Book Reviews

Cover image of Warlords.

Cover image of Warlords.

Warlords. Borden, Mackenzie King and Canadas World Wars

by Tim Cook
Toronto: Penguin, 2012
464 pages, $34.00 HC.

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Reviewed by Bernd Horn

This is a significant book for those interested in Canadian history, particularly the period spanning the two world wars. Although it does not focus upon the details of the military campaigns themselves, it provides a captivating account of how the nation’s prime ministers and their senior politicians navigated through the domestic and international issues to guide the nation through complexity and conflict. It is an examination of our wartime leaders in an attempt to understand how they guided the nation through two of the most disruptive periods of our nation’s history.

The core question Tim Cook zeroes in on is how did each respective prime minister lead the nation in time of war. Both Borden and Mackenzie King faced similar challenges, but at different points in Canada`s evolution and maturation. As such, the author sheds light on each prime minister`s wartime actions, as well as their respective character traits.

Not surprisingly, the book takes a chronological approach, starting with Robert Borden. Cook expertly summarizes Borden`s life and career particularly, his transition from lawyer to politician. The story is well written; fast flowing, and dynamic, the narrative is an artful mix of narration, quotes, and historical fact. It is easy to read and absorbing, and it captures the essence of Borden`s tortured political career up to the commencement of the First World War. Cook gives the operational context of the war swift coverage, focusing rather upon its impact at home, specifically, the social and financial implications. Borden’s second visit to Britain in 1915 is especially well covered, capturing his drive to gain more autonomy for Canada. What comes out of the first part of the book is the strain and fatigue of the nation`s political leaders as they struggled through the competing demands of fighting a global conflict, including nothing less than pressing trade and fiscal challenges, conscription, worries of insurrection, riots, the imposition of martial law, and the gaining for Canada of a place in the peace process and international landscape at the end of the war.

The book then moves on to William Lyon Mackenzie King in the same manner. The fast flowing text carries the reader through King`s family background and early formative years, particularly his beginning in Ottawa as Deputy Minister of the Department of Labour, and his start in politics after eight years as a public servant. King`s rise to the status of the nation’s warlord is arguably so Canadian. He spent the First World War working for the greatest of the American ‘robber baron’ families the Rockefellers; suffered two electoral defeats; had psychiatric problems, and yet, he became a perfect candidate for the Liberal leadership convention in 1919 after Laurier`s death. After all, his electoral defeats and employment had spared him being tainted with any of the contentious issues surrounding conscription or liberal party infighting. As a result, he could not be tarred for any past sins of the party itself.

Cook does a wonderful job of describing King and his approach to becoming the champion of the right for Canada to act independently. He weaves in King`s spiritualism and private life, which, although enlightening, is also somewhat disturbing, considering his stature and role in the nation. The author’s description of the years leading up to the Second World War, and the international as well as internal tensions is also fast moving and very interesting as he summarizes complex events and issues with flare and clarity.

The author’s skill at providing a clear image of the characters, from King to his trusted ministers who ‘moved mountains’ to mobilize Canada for the war effort, is commendable. He succinctly captures King`s strengths and weaknesses, as well as his very astute political instincts. It is quite fascinating to see how an otherwise-uninspiring individual actually led a nation through the turbulent pre-war and war years. In fact, it is ironic that Canada`s ‘warlord’ had never served in the military, and was incredibly awkward and nervous in front of troops, unable to rouse them with patriotic fervor or speech. However, this does explain his lack of focus upon troops overseas and his primary focus on domestic issues, particularly finances and conscription. In the end, the author ably explains how this contradiction of a leader a man who was not inspirational, had no charisma, a plodding personality and was easy to dismiss - held power for 22 years and had a seminal impact upon the nation.

Overall, the narrative is fast moving, clever, and highly engaging. Historical fact, scholarly insight, and devilish personal foibles of the main characters combine to make the read highly interesting and entertaining. The book is well researched, and it contains a wealth of endnotes that provide sources and additional information, as well as an extensive bibliography. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the subject, and he has utilized seminal sources, both secondary and primary. The book also contains an accurate and detailed index, a well as 30 black-and-white photographs and political cartoons of the time. These assist with providing some visual cues to the narrative.

In the end, this is an exceptionally well-written book, and it is highly recommended for anyone interested in Canadian history and/or leadership through periods of complexity and conflict.

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada and Norwich University.