Skip to main content

Historical documents

487 Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister, to Dr H. V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs (in London)

Cablegram PM62 CANBERRA, 13 May 1942


1. Your E.4 [1] has been discussed with MacArthur. [2] He
appreciates your views in the light of the situation as you see it
in Washington and London but he does not agree with the general
thesis that, having been given the directive, the main initiative
rests with him to obtain the forces for its fulfilment. He
considers it is the obligation of the United Nations to provide
the forces he has indicated to be necessary, to decide by whom
they will be provided, and transport them to the Southwest Pacific
Area with the utmost expedition.

2. In MacArthur's opinion his directive should have [been] drafted
in two sections, one showing the immediate objectives to be
achieved, the main one of which is to ensure the security of
Australia as a base, and the ultimate objectives to be aimed at,
which might be generally expressed as building up forces in this
area for an offensive. In the opinion of those responsible for the
grand strategy, the attainment of the ultimate objectives might be
somewhat delayed if MacArthur's views on an early Pacific
offensive are not accepted, as consideration has also to be given
to the demands for a second front, the needs of Russia, the Middle
East, India and China. However, the immediate objective of the
security of Australia as a bastion in the Southwest Pacific Area
brooks of no delay whatsoever.

3. MacArthur states that as the further attempt of the Japanese to
move southwards has been frustrated in the recent engagement in
the Coral Sea [3], it is of vital importance to build up and
maintain adequate strength to repulse any further attacks of this
nature. He observes that the essential backbone of the striking
power in this action was the aircraft carriers of the task forces
which do not belong to his Command, but only entered it for this
operation. I hope there is a full realisation in London and
Washington of the grave threat with which we were confronted last
week. We knew the strength of the enemy concentration, we knew his
intentions, and we knew the prospective date of his attack, yet we
were unable to marshal the superior strength to deal him a heavy
blow and the whole of his convoy of 24 transports fell back on
Rabaul unscathed. Fortune will not continue to favour us with
these opportunities if we do not grasp them.

4. MacArthur says that the immediate objective is to provide in
the Southwest Pacific Area naval, land and air forces to make it
secure as a springboard for ultimate offensive action, and he has
cabled to the President [4] through General Marshall [5] a
statement of his conception of the probable courses of action open
to the Japanese, the best means of frustrating them, and the
additional forces necessary for the defence of Australia. These
consist of the following additional forces:-

Navy-Two aircraft carriers.

Army-An Army corps of three Divisions, fully trained and equipped
for operations.

Air Force-A first line strength of 1,000 aircraft.

5. I find that MacArthur is in general agreement with the views we
have been expressing since the outbreak of the war with Japan, and
all of which I have mentioned earlier. However, I would re-
summarise them as the basis on which, as you suggest, we as a
Government must ceaselessly argue until MacArthur is satisfied
that he has at least the minimum for his immediate objectives. His
only point of difference from our own Chiefs of Staff's earlier
appreciations is the statement that without adequate naval and air
power 25 divisions are necessary for the defence of Australia. He
says that if the enemy has superior naval and air power no land
forces will be adequate and that air power, both sea-borne and
land-based, is a vital necessity.

6. The following is a re-statement of the Australian Government's

(i) Japan by carefully prepared advances and methodical
acquisition of air bases to cover the next step has acquired
extensive areas and established herself in French Indo-China, Hong
Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, Burma
and New Guinea. She has secured access to vital sources of supply.

Her main naval strength is still intact. Her land-based aircraft
in archipelagoes and narrow waters are a formidable deterrent to
naval operations in these regions.

(ii) The defeat and capture of the Forces in the areas attacked,
with the retreat of those in Burma, will free for further
operations the Japanese Forces employed over a wide area. The
indifferent or, in some cases, the co-operative attitude of native
populations to Japanese occupation has relieved Japan of the
obligation of maintaining large garrisons to prevent insurrection
or to combat guerilla activities. Japan is, therefore, in a
position to re-group her forces and select her next objectives.

(iii) There would appear to be no grounds for assuming that she
will relax her offensive. She is a partner of the Axis and it is
to her interest to co-operate in the defeat and destruction of the
United Nations. The choices appear to be an attack on Russia, on
India or in the Southwest Pacific Area.

