The World at War


Sir Robert Gordon Menzies

Robert Menzies was born in Jeparit, Victoria on December 20, 1894 and died May 16, 1978 in Melbourne. He was Prime Minister of Australia from 1939-41.


Robert Menzies was born at Jeparit, Wimmera region in the State of Victoria, Australia, on December 20, 1894. He was Prime Minister (PM) of Australia from April 1939 to August 1941 & December 1949 to January 1966, and his tenure in the PM's Office is the longest of any Australian PM. He was the fourth of five children to James Menzies, a coach painter turned shopkeeper and his wife, Kate, a miner’s daughter. At an early age he decided to be a barrister, encouraged by his mother & grandmother, and the two matriarchs impressed upon him that by winning scholarships he could obtain the education to fulfil his ambition. So the young boy won scholarships, first to a private school in Ballarat then to Wesley College in Melbourne and finally the University of Melbourne. He married Pattie Leckie in 1920 rearing three children.

Menzies first comes to notice when he gave up a successful law practice, especially constitutional cases, to serve in the Victorian State Legislature in 1928. A year later he ascended to the Assembly and by 1932 he was Deputy Premier of Victoria. He resigned to enter Federal Parliament in Canberra during 1934 and after serving as Attorney General he became leader of the United Australia Party (UAP), a position which led to the Prime Ministership in 1939 at the head of a minority government. In the meantime he was given the name ‘Pig Iron Bob’ for he’d battled the waterside workers during 1938 who refused to load scrap iron for Japan. Under Menzies leadership Australia joined Britain and mobilised for war in Europe.

In the 1940 elections he survived as PM with the support of two elected independent politicians. Menzies spent four months in mid-1941 touring the war zones of the Middle East and in Britain where he was a member of Winston Churchill’s Imperial War Cabinet. He returned to Australia and his leadership was under question and the pressure from various quarters forced his resignation as PM in August 1941. He had failed miserably, losing the support of his colleagues and was unpopular with the people. Eventually he was forced to resign from the UAP leadership, became a backbencher and replaced as coalition leader by the Country Party's Arthur Fadden, whose government was quickly ousted from Parliament on a vital Opposition amendment to the National Budget. Perhaps Menzies' strongest personal trait was his ability to learn from his mistakes

He was offered the post of Minister of State in South East Asia by Churchill but the fall of Singapore to the Imperial Japanese decided the answer. Australian’s new PM Curtin offered him the post of Minister to the United States but this faltered too. Menzies was reinstated as party leader after the 1943 devastating election defeat and again became a leader of the opposition. He arranged a political rally meeting in Canberra during October 1944, put forth the idea of one party, to be known as the Liberal Party (LP) of Australia. He reconstructed the shattered remnants of the UAP with its 14 different affiliations and managed to sell the political party to the Australians during the post-war years. He had overcome early criticism that the new political party „can't win with a Menzies" and in the October 1946 elections won a few seats and created a strong opposition. He built a lasting pact with the Country Party and in the elections of 1949 he regained the PM's Office of the government campaigning against the socialist policies of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), especially the nationalisation of the banks, and he promised to end petrol rationing.

Prime Minister Menzies presided over the rapid growth of the Australian economy throughout the 1950's, did nothing to reverse Labor’s banking legislation and preceded on his own bank reforms creating the Reserve Bank of Australia. He was a strong anti-communist and he had advocated this prior to World War 2 and again attempted to outlaw and dissolve the Australian Communist Party in 1951. He took a traditional view of the British Empire & Commonwealth at the Colombo Plan meeting, sent Australian forces to combat communist guerillas in Malaya and committed Australian occupational forces in Japan to the UN defence of South Korea in the face of an aggressive invasion by North Korea. He supported British, and French, intervention in the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 and deployed a defence doctrine in the Malaysia - Indonesian Confrontation during the early 1960's. His belief that only the United States of America could assure South-Pacific security led him to sign the Australian, New Zealand & United States alliance treaty (ANZUS).

The new Queen of England came to Australia in early February 1954, and amongst her many Royal duties after travelling the country, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the 67metre high aluminium shaft of the American War Memorial and later that night was guest of honour at a Commonwealth Banquet hosted by Menzies in Canberra. On the second occasion that the Elizabeth II and Prince Philip journeyed to Australia, the Queen knighted Menzies with the title ‘Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports. Also bestowed upon him, the most ancient and noble ‘Order of the Thistle, the second highest order of chivalry and the highest to which an Australian has obtained. The order is a special gift from the Queen, limited to sixteen persons, including the Royal Family and not given on ministerial advice. He had extracted maximum political advantage and media coverage of the Royal Visit.

During the election campaign of 1954 Menzies announced in Parliament the defection of a Russian diplomat, Vladimir Petrov, the Third Secretary and Consul in the Soviet Embassy, to the Australian Security & Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Menzies was also able to smear the Labor Party with accusations of harbouring communist spies in their ranks and the ALP split later over this affair which helped the Liberals pull off a dicey election. He also had his share of luck for bad leadership of the ALP opposition and disarray coupled with desertion in the labour movement ranks during the 1950’s help exaggerate Menzies time in Office during a time of healthy international and economic growth. In 1964 he retained government by the barest one seat majority after a bad economic decision. Later he supported the early US involvement in South Vietnam by sending military training advisors to Saigon then later a Royal Australian Regimental combat group, including conscripts, joined by a New Zealand artillery contingent and supported by both their respective national airforces & naval elements. Menzies Government is remarkable in its longevity, a period of strong and stable rule, but few outstanding achievements.

The LP stagnated with the total supremacy of Ming the merciless, as he was nicknamed, even when unquestioned he discouraged, or shunted out, those of ability whom might become potential rivals for the leadership. He had a deep loyal affection for all things British, with an empire family affiliation for the other Commonwealth countries but little sympathy for their individualistic nationalist aspirations. He retired as PM in 1966 a skilled orator, party builder and political tactician, a good administrator and fortunate that he held Office for so long when smooth government operations was more important than ideas in Australian politics. Menzies was PM when Australia broadcast its first television programs, hosted its first Olympic Games in Melbourne, he also enjoyed the Davis Cup tennis competition and international cricket matches.

The Liberals had known no other principle head for the first twenty-two years in the post-war political arena he was tough, controversial, manipulative and a brilliant speaker, then the political party was to have five leaders between 1966 to 1975. Sir Robert Menzies died 16 May 1978 and at his full military funeral four days later, during a rain soaked day in Melbourne, the mood was sad and sombre as his coffin was carried by armed forces pall-bearers, flanked by Australian politicians, and taken from Scots Church in the view of television audiences across a mourning nation.

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