this very, very normal, nice human being is now in a world that is not at all nice or normal, and many of the people he will deal with — Blamey, MacArthur, Churchill, Roosevelt, his own colleagues Evatt and Ward, let alone the actual enemy — are anything but nice or normal.