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Thomas Bruce (Tom) Millar (1925–1994)

by James Cotton

This article was published:

Thomas Bruce Millar (1925–1994), army officer, and professorial fellow in international relations and strategic and defence studies, was born on 18 October 1925 at Kalamunda, Western Australia, fourth child of Scottish-born Thomas Brownlie Millar, headmaster, and his Western Australian-born wife Ellen Rowlatt, née Ward. Tom attended Kalamunda State and Guildford Grammar schools before joining the State Government Statistician’s Office. He enrolled at the University of Western Australia (UWA) part time in 1942, but entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, in February 1943 to undertake the officer-training course, which was abbreviated during the war.

On 13 December 1944 Millar was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Permanent Military Forces and the next day seconded to the Australian Imperial Force. Further training and an injury delayed his arrival in New Guinea until late August 1945, after the war had ended. He joined the 67th Battalion on Morotai, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), in November. The unit sailed to Japan in February 1946 as part of the Australian component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Millar was an early visitor to Hiroshima and was profoundly influenced by the experience of seeing the devastated city. Back in Australia in August 1947, he transferred to the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) in June 1950 as a captain and to the Reserve of Officers in June 1953 as a major. 

Awarded a Hackett bursary and a Commonwealth scholarship in 1950, Millar returned to UWA (BA, 1953) where he found history and politics stimulating. On 2 January 1951 at the chapel of Guildford Grammar School, he married Frederica Ann Drake-Brockman, a fellow student at UWA. They moved to Victoria where he became a schoolteacher (1953–58) at Huntingtower School, Malvern, and studied part time at the University of Melbourne (MA, 1958). His thesis was on the military history of the colony of Victoria. Awarded a Montague Burton studentship, he then attended the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where Charles Manning (professor of international relations) and Martin Wight (reader in international relations) were important influences. He was awarded a PhD in 1960 for his thesis, ‘The Contemporary British Commonwealth.’

As a visiting fellow (1960–62) at Columbia University, New York, Millar studied the operation of the United Nations Organization. In 1962 he returned to Australia, becoming a research fellow (1962–67) and professorial fellow (1968–90) in international relations at the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University (ANU). He served as director (1969–76) of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and in 1979 was seconded for a year to the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1973 he had been appointed chairman of the committee of inquiry into the CMF which, following Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, was facing problems of numbers, morale, and relevance.

Millar was a prolific scholar and, although he wrote on broader issues in international and strategic studies, his greatest impact was through his work on Australian defence. He was perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent commentator on this subject. His most highly regarded book, Australia’s Defence, was the first attempt to survey in a single study the historical, strategic, diplomatic, and bureaucratic aspects of the topic and was deservedly influential. In the original edition Millar predicted ‘an American rescue mission in Viet Nam’ (Millar 1965, 166); in the 1969 revision he accepted the view that Australia’s by now major Vietnam commitment was consistent with South-East Asia Treaty Organization obligations while expressing scepticism of its lasting impact upon alliance dynamics and forecasting a reduced American interest in the region in the immediate future. Though he criticised the defence establishment for its convoluted bureaucratic structure and particularly found the handling of weapons acquisitions unsatisfactory, he accepted the predominant narratives of the time—and especially the threats posed by an expansionary communist China—and therefore argued that Australia had much work to perform in order to acquire the thoroughly credible defence capability that was needed. In company with Robert O’Neill and later Paul Dibb, Millar’s influence led to much greater contestability and accountability in Australian defence policy-making.

It was largely through Millar’s efforts that the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) was established; he served as its director (1966–70, 1982–84). The SDSC attracted criticism from the left that perceived it as a right-wing thinktank, as well as suspicion from those who believed that, in an academic institution devoted to disinterested inquiry, it was too close to the government and military establishments. Critics were also unhappy about its Ford Foundation funding. Nevertheless, combining military experience and academic credentials, Millar won broad acceptance for the centre. At a time when the activities and views of his colleagues in international relations at the ANU became the subject of very extensive documentation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, it described Millar as adopting an ‘intelligent attitude’ to its work. In February 1966 he was granted Top Secret clearance by ASIO, his positive vetting expedited by the director-general himself.

In 1982 Millar was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Although in 1976 he declined appointment as OBE on nationalist grounds, he was made an AO in 1983. Seconded from the ANU, in 1985 Millar took up the position of director of the Centre for Australian Studies, then in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and professor of Australian studies, University of London (emeritus professor from 1990). There he pursued a vigorous program of outreach, instituting new scholarship arrangements and convening many events. When Australian government funding was withdrawn in 1988, Millar was instrumental in persuading the Menzies Foundation to make continuing support available. It subsequently adopted the name, the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies. While in Britain he served on the councils of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (1983–92) and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1991–94). After stepping down from the Menzies Centre he remained in London, attached first to the Centre of International Studies at the LSE and then the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College.

Following the dissolution of his first marriage (1986), Millar married Margaret Christine Robinson, née Thorp, a widow, on 31 March 1990 at a civil ceremony in London. In Canberra he played a major role in founding Radford College, despite strong opposition, especially from education unions, and became the first chairman of the school board. He loved books and music, and was influenced by Christian Science principles; in later life he was a frequent contributor, under his own name as well as pseudonymously, to the Christian Science Monitor. Although afflicted with heart disease, as a disciple of the doctrines of the church, he did not consider surgical intervention was warranted. Survived by his second wife, and the two daughters and one son of his first marriage, he died in London on 5 June 1994. The T. B. Millar scholarships are offered annually by the SDSC, in his honour.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Bell, Coral. ‘Australians and Strategic Inquiry.’ In Nation, Region, and Context. Studies in Peace and War in Honour of Professor T B Millar, edited by Coral Bell, 49–72. Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence no. 112. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, 1995
  • Millar, Thomas Bruce. Australia’s Defence. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1965. 2nd ed., 1969
  • Miller, J. D. B. ‘Defence Scholar Made Strategic Advances.’ Australian, 20 June 1994, 13
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 4849
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 515992
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8605, Papers of Thomas Bruce Millar
  • Times (London). ‘Professor Tom Millar.’ 2 July 1994, 19

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Citation details

James Cotton, 'Millar, Thomas Bruce (Tom) (1925–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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