May 23, 2013



1948: “He said, ‘You have built a bridge between the U.S. and the U.K.’ I said, ‘God bless you.’ He came to my bedside and his eyes filled with tears. He shook my hands very warmly and affectionately.”


2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. William Lyon Mackenzie King. While the two were certainly very different, there were many similarities.

Both were Sagittarians. Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. King was born just seventeen days later in Berlin, Ontario, which was renamed “Kitchener” in 1914.

Both had famous ancestors, Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, became Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer; his 18th century forebear was John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. King’s Grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834; he led the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada and went into exile in the United States until amnesty was granted him in 1849; in the 18th century two of William Lyon Mackenzie’s great grandfathers fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden.

In politics, Churchill strove to follow his father’s footsteps into Parliament. King first became interested in politics at the age of seven, when he heard Canada’s First Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, speak during the 1882 election campaign: “Sir John A. was presented with some flowers by a pretty young lady whom he thanked with an embrace. I could do nothing but envy him and decided then that politics had its rewards.”

While Churchill’s academic achievements were modest, King’s were impressive. He entered the University of Toronto in 1891 at the age of sixteen and graduated four years later with first class honours. He then attended the University of Chicago and Harvard on fellowships. In 1899 Harvard offered him a year of study abroad and he left for the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In 1900 while still in Europe, King accepted a position in Ottawa as editor of the Government Labour Gazette in Canada’s new Department of Labour and within a few months had advanced to the rank of Deputy Minister of Labour. The job had come about from King’s earlier activities against sweated workshops and child labour. Churchill, as President of the Board of Trade and Home Secretary in 1908-11, brought in many parallel reforms, including a maximum work day for miners, free medical care for children, and unemployment insurance.

King’s conciliatory talents were soon employed and in the next eighteen months he brought to peaceful settlements eleven out of the fifteen strikes in which he was asked to intervene. Congruently, Churchill as Home Secretary worked to resolve strike actions, though he was misrepresented for certain of his efforts (see “Leading Churchill Myths,” FH 128).

The first meeting between King and Churchill occurred in 1900 in Ottawa, during Churchill’s lecture tour of North America. King was less than impressed with Churchill’s drinking champagne in mid-morning. Later, when they met in London in 1908, Churchill said “I think I did make a frightful ass of myself on that trip, didn’t I?” King gave him a hard look and said, “Well Mr. Churchill, there were many Canadians who thought so. I was one of them.”

King’s opinion of Churchill certainly improved over the eight year period, as shown in an extract from his diary:

One cannot talk with him without being impressed at the nimbleness of his mind, his quickness of perception and his undoubted ability. He seems to have lost a good deal of the egotism, at least as far as his manner is concerned, though one feels that even yet it is Churchill rather than the movement with which he is identified that is the mainspring of his conduct.”

The same year, 1908, when Churchill, in the first of many terms as MP for Dundee, became President of the Board of Trade, King stood for Canada’s Parliament as a Liberal, won North Waterloo, and was appointed to the position of Minister of Labour. But in 1911 the Liberals were defeated and King lost his seat.

In 1919 Sir Wilfred Laurier died; King was elected leader of the Liberal Party and returned to Parliament in a by-election. This made him Leader of the Opposition; in December 1921, the Liberals returned to power and Mackenzie King became his country’s Prime Minister—nineteen years ahead of Churchill, who was undoubtedly thinking about that high office at the very same time.

Just ten months after King became Prime Minister rose the crisis over Chanak, the port of entry to the Dardanelles, which so deleteriously had affected Churchill’s career a few years before. Turkey had fought with the Central Powers in the Great War and had signed a peace treaty in 1920. But a new Turkish government led by Mustapha Kemal (“Ataturk”) repudiated it and in September 1922 massed troops at Chanak, where an Allied garrison of just a few thousand watched over the Dardanelles.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George asked the Dominions to send troops, but unfortunately delayed his communiqué until after the newspapers had reported the crisis. New Zealand and Newfoundland agreed to help; as did Australia after a protest. But King complained to Lloyd George for asking for help after the crisis had been reported.

Churchill, now Colonial Secretary in the Lloyd George government, remonstrated with King, who held a Cabinet meeting to decide Canada’s role. The Cabinet deferred to Parliament for approval, and Churchill asked King for at least a “contingent” of Canadian troops as a “quiet but decisive demonstration that the British Empire is not to be threatened or bluffed.” The Turks eventually backed away from Chanak and King did not need to summon Parliament, but the incident reinforced King’s view that Canada must be in charge of her own foreign affairs.

