Curtin, John Joseph (1885-1945)

Photograph of John J. Curtin
Wikimedia Commons

John Curtin was the Prime Minister of Australia when war broke out in the Pacific. Following the British collapse in Southeast Asia, he led his country away from its historic links to Britain towards an alliance with the United States that remained a key feature of Australian foreign policy long after the Pacific War had ended.

Curtin was born in the mining town of Creswick on 8 January 1885 to Irish immigrant parents. He became a Labor activist even before reaching voting age, was strongly opposed to Australian participation in the First World War, and helped successfully defeated a bill for conscription. He was a newspaper editor from 1917 to 1928 and gradually became less radical in his political views. He was elected to Parliament in 1928 and, though defeated in 1931, was elected to Parliament again in 1935 and became a leader of the Labor opposition. When the balance of power in Parliament shifted towards Labor, Curtin became Prime Minister, on 7 October 1941.

Curtin was already skeptical of British assurances of the impregnability of Singapore before war broke out. This put him at odds with Churchill, who was committed to the "Germany First" policy and was unwilling to release Australian troops from the Middle East. Curtin successfully demanded their return anyway. On 27 December 1941 Curtin said that Australia "looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom", which created a furor. Curtin turned to the American general, Douglas MacArthur, to lead the defense of Australia, which doubtless strengthened MacArthur's demand for an independent command (which became Southwest Pacific Area.) Australian historian Lex McAulay has written that "Curtin was completely fooled by MacArthur, and thus manipulated him him (McAulay 1991).

Curtin controversially introduced legislation for the use of Australian conscripts in the Southwest Pacific. In spite of this and other controversies, Curtin was strongly supported in the August 1943 federal elections. His diplomatic visit to Britain in April 1944 did not completely allay British resentment and was only partially successful. Curtin was successful in getting Australian manpower redirected towards reconstruction but did not win support for his plan for an Imperial secretariat to coordinate foreign policy.

Curtin suffered from heart disease in the final months of his life, and died on 5 July 1945, just weeks before the Japanese surrender. He has since become one of the most highly regarded of Australian historical figures among his countrymen.


McAulay (1991)

National Archives of Australia (accessed 2011-7-12)

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