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Mackenzie King

CMJ collection

William Lyon Mackenzie King addresses the League of Nations in 1936. At this time, he was still very pro-appeasement.

The Lessons Of Munich: Mackenzie King’s Campaign To Prepare canada For War

by Captain Gordon C. Case

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Prior to the autumn of 1938, Canadians were seriously divided over the question of whether Canada should participate in a war with Britain against an increasingly hostile Germany. And yet, only one year later, on 10 September 1939, Canada declared war on Germany as an ally of Britain, and Canadians generally supported that decision. It seems evident that something significant happened during this period. Given the bitterness and depth of the debate over Canadian involvement, the establishment of a consensus in 1939 was a considerable accomplishment. And the credit for it belongs largely to the Prime Minister of the day, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

If King was responsible for creating the conditions under which agreement on such a divisive issue was possible, how did he do it? It will be argued that the unity of 1939 was the product of a gradual effort by Mackenzie King to convince Canadians that Canada’s participation in a war alongside Britain was not only likely, but was in the country’s national interest.1 This effort had its roots in the lessons learned by King during the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938, and it represented a shift from his previous approach to foreign affairs. From a policy of avoidance that was evident throughout much of the 1930s, in the months after the Munich Accord, Mackenzie King worked to establish a political formula that would make Canadian involvement acceptable to most Canadians. Throughout this period, the Prime Minister’s dominant concern was to avoid arousing controversy and thereby risking national unity, for above all, King believed that if Canada had to go to war, it must do so as a united country. His success in achieving his objective ranks as one of his greatest accomplishments.2

In order to understand how Mackenzie King approached the question of Canadian participation in war, one must identify some of the factors that influenced him. These were both internal and external in nature. The internal influences were largely centred on King’s own beliefs. The external influences included the opinions of his closest associates combined with political realities, both domestic and international, and they operated in combination to define King’s foreign policy.

Mackenzie King was the Secretary of State for External Affairs as well as Prime Minister, and thus it would be expected that his personal values had a certain influence on the development of foreign policy. Undoubtedly, his overriding concern for the preservation of national unity was a principal element. For the Prime Minister, national unity was as much a personal viewpoint as it was a recognition of political realities. Canada, in King’s view, was a “partnership” that bridged a host of cultural and regional differences through an underlying sense of national identity.3 However, the political realist in King recognized that domestic harmony could be threatened from several different directions, that would, in turn, jeopardize his ability to govern. Thus, Mackenzie King developed a political formula that he held to throughout his career: the “domestic situation must be considered first, and what will serve to keep Canada united.”4

Oscar Skelton

NAC C-002089

The very influential Oscar D. Skelton, Under Secretary of State for William Lyon Mackenzie King.

The issue of national unity was the point where the internal and external influences on King’s decision-making regarding foreign policy converged. During the 1930s, Canada was anything but united, and as far as foreign affairs were concerned, the principal divisive issue revolved around the question of Canadian participation in a future overseas war. There were several distinct bodies of opinion. There were the Canadian imperialists, who held that if Britain was at war then Canada was also at war. In the middle were the majority of English Canadians, who felt an emotional attachment to Britain and would support Canadian involvement if Britain were attacked. Ranged against them were a collage of opposing opinions, which included the pacifist movement, the neutralists and the isolationists. The divisions ran deep and emotions ran even deeper.

Mackenzie King’s foreign policy has been popularly associated with isolationism. Within the Department of External Affairs, the chief isolationist was Dr. O.D. Skelton, the Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs and King’s right-hand man in the Department. Skelton was a Canadian nationalist who believed that the British held, as a continuing objective, the centralization of the British Empire, which would, in turn, impose a limitation on Canadian autonomy.5 He had a strong North American bias, and saw little advantage for Canada to involve itself in the unending disputes within Europe. Skelton was in a position to influence King’s approach to foreign policy, and the two men had a close working relationship. Indeed, both Mackenzie King and Skelton agreed on many issues, notably that Canada’s national interest lay in avoiding situations likely to threaten domestic harmony.6 Not surprisingly, Canada’s foreign policy during the 1930s reflected Skelton’s influence.

Isolationist sentiment was also strong among the nearly three million French Canadians, who not only mistrusted British intentions but feared that Canadian participation in another war could lead to a demand by English Canada for overseas conscription. French Canadian sentiment was a crucial political factor, especially given that Mackenzie King’s government relied on strong support from Quebec for political survival. The French-Canadian viewpoint found its voice in Ernest Lapointe, Minister of Justice, who held a position of considerable influence within the Quebec caucus.7 Lapointe was invaluable to King, for he represented a large constituency of opinion about which the Prime Minister had very little understanding. Significantly, Lapointe was also virtually the only other member of the Cabinet who took an active interest in foreign affairs.8 Like Skelton, Lapointe had the advantage of close personal contact with the Prime Minister. Consequently, Lapointe’s voice mattered, and King continually relied on his assessment of the mood in Quebec when developing foreign policy.

