Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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General Douglas MacArthur, Australia, and the British Empire: Prime Minister's War Conference, Minute 23, 1 June 1942

The experience of war, and the priority that the British—like the American—government gave to winning the war in Europe before that in Asia, severely strained existing ties between Australia and Great Britain, its imperial "mother country." From Pearl Harbor onward Australian Prime Minister John Curtin increasingly turned for aid to the United States, a tendency encouraged by the arrival in Australia in spring 1942 of the dominating American general Douglas MacArthur. Although defeated in the Philippines, MacArthur immediately became Allied supreme commander in the Southwest Pacific area. It was symptomatic of MacArthur's significance to Australia that on 8 April 1942 Curtin created the Prime Minister's War Conference, regular meetings between himself as prime minister and minister for defence and MacArthur, to which other senior ministers were invited on an ad hoc basis. The two men united in sending a barrage of appeals to both London and Washington, urging more assistance to the Pacific theater.


[At the beginning of this meeting MacArthur and his chief of staff, Major Richard K. Sutherland, were handed several highly confidential telegrams on Allied strategy exchanged between Curtin and Australia's minister for external affairs, Herbert V. Evatt, who was then in London.]

2. The Commander-in-Chief [MacArthur] said that, though he had now been in Australia for some time, we were still where we had started insofar as assistance from the United Kingdom was concerned, as we had not obtained an additional ship, soldier or squadron to the forces that were here. He considered these results were distressing.

3. The Commander-in-Chief desired to point out the distinction between the United States and the United Kingdom in their relations and responsibilities to Australia. Australia was part of the British Empire and it was related to Britain and the other Dominions by ties of blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown. The United States was an ally whose aim was to win the war, and it had no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia. Its interest in Australia was from the strategical aspect of the utility of Australia as a base from which to attack and defeat the Japanese. As the British Empire was a Commonwealth of Nations, he presumed that one of its principal purposes was jointly to protect any part that might be threatened. The failure of the United Kingdom and U.S.A. Governments to support Australia therefore had to be viewed from different angles.

4. The Commander-in-Chief added that, though the American people were animated by a warm friendship for Australia, their purpose in building up forces in the Commonwealth was not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan. In view of the strategical importance of Australia in a war with Japan, this course of military action would probably be followed irrespective of the Australian relationship to the people who might be occupying Australia.

5. The Commander-in-Chief said that he had detected a cooling off of the earlier eagerness for offensive action which had been manifested when the Southwest Pacific Area had been created. This was apparently due to the Churchill-Roosevelt agreement to treat Germany as the primary enemy. The directive had provided for preparations for offensive action. Reinforcements had commenced to flow to Australia from the U.S.A. Then they had stopped. The Commander-in-Chief considered that any appeal to the United Kingdom should be not for forces for offensive action, but for those necessary to ensure the security of Australia by adequate defence. The United Kingdom did not admit earlier that the forces were not sufficient for defence. This view had been modified by the promise of reinforcements should Australia be heavily attacked. They now said that they did not believe in the probability of Australia being attacked. The promise of help if Australia were heavily attacked was an extremely weak reed on which to rely, as it would be impossible to come to the assistance of Australia in sufficient strength and early enough if Japan had air and sea superiority to carry out such an attack. Furthermore, the Commander-in-Chief did not consider that any quid pro quo was being offered for the assistance Australia had rendered overseas with naval, military and air forces. The fact that Britain had carried out a raid on Cologne with 1,000 heavy bombers showed that she must have reserves behind this force of anything up to 4,000 bombers, yet the Commander-in-Chief, Southwest Pacific Area, had a total of 40 heavy bombers, of which a large number were unserviceable.

6. The Commander-in-Chief considered it the fundamental duty of the United Kingdom Government to give aid to Australia, and it was to the strategic advantage of the United States that the security of Australia should be maintained. Therefore, both countries should help.

7. In regard to the future prospects of assistance from the U.S.A., the Commander-in-Chief said that the flow of planes to Australia had been resumed, and he had been promised 107 in June, plus 75% of the requisite personnel. He had been promised that this flow would continue in the quantity based on losses in the South Pacific Area and the estimate of the United States Chiefs of Staff of the situation. The United States authorities are re-considering the amount of assistance by U.S.A. air forces which could be given in the Southwest Pacific Area, and General Arnold's [Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps] visit to London was no doubt connected with this. The Commander-in-Chief was hopeful that increases in the United States air forces would be approved in accordance with his request for an increase in the first-line strength from 500 aircraft to 1,000 aircraft. In regard to land forces, the Commander-in-Chief said that the 37th Division was on its way, two-thirds being intended for New Zealand and one-third for Fiji. It would be followed by a United States Marine Division, which would go to New Zealand and be under American and not New Zealand control. It was expected to arrive in July. The Commander-in-Chief stated that he was hopeful of getting the Corps of three divisions for which he had asked. General Richardson, who was the Commanding General of a United States Army Corps, was coming to Australia shortly. The purpose of this mission was not known, but the Commander-in-Chief was hopeful, in view of General Richardson's command, that it meant that his forces would follow later. . . .

