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Australian History: Harold Holt

Harold HoltAs a politician, Holt was the 'favourite son' of Robert Menzies who groomed him as his successor. Critics say he was an indecisive Prime Minister, fortunate to have had the support of capable ministers.

From the Liberal point of view, Holt had an impeccable background. Born in Sydney in 1908, the son of a theatrical entrepreneur, he was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne - the college to which Menzies had won a scholarship. He became interested in politics when he was a law student at the University of Melbourne. He joined the Young Nationalists and continued the connection after becoming a solicitor. Politics soon proved more attractive than the law and, at the age of 27, as one of the youngest members ever elected to the Commonwealth Parliament, he won a seat for the United Australia Party.

In 1940 he joined the Army, but had served only five months when Menzies lost three of his leading ministers in an air crash and recalled Holt to Canberra. Appointed Minister of Labour and National Service, he was relegated to the backbenches when Labor won power in 1941.

The Menzies victory of 1949 returned Holt to the portfolio of Labour and National Service and also that of Immigration, in which he introduced the first modifications to the White Australia Policy. Thereafter he climbed steadily under Menzies' patronage: to deputy leader of the Liberals, Treasurer, party leader and Prime Minister when Menzies retired in January 1966.

Holt stepped into the top job in the middle of the 1960’s when all the old social values were under fire and for Holt, this mood brought an increasing challenge to the American alliance and involvement in the Vietnam War.

Liberal policy then accepted the 'domino theory' that if one Asian nation fell to Communism, the rest would topple one after another, until Communism isolated Australia from the rest of the world. Liberals believed that aggressive military support of the USA, and of South-East Asian nations threatened by Communism, was the best defence for Australia.

Holt vigorously pursued this policy. But when he welcomed President Lyndon B. Johnson to Australia and publicly invoked Johnson's election slogan 'All the way with LBJ', there was a roar of protest from Labor voters, radical students and other Australians who deplored the implication that they should follow blindly wherever the Americans might lead.

The protests were even more bitter because Menzies had reintroduced conscription in 1965, compelling young Australians to fight in Vietnam even though Australia was not formally at war. In May 1966, two battalions of National Servicemen reinforced the Australian troops in Vietnam. Conscripts began to die in what was technically peacetime.

But Holt rode out the gathering storm. He was the first Australian Prime Minister to visit South-East Asian leaders in their own countries and he worked indefatigably to strengthen Australian trade and political links with Asia. In the light of Liberal policy of that era, he was steering Australia in the right direction. But his place in history ended abruptly when he dived into the surf on the morning of 17 December 1967 and was never seen again.  Mystery still surrounds the disappearance of Harold Holt. There have been numerous theories of what happened and his body was never found.