Another major element of political influence lay not in political dogma, but in the human factor: the cultural and emotional ties between English Canada and Britain. Mackenzie King was a strong believer in the “richness of the inheritance of partnership in the British Empire.”9 It was one of the many paradoxes in his complex personality for, at the same time, he was a strong proponent of Canadian autonomy and was frequently exasperated by the relationship existing between the British and Canadian governments. King’s sentiment for Britain was a point on which he differed with Skelton, who never felt such a bond.10 Nevertheless, King recognized that English Canada’s emotional ties to Britain could have potentially dangerous implications for Canada’s foreign policy. The Prime Minister knew that English Canadians would never allow a Canadian government to stand idly by if Britain were attacked. Indeed, as historian C.P. Stacey has remarked, Mackenzie King agreed with that sentiment.11 At the same time, however, it was obvious to King that the English Canadian desire to come to Britain’s aid would collide with French Canadian fears associated with such involvement. The result could be a national schism reminiscent of the Conscription Crisis of 1917, which would be a disaster for the country and could jeopardize his ability to govern.

The competing influences of isolationism and cultural, emotional ties with Britain, combined with Mackenzie King’s own views regarding national unity, resulted in a foreign policy designed to avoid the question of Canadian participation in a major European war. In essence, King’s approach was almost a policy of avoidance. This approach held several political advantages: it would appeal to the isolationist sentiments of Skelton and French Canada; it would appease the pacifists and the neutralists; and, finally, as it did not threaten the link between Britain and Canada, the majority of English Canada would be mollified as well. Most importantly, it would not provoke domestic controversy.

The centrepiece of King’s foreign policy was a stubborn refusal to make commitments of any kind, and it was accompanied by the formula that “Parliament will decide.” It was not a new idea. Previous Canadian governments, including those of Macdonald and Laurier, had used it for essentially the same purpose. Mackenzie King outlined his approach in the House of Commons on 25 January 1937:

Our policy is that parliament alone can commit Canada. I cannot make that too clear. At the present time there are no commitments, so far as Canada is concerned, to participate in any war. Equally, there are no commitments of which I am aware, or of which any one else is aware, whereby we agree to remain neutral under all circumstances. The policy of the government with respect to participation and neutrality is that parliament will decide what is to be done.12

Mackenzie King applied the policy of “no commitments, Parliament will decide” to Canada’s involvement in both the League of Nations and the Commonwealth, as he recognized that Canada could be drawn into a conflict through either organization. At Geneva in 1936, King served notice that Canada would not participate in any attempts to use collective security as a means of dealing with international disputes, saying that it was “now desirable to emphasize the task of mediation and conciliation rather than punishment.”13 The policy of avoidance was also in evidence at the Imperial Conference of 1937, where British proposals for closer co-ordination on defence were rebuffed by the Canadian delegation on the basis that such measures could only threaten national unity, and even have the effect of removing any possibility of a Canadian involvement.14 Thus, while Canada retained membership in both the League and the Commonwealth, its government ensured that its obligations and liabilities were minimal.

Mackenzie King’s military policy was also consistent with his overall approach to avoid domestic controversy and overseas commitments. Defence spending was unpopular among Canadians, who generally saw little need for it given the economic realities of the Great Depression. The nadir had been reached in 1933-34, when the defence budget was only $13 million; it resulted in a navy with only two serviceable destroyers, an air force with twenty-three aircraft – all of which were unsuitable for combat, and an army with neither modern artillery pieces nor sufficient ammunition with which to practice.15 While military spending gradually increased as the 1930s progressed, it was justified by King on the basis of “self-defence only.”16 The use of the self-defence argument achieved two political objectives. First, it sent a clear message to international observers that while Canada was spending more on defence, it had not abandoned its stance of “no commitments.” Second, it avoided controversy at home, satisfying French Canadians who had historically opposed such increases for fear that a military capability would be used outside Canada.17

Mackenzie King’s support for the British policy of appeasement also reflected his policy of avoidance. Historians Jack Granatstein and Robert Bothwell have argued that appeasement had a strong appeal for King, pointing to both his loathing of war and his inclination towards utilizing discussion as a means of resolving issues.18 From what is known of Mackenzie King’s personality, this seems undeniably true. It would also be true to say that in this attitude, King was generally representative of his countrymen, who tended to approve of virtually any approach that offered an alternative to war.19 Indeed, King’s faith in appeasement was strengthened by his personal acquaintance with the two key figures associated with it, Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, both of whom impressed Canada’s Prime Minister as sincere men of peace.20 However, it seems possible that appeasement held another advantage for King: if war could be avoided through appeasement, the question of Canadian participation could similarly be avoided.

Mackenzie King’s approach to foreign policy reveals the influence of both the isolationist camp and his appreciation for the sentiments of English Canada. Isolationism was evident, both in the policy of “no commitments,” and in the defence policy of “self-defence only.” Similarly, although Canada would not commit to closer military coordination, there was never a suggestion of breaking the bonds of Empire, and thus the emotional ties with Britain were not threatened. Canadians generally supported these policies. However, the success of Mackenzie King’s approach depended on one critical factor – the absence of a serious crisis involving Britain. Given the international situation of the 1930s, such a confrontation was becoming increasingly likely. During the autumn of 1938, it arose when the British were drawn into the ongoing dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland.

