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Great Australian political policy stuff-ups (part 2): The Menzies years

When one talks about Sir Robert Menzies one is expected to show reverence for a Prime Minister who is admired as the father of Liberalism.

I am not one of those to worship at his feet. He certainly was the founder of the Liberal Party and the longevity of his rule is to be much admired. His legacy is another thing.

However, the length of his service relied heavily on an effective continuous communist scare campaign (he kicked the communist can down the street for as long as he could) that lasted for many, many years.

Masterfully and skilfully he exploited Cold War fears and the threat of Communism.

Together with a disastrous split in the Labor Party and the lack of a worthwhile leader were also distinct advantages.

In addition to these he enjoyed strong economic growth of the sheep’s back, so to speak. He nevertheless showed no sense of farsightedness for what might lay ahead.

Just how he would have performed in the chaos of today’s politics will never be known.

More British than the British he was a monarchist with somewhat of a royal fetish for The Queen.

I once saw him coming out of the Bank of Adelaide crossing Collins Street in Melbourne and enter the Australian Hotel opposite. He was an imposing figure with a sagacious intellect and sharp wit.

I still have his book Afternoon Light in my library shelves. It is an autobiography that compared with others I have read is totally boring.

He was also a cricket follower of some repute and spent many hours watching the game. In fact he spent much time overseas attending conferences in Europe and even more in his beloved England.

My first political memory of him was when under his leadership I experienced my first recession: 1960, I think it was.

* * * * *

For part two of this piece I have examined a time-line of his life and made a list of what I conclude are policy failures.

I selected what follows from the National Archives of Australia. If you peruse the list I selected from you will find some worthwhile initiatives such as Colombo Plan and the ANSUS Treaty and the completion of the Labor Policy for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.

The two failures that remains indelible on my mind were his, without any serious thought to the consequences, were when he allowed the British to test nuclear weapons on Australian soil and second, when he committed Australian combat troops to fight in Vietnam when he did not have to.

I shall expand on these as you read through the list.

Please note that much of the research that follows comes from the National Museum Australia and where I expand on the Vietnam war and Nuclear testing I have used the recollections of Green Left Weekly (author Ken Cotterill) whose memory matches my own.

03 Sep 1939: Australia declares war on Germany

After German troops invaded Poland on 1 September, Britain declared war. The Dominions, including Australia, followed with separate declarations the same day.

Six weeks after Australia entered World War II, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced the reintroduction of compulsory defence training.He was, when in England, invited to attend the war cabinet meetings.

The next two paragraphs are taken from the National Archives of Australia:

Menzies strongly supported British appeasement policy on Nazi Germany – keep the door open for negotiation, but also prepare for war – and was as surprised as anyone else by the signing of the German–Soviet non-aggression pact.

Australia and Canada were also reluctant to sacrifice their soldiers on Europe’s battlefields for the Sudetenland. From the standpoint of domestic policy, there was no alternative to Chamberlain’s course.

(There was, actually. There was no reason or motivation for Australia to join this war it had nought to do with us).

Menzies was also concerned about Japanese intentions in the Pacific and took steps to establish Australian embassies in Tokyo and Washington in order that Canberra could receive independent advice about developments to Australia’s north.

With the end of the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, the period of the ‘phoney war’ meant community fear and apprehension gave way to complacency

Germany successfully invaded Denmark and Norway, and then began its assault on Belgium, Holland and France. By the end of June 1940, France had fallen and Britain, supported by its dominions, stood alone against Nazi Germany.

Menzies responded to these developments by calling for an ‘all in’ war effort. With the support of John Curtin, leader of the Labor Party, the National Security Act was amended to provide the government with enhanced powers.

23 June 1950: Communist Party ban

The Communist Party Dissolution Bill was passed by parliament. After it was enacted in October, the law was challenged in the High Court and, on 9 March 1951, was held to be unconstitutional.

