The National Interest: Letters from an ally

By Tom Switzer

My favourite political book of the year is Letters to my Daughter, a collection of previously unpublished letters from former Australian prime minister Robert Menzies to his daughter Heather Henderson. America-philes who have only a passing interest in Australian history or politics will still enjoy many of the letters compiled in this excellent tome. Beautifully written, with some quirky and funny observations, Menzies makes some telling points about the United States throughout the book.

Australia’s longest serving prime minister once told his friend Richard Nixon that “I love America, but I am British to my boot heels.” In many respects, Menzies reflected the consensus of Australians during his long prime ministership from 1949 to 1966. Culturally, Australians still saw themselves as British, but they also recognised that the ANZUS pact better reflected Australian geopolitical interests. In this book, Menzies is clearly proud of the fact that his government created the alliance in 1951 and he is frustrated by media perceptions that credit for Washington's all-important security guarantee to Canberra belonged to his successors Harold Holt and John Gorton.

Here are some choice extracts from Menzies’s views on America and US politics.

On LBJ’s prosecution of the Vietnam War on January 4, 1967:

At the Pennsylvania State University, at the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and at a public meeting at the University of Virginia and a Wall Street function in New York, I have spoken at length and with point on the Vietnam controversy. In spite of all the publicity that is given to a handful of student demonstrators, I had a full house and an enthusiastic reception in each case. In the universities, students greatly preponderated in numbers and gave every indication of their approval. I feel increasingly that the Johnson administration has failed to explain the Vietnam policy with sufficient clarity and persistence. This does not mean that there is a majority opinion against Vietnam; I am certain that there is not. But it does mean that there is a growing audience for papers like the New York Times [which are] strongly opposed to the operations in Vietnam and unpatriotic in the highest degree.

The press here [in the US] has deteriorated even more than our own. I think that President Johnson’s real error is in telling the people that the United States can fight two wars at once; that the vast expenditures on Vietnam can go on side-by-side with enormously increased expenditures on social measures. There is nothing in modern history to support such an idea. After all, the American involvement in Vietnam is involvement in a large war where there are hundreds of thousands of men involved and a tremendous expenditure of material resources.

My own view is that he should tell his people that some local benefits must be deferred while this substantial war is being won. If he fails to do this and act accordingly, I think that the country is in for two things: one, a mounting inflation brought about by huge budget deficits; two, an increasing sense of frustration in the public mind about the Vietnam war.

On the American neglect of Australia on February 8, 1967:

In Tucson [Arizona] I had the inevitable press conference, which no doubt found its way into the local [Australian] newspapers. One of the oddities of this visit of mine [to the US from October 1966 to February 1967] is that although I was for a long time the Prime Minister of America’s closest ally in the South-West Pacific, I have never been reported by any of the major newspapers. Papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are so busy slanting all the news that they are not interested in anybody who says things which run counter to their policies...

On anti-war activists on US college campuses (8 February 1967):

I spoke at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and had, as usual, a fine audience and an overwhelmingly favourable response for what I had to say about Vietnam. On the floor of the auditorium they had a couple of microphones and naturally I invited questions. Most of them were serious and could be seriously answered. But as usual there was one student, his hair hanging down over his face and over his collar, who regarded himself as an intellectual. He started off by making a speech, to which I put a stop by saying: “I am sorry, my dear fellow, but there is only one speech this afternoon and that’s the one I’ve just made. If you have a question to put, please put it.”

He then produced a question, one only [Australian opposition leader] Arthur Calwell in his most excited moments could have equalled. It ran something like this: “What have you to say about the way in which the United States blackmailed Australia into finding troops for Vietnam in exchange for trade and commercial benefits?” Well, you can imagine what I said in reply, a reply which gave great pleasure to 95 per cent of the audience. I said: “If you are prepared to accuse your country of international blackmail, that is a matter between you and your country, though it makes me think rather badly of you. But when you accuse my country of such scandal, you are insulting my country and this is something that I will not tolerate! You may sit down. I treat your question with contempt.”