This crisis was a significant event for both Canada and Mackenzie King. Several historians, including John Thompson and Allen Seager, have described it as a “turning point.”21 King’s official biographer, H. Blair Neatby, has gone one step further, describing the events of September 1938 as a “personal crisis.”22 However, the Sudetenland Crisis was important for another reason. It represented the first occasion that brought to the forefront the one question that King’s foreign policy had thus far been intended to avoid: What would Canada’s position be in a European war involving Britain? The manner by which Mackenzie King dealt with this problem during the crisis is therefore significant, for it reveals the early beginnings of a change in his approach to the question of Canadian participation in a new European conflict.

As Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mackenzie King’s opinion on Canadian participation was of critical importance. It is generally agreed that King himself knew what his decision would have to be, should that day ever come. Jack Granatstein has said that Mackenzie King had been leaning in the direction of participation since the Imperial Conference of 1937.23 H.B. Neatby has agreed with this assessment, adding that King’s greatest fear was the reaction that was likely to accompany such a decision.24 Both observations are plausible. However, if King had such an opinion prior to Munich, his actions indicate that he had largely kept it to himself King’s reluctance to voice his opinion began to change at the outbreak of the Sudetenland Crisis. Significantly, although he began to speak his mind more frequently, it was not in public but, rather, among his colleagues. On 31 August, he met with two of his ministers, Ian Mackenzie and C.G. Power, to discuss events in Europe. He later wrote:

I made it clear to both Mackenzie and Power that I would stand for Canada doing all she possibly could to destroy those Powers which are basing their actions on might and not right, and that I would not consider being neutral in this situation for a moment. They both agreed that this would be the Cabinet’s view, Power saying that a coalition might be necessary, with some of the Quebec men leaving the party. I told him that the Cabinet Ministers should realize that it would be the end of Quebec if any attitude of that kind were adopted by the French Canadians in a world conflict such as this one would be. They, as members of the Government, ought to lead the Province in seeing its obligation to participate, and making clear the real issue and what it involves.25

Hitler and Mussolini

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A veritable rogue’s gallery. Hitler, Mussolini and their minions.

Mackenzie King also began to voice his opinion with his staff at External Affairs, where he came into conflict with the views of Skelton. Not surprisingly, Skelton counselled neutrality even though he recognized that “the Government could not, without suffering immediate defeat, adopt any such policy; that the country’s sentiment would be strong for intervention and even for participation by a possible expeditionary force.”26 However, despite this acknowledgement of political reality, Skelton did not give up his fight to convince King that a Canadian involvement was not in the national interest. He raised the neutrality option again on 11 September, observing that “we are the safest country in the world – so long as we mind our own business.”27 King later recorded his thoughts on these exchanges in his diary:

I read [the] careful resumé Skelton had prepared of the situation to date. Excellently done, but all the way through, referring only to self interest of each part as determining its action, and leading to a sort of isolationist attitude as far as Canada is concerned. I believe myself that whilst care has to be taken as to determining the part Canada may be called upon to play, and the steps toward that end, that our real self-interest lies in the strength of the British Empire as a whole, not in our geographical position and resources. That not to recognize this would be to ultimately destroy the only great factor for world peace, to lose the association of the United States and the British Empire and all that it would mean for world peace. That would place Canada in an ignominious position. I am clear in my own mind that co-operation between all parts of the Empire and the democracies is in Canada’s interests in the long run and in her own immediate self respect. The only possible attitude to be assumed.28

This particular diary entry is significant, for it indicates a small fissure in the King – Skelton relationship. Clearly, the Prime Minister fundamentally disagreed with his advisor, and did not believe that Canada’s national interests were to be achieved by continuing to pursue a policy of isolationism. In Mackenzie King’s view, standing beside Britain against the powers of totalitarianism had both a moral and political imperative. In short, Canada had “a self-evident national duty” to take such a position.29

While King was now speaking his mind more frequently, he never lost sight of the fact that Canadian involvement was sure to result in a negative response from French Canada. Unfortunately, at this time, his principal French Canadian advisor, Ernest Lapointe, was attending a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. At a meeting on 31 August, Mackenzie King and Power spoke about what they thought Lapointe’s position would most likely be. King recorded that Power “thought that Lapointe would become so nervous and upset that he would be good for nothing, which I fear is only too true, though what he learns at the League and in France may cause him to feel differently upon his return.”30 Cut off from his usual pipeline into the mood of Quebec, the Prime Minister had to rely on what Power told him about his own impressions of how French Canada would respond. What he heard seemed to point to an English-French split, not only among the population, but also within the Liberal Party.31 King was so sick with worry that on 28 August, he became bedridden with sciatica and would remain so for the next two weeks.

