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Book Excerpt: “Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King, So Similar, So Different”

Churchillian Terry Reardon explores the relationship of the British and Canadian Prime Minister’s. 

By Terry Reardon

Mr. Reardon is a long-standing member and director of The International Churchill Society of Canada and based in Toronto. The following is a short excerpt from his new book, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King pages 106-114, from chapter 9, Fighting for their Lives.

Churchill-and-King-by-Terry-ReardonChurchill spoke to the nation on May 19, 1940, his first public address since assuming office. There was no attempt to sugar-coat the desperate situation facing the Allies, and his final words were more of desperation than conviction: “Conquer we must and conquer we shall.”5

Churchill knew that the “we” had to include the United States if victory was to be achieved.

The previous day, May 18, his son Randolph recounted talking with his father, who was shaving: “He half turned and said: ‘I think I see my way through.’ He resumed his shaving.

“I was astounded, and said: ‘Do you mean that we can avoid defeat? (which seemed credible) or beat the bastards’ (which seemed incredible).

“He flung his Valet razor in to the basin, swung around and said: ‘Of course I mean we can beat them.’

“Me: ‘Well I’m all for it, but I don’t see how you can do it.’

“By this time he had dried and sponged his face, and turning round to me, said with great intensity: ‘I shall drag the United States in.'”6

King congratulated Churchill on his speech saying that he had heard it “with feelings deeply stirred and with profound admiration and pride.”7

The need to bring in the United States was also apparent to King, who became an ardent wooer of President Roosevelt and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull. He had already spent some time working on the issue during the working vacation he took in the United States in April 1940. This trip had resulted in criticism from some in Canada, who objected to his leaving the country at a critical time, but hindsight shows he was right to neglect domestic problems in order to improve relations between the Canadian and American governments.

On May 23 Britain requested all available destroyers be sent from Canada to protect Britain. To his credit King immediately complied, although it would leave Canada vulnerable. But he saw the big picture, and knew that the only hope for freedom at that time was that Britain should survive.

King’s attitude and action shows not only his deep anglophile feelings, but also his strong sense of decency and loyalty. It could be argued that Canada was secure in the knowledge that the United States would, for its own interests, repel any attack on Canada. However, the United States did not have the fighting power then that it would have when it entered the war. Due to its isolationist position — it had refused to join the League of Nations and had adopted an attitude of no further involvement in European wars — it had allowed its defences to weaken and was woefully deficient in armaments, so relying on it for defence was not as sure a bet as one would think.

On May 24 King was telephoned by Cordell Hull, who expressed concern at the gravity of the present situation and requested that someone be sent from Ottawa to Washington for a discussion with him and someone higher up. Obviously, that person higher up was Roosevelt.

Hugh Keenleyside, of the Department of External Affairs, was sent. He reported back on May 26. King recorded in his diary his abhorrence at the position put forward by the Americans. They had decided that the French would not be able to hold out, and that Britain would not be able to bear up against the stronger German air force. Their information was that Hitler might make an offer of settlement, which would be based on Britain turning over of the whole of its empire and fleet to the Germans. The Germany navy, combined with the British navy and the French fleet, would then be much superior to the U.S. navy.

The Americans requested that King line up the Dominions to bring concerted pressure to bear on Britain to not make a soft peace with Germany, even though it might mean destruction of the country.

The American proposal, which they wished King to claim as coming from Canada, and not the United States, was that if it seemed likely that Britain was going to be defeated, then its fleet should retreat, so that it could still operate from a base away from Britain, and King George should go to Bermuda. The United States would open her ports to repairs for the British fleet, and in this way, a cordon, from Greenland to Africa, could be thrown around Germany. Though it might take a couple of years, Germany would be defeated in the end.

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King was critical of the United States for seeking to save itself at the expense of Britain. He was also unhappy with the fact that, for the second time in his life, he was being asked by a President Roosevelt to put forward a proposal to Britain and act as if it was his idea. As outlined in Chapter 2, President Teddy Roosevelt had made a similar request. Now that president’s fifth cousin was asking the Canadian government, through its prime minister, to again make a presentation to Britain on its behalf — while pretending that it was a Canadian proposal. Canada’s role, it seemed, was only to serve as a conduit, or a linchpin, between the United States and Britain.

King spent some time deciding on the format of the communication he would send to Churchill, which, after he made up his mind, was finally sent on May 30. The message of almost two thousand words was marked “Most Secret,” and sent by cipher.

