Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unrealistic Heroes 2 - John Curtin


Australia's Prime Minister Curtin is another man who is treated as some sort of national hero by those who seem never to have considered the alternatives. Curtin led Australia through the dark days of the threat of Japanese invasion in teh second half of world war tow, and is often rapturously referred to as the man who saved Australia. Why? How?

It is hard to see how Curtins 'achievements' in world war two were superior to those of his contemporaries, or forebears, or followers. Indeed it would be fair to suggest that Australia has never had such bad prime ministers that any one of them could not have done at least as well in the same circumstances. And by 'at least' as well, I literally mean that the vast majority of Australia's PM's would probably have done considerably better.

Curtin was an amateur at government, with no real experience of running anything of significance, and it showed. (The most telling comment about his control during the crisis, was the oft repeated concept from political and military figures that "Canberra has lost it".)

Curtin was ignorant of international relations, with no real idea how to play the game as his predecessor Mezies had, and it showed. (Menzies had been a welcome visitor to the London war cabinet; and arranged for his army expedition chief to be second in command of the main Imperial theatre in the Meditteranean; and had his opinion sought - if not always valued. Curtin was generally ignored by his allies, to the point that when Churchill asked the Australian civil servant Richard Casey to become the British cabinet minister resident in the middle east, Curtin was reportedly peeved.) Once MacArthur arrived to handle Curtin for the Allies, Roosevelt and Churchill could safely ignore him.

Curtin was completely ignorant of military affairs, and it showed. He cheerfully handed the entire organistaion of Australian defences over to the pompous and vainglorious MacArthur, failing to recognise that Roosevelt had happily pulled the man out of the Phillipines for domestic political reasons, and was now determined to see him kept in exile in Australia for those same domestic political reasons. (MacArthur notoriously ran the newsmen in his area of command. If he said 'American troops under the command of General douglas MacArthur have....' he meant Americans; if he said 'Allied troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur have...' he meant Australians. So paranoid and controlling of media relations was he, that once when he wanted one of his American...


army leaders to advance faster, that he promised that if the poor man achieved X results, he would actually reveal his name to the newsmen!)

Indeed McArthur was so good at manipulating Curtin, that the real head of the Australian military - General Thomas Blamey - found himself exiled to New Guinea to try and save his own job. The man was supposed to be supervising the two armies, and other corps and divisions, responsible for the defence of the entire continent. Instead he was forced to spend several vital months twiddling his thumbs, and supervising a few brigades in an isolated location. Curtin later admitted that "in his ignorance of military affairs" he genuinely believed that the head of the Australian Army should be at the front. A more damning self indictment by somebody who considered themselves theoretically suitable to run a government in wartime, would be hard to find.

When, later in the war, Curtin finally became aware that McArthur was no longer paying even token attention to Australia or its concerns, he belatedly searched for alternatives. In 1944-5 there was a brief attempt to discuss with the British Chiefs of Staff the concept of a renewed British Commonwealth offensive using Australian, Indian, and British troops, to reconquer the Netherlands East Indies. Unfortunately by this stage, nobody on the international level was taking much notice of the Curtin government. Blamey tried to prevent wasting Australian lives in what he considered to be the useless attack on Balikpapan late in the war, but Curtin gave MacArthur his way... as usual. (As a side issue, it amuses me that the trendy historians who adore Curtin for his 'sticking' the British by 'turning to America', are the ones who now bemoan Australia's lap dog approach to... the United States. But somehow they don't see that as anything to do with Curtin?)

Indeed, by the later stages the war, the only notice that was being paid to Australia internationally, was American and British disgust at the Australian trade union strikes that were undermining the Pacific war effort. Considering that these purely domestic concerns were the only thing that the Curtin government had really attempted to retain control of, this is a sad indictment of their effectiveness in any area.

So it is hard to understand why some people rant about John Curtin's brilliant role in Australian history. He was not respected internationally, or listened to by his own trade unionists. He was militarily incompetent, and ignorant. He pretty much abandoned a position of respect in the British Commonwealth, for a position of ignominy is an American lackey. He did nothing to save Australia could not have been done better by virtually any other politician in our history.

This is not to say that I despise Curtin, frankly he is not significant enough in international history to warrant it. In fact I merely consider him another mediocre Australian politician.

Curtin appears to be another example of how we confuse the reality of high profile with the concept of high-performance.

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