12 April 1950: National Service begins

The first call-up notice was issued under the National Service Act. The Act provided for compulsory military training of 18-year-old men, who were then to remain on the Reserve of the Commonwealth Military Forces for five years. Between 1951 and 1960 when the scheme ended, over 500,000 men had registered, 52 intakes were organised and some 227,000 men were trained.

22 September 1951: Referendum on Communism

A referendum to alter the Constitution so as to grant parliament the power to outlaw Communism was lost narrowly.

3 October 1952: Montebello atomic tests

I think it fair to say that in today’s environment it would be committing political suicide for a Prime Minister to grant another nation free access to his country’s land to test nuclear devices (which were tested in the Montebello islands off W.A.)

Nuclear weapons’ testing

Ken Cotterill, in an article titled The crimes of Robert Menzies in the Green Left Weekly writes that:

By the early 1950s, Britain was desperate to gain nuclear power status. However, the US was reluctant to help them or even allow them to use testing sites in the US. The breakdown in friendship had been sparked by the fact that several British scientists had been double agents working for the Soviet Union.

Distrust further escalated when, in early 1950, British scientist Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the Manhattan Project that had created the first atomic bomb, confessed to being a Soviet spy.

What had not been detected was that Fuchs, who was born in Germany, had been, and still was, a member of the German Communist Party.

Fuchs, via a series of contacts, had passed on secrets of the workings of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This helped the Soviet Union to detonate an atom bomb in August 1949 in what is now Kazakhstan, four years ahead of CIA projections.

The British, having been spurned by these developments, were determined to test a bomb of their own. But where? Canada was considered, as were remote islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But then British eyes turned to Australia and their old pal Menzies.

In September 1950 Menzies agreed, without any serious scientific or political consultation, to allow the British to test a nuclear weapon on Australian soil. On October 3, 1952 the British detonated a nuclear bomb on a ship — HMS Plym — off the coast of the Montebello Islands in Western Australia.

This was a site they had chosen themselves with no Australian consultation.

The bomb was as big as the Hiroshima bomb. British and Australian servicemen, watching from ships, viewed the emerging mushroom cloud dressed in clothing fit for a day on the golf course.

In 1956 the British detonated a second bomb on Trimouille Island and a third on Alpha Island, both part of the Montebello group.


Cotterill continues:

Britain, with Australian help, had joined the exclusive nuclear club. Meanwhile, the radioactive fallout from the tests, thanks to the prevailing westerly winds, moved eastwards across Western Australia and towards the eastern states, the Pacific and beyond.

With Menzies’ blessing, further British atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out at Emu Field and Maralinga in western South Australia. From 1953 to 1957, there were nine tests in all.

In South Australia, Aboriginal people told of dark clouds enveloping the landscape. Servicemen, in light clothing, cleaned equipment used in the tests. Some aircrew were ordered to fly through the radioactive clouds to gather debris.

Others were ordered to drive tanks through the blast site after the explosions. None wore protective clothing.

One radioactive cloud from an explosion at Emu Field drifted over a small Queensland town and stayed there as it rained. The town later developed a cancer cluster.

On May 7, 2003, the Adelaide Advertiser ran a front page story on the mysterious deaths of 68 new-born and still-born babies that, over time, had been born to women who had been living with their husbands at Woomera, the secret weapons testing base in South Australia, north-west of Adelaide.

The babies all died during the years that atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place at Maralinga.

Unsurprisingly, former Prime Minister John Howard, in his recently published biography called The Menzies’ Era, devotes a single paragraph to the nuclear tests in Australia.

The first British atomic tests were held in the Montebello Islands, 120 km northwest of Dampier, Western Australia. Tests were then moved to Emu Field in north-western South Australia.

He poisoned his own country and countrymen with radioactive fallout.

26 January 1958: Nuclear start-up

Returning to the National Archives of Australia:

The Australian Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights near Sydney began operation. The research facility was established in 1955 after the Commission was set up under the Atomic Energy Act in 1953. It was renamed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in 1987.

