This paper has been prepared by Dr JW Knott, BA (LaT), PhD (ANU), Head of History, School of Social Sciences, the Australian National University and historical consultant to the National Archives.


The year of 1952 was one of change and some uncertainty for many Australians. In February the death of King George VI and the accession of Queen Elizabeth II were announced. March saw severe import restrictions introduced to prevent the nation's balance of payments from deteriorating further. In May the Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, fuelled anti-communist paranoia in the community by referring to a 'nest of traitors' in the public service. Then, in August, concern about rising unemployment caused the government to announce severe cuts to its immigration program. That month there were disturbances at the Bonegilla migrant camp near Albury. Traditional Labor anti-immigration views resurfaced in the Senate in October when Queensland ALP Senator Archie Benn compared immigrants to cane toads and suggested they should never have been introduced.[1] That same month Australia entered the Atomic Age when Britain exploded its first atom bomb on the Montebello Islands off the northwest coast of Western Australia. And throughout the year Australian troops remained on active duty in Korea. A mass bombing campaign of North Korean cities by the United States and its allies did little to resolve the military and political stalemate on that troubled peninsula.

Despite such uncertainties Australians could still find pleasure in their cricket team's 4–1 Test Series victory over the West Indies and the six gold medals (including two by the 'Lithgow Flash', Marjorie Jackson) that the nation's athletes won at the Helsinki Olympics. A year of sporting triumph was rounded out in November when bantamweight Jimmy Carruthers became the first Australian to win a world boxing title.

Federal politics

In Canberra the Liberal-Country Party's euphoria over its electoral victory in April 1951 had begun to fade. There were concerns that, as the coalition entered its third year in government, its reform agenda had stalled. The Government's attempt to ban the Communist Party had been rejected in a referendum, its financial reforms were in limbo and now the economy had taken a sudden downturn. Nervous coalition backbenchers were beginning to focus on their re-election prospects. Rumblings of discontent were first detected while Prime Minister Menzies was visiting the United States and Britain in May and June. There were claims that the opportunities presented by Menzies' victory in 1949 had been frittered away, that the Government had lost direction, and that Ministers were under the influence of public-service Mandarins inherited from Chifley.[2] The nerves of government backbenchers (and Ministers for that matter) were not soothed by drastic swings against the Government in two by-elections late in the year. The ALP wrested the Victorian seat of Flinders from the Liberals, and EG Whitlam entered federal parliament with a substantially increased Labor vote in the western Sydney seat of Werriwa.

These newly released Cabinet notebooks touch on most of the important political and policy issues of 1952 and reveal much (albeit often in abbreviated form) about the thinking of individual Cabinet Ministers on particular issues. As one would expect, most attention was given to economic policy. After having had to cope with an overheating economy for the past two years, Cabinet was taken by surprise by the sudden economic downturn. In their scramble to understand what was going on, some Ministers focused on unusual economic indicators. The Minister for Labor and National Service, Harold Holt, for instance, thought that a '20% fall in attendance on race tracks' might be significant.[3] The notebooks also show Cabinet giving serious consideration to dismantling the wartime tax reforms (uniform taxation) and returning the power to collect income tax to the States.[4] In the end, nothing came of the proposal.

Other matters that reveal much about Australia in 1952 are touched on in the notebooks as well. The Liberal Minister for the Army, Josiah Francis, for instance, was opposed to admitting the Japanese wives of Australian servicemen into Australia because it could cause unrest.[5] Cabinet as a whole was also unhappy with Japan's choice of Haruhiko Nishi as their first post-war Ambassador to Australia. Nishi had been Head of the Japanese Foreign Office at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The Minister for Defence Production, Eric Harrison, wondered why the Japanese could not send a 'clean-skin' and warned of a bad response in RSL circles.[6]

Cabinet Ministers also agonised over their responsibilities when petitioned to commute death penalties imposed by courts in the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea.[7] In one of the cases the convicted murderers were 19- and 20-year-old 'New Australians', who had originally come to Australia as unaccompanied children, displaced persons from Czechoslovakia. Cabinet eventually accepted the Attorney-General's advice that their petitions for commutation should not be granted.[8]

Of all the Cabinet deliberations that took place in 1952, however, two broad topics stand out as being of particular significance. The first concerned Australia's role in the age of the Atom: the facilitation of nuclear weapons testing and the development of the nation's uranium deposits. The second concerned Cabinet's attempts to deal with Cold War fears at home: the alleged subversive activities of Australian communists and communist sympathisers.