King gave the beleaguered British prime minister no doubt of Canada’s support, despite the serious reversals in France, and he reiterated that the government and people of Canada were more determined than ever to lend every assistance in their power to the Allied cause.

Then he turned to the all-important matter of what if anything could be expected from the United States. King referred to his visit to Warm Springs and Washington, and the intimate personal conversations with Roosevelt and Hull. He stressed that he had told them how essential it was that they give every assistance they could to the Allied cause. However, he outlined the reality of their being handicapped by public opinion and Congress. Then he raised the distasteful matter of the United States’ self-interest. King had no intention of disguising the input of Roosevelt and Hull, or of sugar-coating their stance. Although King had to again state that the United States could not give immediate aid, he put forward Roosevelt’s proposal that if Britain and France could hold out for some months, aid could probably then be given. But if further resistance by the fleet in British waters became impossible before such aid could be given, for ultimate victory of the Allies and the final defeat of the enemy, it was essential that it should be sent to South Africa, Singapore, Australia, the Caribbean, and Canada.

As a further encouragement to Churchill to remove the fleet out of Germany’s control, King had to also convey the message that if this resulted in Germany punishing Britain with any unusual or vicious action for allowing the fleet to escape when further resistance had become useless, public opinion in the United States would demand active intervention.

It is hardly likely that Churchill would have believed that the United States was likely to change from an isolationist country to a belligerent one — particularly when faced by a Germany in control of most of Europe, including Britain. He was doubtless little comforted either by a further statement in the same telegram, that the president and Hull were quite certain that Hitlerism could not last long if even remote pressure was steadily applied. Then, again emphasizing that the fleet must not be surrendered, they expressed confidence in ultimate victory, so long as the United States was not faced with a hostile German fleet [that also included the British and French fleets] in the Atlantic, and a hostile Japanese fleet in the Pacific.

Churchill now knew, beyond doubt, that Britain could expect no military assistance from the Americans.

With only minimal support, Britain now faced the German juggernaut as it continued across France, with only paper-thin resistance. The Allied troops in eastern France retreated into a small pocket around the port city of Dunkirk. Then occurred one of the most dissected decisions in the war.

In his book Adolf Hitler, John Toland states that German tanks were halted below Dunkirk, as Reichsmarschall Herman Göring convinced Hitler to let his Luftwaffe finish off the Allied troops on the beach.8 The announced intent being to preserve the Fourth Army for the final operations against the remainder of the French army, which had retreated westward.

Aided by the Royal Air Force, and with fog hampering the German bombers, a flotilla of some nine hundred ships — including some sailboats — evacuated 338,000 Allied troops, in the period from May 27 to June 4. Thus occurred the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”

Toland questioned Hitler’s “strange behaviour”:

Why had he given Göring the license to bomb the encircled army “to teach them a lesson,” then apparently assisted in [the army’s] escape by not acting forcefully? His own words only confused matters. He told his naval adjutant that he had expected the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] would fight to the last man as they had done in his war, and hoped to contain them until they ran out of ammunition, thus gaining for himself a mass of prisoners for use in peace negotiations…. He also told Bormann [a senior Nazi] that he had purposely spared the English. “Churchill,” he complained, “was quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit of which I had given proof by refraining from creating an irreparable breach between the British and ourselves.”9

To accept that Hitler could have acted as he did through tender feelings for Churchill and Britain stretches the bounds of credulity. However, his decision to allow Britain and France to evacuate almost all the army at Dunkirk to fight again was one of Hitler’s biggest mistakes, and it profoundly affected the outcome of the war.

Churchill spoke in the House of Commons on June 4 and conceded that a week before he had feared that he would be faced with announcing “the greatest military disaster in our long history.” After recounting the unexpected surrender of the five hundred thousand-strong Belgian army, which had exposed the flanks of the British Army, he spoke of the deliverance of the army at Dunkirk by the Royal Navy, aided by the small ships and the Royal Air Force. He balanced the uplifting news by a sobering comment: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuation.”

The final part of the speech contained one of his most famous exhortations: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Churchill ended his speech with words that were music to King’s ears: “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”10

King rightly attributed the concluding words to the despatch he had sent. However, Churchill also rightly interpreted the American concerns as being primarily interested in saving her own skin. He was less than pleased with the attitude of the Americans to a possible collapse of Britain, i.e., their interest in taking control of the British fleet, and the guardianship of the British Empire, minus Great Britain.

Churchill sent a message to King the following day, expressing his frustration at the attitude and actions of the United States: “If United States were in the war and England [were] conquered locally, it would be natural that events should follow the above course. But if America continued neutral and we were overpowered, I cannot tell what policy might be adopted by a pro-German administration, such as would undoubtedly be set up.”