As the crisis in Europe worsened, Mackenzie King worried that Canadians would soon come to expect their government to state the national position. On 23 September, he asked Skelton to draft a press statement, which would advise the country to remain calm.32 That afternoon, he held a Cabinet meeting with the purpose of sounding out the opinions of his ministers. The Prime Minister was pleasantly surprised to find a general agreement that, should Neville Chamberlain’s efforts fail, Canada should declare itself on the side of Britain.33 Surprisingly, C.G. Power announced that the feeling in Quebec seemed less likely to represent serious opposition to Canadian participation, but he suggested that Mackenzie King might wish to communicate with Lapointe to obtain his opinion.34 The Prime Minister agreed, and he sent a cable to Lapointe asking for his advice. Lapointe’s reply arrived the next day, and is reproduced in part here:

Cannot see that any statement should be made, prior to an outbreak of war. Situation in important parts of Canada extremely delicate and requires most careful handling. Public opinion will have to be prepared, not aroused by irrevocable steps...Immediate cause of war namely minority problems in Central Europe not of a nature to enthuse our people. Submit that Parliament should be summoned, if war declared, and no definite commitment made meanwhile...

I do not see how I could advise any course of action that would not only be opposed to my personal conviction and sacred pledges to my own people but would destroy all their confidence and prevent me from carrying weight and influence with them for what might be essential further actions. Please consider these views and submit them to colleagues before reaching final decision. God help you. I still strongly feel that conflagration shall be avoided.35

Lapointe’s telegram had a braking effect on Mackenzie King’s actions and he cancelled his proposed statement to the Press. H.B. Neatby has argued that King seemed to have expected such a response from Lapointe.36 It was advice that Mackenzie King would heed, for within it lay a hint from Lapointe that if he was ignored his resignation would follow. A public statement was issued three days later, when the Prime Minister learned of Chamberlain’s departure to meet Adolf Hitler at Munich:

The Canadian Government is continuing to keep in the closest touch with the grave developments in the European situation. The Government is making preparations for any contingency and for the immediate summoning of Parliament if the efforts which are still being made to preserve the peace of Europe should fail. For our country to keep united is all-important. To this end, in whatever we say or do, we must seek to avoid creating controversies and divisions that might seriously impair effective and concerted action when Parliament meets. The Government is in complete accord with the statement Mr. Chamberlain has made to the world today.37

King George and Queen Elizabeth

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King George VI visits Montreal in 1939. He is flanked by Queen Elizabeth and Montreal’s corpulent Mayor, Camillien Houde, who will be interned for most of the war for his opposition to conscription. Prime Minister King watches from the rear.

Significantly, King’s statement did not say exactly what his government would do if war broke out, although the Cabinet had already agreed on participation. Once again, one can see his policy of avoiding domestic controversy. Fortunately for Mackenzie King, this was as close as he had to come in defining the government’s stand, as the Sudetenland Crisis ended shortly thereafter.

Canadians cheered when Chamberlain returned to London from Munich on 29 September with a piece of paper signed by Hitler, and proclaimed that it meant “peace for our time.” Mackenzie King sent Chamberlain a cable the same day, saying: “The heart of Canada is rejoicing tonight at the success which has crowned your unremitting efforts for peace.”38 And yet, in spite of the intense feeling of relief, there remained a profound sense of unease. Munich had been a close call, and it seemed a portent of things to come. Both King and the rest of Canada had been little more than spectators throughout the crisis. The same might not hold true the next time around.

After 29 September, most Canadians went back to their daily chores and attempted to forget about Munich. Mackenzie King, however, could not forget. Neatby has argued that for King, Munich was a warning signal, one that forced him to realize that it was now virtually impossible that a war in Europe would not involve Britain, and thus Canada.39 It is entirely reasonable that Mackenzie King would reach this conclusion: War was coming, whether he liked it or not. It was this recognition of growing danger that influenced Mackenzie King to shift from a policy of avoidance towards an approach that would prepare Canadians for the likelihood of war in the months after Munich.

Mackenzie King’s appreciation for the domestic situation drove his methodology to prepare the country for war. King knew that there was still a considerable block of opinion in the country that resisted the idea of Canadian participation, despite the patently aggressive actions of Germany. In order to preserve national unity, he would have to find a way to convince all Canadians that participation in a war alongside Britain was in Canada’s interest and that neutrality was not a viable option. At the same time, he would have to exercise caution. If he came out too solidly on the side of Britain, he risked being seen as having come under the influence of the Canadian imperialists, which would arouse unnecessary controversy and defeat his purpose. The result was a delicate dance, a ‘two-step’ in which he would not say explicitly what the government would do in the event of another crisis, but rather what the government would not do. King would move along these lines until the outbreak of war.

One of the first indicators that King’s approach to foreign policy had changed may be found in the growing divergence of opinion between himself and Skelton. The two men held opposing views on where Canada’s interests lay, particularly with respect to Canada’s relationship with Britain. After Munich, however, it seems apparent that Mackenzie King became increasingly convinced that his advisor did not appreciate all the issues involved. In November 1938, a few weeks after his return to Ottawa from a Caribbean vacation, which he shared with Skelton, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary:

I felt more & more – the materialistic “scientific” point of view which Skelton had in all things – a critical frame of mind, also a ‘republican’ attitude, I felt his negative viewpoint & inferiority complex in so many things – a real antagonism towards monarchical institutions, and Britain...lack of larger view in reference to world affairs – an isolated Canada – which I cannot accept. It told on me and him, & raised a sort of wall of separation between us. He seeks to dominate one’s thought, and is intellectually arrogant in some respects...I can see I must control policy and be the judge of my own conduct in social & other affairs – to lead and not be controlled, while in many ways he is the best of Counsellors and guides.40

King George and Queen Elizabeth

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit the New York World’s Fair during their highly successful 1939 North American tour.