The bomb

In September 1950, Menzies had secretly agreed to a request from Britain to conduct atomic weapon tests in Australia. Only a few people were told of the agreement: the then Acting Minister for Defence, Philip McBride, and the Secretaries of the Prime Minister's, Defence and Supply Departments. Menzies neither informed nor consulted his Cabinet over the decision. The absurd situation eventually arose whereby the Minister for Supply, Howard Beale, was telling Parliament that rumours of atomic tests in Australia were 'completely false', while his own department head was cooperating with the British to arrange the tests.[9]

With the atomic tests scheduled for October 1952 and press speculation mounting, it was agreed that identical press statements revealing plans for the test would be issued by the British and Australian Governments at 12.30 GMT on 18 February 1952. Menzies intended to inform his Cabinet a few hours prior to the announcement. Even this brief courtesy was thwarted, however, when for some inexplicable reason British cables containing the joint statement reached the Australian press before Cabinet had even met.[10]

We do not know what Cabinet thought of Menzies' explanation that morning because any discussion that took place is not recorded. The Cabinet notebook entry simply reads: 'The PM mentioned the press statement about test of atomic weapons'.[11] As it happened, Beale had been confidentially (and one might add illegally) informed by his own departmental head about what was going on a few days earlier. Naturally enough he was very angry that he had been kept in the dark for so long.[12]

Menzies did not particularly like Beale – 'not on the same wavelength' he told a colleague[13] – but it is unlikely that this was the reason he never informed his Minister of Supply that an atomic bomb test was to take place. The development of atomic weapons was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the age. The 'need to know' principle governed who was informed and who was not. Cold War tensions can only have added to this culture of secrecy. In recent decades it has become fashionable to make much of Menzies' eagerness to agree to the British request to test their bomb in Australia and his failure to consult his Cabinet over the issue.[14] As Menzies' biographer, the late Allan Martin, has pointed out, such criticism is anachronistic.[15] In the context of the early 1950s, Menzies did nothing unusual: it is inconceivable that any Australian Prime Minister at the time (regardless of political party) would have turned down such a request from Britain. The dangers of the atmospheric testing of atomic weapons would only become apparent to scientists later in the decade. Nor would anyone have expected top secret matters (such as the information that Britain was building its own atomic bomb) to be brought before, much less discussed by, Cabinet. There was also nothing unusual in abiding by the British insistence that knowledge of the proposed tests be restricted to a small circle of Ministers and officials. What is difficult to understand is that the Minister for Supply – who had Cabinet responsibility for developing Australia's uranium reserves, building Australia's first nuclear reactor and (as it turned out) controlling the Australian end of the atomic bomb testing program – was judged to be someone who did not 'need to know'.


Apart from facilitating atomic weapons testing, Australia's other major contribution to its allies' nuclear weapons programs was the mining and processing of uranium. In April 1952 an agreement was signed between the Combined Development Agency, the South Australian Government and federal government for the development of uranium deposits at Radium Hill. The Combined Development Agency, a joint US–UK authority created to ensure an adequate supply of uranium for the Western allies' weapons programs, would be the sole customer of the mine.

Menzies believed that selling to the Combined Development Agency was 'a matter of importance to the free world'.[16] Nevertheless this did not stop some of his Ministers from openly questioning whether Australia was obtaining the best financial return from such an arrangement. The issue came up in July 1952 when Cabinet discussed proposals to develop the even larger uranium deposits discovered at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory.[17] The proposal once again was for Australia to develop and operate the mine and for the Combined Development Agency to purchase the entire output. Cabinet was told that the United States was expanding its atom bomb building program so that 'the Western World could smash the Russians' in the event of war.[18] The Combined Development Agency's offer was to pay 70 per cent of the cost of production, plus £2/5/0 per pound of ore for a period of 10 years. Harold Holt, the Minister for Labor and National Service, thought contributing to 'mutual defence' was all well and good, but he was concerned Australia was 'not making much of a profit'. Defence Minister Philip McBride agreed, and claimed that Canada was getting a much better price for its uranium. External Affairs Minister, Richard Casey, put an even more bizarre twist on the discussions: because Australia was 'putting something into the kitty of great value' in the West's fight against communism, they should 'get credit for it – perhaps fighter planes'.[19]

