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Churchill Proceedings – “Fearful Colonials” or Smart Ones? – Canada Between the British and American Empires

Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014

Page 55


By Warren F. Kimball


Canadians valued their independence even while cherishing their special political relationship to Britain and the Empire. With Churchill’s Britain the major ally, Canada tended to be subsumed in Anglo-American negotiations over the conduct of the war, a pattern that alternately pleased and annoyed wartime Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who projected a world role for Canada as the most important member of the British Commonwealth. Because Canadians sought, within the clear limitations of their economic and military strength, to play a global role during and after the war, hemispheric organizations and structures [which FDR promoted] held no appeal.*

Churchill from 1939 through 1945 subordinated Canada to the Anglo-American alliance that, along with the Soviet Union, defeated Nazi Germany. In his wonderful way, Sir Winston blithely assumed—a dangerous act for leaders—that the Empire would support the mother country. He was wrong to a greater degree than he expected about the Indians and the Irish, but not about the Canadians.

Churchill eventually came to understand and praise Canada’s contributions to that victory, though largely as an afterthought. Hurt feelings and nationalist sensitivities aside, Canada not only gave great support to the Grand Alliance, but did what was best for Canada.

*Kimball, The Juggler, 111-15.

This talk is in a small way an act of contrition. In The Juggler, my study of Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, I failed to give proper attention to Canadian-American affairs. As a Canadian historian pointed out, five pages on the subject is hardly sufficient.1

Since 1945, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, arguments occurred among Canadian historians over whether Canada was ignored to the point of insult by Anglo-Americans when it came to “equality of status” during the war. Were Canadians given an appropriate role in decision-making? Or were they, in the words of one Canadian historian, “fearful colonials”?

Many joined the historiographical struggle, but the two heavyweights were the late Charles Stacey, official historian of the Canadian Army in World War II, and J.L. (Jack) Granatstein, professor emeritus at York University. Their argument relates to Canada’s self-image and self-respect, and to Canadian-American relations. Another Canadian, military historian John Alan English, described Canada as “a passive receiver of information and direction….” Stacey, referring specifically to the two Quebec conferences but by inference to the entire war, wrote that “Canada played merely the part of host, providing the whisky and soda, and was not admitted to the strategic discussions.” Granatstein, admitting that Stacey had a point, suggested there was more to the story. Simply put, did Canada have “a legitimate claim to direct representations…?” Stacey and English denigrated Mackenzie King for not pressing forcefully for a greater role in strategic decisions, but Granatstein expressed admiration for the way King managed the Canadian role, and his domestic challenges.2

My question is a bit different. It is not what Canada should have been or should have done during the war, but what it actually did do to promote victory in a war almost all Canadians came to support. Given the limited role Canada was able or allowed to play, the events before Pearl Harbor were essentially what created the results.

Canada’s Role and Canada’s Need

When the war began in 1939, Canada was still in the throes of the Depression. Economic growth was needed, and wartime production did the trick. The transformation of the Canadian war industry mirrored, if not exceeded (in percentages) the storied war production “miracle” in the U.S. But production ultimately requires purchasers.3

Britain was growing desperately short of the cash it needed to buy war materiel from its Empire and the United States. In as “unsordid” an act as Lend-Lease, Canada extended Britain a “sterling overdraft”—best described as an open line of credit or a dollar loan, since Canadian dollars were easily transferrable into U.S. dollars—allowing the UK to purchase the sinews of war during 1939-41 when America was officially “neutral.” It was that seemingly unselfish act that allowed Britain to continue to purchase arms in Canada, getting the True North’s economy rolling. The hoped-for geopolitical bonus was the survival of Britain, which would (and did) preserve Canada’s security.4

To put war production in perspective, Canada was fourth among the Allies at $10.9 billion, with impressive totals in heavy goods—merchant ships, aircraft, military and armored vehicles. In April 1941 Roosevelt, during one of his many meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King (they met sixteen times between 1938 and 1945),

astonished the Canadian leader by agreeing to let the British use Lend-Lease to obtain Canadian-made goods, as well as committing the U.S. to purchase virtually any Canadian war production.