At the Imperial Conference of 1923, British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon suggested that Britain’s foreign minister, when he speaks, may speak “for the whole Empire.” King took issue: on any important issues, he replied, Canadian decisions would be made by Canadians. Curzon wrote later that King was “obstinate, tiresome and stupid and is afraid of being turned out of his own Parliament when he gets back.” South Africa’s Premier Jan Smuts told King, “You ought to be satisfied. Canada has had her way in everything.”

At the next Imperial Conference in 1926, King proposed that Governor Generals should no longer be the channels of diplomatic communication between London and the Dominions. He won this argument too, which led to the eventual posting of High Commissioners in the various Commonwealth capitals. A statement was issued that the Dominions were autonomous, equal communities within the British Empire. The same year, Canada sent her first ambassador to Washington.

Churchill’s Wilderness Years began in the spring of 1929, when his Conservatives lost the election; in Canada in 1930, King’s Liberals lost to the Conservatives under R.B. Bennett. This had the beneficial effect of leaving their opponents, Ramsay MacDonald and Bennett respectively, to face the economic depression.

In 1935, the outs became the ins: King was again Canada’s premier, and Stanley Baldwin was Britain’s. But Churchill was now waging his lonely fight against the British government’s appeasement of Nazi Germany, and King by his very nature favoured conciliation. He was therefore supportive of Baldwin and his successor, Neville Chamberlain.

By 1937, Britain was slowly rearming, yet Mackenzie King at that year’s Imperial Conference resisted efforts to pledge Canada’s aid in case of war. With the blessing of Chamberlain, King visited Hitler, and King’s subsequent comments suggested that he like Chamberlain and others had been hoodwinked: “I do believe that it will be found that Hitler is for peace, unless unduly provoked.” But he told Hitler that if Britain and Germany went to war, Canada would be at Britain’s side.

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Four days later, the Canadian Parliament debated their own declaration. King put it to them: “When it comes to a fight between good and bad, when the evil forces of the world are let loose upon mankind, are those of us who believe in Christianity and all it means going to allow evil forces to triumph, without if necessary opposing them by our very lives?” On 10 September George VI, as King of Canada, approved the Canadian declaration of war on Germany.

In 1 October Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty, made his famous broadcast on the actions of Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Then he added: “We have the freely-given, ardent support of the twenty millions of British citizens in the self-governing Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.” King cabled: “Your broadcast magnificent—as perfect in its appeal to the old world as to the new.”

In 1930 Churchill had called Canada “a magnet exercising a double attraction drawing both Great Britain and the United States towards herself and thus drawing them closer to each other….In fact, no state, no country, no band of men can more truly be described as the linchpin of peace and world progress.” Ten years later Churchill’s description proved out when King became a communication mode between Churchill and Roosevelt.

On 31 May 1940, with France nearing surrender, King sent Churchill Roosevelt’s suggestion that if Britain were defeated her fleet should be sent to South Africa, Canada and other parts of the Commonwealth, and promising American assistance by opening U.S. ports for repair and outfitting. Churchill officially deprecated any need for this; yet it is clear from his private papers that he considered what to do if Britain were overrun.

On 4 June 1940 King’s diary called Churchill’s “Never Surrender” speech “the greatest feature of the day….when I saw his concluding words [‘…until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old’] I recognized that my despatch of May 31st had been most helpful. I am quite sure that Churchill prepared that part of his speech in the light of what I had sent him.”

The next day Churchill wrote King reinforcing Canada’s role: “We must be careful not to let Americans view too complacently the prospect of a British collapse, out of which they would get the British Fleet and the guardianship of the British Empire, minus Britain.

Although the President is our best friend, no practical help has reached us from the United States yet. Any pressure you can apply in this direction would be invaluable.”

King continued to act as go-between. His “greatest feature of the day” on 3 September 1940 was an announcement providing Britain with much-needed U.S. destroyers. Eight days later King wrote that he found Churchill’s tribute to the RAF (“The Few”) intensely moving, and wondered if ever before in history there had been a speech “comparable in setting or significance.”

Not all the King-Churchill relationship was rosy. King waged a continuous battle for recognition of Canada’s part in the war effort—on a per capita basis roughly double that of the United States after the U.S. entered the war. While Churchill in Canada was careful to acknowledge the part it was playing, at other times he referred just to Britain and the U.S., and later Russia. But Canada gave Britain $3.5 billion in wartime aid and much higher amounts in loans, out of a population of 10 million, a tenth of which served in the armed forces. We can see how enormous Canada’s war effort was.