16 November 1960: Credit squeeze (Now called a recession)

The government’s response to accelerating inflation and falling wool prices led to a recession. This was the first post-war pitfall for the energetic building industry, eager car salesmen and committed consumers.

28 April 1965: War in Vietnam

Perhaps the biggest ever cover-up in Australian political history is how we became involved in the Vietnam War.

On April 29, 1965, PM Menzies shocked a half-empty House of Representatives when he rose to speak. With gloomy voice he said that he had received a letter from South Vietnamese government to join the war.

Australian troops would be sent to Vietnam to support United States forces.

The first battalion arrived in Vietnam the following month. After March 1966, National Servicemen were sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army. Some 19,000 conscripts were sent in the next four years.

What Menzies did not say was that his government had approached the United States requesting such an invitation. When the cabinet papers were revealed 30 years later no letter was mentioned or found.

500 young men unnecessarily lost their lives and 3129 were injured. Thousands of brave ex-servicemen were traumatised by the conflict. Many committed suicide. Others became seriously ill, blaming the combination of toxic chemicals dumped on Vietnam by the Americans as the underlying cause of their illness.

The question of course is how they get away with it.

The war that we should never have been involved in cost the nation 500 young lives. All because of a bad policy decision.

5 November 1965: National Service lottery

Cabinet decided to re-introduce compulsory military service, which had ended in 1960. The National Service Act enabled government to conscript men for a two-year term with a further three years in the Reserve. Marbles denoting birth dates were drawn from a lottery barrel to select those who would be called up. Between the first ballot in 1965 and the last in 1972, some 63,000 men were conscripted.

My thought for the day

When you make a decision be careful because at the same time you do so you will also reveal your character.


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  1. Jack Cade

    Great article!
    Two or three years ago I spoke to a man who claimed to have been present at one or more of the British tests at Woomera. As is pointed out in your article, they wore summer clothing, and he claimed that the only precaution they were told to take was to turn their backs when the explosion occurred. He claimed that he sustained very painful ‘sunburn’ on the back of his neck.
    Menzies has a reputation that puzzles me, given the fact that he was a peacetime ‘chocolate’ soldier, a brigadier in the University volunteer corps or whatever it was called. As soon as WW1 ‘broke out’ he resigned his ‘commission’ and declined to volunteer ‘for glory’ as other Aussies did, because ‘his mother wouldn’t let him.’ Such is the calibre of the warriors the conservatives specialise in idolising.
    Australia rewarded the ace draft dodger with record terms as PM. But in those days Australia was a British colony, and any Australian achievements of note were claimed by the British as being British achievements. As an English boy I believed for instance that Kiwi Edmund Hillary was actually an Englishman who lived in NZ…

  2. Arthur Tarry

    The Menzies aura – one of the great myths of this country. Always a hugely contemptuous person, even during his time imo, so I look forward to Part 2 to complete the list of his stuff-ups and ineptitude.

  3. Arthur Tarry

    The Menzies aura – one of the great myths of this country. Always a hugely contemptuous person, even during his time imo, so I look forward to the next piece to complete the list of his stuff-ups and ineptitude.

  4. Bronte ALLAN

    Yet another great article John! My impression of Menzies was that of a buffoon, royal lover–especially the Queen–who sold pig iron to the Japanese before the Second World War, only to have it returned to us in planes, bombs & ships, etc. Yes he was a very dry witted politician, whose quick wit was appreciated by, at least the Liberal party. However his continued persecution of the Communist party, was, to me, far too over the top. And I am not a Communist “lover” at all! And when the Queen appointed him “Warden of the Cinque Ports” (or whatever it was called), I think he must have just about orgasamed himself to death! I was never a “fan” of this bombastic buffoon, to me he should have lived in the UK, he was such a royal lover! As for his “allowing” the Poms to conduct ANY Nuclear/Atom bomb “testing” anywhere near our country–or even in our country–he should be viewed as a traitor for even considering this travesty. Also his committing of Australian Defence Forces to that travesty that was the Vietnam war, he should have been shot for even permitting our forces to fight. I was certainly not sorry to see him go!

