Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013
By John G. Plumpton
Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King: So Similar, So Different, by Terry Reardon. A.J. Patrick Boyer, hardbound, illus., 432 pp., $35.
Canadians are justifiably proud of their role in the great wars of the 20th century. Their contributions went beyond the “call of duty.” But what was their duty?
In 1914 it was clear that Britain’s declaration of war included Canada. Constitutional changes in the interwar years altered that, but most Canadian historians argue that Canada still went to war because Britain was at war.
Terry Reardon concludes that in 1939, Canada declared war by the decision by one man, Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Although King is the Commonwealth’s longest-serving prime minister, he is unknown outside—and even sometimes inside—Canada.
Canada almost split apart over conscription (“the draft”) in 1917, and had it not been for King’s political ruthlessness and astuteness it might have again happened in 1944. Domestic politics is the focus of most biographies of King; but Reardon has written a much-needed book about King’s foreign policy, focusing almost exclusively on his relations with Churchill and Roosevelt.
The King-Churchill relationship, which began in the early years of the century, was a rocky affair for almost forty years. A strong Chamberlain supporter, King had considered Churchill one of the most dangerous men in Britain. Churchill almost never thought of King at all. In Churchill’s The Second World War, there are more references to Admiral Ernest King, chief of U.S. Naval Operations, than to the Canadian Premier.
Yet in 1940 King joined the rest of the free world in viewing Churchill as the rock upon which its liberties depended. This we know from the detailed daily diary King kept during the war. He was a bachelor, and it is almost as if the diary was the spouse to whom he imparted his innermost thoughts about events and people.
Reardon places the King-Churchill relationship in the context of their political lives and there is little new about the Churchill story, except as it pertains to King. There is, however, a good overview of Canadian political history, at least as seen by King. This, of course, has the inherent weakness of any work dependent on a single source. For example, King takes credit for motivating the concluding words of WSC’s “fight on the beaches” speech, but we have no other supporting sources.
The meat of the book is the little-known story of how King supported and worked with Churchill to prod and assist the United States into war— notwithstanding King’s and Churchill’s concerns that prior to Pearl Harbor the U.S. “was trying to get the British Empire without Britain” (Churchill’s words). This book should be read in conjunction with Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days to understand the resistance of Roosevelt that frustrated them.
It is hard for today’s advocates of the Anglo-American special relationship to believe that there was a time when the U.S. and Britain could not talk directly to each other about substantive issues without an intermediary. That linchpin (again a Churchillian term) was not Canada; it was Mackenzie King.
King described his role at the Quebec Conferences, where Churchill and Roosevelt met in 1943 and 1944, as akin to that of “the general manager of the Chateau Frontenac.” In this reviewer’s opinion, that was exactly his role vis-à-vis the two giants throughout the entire war. This is not to disparage King; he was an essential counterpoint to the dance of egos of the British prime minister and the American president.
Reardon subtitles his book about Churchill and King, So Similar, So Different. After reading it in both draft and published versions, it appears to me that the differences greatly dwarf the similarities. Those differences are illustrated in the two men’s comments about their roles as national leaders. King thought successful leadership was often in what one avoided. Churchill once said: “I do not need to be prodded. If anything, I am a prod.” But in their case, opposites definitely attracted.
Thanks to Terry Reardon and David Dilks, we now have fine studies of Churchill and King; thanks to Jon Meacham and Warren Kimball, we have equally good works on Churchill and Roosevelt. But the North Atlantic alliance was a three-way partnership, so now we need a study of Roosevelt and King: “Mackenzie and Mr. President.” That suggested title pretty well describes their relationship.