During these deliberations General Jack Stevens, Secretary of the Department of Supply, was brought into the Cabinet Room to address the various concerns raised. He assured Cabinet the agreement offered 'a very favourable deal', although 'not a Father Xmas deal for us'.[20] Cabinet subsequently set up a sub-committee to explore the issue in even greater detail and eventually recommended acceptance of the original offer. A 10-year agreement between the federal government and the Combined Development Agency for the development and sale of uranium deposits at Rum Jungle was signed in January 1953.

The 'red menace'

Concern about the alleged subversive activities of Australian communists and their sympathisers reached a peak in Australia in the early 1950s. In September 1951 the federal government had seen the proposed constitutional changes that would have allowed it to ban the Communist Party of Australia narrowly rejected by the electorate. This left the coalition government without a clear policy for dealing with the presumed subversive threat from communism. This did not, of course, stop anti-communist zealots both inside and outside the federal parliament from engaging in a communist witch-hunt. Chief Government Whip Henry 'Jo' Gullett, Liberal backbencher WC Wentworth, and the fiercely anti-communist Labor MHR Stan Keon led the way. In May 1952, for instance, Wentworth asked the Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, whether secret documents had been passed to a journalist working for the Communist Party's Tribune newspaper by a senior public servant. He then implied that the former head of the Department of External Affairs, Dr John Burton, who had resigned from the public service to stand (unsuccessfully) as an ALP candidate in the 1951 federal election, was the source of the leak. Casey said he thought it improbable that Burton had passed on the documents, but then fuelled paranoia by referring to a 'nest of traitors' flourishing in the public service.[21]

What induced Casey to make such an inflammatory claim is unclear. And Burton was certainly not the source of any leak. We now know that a woman working for the Australian security services leaked the information to the Tribune.[22] 'Mrs A', who subsequently gave in camera evidence to the Petrov Royal Commission, had been instructed by the head of the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) to form a friendship with the Tribune journalist. She had then been provided with confidential material to pass on to him in the hope that the CIS would learn something useful in return. It never did.[23]

There may not have been a 'nest of traitors' in the Commonwealth public service, but there were some Communist Party members and left-wing sympathisers working for the Commonwealth. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) maintained a register of them. There were three categories: category A were known members of the Communist Party of Australia, category B were secret or suspected members of the party, and category C were those who had been reported as expressing left-wing opinions or views.[24] Should such people be considered a security risk and be purged from the public service? In September 1952 Cabinet considered a report from the Director-General of ASIO, Colonel Charles Spry, into the matter.[25] In his report, Spry indicated that there were a handful of people working for the Commonwealth who might be considered serious security risks. None, however, were working in sensitive areas and none had access to classified material. He thought the introduction of a formal purge procedure – with tribunals and the right of representation for those suspected of communist sympathies – would not serve any useful purpose; too few communist sympathisers were likely to be dismissed. Better, Spry recommended, to keep the existing informal arrangements whereby known security risks within the public service were transferred to an area where they had no access to sensitive material and were kept under surveillance.[26] Cabinet accepted the advice.

Parliamentary attacks on alleged communist sympathisers in universities and in the arts community were given short shrift by Menzies in particular. In August 1952, Labor MHR Daniel Mulcahy had placed a question on notice regarding the appointment of communist sympathisers Dr Robin Gollan and Michael Lindsay to the staff of the Australian National University (ANU). This came on top of revelations that the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, had earlier denied a research student at the ANU access to Papua New Guinea on the grounds of his 'political affiliations'. At a subsequent Cabinet meeting, Menzies said he thought 'academic freedom must be maintained' and that one 'should not examine the political view of appointees'. On the other hand he admitted that the ANU was a resource that the government would want to make use of in the event of war and then they 'would have to kick these fellows out'.[27]

Before Cabinet could take a position on this issue the Chief Government Whip, Henry 'Jo' Gullett, and Labor MHR Stan Keon sensationally raised the matter on the floor of Parliament. Gullett claimed the ANU had become 'more famous for its left wing politics than for its research' and Keon joined in by asserting that a 'nest of Communists' existed at the ANU. Keon also went on to attack the Commonwealth Literary Fund, of which Menzies was a board member, for funding left-wing writers Judah Waten, Eric Lambert and John Morrison.