8. In regard to naval forces, the Commander-in-Chief referred to his request for two aircraft carriers for the Southwest Pacific Area. Since the Battle of the Coral Sea the American naval forces in this area had been increased by one 8-inch cruiser and one destroyer. There were therefore now five 8-inch cruisers allotted to the Southwest Pacific Area. The United States authorities had advised the Commander-in-Chief that no carriers were available. At his suggestion, the United States authorities had asked the United Kingdom Government whether they could make any carriers available, but a negative reply was received. The Commander-in-Chief pointed out that Admiral Somerville [U.K. Commander-in-Chief, Far Eastern Fleet] had three aircraft carriers, and he considered that one could be spared in view of the fact that naval action was now centred in the Pacific Ocean, since the Japanese naval forces had withdrawn from the Indian Ocean. The Eastern Fleet was working between the African coast and Ceylon. The Commander-in-Chief suggested that arrangements should be sought whereby part of Admiral Somerville's forces could operate in the Southwest Pacific Area, by special arrangement, in order to exercise joint pressure against Japanese bases to the north of Australia. . . .

11. In regard to the results of Dr. Evatt's mission as shown in the cablegrams, the Commander-in-Chief said that, if he might speak with frankness (which the Prime Minister asked that he should do), he considered that Dr. Evatt was undoubtedly a brilliant advocate who, by the skilful manner in which he had put his case, had aroused a live interest in the English people as to the security of Australia and had achieved a good press for his case. He had no doubt evoked a sympathetic hearing from Mr. Churchill and other Ministers, but from the practical military point of view little had been achieved. He added, however, that probably no one could have done better. As the cables showed, the efforts he had exerted had been those of a great pleader, but the agreement between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt on grand strategy was a high hurdle to get over. It was evident that Mr. Churchill was determined that the seat of war should not be in the Pacific Ocean. The Commander-in-Chief agreed that this was good, if Tokyo also agreed. The conception of grand strategy of concentrating against one flank whilst holding the other was quite sound in principle, but he would emphasize that the holding was as important as the attacking. The United Nations had utterly failed to provide the forces necessary to hold the flank in the Pacific. This was evident from the tragedies that had occurred in Malaya, the Philippines, the Netherlands Indies and Burma. They proved that the United Nations did not have sufficient forces for holding the situation in the Pacific. He emphasized that he was asking for a defensive and not an offensive situation. . . .

12. In regard to what Australia was doing to help itself, the Commander-in-Chief said that the Defence programme was clear and well-defined, and was being executed with reasonable efficiency and speed. It should ultimately provide a first-class Army and also a first-class Air Force by 1943, if the aircraft requested were despatched. Two carriers, however, were required for the naval forces, and a concentration of effort should be made in London to obtain these carriers for [Commander, Allied Naval Forces, Southwest Pacific Area] Admiral Leary's forces, or an arrangement for Admiral Somerville to work in closest contact with the naval forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. The support of Great Britain should also be obtained for the supply to Australia of the aircraft required for the expansion of the R.A.A.F. [Royal Australian Air Force] to 71 squadrons. In regard to the 9th Division of the A.I.F. [Australian Infantry Forces] in the Middle East, the Commander-in-Chief said that he would insist on its return to Australia, but not in too abrupt a manner. . . . The Commander-in-Chief considered that in Australia's hour of peril she was entitled at least to the use of all the forces she could raise herself. If Australian forces were serving overseas and could not be returned, then it was essential that a quid pro quo should be given in the shape of corresponding British forces. In regard to the two R.A.A.F. Spitfire squadrons which were being returned to Australia, the Commander-in-Chief noted that Australia had two permanent R.A.A.F. squadrons abroad and ten squadrons which had been formed under the R.A.A.F. infiltration scheme. Mr. Churchill was only giving back to Australia part of her forces and one R.A.F. [British Royal Air Force] squadron as a gesture.

13. The Commander-in-Chief suggested that a statement be prepared in two columns, the first of which would show what forces Australia has in other theatres and the other what is required for the defence of Australia. He considered that Australia was entitled to have in the Southwest Pacific theatre every unit it could raise, and in his opinion the military situation warranted such a view. . . .

15. Following a general discussion, the Prime Minister stated that he would submit the Commander-in-Chief's suggestions to the next meeting of the Advisory War Council.

Further Reading
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937–49: Volume 5: July 1941–June 1942 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1982), 818–823. .

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