(iv) As to the probable direction or directions in which Japan
will move, the Mandated Islands, with their naval and air bases,
afford a substantial measure of defence to her eastern flank until
they are captured by amphibious operations. Within the area now
controlled by her, Japan is able to follow her earlier practice of
concentrating superior force at the point of contact and she is
able to launch a powerful attack against the Southwest Pacific

(v) A similar scale of attack on India cannot be made from a
comparably secure position insofar as bases are concerned, as the
line of communication in the Indian Ocean is much more vulnerable
to a flank attack. Also there would be a dispersion of naval
strength west and east of Singapore which would handicap the
concentration of the Japanese fleet to cope with a fleet action by
the United States Fleet in the Pacific Ocean. The circumstances
for an offensive against India are not so favourable for a
successful outcome as those against the Southwest Pacific Area.

(vi) It would, therefore, appear, from the Japanese point of view,
that the soundest course would be to move against the Southwest
Pacific Area first and leave India alone until the results of
these operations are ascertained.

(vii) In view of this probable course of action that is open to
the enemy, it is of vital importance to ensure that the forces in
the Southwest Pacific Area are sufficient to ensure its successful
defence. As General Wavell said when Commander-in-Chief of the
A.B.D.A. Area, the Japanese drive must be stopped by making a
stand and fighting him somewhere. Australia, with its manpower and
resources, is the last area in the Southwest Pacific where this is
possible. If, at the same time, Japanese home territory, overseas
bases and lines of communication can be regularly raided, the
maximum defensive-offensive will be developed. The defensive
position having been secured, an offensive strategy can be adopted
as soon as the necessary forces are gathered.

(viii) The advantages of this course of action are several. It
would ensure the security of the Southwest Pacific Area. It would
be the best means of protecting India. It would provide a second
front for assistance to the Russians by relieving pressure on
Siberia and releasing forces for use on the European front or by
enabling Russia rejoin with the United Nations in the early defeat
of Japan, when the entire effort could be concentrated on Germany.

Finally, a large-scale offensive can be staged more easily and
quickly in the Southwest Pacific Area than in any other area.

(ix) If Japan should move in force against Australia and obtain a
foothold, as threatened to occur last week with the Coral Sea
action, it may be too late to send assistance. Possibly in the
long run the territory might be recovered but the country may have
been ravished and the people largely decimated. History would
gravely indict such a happening to a nation which sacrificed
60,000 of its men on overseas battlefields in the last war and, at
its peril, has sent its naval, military and air forces to fight
overseas in this one. In the defence of Britain, after the fall of
France, there still remained the Navy and Air Force to repel the
invader and the Air Force did so. Australia is not so favourably
placed. It is a vast territory with poor communications, a small
naval squadron, a relatively small army, neither adequately
equipped nor fully trained, and a small air force. With superior
sea power the enemy can bring to bear superior force and can sever
or seriously harass the lines of communication for overseas
supplies. It is imperatively and vitally urgent to strengthen this
base while time and circumstances permit.

(x) The defence of the Southwest Pacific Area is an obligation of
the United Nations, who have approved the directive of the
Commander-in-Chief and appointed him to the supreme command. It
devolves on them to provide the forces required. Australia is
developing its maximum potential, but it is not sufficient, as the
Commander-in-Chief has already stated. The deficiency must come
from elsewhere and come quickly. [6]


1 Document 486.

2 Allied Supreme Commander in the South-West Pacific Area.

3 On 7-8 May Allied and Japanese warships fought a major battle in
the Coral Sea. Each side lost one aircraft carrier but
strategically the result favoured the Allies, since it forestalled
a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby. Japanese surface vessels
never again operated so fir to the south.

4 Franklin D. Roosevelt.

5 Chief of Staff, U.S. Army.

6 The third paragraph (apart from the first four words of the
first sentence and the whole of the second sentence) and the sixth
paragraph of this cablegram were repeated to the Legation in
Washington on 14 May for delivery to Roosevelt. See cablegram 97
on file AA:A981, War 33, attachment C.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
Back to top