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Curtin Speech: Japan Enters Second World War (1941)

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Australia at war with Japan

Clip description

In a national broadcast Prime Minister Curtin announces that Australia is now at war with Japan.

Curator’s notes

An instrumental version of 'Advance Australia Fair’ begins the recording. It is followed by the voice of a male presenter who solemnly introduces the prime minister. Notice his standard English accent which contrasts with Curtin’s unmistakable Australian accent.

Curtin appeals directly to the listener by addressing the ‘men and women of Australia’. It was thought that Curtin was the first to use this form of address which Gough Whitlam, another ALP prime minister, adopted in tribute to Curtin. Apparently Robert Menzies, the Liberal prime minister who preceded Curtin, also used this form of address in speeches.

In the beginning of the speech Curtin details why Australia is at war and how the Allies had attempted to negotiate with Japan to avoid war. The language then becomes more emotive as he aligns the actions of Japan ‘like an assassin in the night’ with that of the approach of Hitler. He beseeches the Australian public to serve the nation which is in peril and facing its ‘darkest hour’. The inference, though not stated, is the threat of invasion. Darwin was bombed for the first time several months later on 19 February 1942. It is now thought that the Japanese were not intending to invade Australia as such, but to seize raw materials and to secure a perimeter.

Curtin aims to reassure listeners by describing the steps being taken by the Australian government to prepare and plan for ‘whatever eventuality’. Curtin exhorts the listeners to support the efforts of the government: ‘The call is to you, for your courage, your physical and mental ability, your inflexible determination that we, as a nation of free people, shall survive’.

The history of Australia as a British colony is inferred by such references to the 150 years in ‘this spacious land’ without any reference to the original inhabitants. Australia is a citadel for the ‘British-speaking’ and ‘a place where civilisation will persist’. The speech concludes with a quote from the English poet Swinburne.

Though Curtin’s early education was disrupted by frequent moves, he maintained a lifelong interest in learning. During his involvement with the Socialist Party as a young man he attended classes in literature and public speaking, both of which increased his confidence and skills in writing and giving speeches. He also had experience in journalism, starting out as a copy boy at the Age newspaper and later editing several union newspapers.

Announcer It is our privilege tonight to introduce the prime minister, the Honourable John Curtin. Ladies and gentlemen, the prime minister.

John Curtin Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan. That has happened because, in the first instance, Japanese naval and air forces launched an unprovoked attack on British and United States territory; because our vital interests are imperilled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed. As a result, the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps which will mean that a state of war exists between Australia and Japan. Tomorrow, in common with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Netherlands East Indies Governments, the Australian Government will formally and solemnly declare the state of war it has striven so sincerely and strenuously to avoid.

Throughout the whole affair, and despite discouragement, the Australian Government and its representatives abroad struggled hard to prevent a breakdown of discussions. Australia encouraged the United States to retain the diplomatic initiative on behalf of the democratic powers. We did not want war in the Pacific. The Australian Government has repeatedly made it clear — as have the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands East Indies — that if war came to the Pacific it would be of Japan’s making. Japan has now made war.

I point out that the hands of the democracies are clean. The discussions and negotiations which have taken place between Japan and the democracies were not merely empty bandying of words on the democracies’ part. Since last February it has been the constant aim and endeavour of the democracies to keep peace in the Pacific. It has been a problem fraught with grave difficulties but, in the view of the democracies, it was a problem that was capable of being overcome. Accordingly, the best brains of the democracies were brought to bear on the problem. It will stand on record that the President of the United States himself, the American Secretary of State, Mr Cordell Hull, the British and the Dominion Governments, worked untiringly and unceasingly. Yet, when the President of the United States had decided to communicate direct to the Japanese Emperor a personal appeal for Imperial intervention on the side of peace, the War Government of Japan struck. That War Government, set on aggression and lusting for power in the same fashion as its Axis partners, anticipated the undoubted weight of the President’s plea and shattered the century-old friendship between the two countries.

For the first time in the history of the Pacific, armed conflict stalks abroad. No other country but Japan desired war in the Pacific. The guilt for plunging this hemisphere into actual warfare is therefore upon Japan. The recapitulation of events I have given you is necessary so that we in Australia may correctly assess the issues involved. The stern truth is that war has been forced upon us, not because of stubborn resistance on the part of the democracies to every demand that Japan made, but because Japan chose the method of armed might to settle differences which every other country involved was ready and willing to settle by negotiation and arbitration. By so doing, Japan chose the Hitler method. While its diplomatic representatives were actually at the White House, while all the democratic powers regarded the conversations as continuing, Japan ignored the convention of a formal declaration of war and struck like an assassin in the night.

