Ireland & the USA

T he Irish question was one of the most important issues that confronted Menzies during his time in Britain. Prime Minister Eamon de Valera was determined to keep the Republic of Eire out of the War and this neutrality included denying Britain access to the ‘Treaty Ports’ – five harbours and fuel storage areas originally retained under British control in the Treaty of 1921, which had granted independence to Eire. In 1938 de Valera successfully negotiated their return with Chamberlain’s British Government.

During 1940, after the fall of France, it seemed that a German invasion of Britain might only be hours away. Shipping losses in the Atlantic were enormous: between July and October 1940, 245 vessels were sunk in the Atlantic by German U-boats. The use of the Irish Treaty Ports 1 for anti-submarine operations in the Atlantic would have provided convoys with better protection. By March 1941 British restrictions on trade and shipping to Ireland had reduced the petrol allowance to private motorists by 75%, brought tea rationing and the end of wheat imports and had cut off external supplies of oil, fat and sugar.

Against this background, Menzies announced in a meeting of War Cabinet that he was preparing to travel to Dublin to meet de Valera to discuss the situation. Menzies prepared a detailed paper on his meeting and presented it to the War Cabinet on 10 April. Although well received by some in Cabinet, Churchill decided that nothing would be gained by inviting de Valera to London for talks: Menzies’ plan had been rebuffed. Thereafter, Menzies’ relationship with Churchill deteriorated. Although an important part of the trip, there are few diary entries dealing with de Valera and the Irish question.

Menzies left for America on 3 May for meetings with Roosevelt to discuss the position of the United States—not yet in the war, but already an important source of assistance for Britain.

Prime Minister Menzies with Eamon de Valera, Prime Minister of Eire.

London, England

Very free talk about Southern Ireland. All present are plainly anti-R.C. Bevin convinced that some Federal Scheme the only way out (probably right!) and that now is the time for a commission from the dominions, chaired by U.S.A to offer to settle the matter!

London, England

(Winston) Enjoys hatred, and got a good deal of simple pleasure out of saying what he thought of de Valera, who is (inter alia) a murderer and perjurer. (N.B. There is a growing passion on this subject here, and we may as well get ready for squalls. After all, why should the British people, (and the Australian) be prejudiced and perhaps defeated by this fantastic Southern Irish neutrality?)

I endeavoured vainly to get his (Winston Churchill’s) mind on the question of the ultimate solution of Ireland. War? Federal Union? Should the Dominions offer to intervene?

The Longfellow broadsheet, signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President F.D. Roosevelt.

The Longfellow broadsheet of 1941 foretold Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic secret meeting off the coast of Newfoundland. Roosevelt used the verse as a hastily scribbled message of support to Churchill in early 1941, when American entry into the war seemed remote. Churchill had it printed, and both he and Roosevelt signed a few copies on the last day of their meeting in August 1941.

Menzies collected Roosevelt’s signature earlier, on his journey back to Australia. At their meeting Churchill and Roosevelt drafted the Atlantic Charter, the agreement on war aims which was to be the basis of the enduring Anglo-American alliance. Only four other signed copies are known to exist.

London, England

Long conference, followed by lunch, with de Valera. Long, long grey black frieze overcoat, broad rimmed black hat. An educated man. Personal charm. Allusions to history, but not all ancient.

He and all his ministers have “done time” as rebels, and family blood has been spilt in the streets. We must remember this—“You have not died on the Barricades”!

London, England

War Cabinet re Ireland. Winston describes my paper 2 as “very readable”—a most damning comment. Beaverbrook, Sinclair & Greenwood rather approve, but Winston & Kingsley Wood exhibit the blank wall of conservatism. There is triangular prejudice on this matter. Winston is not a receptive or reasoning animal. But they will come to it!

Winston describes my paper as “very readable”—a most damning comment.

United States

General American sentiment is on our side, but the moral arguments of cowardice and short-range self-interest are being directed by Hoover, Wheeler, Lindbergh & Co 3 to the mothers and possible draftees! The slogan “help Britain” is most imperfect—should be “help ourselves”. That has been my own theme—“This is your struggle as well as ours, and you must organise your material resources accordingly”.

Public opinion has gone as far as it can without a lead by the President, whose delay becomes disturbing. Public opinion is creative only up to a point. After that it must be created by decision and action. Roosevelt could decide tomorrow to convoy, and the people would back him. He could probably decide not to, and the people would back him.

Roosevelt agreed that we all ought to tell Japan where she gets off, but stops short of actually instructing the USA Ambassador to do so. I am left in no doubt (without words) that America will not stand by & see Australia attacked. I plead for reality about N.E.I. and Singapore.

Don’t think Pacific will be denuded of USA naval forces. R. is a little jealous of Winston’s place in the centre of the picture. I tell him they should have a meeting. R. is not an organiser—very like Winston—and co-ordination of effort is not conspicuous.

Roosevelt agreed that we all ought to tell Japan where she gets off, but stops short of actually instructing the USA Ambassador to do so.

  1. Treaty Ports By 1941 the Luftwaffe had perfected tactics which added a new threat to that posed by the U-boat fleet in the Atlantic. Focke-Wulf bombers regularly picked off shipping traffic up the west coast of Ireland. The bombers flew from French airfields over to the Irish west coast, to cross back to bases at Stavanger in German-occupied Norway once they were low on fuel. At Berehaven, one of the Treaty Ports—where British fighters and anti-aircraft batteries might have been stationed—locals watched the planes fly past each morning en route to pound the Atlantic convoys.

  2. Menzies’ paper on the Irish question As a Cabinet document, there was an embargo (30 years in Australia, 50 years in Britain) on its dissemination and publication. A copy of the report is held in the Menzies Papers, National Library of Australia, MS 4936/1/5/36.

  3. Hoover, Wheeler, Lindbergh & Co Herbert Hoover, US President from 1929-33; Senator Burton Kendall Wheeler, isolationist leader in the United States Senate; Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator, prominent isolationist and executive committee member of the America First Movement.

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