As usual with these gentry, he was not at all deterred. He was up again two questions later and I had to say to him that a man who had been at down by me for offensive behaviour did not get a second chance. These experiences have confirmed my opinion that the vocal minorities at the universities would fade away if they were not encouraged by newspaper headlines…

On another vacillating Republican presidential primary candidate named Romney (8 February 1967):

The Republicans are, of course, in great heart after the midterm elections, but as in 1964, will be slow in choosing a [presidential] candidate and may well end up by choosing the wrong man, as they did in the case of [Barry] Goldwater. Meanwhile, the two most promising members in the Republican field are Dick Nixon and Governor [George] Romney. Nixon not only has a great deal of knowledge and experience in international affairs but he is a prominent advocate of getting on with the war and winning it with no punches pulled. Romney, on the other hand, may have views on the Asian problem, but at the moment they are either unknown or studiously equivocal. He is a Mormon and appears to be personally well-liked and very presentable.

On dining with the newly inaugurated US president, as he is ignored in his own nation, three years into retirement (21 February 1969).

The dinner with [Richard] Nixon was a great success. It was given for me and there were about 12 people present, including some of his new men, such as [Will] Rogers, the new Secretary of State, and Dr [Henry] Kissinger, the new principal adviser; Tom Dewey [Republican presidential candidate in 1948], and also Bob Murphy [distinguished veteran diplomat].

It remains of the curiosities of life to me that while the new President and all the others present put questions to me and were anxious to get my views and, where possible, my advice, I was able to look back with a wry smile and remember that since I retired no member of the administration in Australia, and for that matter no Member of Parliament, has ever asked me for my views on anything. Even such a third-rate prophet as myself is not without honour, save in his own country and among his own people. I should add that Nixon looks younger and fresher and more confident than I remember him before. I think that he should do very well and be the master in his political house.

On another prime minister’s visit to Washington (13 May 1969):

John Gorton has had a very well publicised visit to America. You will be interested to know that he is being credited with having got the American administration to say that it completely believes in the ANZUS Pact. Seeing that the ANZUS Pact was negotiated by my government and that over a long period of years my Government and the American Administration had no doubts whatever as to its meanings and effect, you may imagine how this current propaganda amuses me.

On his meeting with former president Lyndon B. Johnson (3 February 1970):

Our visit to Texas was both interesting and disappointing. On the first evening that we were at Austin, we were driven out to the LBJ ranch to have an evening meal with Johnson and the famous Lady Bird. It was a most illuminating visit. The ex-president is what you call a great “non-listener.” He literally talked all the time. I got a few sentences out, but I don’t think that [my wife] managed to say anything to him at all. His vanity is fed by the fact that he has a large staff, who, no doubt, bow in the right direction.

Ex-presidents in the United States are treated fabulously. For example, in a new government building in Austin, Johnson has an entire floor, with a similar provision in Washington. He has on his premises a helicopter and a helicopter pilot. He has a landing strip and is entitled to summon an aircraft to go anywhere at will. He is, of course, writing a book; or, to be more precise, he has less than 20 people writing one for him. On top of all these lavish provisions, and so that he won’t feel the pinch of poverty, he has a President’s pension, which I think is near enough to $100 000 a year, while his book, when it comes out, will of course, net him another million dollars. So the Johnsons won’t run any risk of being in the poorhouse! In spite of all this, I still think that he did a very good job as President, and said so in one of my lectures, which happened to be one that he and his wife came to listen to.


Finally, when I was recently visiting the Richard Nixon presidential archives, I found an interesting letter that Nixon had written to his friend Menzies after a brief visit to Canberra on September 9, 1965. Among other things, he writes:

I trust you will write a book on the subject which we conceived in your library: the exciting mystery of how so many of the world’s great leaders have had their most productive years after suffering shattering defeats.

Menzies had been written off in 1941 when he lost the prime ministership. Yet he came back several years later to win seven federal elections on the trot before retiring as Australia's longest serving prime minister. Nixon, a former congressman, senator and vice president, had lost two crushing defeats: in the 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy; and in the 1962 race for California governor. Time magazine editorialised: “Barring a miracle, Richard Nixon’s political career is over.” His meeting with Menzies in 1965 presaged his own remarkable rise to the top. He won the presidential elections in 1968 and 1972. But two years later, he resigned in disgrace.

As Newt Gingrich continues to make his remarkable comeback, one wonders whether history will record another chapter in the lives of remarkable political comebacks.

12 December 2011