John Curtin’s War
The coming of war in the Pacific, and reinventing Australia
By John Edwards
Published by Viking (Penguin/Random House)
RRP $49.99 in hardback
Curtin’s struggle for power against Joe Lyons and Bob Menzies, his dramatic use of that power when he took office in October 1941, and his determination to be heard in Washington and London as Australia came under threat from a hostile Japan, is a political epic unmatched in Australian history.
As Japan sank much of the Allied navy, advanced on the great British naval base at Singapore, and seized Australian territories in New Guinea, it fell to Curtin to take a stand against both Churchill and Roosevelt to place Australia’s interest at the forefront of his decisionmaking.
This was a turning point for Australia as a nation; a coming-of-age from dominion status to that of a nation fully prepared to chart its own course.
To me, Curtin’s decision-making turned out to be intensely personal. Although I was not born at the time, it was of real importance to my parents. The indecision about where the returning Australian troops from the Middle East would head saw my father kicking his heels in Ceylon for several months (confirmed by the details of his war records) while my mother, to whom he was engaged, believed that he was either dead or no longer interested in her, despite having kept up a loving correspondence during the time he was in the Middle East. It all ended happily – my father returned to Australia, and eventually did two stints in New Guinea. But my mother, no doubt wary of seeing him go off again, lured him to the altar at the end of 1943, before his New Guinea service. Had he and the 6th Div instead been sent to defend Burma, as some wanted, would he have survived?
Edwards portrays Curtin neither as hero nor villain but as the pivotal figure making his uncertain way between what Australia was, and what it would become.
This first volume of a planned two volume work makes a major contribution to Australian political biography.
As Edwards writes in his preface, he was not an imposing man, rather he was a man known for his sincerity, intelligence and reserve.
He was though undoubtedly the man Australia needed in its darkest hour.