One of the ANU academics attacked, Michael Lindsay, had recently inherited an earldom, and Keon claimed that this was the reason the Government was unconcerned by the ANU appointments. They 'were so anxious to be rubbing shoulders … with a genuine belted earl that they were not worried … this gentlemen was doing the work of the Communist party'.[28] In his reply Menzies poured scorn on the claim – 'The honourable member said … I invited Lord Lindsay … because I wanted to see what an earl looked like. Good Heavens, I have seen hundreds of earls!' – before taking the moral high ground and asserting the principles of academic freedom and non-interference by his government in the affairs of the ANU.[29] In his speech, Menzies made no mention of the fact that he had already spoken to the Director-General of Security, Colonel Spry, and the Vice-Chancellor of ANU, Douglas Copland, about this very matter.[30]

Consistency was not always Menzies' or his Cabinet's strong point. The Government was determined, for instance, that a delegation of activists be stopped from attending an Asian-Pacific peace conference in Beijing. Why they were so intent on stopping people from travelling to this particular conference is not clear. No restrictions were placed on the issuing of passports to attend other communist conferences that year in Jakarta, Vienna and Moscow.[31] Even ASIO advised that there were no security issues involved and the only concern was that the conference might be used for 'propaganda' purposes.[32] Perhaps, in the end, Cabinet believed it had to act in order to satisfy the expectations of its anti-communist supporters. Some Ministers attempted to rationalise the decision by arguing that (because of China's support of North Korea) Australia was in a state of de facto war with China. 'We should not let people go to China' claimed Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, John McEwen, because it is 'the enemy's country'.[33] But as the Minister for the Navy and Minister for Air, William McMahon, pointed out, legally Australia was 'not at war with China' and to stop people from attending would be viewed as 'an arbitrary act of government'. He argued that the Government should limit its actions to simply urging people not to attend.[34] Although the British, New Zealand, Pakistani and Indonesian governments decided not to stop its citizens from travelling to Beijing for the conference, the Australian Government stood by its decision 'that facilities should be withdrawn from persons wishing to attend this conference'.[35] In the end the Government's actions had little effect. Dr John Burton, the former Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, led the Australian delegation at the conference.


Australia did not succumb to the rampant McCarthyism that was experienced in the United States in 1952. Although communist witch-hunting occupied the attention of a good many members of Parliament (on both sides of politics), these Cabinet notebooks suggest that Menzies was not the Cold War warrior that he is occasionally portrayed as. Certainly Menzies and a majority of his Cabinet were not prepared to abandon basic civil liberties in order to deal with the perceived threat of communist subversion. Proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act, for example – which were to include powers to search without a warrant, arrest on suspicion and reverse the onus of proof – were rejected as too draconian.[36]

The perceived threat of communist subversion was, of course, largely a problem of the Government's own making. It was the Liberal and Country Parties who had raised the spectre of an internal communist threat in the first place. And it was Menzies' government that had promised to deal with the problem. 'We must do something', the Minister for Defence Production, Eric Harrison, reminded Cabinet in September 1952, because we 'said we did not have sufficient powers at the time of the anti-Communist bill'.[37] Menzies remained unconvinced, however, that being seen to do something justified the introduction of extreme measures. There was some red baiting, and wild claims were occasionally thrown about in Parliament, but there were no purges of the public service and nothing like the witch-hunting which accompanied hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States Congress.

These and many other issues are documented in the formal Cabinet submissions and decisions which were released after 30 years, but the 1952 Cabinet notebooks provide additional insight into the personal views and opinions of the Ministers of the Fifth Menzies Cabinet.