  5. david George.

    Menzies continually called the Snowy hydro scheme a “white elephant”,there’s his foresight for you.

  6. New England Cocky

    Excellent treatise JL. I would comment:

    Menzies resigned his Army commission in Melbourne University Regiment on the first day of WWI. I have read his actual Military Record.

    1) 03 Sep 39. Menzies was in England sucking up to the Royals and in Caberra an Independent (Day?) used his balance of power to force an election that dismissed the Menzies government. Scullin (ALP) replaced Menzies as PM, and demanded that Australian troops be withdrawn from North Africa (especially Tobruk) to defend Australia against the advancing Japanese who had over-run Singapore on bicycles with the gutless English General Jardine surrendering without firing a shot. This resulted in the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse due to no allied air cover out of Singapore. Pre-war strategists had designated these two battleships for defending the whole of Australia from any attack from Asia.

    2) 1960 Credit Squeeze. We suffered this economic disaster while I was at high school. It was bought on by the English banks trying to balance the books during the reign of PM Tony Benn, who later economic historians have described as “not having an economic bone in his body”.

    3) Vietnam War 1961 to 1975. This futile attempt to play at being a world power by inviting Australia into the imperialist war of the USA (United States of Apartheid) is regarded as an attempt by Menzies to assuage his conscience for his own resignation of his Army Commission in 1914.

    The worst outcome of Vietnam is how governments of all political persuasions ignored the physical and psychological damage inflicted on a generation of young talented Australians so that Australia could contribute to the profits of the US NE military industrial complex and their shareholders.

  7. Karen Kyle

    Thank you John Lord for bringing back the terrible cringe that was Pig Iron Bob Menzies. When I was a child he embarrassed me. He always looked as if he slept in his suits, and he met world leaders lookinng like that.

    The only other comment I would make is the remark that we should have stayed out of WW two. It had nothing to do with us. Not so. Menzies was right to be suspicious of Japan and we were forced to directly confront Japan. And at the time we were all British citizens. It would have been impossible to insist that we sit this one out thanks. And besides as a fledgling part of the international community we had and still do have obligations. If we want to be taken seriously as a fully participating member of the internnational community we must meet those obligations like it or not. No washing of hands and saying this has nothing to do with us. We would be a pariah.

    The US Congress tried to keep America out of the war and failed to do so. As for Vietnam…..that had nothing to do with us. No….it just happened to be a communist insurgency in our neck of the woods..

  8. Karen Kyle

    How about SEATO and ANZUS? I would be a bit wary of Green Left Weekly as a reliable source.

  9. Jack Cade

    The Guardian has an article, today, headlined Australia and USA – joined at the hip’.
    In my native Liverpool we had a weak joke – when someone asked if you had a match, it was the custom to say : ‘Yep; my arse and your face.’
    That’s where Australia is joined to the US hip. The US arse and Australia’s face.
    Curtin started it – and with good reason. Australia’s safety was more important than the British Empire’s outposts. Menzies continued it by begging to be allowed to go to Vietnam, and Fraser and Howard thought they’d cemented it with the aid of Lizzie Battenburg snd John Kerr stopping the communist Whitlam from peering into Pine Gap.
    Fraser eventually turned anti-American, presumably asking Uncle Sam when the quid pro quo could be expected, but
    Uncle Sam just said ‘Keep kissing while we think about it.’

  10. Zathras

    Finally the last of the rusted-on Menzies supporters are shuffling off this mortal coil and leaving history to those with different attitudes.

    How they pined (and voted) for the days of the white picket fence and glorious days when both women and blacks knew their place – simpler times when decades of unbroken white rule went unchallenged by uppity newcomers with their fancy ideas.

