Sir Robert Menzies was Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, first holding office at the beginning of World War II from 1939 until 1941, and then again from 1949 until 1966. And thanks to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, we now know a bit about how the CIA viewed this legend of Australian politics.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies chats with President Kennedy during a visit to the White House, Washington, 24 February 1961. They posed for photographers in the Red Room of the Mansion. (AP Photo)
The CIA’s biographic reports are interesting not because they give us some insight into top level, highly secretive intelligence. But instead, they’re written in a manner that gives us a peek at how the CIA viewed an individual on a human level.
For instance, I recently received the CIA’s biographic report for ruthless Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The agency described him as both “outwardly tough” and “rigid” but also “warm and fatherly”. The CIA even used phrases such as “mild-mannered” to describe the brutal man.
So what can we glean from the CIA’s biographic file on Robert Menzies, a Cold War ally of the US in the fight against communism? The CIA calls Menzies an “unusually keen intellect”, with “personal magnetism” and a “sharp wit”. The file also notes that he has “a talent for polemics” and says that he “stands out in any political gathering”.
The file also addresses the strong anti-Communist views of the man, which no doubt made the CIA feel like they had a strong ally in the south Pacific. The file talks about Menzies and his refusal to recognise Communist China, for fear of losing Taiwan to communism.
The biographic report also refers to Menzies as a “fervent Anglophile”, which may just be a nod to Australia’s history as a commonwealth and Menzies’ historical links there, or it may be a subtle nod to his racism. Menzies wasn’t shy about fully embracing the White Australia Policy, which forbade non-white people from moving to Australia from the time of federation (1901) until the mid-1970s.
You can watch Menzies on TV (probably from the late 1950s or early 1960s) on YouTube defending the White Australia Policy.
Menzies would lose his role as Prime Minister to Harold Holt, a member of his own party, in 1966. Menzies died in 1978, just a few short years after a constitutional crisis that has been surrounded in mystery for four decades as people wonder whether the CIA orchestrated a coup in Australia to oust Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. We still don’t know.
The CIA’s own biographic reports on the people involved in “the dismissal” of Whitlam haven’t given us an ah-ha moment. I have gotten the FBI file and CIA biographic reports for Whitlam. But the CIA refuses to release the biographic file of the Prime Minister who ousted him, Malcolm Fraser.
Peeling back the layers of history can be a long and frustrating task when you’re dealing with an agency such as the CIA. But we do it piece by piece. And while the biographic file on Menzies may not be the most exciting document ever uncovered, it does contribute to our understanding of the man and his relationship with the CIA in a small way. And in today’s case, we learned that the CIA thought Menzies was a pretty swell guy. The agency knew they had a solid friend down under.