Mackenzie King’s decision to assume a greater degree of personal control over foreign policy reflects another aspect of the dynamic at work between the two men. By January 1939, King found himself becoming increasing irritated that his staff at External Affairs continued to focus on academic theories to deal with the worsening international situation. Faced with the responsibility of leadership in a world that was obviously sliding towards war, King wanted no part of “theories that could not save the lives of people.”41 For their part, the mandarins in External Affairs, especially Skelton, seemed not to notice the changes in attitude that were gradually taking place in both King and Canadians in general. Ironically, by the summer of 1939, the isolationists in External Affairs would find themselves isolated – their theories no longer had a place in Mackenzie King’s foreign policy.42

Another difference in the Prime Minister’s approach became evident in the latter months of 1938, when he made it his business to ensure that more funds would be provided for the military in the coming year. By 1938, the defence budget had reached $35 million, up from $33 million the year before, and had resulted in some equipment improvements43 The Royal Canadian Navy now boasted six modern destroyers, and the Royal Canadian Air Force had a few combat-ready aircraft.44 At the Defence Committee meeting on 14 November, the Chiefs of Staff presented an estimated financial requirement for 1939 that was double that of 1938 – some $70 million.45 Mackenzie King’s reaction to this new amount was reflective of his new attitude:

I said it appeared to me, from what had been disclosed, that, up to the present, we had been keeping up a nominal defence so as to preserve organization, and to be in a state of semi-preparedness but in reality our defence was wholly inadequate and ineffective...In my own mind, what was proposed seemed reasonable and almost necessary in a world situation such as we know exists today.46

As Stacey has noted, the defence budget for 1939-40 amounted to some $65 million, which represented the largest amount ever proposed to a Canadian Parliament in peacetime.47 The Cabinet approved the estimates on 16 December, and after the meeting, King noted: “Even Quebec Members felt that considerable increase in estimates were necessary and would be approved.”48 This prediction proved correct. The defence estimates passed through the House of Commons the following spring with little opposition.49

Mackenzie King began his effort to prepare the minds of Canadians for the likelihood of war in a speech on 16 January 1939, after the opening of the new session of Parliament. Unfortunately, as biographer Neatby has described, it proved to be somewhat less than a resounding success.50 His intention was laudable: “I...made up my mind that I would not allow myself to take the one sided view that I was crowded into, speaking on external affairs, last session which ignored the possibility of Canada being at war when Britain was at war. I also wanted to prepare our men for the increased expenditures...”51 The problem lay in the Prime Minister’s particular choice of wording in order to express these thoughts. King decided to use a statement originally made by Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1910: “If Britain is at war, we are at war and liable to attack.” The phrase provoked a storm of negative reaction.

Objections came quickly from all sides. On 18 January, the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir ran a headline, which read, “Quebec Liberals Listen in Stupefaction to the Prime Minister’s Declaration in Ottawa.”52 Ernest Lapointe argued that King’s statement went against the precepts of the Statute of Westminster and he threatened to resign.53 Worse still, one of King’s own Members of Parliament, J.T. Thorson, introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that proposed a declaration that Canada would only go to war on the recommendation of the government.54 This was not an auspicious beginning.

Mackenzie King recognized that the most serious and immediate source of opposition to his use of Laurier’s statement was to be found within his Cabinet, and he responded decisively. In a meeting held on 27 January, King told his Cabinet colleagues that he was somewhat perplexed by the attitude of those Members who disagreed with his use of Laurier’s words. He had believed that, as the issue had been previously discussed by them, it was something to which they had all agreed. He then went on to say: “The circumstances abroad at the present time were the threat to freedom the world over which we could not possibly hope to escape...whatever views we might hold of obligations arising out of Imperial connections.”55 The fact was, in the event of a war, Canada could not avoid involvement. An aggressor nation would simply regard Canada as a member of the British Empire and, as such, Canada was liable to be attacked. It was in this regard, Mackenzie King concluded, that he had used Laurier’s words.