    Many cheered the day Bob finally qualified to receive the aged pension, despite the fact that he screwed over the National Welfare Fund which would otherwise have been paying today’s aged pensioners about an extra $6,000 per annum.
    Like a Kardashian he was only famous for being famous.

    His era was both a social and political “dark age” where nothing really advanced but there are some who think we can return to that time.

  11. Phil

    The conflict in Vietnam.

    A Communist insurgency in our neck of the woods. BwahahahahahaMwahahahahahahahahahaha.

    You can’t make this shit up.

    It sounds something like Eccles out of the Goons would say.

  12. Karen Kyle

    I suggest you read the history of ANZUS and SEATO. Typical of hard liners to ignore inconveniet facts in favour of convenient fabes put forward by writers in Green Left Weekly.

  13. Phil

    Australia was blackmailed by the USA to join them in Vietnam it was all about the beef trade.

    And it had seven eighths of five fifths of F.A. to do with Communism. It was a Nationalist war end of . The same tactics were used then as are being used now and the Hoi Polloi bought it then as they have now hook, line and sinker.

  14. Phil

    Anzus and Seato for your next property purchase. Bwahahahahahahah.

  15. New England Cocky

    @Karen Kyle, Phil: Uhm ….. Menzies invited Australia into the Vietnam Debacle in which the USA (United States of Apartheid) imperialists sought to replace France as the dominant European masters of the country. The US strategy was “defence against the domino theory” of Communist Chinese influence flowing south though Asia, one country at a time, as per The Communist Manifesto”.

    This strategy destroyed a local three country interdependent economy between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

    Post WWII the US OSS (Oversas service organisation) the precursor to the CIA, supported Ho with weapons and funds to fight the Communist Chinese. This policy changed about mid-50s after the French were trashed at Dien Ben Phu, when the US NE Military industrial complex saw the financial advantages of establishing a financial black hole for profits from supplying the US military directly.

    At the post war dinner between Ho Chi Min and former US Secretary of State Robert McNamara, Ho lambasted McNamara for failing to know the history of over 1,000 years of Vietnamese resistance against the Chinese imperialism.

    Malaya sort of jumped the gun to upset the British with a race based insurgency principally seeking independence from Britain post WWII.

    In Indonesia, Sukerno and Suharto conducted anti-Communist pogroms that assassinated an estimated 100,000 suspected Communists. The same tactics were used by the Indonesians in East Timor in 1975 after Whitlam abandoned the Timorese people at the demand of US government acting on be-half of US oil corporations seeking exploration rights to the NW Shelf.

  16. Phil

    New England Cocky.

    I really wish you wouldn’t couch your comments to appear that they are the definitive FACTS on anything.

    I don’t need a treatise on the Vietnam conflict a subject I have researched myself. There are many authors on the subject all with differing conclusions.

    You can like I do start your burst off with ‘ In my opinion ‘ This leaves the reader with a sense of respect and you are giving an opinion and not stating other peoples so called facts. I can tell you what a fact is but ladies read this blog.

    So I’ll run my burst again in my opinion, the conflict was as far as the Vietnamese were concerned for them and I give a flying fluck about the motives of the USA which btw would have been money. it was a nationalist war. The French and Dien Ben Phu was the start of the Vietnamese on the road to freedom from the colonialists. Yes the Military Industrial complex made a killing pardon the pun. Hey they still are, no change there.

    In 1956 Eisenhower endorsed the sabotage of democratic elections in Vietnam – elections which had been agreed at the United Nations conference in 1954 which incidentally Eisenhower later conceded would have been won by Ho Chi Minh with eighty percent of the vote. The result was the artificial division of Vietnam and the invention of the South Vietnamese ally the United States. The CIA provided the ready made Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. Who described himself as the George Washington of Asia.

