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The Commonwealth, World War II

Japanese midget submarines, John Curtin, Robert Menzies, general Douglas MacArthur, Dutch East Indies

In April 1939 Lyons died in office and was succeeded by Robert Menzies. In September of that year Australia entered World War II, after Britain declared war on Germany. Menzies immediately placed Australiaís small armed forces at Britainís disposal. The elections of 1941 returned the Labor Party to power for the first time since 1931, and John Curtin became prime minister. British Singapore, long regarded as one of the worldís strongest fortresses, fell to Japanese forces in February 1942, and shortly thereafter Britainís Royal Navy suffered defeat in the Pacific. In March Japanese forces occupied the Dutch East Indies and landed on New Guinea. Japanese bombers raided Darwin several times, and Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. However, Britain was no longer able to supply naval protection to Australia. Although Australian casualties were lighter than in World War I, Australians were more psychologically affected by World War II because of their fears of Japanese invasion. Curtin recognized that Australia relied more on the United States than on Britain for security, and he sought U.S. assistance to contain the Japanese advance. In May U.S. forces surrendered the Philippines; until the Allied liberation of the Philippines in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur and his staff used Australia for their base of operations.

Australian industry was again transformed by the needs of war. The economy was redirected toward manufacturing, and heavy industries ringed the capital cities. Drawing on wartime models of planning, Prime Minister Curtinís administration laid the foundation for policies of postwar reconstruction. Curtin died in 1945, a few months before Allied victory in the Pacific. The new Labor government under Joseph B. Chifley continued the policies of full employment and state social welfare developed during the war years. It began a vigorous immigration program, drawing New Australians, as they were called, from continental Europe as well as from traditional sources in the British Isles. As the perils of war receded, however, Laborís plans for the nationalization of key industries, such as banking, encountered growing opposition. As a charter member of the United Nations, Australia also agreed to the decolonization of the islands in the Pacific, including the preparation of Papua New Guinea for independence (achieved in 1975).

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