King then discussed the political danger to the Liberal Party in not providing some reassurance to certain quarters, lest they develop the impression that the government was “less loyal to our position in the Empire, than Sir Wilfrid Laurier was in his day.”56 At this point, Lapointe said that while he agreed that Canada could not avoid involvement if Britain were attacked, it might be necessary for some Members to resign from office. King responded to this challenge by saying that he understood “the very difficult situation that our French Canadian colleagues faced, but that we knew each other well enough and understood each other well enough to be able to work together in the interval, to get our views so accommodated that there could be no need for anyone to go out.”57 King played on their political fears:

I then pointed out the terrible danger to those whom they might be considering, were the French Canadian colleagues to leave. I pointed out that a break in the Cabinet would mean an inevitable demand for National Government. That National Government might lead to anything, conscription and all the rest. That if they wished to avoid a situation of that kind, it would be for all of us to stay together and not let the control of Government in a crisis of that kind pass into the hands of jingos and Tories. This seemed to make an impression.58

From that point on, the Cabinet worked together. The result was an agreement that, in the event of war, the Government would adopt a policy that would contain the formula “no neutrality, no conscription.” Mackenzie King was well satisfied with the results: “I confess that I felt proud of the Cabinet...There was not an acrimonious word in the discussion but a keen sense of profound responsibility.”59 It was a significant moment, for it was this formula that would be the necessary ingredient to the establishment of a consensus within Canada.

Toronto Daily Star

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The journalists “jump the gun” with this 3 September 1939 headline. In effect, Parliament took a full week longer to decide.

The issue of whether Canada would participate in a European war alongside Britain would be raised in Parliament again in March 1939, after the German occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. This action marked the conclusion to the Sudetenland Crisis of the previous fall, and it resulted in an immediate British renunciation of the policy of appeasement. King was appalled by the latest development, for once again, the likelihood of war was raised. Rather characteristically, O.D. Skelton pointed out to King that the real danger to Canada lay in how Britain would respond, rather than in Germany’s aggression. Chamberlain, he said, was “born and bred in a Tory imperialist school,” and in his anger at having been deceived by Hitler, he was liable to react without thinking.60 King, while sharing Skelton’s loathing of Tories and imperialists, was more focused on the domestic equation. He believed that the time had come for a clearer statement from the government regarding its position, and he made one in the House of Commons five days later.

Mackenzie King’s address to Parliament took place on 20 March. In his diary, he noted that “it was necessary to make clear Canada’s determination to stand with other democracies in opposing aggression and attempt at domination of the world by force. It was important to make equally clear that any policy would be based on sound information in the light of actual conditions, and not give any blank cheque to any Administration in Britain...”61 Unfortunately, during the reading of his statement, it became apparent to King that a crucial page was missing. He left the House and went to Skelton’s office, where he knew there was a complete copy of an approved draft. There, Skelton desperately attempted to convince his Prime Minister not to include a clear statement regarding where Canada would stand in the event of an attack on Britain. King protested, saying that “if asked a specific question [in Parliament] I would have to answer exactly where we would stand.”62 The incident appears indicative of the efforts that Skelton consistently made to convince King not to abandon isolationism. However, Mackenzie King held to his resolution of the previous October to follow his own instincts. He subsequently returned to the House with the missing page, where he completed his speech with the following words: “If there were the prospect of an aggressor launching an attack on Britain, with bombers raining death on London, I have no doubt what the decision of the Canadian people and Parliament would be. We would regard it as an act of aggression, menacing freedom in all parts of the British Commonwealth.”63 It seemed to be a clear statement of the government’s rejection of isolationism, at least to Mackenzie King. Afterwards, he wrote, “I feel tonight I have made a strong and bold stroke for freedom today, and feel perfectly sure that the course taken has been the right one.”64

Once again, however, King had inaccurately judged the response of the Canadian public. Divisions still ran deep. His comments were strongly criticized in both the English and French press, albeit for different reasons. A 21 March editorial in The Globe and Mail entitled “Our Empire Partnership” described Prime Minister King’s speech as “far from a rallying cry for the Empire and other democracies.”65 In Le Devoir, the interpretation was that King had openly declared his intention to side with Britain, come what may.66 A day later, it was announced that both the Ontario and Quebec Legislatures were preparing resolutions that would force the government in opposite directions on the question of Canadian involvement. As Mackenzie King wrote on 24 March, “The country is becoming aroused.”67

The political situation in Canada became more complicated a few days after Mackenzie King’s speech, when Neville Chamberlain announced that if Germany threatened Poland, Britain would fight. This news came without warning and it had grave implications, for the only way that Britain could guarantee Poland’s borders was to enter into an agreement with Russia.68 For Mackenzie King, the key question was how such an alliance with the Soviet Union would play in Canada.69 Shortly afterward, King told his Cabinet colleagues that he wished to initiate a full-scale debate on external affairs in Parliament as soon as possible.70

On 30 March 1939, Mackenzie King once again addressed the House of Commons. It was a dramatic moment. As he later recorded, the galleries were packed and he had “never seen the House follow a speech or an address more attentively.”71 He spoke for two hours, and in his speech he did his best to appeal to the country to remain calm and trust the government in their handling of the worsening international situation. Once again, King did not come out and say exactly what his government would do in the event of war, but rather what it would not do. He rejected the option of neutrality, arguing that such a policy would “be aid and comfort to any country which might be inclined to aggressive action against the democratic peoples or against the United Kingdom specifically.”72 Isolationism was similarly dismissed. Finally, and probably most importantly, he clearly defined his government’s policy regarding conscription: “The present government believes that conscription of men for overseas service would not be a necessary or an effective step. Let me say that so long as this government may be in power, no such measure will be enacted.”73

