Following the death of the prime minister, Joseph Lyons, Menzies assumed that office on 26 April 1939, at the head of a minority government. He supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Germany but immediately led Australia into World War II after the British declaration of war. Menzies introduced compulsory military service and then sent three Australian divisions to the Middle East. He barely survived the national election of September 1940.
In early 1941, Menzies went to London to alert the British government to the threat posed by Japan, but his efforts had no effect. He did, however, develop a close relationship with British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, and he attended a number of cabinet meetings, including those where it was decided to dispatch troops to Greece—a decision for which he was roundly criticized in Australia. Menzies also toured the war zone of the Middle East before returning to Australia in May 1941. He had sought an imperial war cabinet that would include the Dominion prime ministers, but Churchill strongly opposed this concept.
Australian military defeats under British leadership sharply divided the UAP, and pressure from various quarters forced Menzies to resign in August 1841. He was replaced by his deputy, Arthur Fadden, although he continued as minister of defense. In October 1941, however, the Labour Party, headed by John Curtin, was voted into power. Menzies's wide unpopularity led him to resign the UAP leadership.
Menzies showed a remarkable ability to learn from his mistakes, and from the remnants of the UAP, he put together a new party, the Liberals, which he led to a landslide victory in 1949. He courted the middle class and, under the slogan "Populate or perish," encouraged European emigration to Australia. Knighted in 1963, he was known as the "Queen's man" because of his loyalty to the British royal family. Menzies retired in 1966, having led the Liberals to seven electoral victories. He died on 15 May 1978 in Melbourne.
Spencer C. Tucker
Day, David. The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia & the Onset of the Pacific War, 1939–1942. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.; Hazelhurt, Cameron. Menzies Observed. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1979.; Martin, A. W. Robert Menzies: A Life. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1996.; Menzies, Robert. Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events. London: Cassell, 1967.