An Iron Curtain in Australia: Menzies War on Peace?

The Cold War had an impact on the social, political and economic systems of other countries apart from America and Soviet Union. Perish the thought.

When this is acknowledged, Australia is usually the last place historians look. Well I did. Granted, there was no erection of a wall, a missile crisis or even an airlift, but what I found was just as interesting, even if the domestic ‘happenings’ in Australia were but minor ‘blimps’ in the context of a major international crisis. But it was just that. ‘International’. Studies should thus not be so confined to crises and disagreements which occurred between major power players.

In order to determine why Menzies policies were directed toward destroying the Australian Communist Party and obliterating its influence within Australian politics and society, context becomes the first point of reference.

The man Menzies himself.

The man Menzies himself.

With the advent of the Cold War, the CPA refused to adapt their policies and moderate their pro-soviet stance to meet the Cold War concerns of Australia and its Western Allies. The publicised speeches of its members as well its wealth of resolutions and periodicals collectively revealed the revolutionary sentiment behind its cause, ultimately leading Menzies to believe that its involvement in the peace movement and the post-war strike wave posed a viable threat to the survival of the capitalist democratic state. This was the perception that began to reign supreme as revisionist historians such as Keith Lowe, Phillip Deery and David McKnight began to challenge traditional images of CPA ‘victimisation’; suffering at the expense of Menzies ulterior political motivations and ‘irrational’ McCarthyist sentiment.

Between 1948 and 1952, the CPA entered a new era of hostility toward the reformist politics of the Australian Labour Movement. Stuart Macintyre and Robert Murray argue that this new Stalinist-influenced ‘ultra left’ trend isolated it both politically and socially. These arguments aimed at reversing orthodox histories, those which saw Menzies linking of CPA influence to all post-war strike activity as a means through which he could suppress industrial unrest without fear of social backlash. CPA attempts to politicise the working class were not confined to trade union activism. Rather, it was an ambition that was also projected into its peace movement activities. This is emphasised by McLaren and Deery who contend that immediate CPA goals of furthering the objective of peace and bringing an end to the war were subordinated to revolutionary soviet-orientated strategies. In this, its vocally publicised attempts to link improvements in wages and conditions to the struggle for peace as well as its repeated opportune denouncements of imperialism demonstrated a soviet partisanship responsible for encouraging the survival of the ‘red scare’ upon which Menzies crusade rested.

A 'tool' in Menzies war against the CPA

A ‘tool’ in Menzies war against the CPA

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One of the many resolutions which got the CPA into ‘hot water’

The Petrov defection as well as the Royal Commission on Espionage which followed have become traditional themes used by orthodox historians to project ideas of a Menzies conspiracy aimed at grinding the knife further into the CPA heart. If he could prove that a Soviet ‘fifth column’ did in fact exist in Australia, Menzies could exaggerate an ALP connection and make major political gains in the 1954 elections. In recent times however, revisionists have dismissed this as ludacris. Instead, they argue that he had no control over the timing of the defection nor did he insist on a royal inquiry because he was ‘deluded’ and influenced by Mcarthysim. The fact is that the existence of a fifth column wasn’t an irrational belief when one considers the intelligence information made available to Menzies at the time as well as the prevailing Korean War which reinforced the ideological divide. Obviously, it all comes down to context. We shouldn’t judge Menzies by the standards of our time. This, I believe, is exactly what revisionists have sought to achieve.

CPA victimisation was ‘self-inflicted’. Its publicised revolutionary objectives, repeated denouncements of the existing capitalist system and dogmatic pro-Soviet policies all came to be perceived as dangerous and outdated, especially when the end of WWII meant that our eastern ‘brothers in arms’ no longer continued to be so. The situation worsened when pressures by our Western allies intensified and Australian Security, overseas intelligence and Royal Commission reports purporting to ‘evidence’ Soviet espionage became more readily and abundantly available. Its ultra-left trade union activism bent on antagonising the government as well its subordination of peace aims to the advancement of revolutionary ideals collectively worked together to justify Menzies ‘crusade’ and further legitimise anti-communist sentiment within Australian social and political spheres.

Victim? No. Perpetrator? Yes.

Recommended Readings

McKnight, David. “Rethinking Cold War History.” Labour History 95, no. 23 (2008) http://www.jstor.org/stable/27516316: pp. 185-196. (Perhaps one of the most useful sources on the historiographical debate surrounding this topic, discussing the major historians and their principle arguments)

Lowe, David. Menzies and the ‘Great World Struggle’: Australia’s Cold War 1948-1954. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1999.

Deery, Phillip. “Menzies, the Cold War and the 1953 Convention on Peace and War.” Journal of Australian Historical Studies, 32, no. 122 (2003) http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10314610308596254.

Manne, Robert. The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 1994.

McKnight, David. Australia’s Spies and their Secrets. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994.

Sharkey, L. L. The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism. Sydney: Communist Party of Australia, 1942.

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