For, as the dawn broke this morning, at places as far apart as Honolulu, Nauru, Ocean Island, Guam, Singapore and British Malaya, guns from Japanese warships, bombs from Japanese aircraft, shots from Japanese military forces, struck death to United States citizens and members of its defence forces; to the peaceful subjects of Great Britain and to her men on ships and on the land. The Pacific Ocean was reddened with the blood of Japanese victims. These wanton killings will be followed by attacks on the Netherlands East Indies, on the Commonwealth of Australia, on the Dominion of New Zealand, if Japan can get its brutal way.

Australia, therefore, being a nation that believes in a way of life which has freedom and liberty as its cornerstones, goes to the battle stations in defence of the free way of living. Our course is clear, our cause is just – as has been the case ever since September 1939, when we stood in the path of Hitlerism and declared that we would stand out to the end against ruthless and wanton aggression. I say, then, to the people of Australia: Give of your best in the service of this nation. There is a place and part for all of us. Each must take his or her place in the service of the nation, for the nation itself is in peril. This is our darkest hour. Let that be fully realised. Our efforts in the past two years must be as nothing compared with the efforts we must now put forward.

I can give you the assurance that the Australian Government is fully prepared. It has been in readiness for whatever eventuality that might arise, and last Friday the initial steps were taken and fully carried out. From early this morning the Service Ministers of the Cabinet and the chiefs of the fighting services have done everything that has to be done by them. The War Cabinet met and put into effect the plan devised for our protection. This afternoon the full Cabinet met, and I am able to announce to you prompt decisions on a wide variety of matters – all of them vital to the new war organisation that confronts us.

All leave for members of the fighting forces has been cancelled. An extension of the present partial mobilisation of navy, army and air forces is being prepared. The Minister for Home Security will tomorrow confer with army authorities on air raid precautions. Regulations will be issued to prohibit the consumption of petrol for purposes of pleasure. A conference will be held by the Minister for Supply with oil companies on the storage of fuel and the security of that storage. Arrangements will be made for all work on services that are essential nationally to be continued on public holidays in future, while, in this connection, all transport services will be concentrated upon necessary purposes. The Minister for Labour will leave for Darwin immediately to organise the labour supply there. An examination will be made to ascertain what retail establishments should continue to trade after 6 pm so that we may conserve light, coal, transport services.

These are some of the things decided upon quickly, but in no atmosphere of panic. There are other things that the government has done. These, by their nature, are secret. But, in total, what has been done today adds up to complete provision for the safety of the nation.

Tomorrow, the War Cabinet will meet again, as will the Australian Advisory War Council, when the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues will be fully appraised of every phase of the position. The Parliament of the Commonwealth will assemble on Tuesday of next week.

One thing remains, and on it depends our very lives. That thing is the cooperation, the strength, and the willpower of you, the people of the Commonwealth. Without it, we are indeed lost. Men and women of Australia: The call is to you, for your courage; your physical and mental ability; your inflexible determination that we, as a nation of free people, shall survive. My appeal to you is in the name of Australia, for Australia is the stake in this conflict. The thread of peace has snapped – only the valour of our fighting forces, backed by the very uttermost of which we are capable in factory and workshop, can knit that thread again into security. Let there be no idle hand. The road of service is ahead. Let us all tread it firmly, victoriously.

We here, in this spacious land, where, for more than 150 years, peace and security have prevailed, are now called upon to meet the external aggressor. The enemy presses from without. I have said that our forces are at their battle stations. They are not alone. It is true also that Japan is not alone. But, as I speak to you tonight, the United States, Great Britain and her colonies and dominions, which include the Commonwealth of Australia and the Dominion of New Zealand, the great federation of Russian republics, the Netherlands East Indies and China are associated in the common cause of preserving for free men and free women not only their inheritance, but every hope they have of decency and dignity and liberty.

We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them. We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race and as a place where civilisation will persist.

Men and women of the Commonwealth of Australia, it is my solemn duty tonight to sound a tocsin! I proclaim a call unto you. I do it in the words of Swinburne:

Come forth, be born and live,
Thou that hast help to give
And light to make man’s day of manhood fair:
With flight outflying the sphered sun,
Hasten thine hour and halt not, till thy work be done.

God bless you all.

Announcer You have been listening to a message to the people of Australia by the Prime Minister, the Honourable John Curtin.

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