Ernest Lapointe addressed the House the following day. It was a powerful presentation. Rather than focusing on Canada’s relationship to Britain as an obligation, Lapointe stressed that Canada’s participation as a member of the Commonwealth was in its own self-interest. As King had done, he rejected neutrality, asking of his fellow countrymen “whether they seriously believe that this could be done without a civil war in Canada?”74 He denounced conscription, said that he would never support it, and he appealed to English Canadians to try to understand the views of French Canada on this issue. Lapointe concluded his remarks with a forceful rejection of the isolationist argument:

The ostrich policy of refusing to face dangers will not keep them away. Indeed, a deliberate policy of drift may involve a greater risk...Much of the bloodshed and misery that history records has been the direct result of honest, idealistic, but impractical wishful thinking. There is no more reason on earth why pious aspirations, unsupported by anything more substantial, should be more effective protection for us than they proved to be for Abyssinia or China... So I say this and I want my colleagues to understand me: if there is one chance in a thousand that what our experts say could happen may occur, I should be a traitor to Canada, to my own people, if I would not help to provide against it.75

Public reaction to the two speeches was varied. Mackenzie King’s speech was not well received, despite his intentions. It was decried in The Globe and Mail in an editorial entitled “Not Canada’s Voice,” which complained that King had not gone far enough in declaring Canada’s intentions.76 In the Montreal paper Le Devoir, an editorial asked the ominous question, “Since When is Canada a Country of Europe?”77 Lapointe’s speech, on the other hand, was viewed much more favourably. Immediately afterward, the Press Gallery sent a note to him, saying that he had “stolen the show.”78 The Globe and Mail strongly approved, saying: “In a speech far more British than anything Prime Minister Mackenzie King has said on Canadian foreign policy, Right Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Leader of French Canada, today... placed Canada side by side with Britain.”79 By contrast, French Canadian newspapers tended to focus on Lapointe’s denunciation of conscription. King was understandably upset about the response, but he consoled himself by focusing on the cumulative effect that the two speeches had in promoting national unity:

However, as I look on Lapointe’s speech and mine, I feel that between us, we have built a substantial support for the structure of Canadian unity. If I had gone further than I did in what could have appealed to the Jingos of Ontario, our Government would have lost the support of Quebec and possibly of other sections. If I had made the speech Lapointe made, the party might have held its own with the Jingos of Ontario, but would have lost Quebec more or less entirely. If he had made the speech I did, he might have held Quebec, but the party would have lost heavily in Ontario and perhaps some other parts on the score that Quebec was neutral in its loyalty. Together, our speeches constituted a sort of trestle sustaining the structure which would serve to unite divergent parts of Canada, thereby making for a united country.80

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Ultimately, Canada responded to the clarion call to arms with fervour, in both official languages.

The External Affairs debate of March 1939 represented the pinnacle of King’s efforts to unite Canadians behind a decision to support participation in a war alongside Britain. The subject would not be discussed in the House again until the outbreak of war in September 1939. Indeed, there seemed to be no reason to continue debate in the House. and Lapointe had stated the government’s position, and had amply demonstrated Cabinet solidarity on the twin issues of neutrality and conscription. Further, there was virtually no opposition to what they had said. Both the Leader of the Opposition, Robert Manion, and J.S. Woodsworth, the pacifist leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Party (CCF), merely echoed Mackenzie King and Lapointe.81 In Parliament, it seemePosterd that a basis for unity on the question of Canadian participation in what was now seen to be an inevitable war had been found.82

Thus, by the end of March 1939, Canadians had largely become reconciled to the possibility that Canada would participate in a war as an ally of Britain against Germany. The events of the following months served to solidify this consensus. The Royal Tour of Canada, which occurred during May and June of 1939, was a public relations masterpiece, and it evoked a strongly favourable response from both English and French Canada.83 The increasingly aggressive actions of Adolf Hitler were also a factor, and by September 1939, most Canadians were resigned to the fact that there was going to be another war in Europe. Under the circumstances, a Canadian declaration of war against Germany seemed to be the most appropriate reaction.

In the final analysis, Mackenzie King’s conduct of foreign policy throughout the period of the late 1930s reflected his concern for the preservation of national unity. It seems clear that prior to September 1938, King would have preferred to avoid the question of a Canadian participation in a war alongside Britain indefinitely. It seems equally clear that he realized after Munich that external events would not allow him to do so, and consequently he changed his approach to foreign affairs. By the end of March 1939, King had publicly repudiated isolationism and had supported a significant increase in military spending. Canada’s interests in events occurring in Europe had been debated in Parliament, and all parties had agreed with the government’s approach. Most importantly, the addition of the clause “no neutrality, no conscription” to King’s long-standing policy of “Parliament will decide” had formed a basis for a consensus between English and French Canada on the issue of participation in another European war. All in all, it was quite an achievement, and it had been accomplished without causing a major domestic controversy. Mackenzie King had succeeded in his efforts to convince Canadians that participation was in the national interest, and when the crisis finally came to a head in September 1939, Canadians agreed to follow him into war.