While accepting that the president was Britain’s best friend, he pointed out that no practical help had been provided. He stated that he had not expected them to send military aid, but noted that they had not even sent any worthy contribution in destroyers or planes. The message requested that King continue his “linchpin” activities, and added, “Any pressure which you can apply in this direction would be invaluable.” Churchill concluded by thanking King for Canada’s actions in meeting his recent request: “We are most deeply grateful to you for all the help and for the [four Canadian] destroyers, which have already gone into action against a U-boat. Kindest Regards.”11

The reference to “best friend” should really have been amended to “potential best friend,” in view of the lack of practical assistance, which was desperately required. While Roosevelt has been criticized for his lack of help to Britain at that time, he had to tread carefully, as his Democratic Party had been rocked by the losses in the 1938 mid-term election. This had seen the Democrats lose 6 Senate seats, support in the House of Representatives being reduced from 334 seats to 262, and the Republican Party having an increase in representatives from 88 to 169.

Roosevelt was also constrained by the provisions of the Neutrality Act, enacted by Congress on November 4, 1939. Its aim was “to preserve the neutrality and peace of the United States and to secure the safety of its citizens and their interests.” There were provisions in the act, however, that reserved the right to modify the resolution “in the interests of the peace, security or welfare of the United States and its people.”

On June 6 Keenleyside was sent again to Washington — this time to pass on Churchill’s message. He took with him a memorandum from King, explaining Churchill’s reference to a “pro-German administration.” King stated that it should not be interpreted as meaning that Churchill was considering the surrender of Britain to the enemy, but, rather, a recognition that if circumstances made it necessary, he might be forced to go to the king, tender his resignation, and ask the king to call on someone else to form a government to negotiate terms of surrender. King continued that this was neither a bluff nor a threat made for the purpose of bargaining, but a statement made solely to make the position absolutely clear to Mr. R. [Roosevelt].12

In the midst of trying to negotiate between the British and the Americans, King was also kept busy organizing the Canadian war effort. Part of that effort included mustering public support, which he did through his regular radio broadcasts. On June 7 he delivered a talk, “New Situations and Responsibilities.” This addressed the vast amounts of money being expended on the army, navy, and air force, the current tense situation, and new challenges, which King said Canada was proud to accept.

While King did not have the same ability as Churchill to rouse an audience, the content of his speeches and broadcasts, which he wrote himself, was not unequal. He finished the broadcast by talking of the formation of Canada from the chivalry of France and the gallantry of Britain, saying, “I speak the heart and mind of our country when I say that every fort in Canada will be another Calais, and every harbour will be another Dunkirk, before the men and women of our land allow the light and the life of their Christian faith to be extinguished by the powers of evil, or yield their liberties to the tyranny of Nazi brutality.”13

King, who was often critical of his own broadcasts, stated in his diary that this time he was “well-pleased.” As well he should have been.

On June 10 Italy declared war on Britain and France, in order to enjoy the spoils of victory, which Mussolini was convinced would soon occur. President Roosevelt spoke at Virginia University that same day and stated, “The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbour.” He promised “to extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation.”14

Churchill had still not given up hope that the United States would become militarily involved, in spite of the recent correspondence with King. He picked up on the promised material resources and asked specifically for thirty or forty old destroyers, which had been reconditioned. He added a promise, which he knew he could not fulfill: We will “return them or their equivalents to you, without fail, at six months’ notice if at any time you need them.” He emphasized that “the next six months are vital…. Not a day should be lost. I send you my heartfelt thanks and those of my colleagues for all you are doing and seeking to do for what we may now, indeed, call the Common Cause.”15

Excerpted from Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King by Terry Reardon. Copyright © Terry Reardon, 2012. 
All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn ( Order your copy today at


5. Churchill, Churchill Speaks, 706–08.

6. Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour: 1939–1941, vol. 6 of Winston S. Churchill (London: Heinemann, 1984), 358.

7. C.P. Stacey, Mackenzie King and the Atlantic Triangle (Toronto: Macmillan, 1976), 53.

8. John Toland, Adolf Hitler, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976), 703.

9. Ibid., 703–05.

10. Churchill, Churchill Speaks, 709–13.

11. Pickersgill, The Mackenzie King Record, vol. 1, 121–22.

12. Ibid., 122–23.

13. King, Canada at Britain’s Side, 117–18.

14. Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (New York: Random House, 2004), 60.

15. Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, vol. 2 of The Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 132–33.

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