    The election of John Kennedy was the beginning of the launching of a bombing and terror campaign and the spraying of defoliants on the country. The start of the American involvement in the conflict.

    Australia. As ever was a call to arms to help the invader the USA . 1962 The Australian people were told that the South Vietnamese government had asked for our assistance this request was actually from the USA. The first Australians on the soil of Vietnam were working directly for the CIA. They were carrying out assassinations and torture. The threat was made get involved proper or trade would suffer.

    Nationalism. The CIA were aware that the Chinese involvement was minimal ‘ The National Liberation Front ‘ is what was termed the Vietcong by the USA was a nationalist movement and any fraternalism with Communist China belied the ancient and strategic differences between the two peoples. The American counter insurgency adviser John Paul Vann wrote in a memorandum to Washington that the majority of the people in South Vietnam primarily identified with the National Liberation Front and a popular base for the American propped government did not exist.

    The Communist ‘ Bogey Man ‘ was a load of strategic bollocks there was no threat to the world from the communists in Vietnam or China that in the case of China, may be changing. This war and Australians part in it is down to Robert Menzies we were sent there on a load of lies.

    As for the Malayan campaign my eldest brother fought there he was also captured by the Iranians in the the fall of the Shah of Iran. I am well aware of the deaths in Indonesia and the East Timor F.U. Alexander Downer is in this debacle up to his scaly neck.

    Call the Vietnamese communists call them what you like, they were not fighting for communist ideology but for their country. I’ll leave the bleating of the anti communist zealots to rave on deliriously as much as they like, they know nothing about this war. Nothing. As an aside my eldest son has just returned from Vietnam he tells me it is a thriving country much cleaner much better governed than most of the countries in South East Asia, and after all that transpired tourists are still welcome. The clean up he tells me is nothing short of miraculous.

    That’s my short opinion on Vietnam. For a real but very short insight into the war read ‘ A Secret Country’ By John Pilger.

  17. Matters Not

    The past is always a moving spectacle. Learn about historiography. Be 5 minutes well spent.

    One will find that: Facts, while necessary, are but the starting point – when it comes to the writing of history..

    In more detail.

  18. wam

    You beat me to it, Cocky.
    I read about Ho Chi Minh, the great enemy of the frogs, in a biography, many years ago. What a determined life.
    Armed by the septics to defeat the Japanese, he was betrayed when the French returned and America supported them. In the early 1950s MAAG. Despite the American support the French were ingloriously flogged by Ho Chi Minh’s Soldiers under Giap. Oh how my family cheered at Dien Bien Phu.
    By the 60s the septics under Kennedy had 1000s of ‘advisers’ in Vietnam. Then 10 extra years of slaughter will millions of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians murdered and maimed (by cluster bomb fragments for years after the septics ran away). 521 Australians and 58220 Americans killed protecting an uncaring, elite, right wing regime.
    The aftermath revealed the spite that allowed the losers to make every effort to destroy the economy. The anti-Cuba strategy was increased in ferocity against Vietnam. Fortunately the NT had an education, run by my darling, for Asian and pacific educators, that included Vietnam.
    I offend the xstians here with my use of your surname.
    I offend the greenies KayeCrow by my use of loonies and by my attempt to show the Koppen climates are inhabited by man and will change naturally and slowly but global warming, as can be demonstrated with easily visible evidence, will make the planet unliveable quickly.

    So greenhouse gases, global warming, al la Venus, must be controlled.(of course the scummo’s belief that only his god can destroy the earth which in their terms means destroy man, god put the rest there for the use of his creation.
    But has my negativity about your negativity offended you, personally???

  19. Phil

    ‘ The past is always a moving spectacle. Learn about historiography. Be 5 minutes well spent. ‘

    I don’t need a treatise on the Vietnam conflict a subject I have researched myself. There are many authors on the subject all with differing conclusions.

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  20. New England Cocky

    @Phil, wam: Thank you of taking the time to make your interesting contributions.

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