Robert Menzies (1894-1978) was a long-serving prime minister of Australia, known for his political conservatism, his opposition to communism and for forging an alliance with the United States.
Born in remote western Victoria, Menzies attended Wesley College and Melbourne University. Unlike most young men of his era he did not volunteer for military service in World War I; the reasons for this are a matter of some debate. Menzies graduated with a law degree then worked briefly in private practice.
In 1928, Menzies entered politics, first as a member of the Victorian state parliament, then six years later in the national legislature. Menzies was both conservative and Anglophile, deeply loyal to Britain and the British monarchy. He also expressed some admiration for the achievements of Adolf Hitler in Germany, a country he visited in 1938.
In April 1939, Menzies became prime minister of Australia after the sudden death of the incumbent, Joseph Lyons. He remained in office until August 1941 when Menzies’ own party lost its majority in the parliament.
Menzies was returned to government in a general election in December 1949. A strident anti-communist, he took immediate steps to reduce the communist threat to Australia. Of particular concern was the rise of communist China, which fuelled concerns about the Domino Theory.
Menzies and his government adopted a position of ‘forward defence’, deploying troops in foreign countries to halt communism before it reached Australian shores. He also sought to establish political and military ties with the United States.
In 1950, Menzies deployed Australian military personnel to both the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War. In October 1950 the Menzies government passed the Communist Party Dissolution Act, a law that banned the Australian Communist Party, confiscated its property and banned known communists from government jobs. This legislation was ruled unconstitutional and overturned by Australia’s High Court in March 1951. Menzies responded by organising a referendum to alter the constitution. This referendum (September 1951) was narrowly defeated.
Menzies committed Australia to two significant Cold War treaties: ANZUS, a tripartite military alliance with the US and New Zealand (signed September 1951) and SEATO, an eight-nation Asia-Pacific alliance (September 1954).
In April 1954, the Australian government was rattled by the Petrov affair: the defection of a Soviet diplomat that led to heated scenes and claims of Soviet espionage in Australia. Menzies exploited the Petrov incident and fears of communist infiltration to attack the Labor Party and win the April 1954 federal election.
One of Menzies’ last major Cold War decisions was to provide Australian military support to South Vietnam, sending military advisors (1962) and then combat troops (1965). Menzies retired from politics in January 1966. He penned his memoirs and served for five years as chancellor of his alma mater, Melbourne University.
Menzies died in May 1978. His funeral service in Melbourne was attended by around 100,000 people.