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Captain Case is a logistics officer and a postgraduate student with a penchant for Canadian military history.


  1. Blair Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Vol. 3: The Prism of Unity: 1932-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 976), p. 294.
  2. C.P. Stacey, Canada and the Age of Conflict, Vol. 2: 1921-1948: The Mackenzie King Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), p. 263.
  3. Neatby, p. 5.
  4. King Diary, 29 October 1935, cited in Stacey, 189.
  5. Norman Hillmer, “The Anglo-Canadian Neurosis: The Case of O.D. Skelton,” in Britain and Canada, Peter Lyon, ed., (London: Frank Cass, 1976), p. 75.
  6. Ibid., p. 79.
  7. John MacFarlane, Ernest Lapointe and Quebec’s Influence on Canadian Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 11.
  8. J.L. Granatstein and Richard Bothwell, “A Self-Evident National Duty: Canadian Foreign Policy 1935-1939,” in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, III: 2 (1975), p. 213.
  9. King Diary, 24 October 1938.
  10. Hillmer, p.75.
  11. Stacey, p. 233.
  12. Extract of Mackenzie King’s House of Commons speech on 25 January 1937, in Documents on Canadian Foreign Policy, 1917-1939, Walter A. Riddell, ed., (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 172-173. Also see Stacey, p. 195.
  13. Mackenzie King’s speech at the League of Nations on 29 September 1936, in Riddell, p. 320.
  14. James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada, Vol. 2: Appeasement and Re-Armament (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 56.
  15. Ibid., p. 134. Also Stacey, p. 199.
  16. Eayrs, pp. 140-145.
  17. Stacey, p. 199.
  18. Granatstein and Bothwell, p. 213.
  19. Stacey, p. 215.
  20. King Diary, 05 September 1938.
  21. John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), p. 325.
  22. Neatby, p. 274.
  23. J.L. Granatstein, Canada’s War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 2.
  24. Neatby, p. 287.
  25. King Diary, 31 August 1938.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Granatstein and Bothwell, p. 221.
  28. King Diary, 12 September 1938.
  29. Ibid., 13 September 1938.
  30. King Diary, 31 August 1938.
  31. Neatby, p. 288.
  32. King Diary, 23 September 1938.
  33. MacFarlane, p. 114.
  34. King Diary, 23 September 1938.
  35. Eayrs, p. 65.
  36. Neatby, p. 291.
  37. King Diary, 27 September 1938.
  38. Mackenzie King to Neville Chamberlain, 29 September 1938, in Riddell, p. 202.
  39. Neatby, p. 274.
  40. King Diary, 13 November 1938.
  41. Ibid., 27 January 1939.
  42. Thompson and Seager, p. 328.
  43. Eayrs, p. 146.
  44. Ibid., p. 147.
  45. Stacey, p. 219.
  46. King Diary, 14 November 1938.
  47. Stacey, pp. 219-220.
  48. King Diary, 16 December 1938.
  49. Stacey, p. 220.
  50. Neatby, p. 297.
  51. King Diary, 16 January 1939.
  52. Leopold Richer, “Tout un Group de Deputes Liberaux Quebecois Accueille Avec Stupefaction Cette Declaration Du Chef Libéral à Ottawa,” Le Devoir, 18 January 1939, p. 1.
  53. MacFarlane, p. 143.
  54. Neatby, p. 297.
  55. King Diary, 27 January 1939.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Eayrs, p. 73.
  61. King Diary, 20 March 1939.
  62. Ibid.
  63. King’s Statement regarding the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia the House of Commons on 20 March 1939, in Riddell, p. 176. Also Neatby, The Prism of Unity, p. 298.
  64. King Diary, 20 March 1939.
  65. Editorial, “Our Empire Partnership,” The Globe and Mail, 21 March 1939, p. 6.
  66. Emil Benoist, “M. King Prépare le Canada à Une Intervention Belliciste Possible,” Le Devoir, 21 March 1939, p. 1.
  67. King Diary, 24 March 1939.
  68. Stacey, p. 239.
  69. Neatby, p. 300.
  70. King Diary, 23 March 1939.
  71. Ibid., 30 March 1939.
  72. Extracts from Mackenzie King’s speech on External Affairs in the House of Commons on 30 March 1939, in Riddell, p. 218.
  73. Ibid., p. 220.
  74. Extracts from Ernest Lapointe’s speech on External Affairs in the House of Commons on 31 March 1939, in Riddell, p. 239.
  75. Ibid., pp. 240-241.
  76. Editorial, “Not Canada’s Voice,” The Globe and Mail, 1 April 1939, p. 6.
  77. Georges Pelletier, “Depuis Quand le Canada Est-il Pays d’Europe?” Le Devoir, 1 April 1939, p. 1.
  78. King Diary, 31 March 1939.
  79. Harold Dingman, “Civil War if Canada Neutral – Lapointe,” The Globe and Mail, 1 April 1939, p. 1.
  80. King Diary, 31 March 1939.
  81. Neatby, p. 302.
  82. Stacey, p. 243.
  83. Thompson and Seager, p. 327.