John F. Kennedy’s “debt” to Australia

For most of their history, our two English-speaking and continental nations have been separated not only by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, but also by a different political heritage. Both may have started as British colonies, but only one saw the need to rebel and chart its own course. The other remained proudly and comfortably within the Empire.

Former US President John F. Kennedy with Arthur Reginald Evans in the Oval Office on May 1, 1961. Abbie Rowe/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

This all changed with the arrival of World War II in Asia. As the Japanese empire expanded west and south with terrifying speed, Prime Minister John Curtin said in his New Year’s message on December 27, 1941: “Without any inhibition of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free from any pain as to our traditional ties or our kinship with the United Kingdom.

Curtin said those words just three weeks after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor and seven weeks before the fall of Singapore. On February 19, 1942, just days after Britain’s humiliating surrender in Southeast Asia, Darwin was bombed. It is the largest loss of life to violence in a single day on Australian soil.

Curtin was right. Australia’s national survival was at stake and only the United States offered any hope of protection. A few Americans had already arrived in Brisbane before Curtin gave his speech, and thousands more would cross the Pacific in 1942. By the end of the war, nearly a million American servicemen had passed through Australia. It was the start of a remarkable alliance forged in the furnace of the Pacific War – a theater where five future American presidents served.

Since then, the United States has been, in the words of Robert Menzies, “the great and mighty friend” of Australia: the keystone of our strategic and military considerations, and the umbrella under which we have protected ourselves against the insecurity and benefited economically. The friendship between Australia and the United States has had its ups and downs over the years, as have friendships, but it has never really wavered.

On September 14, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the America’s Cup dinner in Rhode Island, where the Australian yacht Gretel challenged the New York Yacht Club’s Weatherly for the coveted trophy. With great charm, Kennedy referred to Australians as “that extraordinary group of men and women numbering some 10 million” who were “bound by an ocean” to the United States. (Incidentally, Sir Frank Packer’s Gretel ended up beating Weatherly in one of five races, America’s first defeat since the 1930s.)

President Kennedy went on to describe our nation as “very satisfactory friends in peace and best friends in war”. Today, Ambassador Kennedy has the opportunity to build on her father’s war experience with the Australians to strengthen our alliance in an increasingly turbulent world. The Solomon Islands, once targeted by the Japanese to disrupt supply lines between Australia and the United States, are back in the headlines as the story comes full circle.

Deeply aware of Reg Evans’ role in saving her father, Mrs Kennedy said when her appointment was announced: “I will work hard to pay off this debt.”

Madam Ambassador, there is no debt. What are friends for?

Brett Mason is a former Queensland Senator, Deputy Foreign Minister and Australian Ambassador to The Hague. His book on Reg Evans, John F. Kennedy and the early Australian-American friendship is forthcoming.

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