  1. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (CPD), vol. 219, p. 2769.]
  2. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1952. For an extended account, see AW Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 2, 1944–1978, Melbourne University Press, 1999, pp. 209–12.
  3. National Archives of Australia (NAA): A11099, Cabinet Notebooks, 1/14, 17 March 1952, p. 62.
  4. NAA: A11099, 1/14, 17 March 1952, p. 62; A11099, 1/15, 4 July 1952, p. 16; A11099, 1/16, 12 November 1952, p. 77.
  5. NAA: A11099, 1/14, 27 March 1952, p. 93.
  6. NAA: A11099, 1/16, 23 September 1952, p. 23.
  7. NAA: A11099, 1/29, 3 July 1952, p. 26 & p. 30; 27 August 1952, p. 38; A11099, 1/30, 2 December 1952, p. 30.
  8. NAA: A4909, Fifth Menzies Ministry – Cabinet Decisions, volume 3, nos 298 & 342.
  9. CPD, vol. 213, p. 718 & vol. 214, pp. 643–4. For Beale's own account of how he was kept in the dark, see H Beale, This Inch of Time: Memoirs of Politics and Diplomacy, Melbourne University Press, 1977, pp. 78–9.
  10. AW Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 2, 1944–1978, Melbourne University Press, 1999, p. 223.
  11. NAA: A11099, 1/14, 18 February 1952, p. 26.
  12. Beale, op. cit, p. 78.
  13. Ibid, p. 109.
  14. Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1985, makes much of this for instance.
  15. AW Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 2, 1944–1978, Melbourne University Press, 1999, pp. 167–8.
  16. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 5 July 1952, pp. 33.
  17. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 5 July 1952, pp. 33–6.
  18. NAA: A4933/XM1, volume 28, RJ52/1, AEC Record of Discussions, 19 June 1952.
  19. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 5 July 1952, pp. 33–6.
  20. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 5 July 1952, p. 36.
  21. CPD, vol. 217, pp. 808–9 & 870–5.
  22. The agent worked for the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS), an arm of the then Commonwealth Police Force. CIS had a close association with ASIO.
  23. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, Transcript of Proceedings, Government Printing Office, Sydney, 1955, vol. 9, p. 2703. Alan Ashbolt, claims 'Mrs A' was Mercia Masson, who later worked as an arts reporter for the ABC (see Alan Ashbolt, 'The Great Literary Witch-Hunt of 1952', in Ann Curthoys & John Merritt (eds), Australia's First Cold War 1945–1953, vol. 1, Society, Communism and Culture, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, pp. 157–8).
  24. NAA: A6122/47, 1886-1888 – Security – personnel security risks in the Commonwealth Public Service, NSW returns, volumes 1–3.
  25. NAA: A11099, 1/6, 5 September 1952, p. 5.
  26. NAA: M1509/1, 10 – Communists in Commonwealth Public Service.
  27. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 19 August 1952, pp. 72–3.
  28. CPD, 28 August 1952, vol. 218, pp. 710, 717 & 719.
  29. CPD, 28 August 1952, vol. 218, pp. 724–5. Press reports of the proceedings, with lurid headlines about 'Red Professors', are to be found in Melbourne Herald, 28 August 1952 and Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1952. See also SG Foster & MM Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 1946–1996, Allen & Unwin, 1996, pp. 120–22.
  30. NAA: A4909/1, Fifth Menzies Ministry – Cabinet Decisions, volume 5, no. 520.
  31. NAA: A4909/1, Fifth Menzies Ministry – Cabinet Decisions, volume 5, nos 544 & 554.
  32. NAA: A11099, 1/16, 9 September 1952, p. 1.
  33. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 2 September 1952, p. 82.
  34. NAA: A11099, 1/15, 19 August & 2 September 1952, pp. 72 & 82.
  35. NAA: A4909/1, Fifth Menzies Ministry – Cabinet Decisions, volume 5, nos 517, 528 & 531.
  36. NAA: A11099, 1/16, 5 September 1952, pp. 1–4. See also NAA: A4905 – Fifth Menzies Cabinet Submissions, submission no. 434.
  37. NAA: A11099, 1/16, 5 September 1952, p. 2.

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