The strain was immense and King sometimes was exasperated. Future Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s autobiography records one explosion in King’s office on 24 May 1941: “What right have you to be here? You strike me in the heart every time you speak. In your last speech whom did you mention? Did you say what I’ve done for this country? You spoke of Churchill. Churchill! Did he ever bleed for Canada?”

Diefenbaker believed that “neither liked the other. Churchill disliked the political opportunism of King. King envied the popularity of Churchill.” But this description is likely overdrawn, considering the evidence of their own words and deeds. In June 1941, for example, Churchill celebrated “the deep currents of loyalty and tradition that flow between the different self-governing nations of the British Empire. [Britons are proud] that the liberty of thought and action they have won in the course of their long, romantic history, should have taken root throughout the length and breadth of a vast continent, from Halifax to Victoria.”

Mackenzie King flew to London in August 1941 and attended a War Cabinet meeting. He records his fascination at Churchill’s ability to summarise situations in graphic phrases: “[He has] a wonderful command of language and knowledge of history which he uses freely, and an ability to keep looking ahead making decisions in the light of the long run rather than the short one.”

At Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat, Churchill confided to King: “I have no ambition beyond getting us through this mess. There is nothing that anyone could give me nor that I could wish for. They cannot take away what I have done. As soon as the war is over I will get out of public life.” King responded that there was a destiny about WSC’s life. Churchill replied, “It looks like it, in a way as though it was meant.”

In Ottawa in December 1941 Churchill delivered his famous “Some chicken—some neck!” speech and he and King were photographed by Yousuf Karsh. As they were leaving Parliament, John Diefenbaker records a backbencher saying: “Isn’t it wonderful. There is Mr. King making the sign that Churchill has made his.” Diefenbaker replied, “The V has different meanings. For Churchill it means Victory; for King it means Votes.”

Later King showed WSC a proclamation putting a price of £1000 on the head of his ancestor, William Lyon Mackenzie, in 1837; Churchill’s reaction was the same as two decades before, when IRA leader Michael Collins complained that Britain had put a price on his head: in 1899, Churchill remarked, the Boers had offered only £25 for him—dead or alive!

What King genuinely felt about Churchill is probably revealed by King’s private diary, intended for no one but himself. During the 1943 Quebec conference, he records conversations with Winston and Clementine:

I said I believed he was the one man who had saved the British Empire. He said no, ‘if I had not been there someone else would have done it.’ I said I could not think of any other man who could have done what he did at the time….Mrs. Churchill told me that being out of office and writing the life of Marlborough had had a real effect upon his character. That he had discovered Marlborough possessed great patience, the secret of his achievements….He was making fewer mistakes in this war because of
those he had made earlier….Above all, he had learned to consider very carefully many matters and to be cautious.

Churchill repaid King’s kindly feelings. Remembering that 7 August 1944 was an important anniversary for King, Churchill wrote:

I learn that you are today celebrating the Silver Jubilee of your assumption of the leadership of your Party. In the whole history of free Parliamentary Institutions few if any can claim to have led a Party of the State so long and pre-eminently. Throughout these 25 years you and we have watched Canada advance along the road of liberty and progress with admiration and pride. Yet never, perhaps, has this country held Canada in higher esteem than in these last five years of bitter conflict, during which, under your inspired guidance as Prime Minister, she has played so splendid a part in the now imminent overthrow of the powers of evil. It is a peculiar pleasure therefore to offer you at this time my warmest congratulations and, if I may, to add my sincere good wishes for a prosperous future.

n 1947 King crossed the Atlantic for the Royal Wedding and lunched with Churchill and Jan Smuts. “I confess that as I looked at [Churchill] at the table,” King wrote in his diary:

I felt that perhaps in more respects than one he was the greatest man of our times. Not by any means the greatest in any one field but in a combination of fields. I felt that his knowledge of history gave him a great outlook which would cause him to speak with authority, causing other men to realize how little their knowledge and vision really was. The form with which he expressed his views was what gave him his great influence.

If there was any doubt about their abiding feelings for one another it was dispelled at their last meeting in 1948. King, in London for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference, had been taken ill with heart problems and could not participate. He was in bed at the Dorchester Hotel when Churchill visited him. They had known each other now for almost fifty years.

King’s diary records their last words. “He said, ‘You have built a bridge between the United States and the United Kingdom.’ I replied, ‘God Bless You.’ He came to my bedside and his eyes filled with tears. He shook my hands very warmly and affectionately.”

Bruce Hutchinson, in The Prime Ministers, refers to this last meeting, which Lord Beaverbrook had described to him: “Churchill as he rose to leave was surprised by a last request from the patient. In this final moment of parting, Britain’s old warrior did not hesitate. Churchill leaned over and kissed King’s cheek.” 


A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.