That “reciprocal procurement of munitions” allowed King’s government to avoid the politically uncomfortable fixes of either getting U.S. loans or Lend-Lease. No part of the British Empire contributed more, in the most practical sense, than Canada. King’s version of “it’s the economy, stupid,” played well with Canadians. Canada seemed “to have bled herself white,” but that spending enabled the country to come out of the war financially secure and with a powerful industrial capability. Unemployment simply disappeared. Only the issue of conscription (the draft) posed a wartime political challenge.5

Mackenzie King did have to steer a potentially fractious Canada through the war without getting distracted by domestic disputes in a nation made up of many different European immigrant groups. The Québécois had comprised Canada’s version of the isolationists, and the conscription debates there in the 1940s echoed those of 1917, even though they seemed driven more by opposition to centralization than by lack of support for the war. German and Ukrainian groups also opposed conscription. King avoided conscription for most of the war, by which time even the Québécois had subsided. Negligible unemployment and prosperity surely helped. Little wonder that, as Granatstein put it, when King’s government “won reelection in June 1945 (something Churchill could not do in Britain), thanks in substantial part to surprisingly heavy support from Quebec voters, he knew that his policy had been the right one.”6

Less important in the long run than the economics, but perhaps more interesting, was the politics of war. Consider this: in 1939, shortly after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was revealed, Canada gave the U.S. formal assurances that it could use Halifax as an advanced air service base if needed. There was little question where Canadian-American defense planning was going, though it took a bit of time to get there.7

The Road to Ogdensburg

Nearly a year later, on 16 August 1940, Roosevelt telephoned King and suggested a dinner meeting the following day in Ogdensburg, New York, some sixty miles south of Ottawa. FDR offered his car; King (a small statement of independence?) chose to drive down himself with the U.S. Ambassador as co-pilot. The negotiations with Churchill over the now-famous destroyers-for-bases arrangement were sputtering. When King argued that Canada, which had committed to building military facilities on the island of Newfoundland, should be involved in the defense of Britain, FDR revealed what Granatstein pointedly described as “a Rooseveltian fist draped in the velvet of warmest good fellowship.” The President said “he had mostly in mind” the defense of Canada. Then, switching gears, he expressed bewilderment that the British were dragging their feet over U.S. access to facilities in the British West Indies. If necessary America would simply take those bases, Roosevelt went on, but “it was much better to have a friendly agreement in advance.”

The Ogdensburg Agreement, providing for a Permanent Joint Canadian-American Defense Board (the PJDB, which still exists), was agreed upon that evening and announced to the public in a press release written by FDR. It was neither a treaty nor a formal agreement. Canada treated it as an order-in-council; Roosevelt handled it as an executive agreement that did not require approval by the Senate. Containing no machinery or details, it was pretty much a verbal handshake (to mix images). Official and bureaucratic good-will and cooperation, from that day to this, has made the PJDB work.8 It had overwhelming popular support in both countries though a few of King’s conservative opponents angrily accused him of giving the United States control over Canada’s military and of deserting Britain.

Churchill and the British agreed, though less loudly. Lord Cranborne, the Dominions Office Secretary, complained that Ogdensburg was a defensive alliance between the United States and a British Dominion, made without consultation with London. He wanted Churchill to say just that to both parties. Churchill demurred. “All these transactions,” he said, “will be judged in a mood different to that prevailing while the issue still hangs in the balance.” Aware that American support was far more valuable than pride, he remained aloof.9

The agreement was Roosevelt’s idea, designed to ensure that the United States had some control over whatever remnant of the British fleet might end up in Halifax (the only Empire port beside Tricomalee, Ceylon that could handle such warships) in the event Britain was conquered by the Germans. In retrospect that seems profoundly pessimistic, but it is the same assessment Churchill made after the collapse of French and Belgian defenses in spring 1940. “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.”

Churchill was, quite sensibly, less concerned with “hemispheric cooperative defense” than with strengthening Britain’s defenses and maintaining home morale. King’s political maneuvers were less worrisome than Roosevelt’s “reluctant bride” approach. Yet, in July 1940, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs concluded that hemispheric cooperative defense planning was the safest way for Canada to preserve its national identity.10

Roosevelt’s concern for safe disposition of the British fleet was genuine. Even for the air-minded President, the Atlantic provided an irreplaceable defensive perimeter for the east coasts of the U.S. and Canada, provided they commanded the seas.

The urgent and sometimes testy byplay between Churchill and Roosevelt over the British fleet was part and parcel of the destroyers-for-bases arrangement in late August 1940. Churchill tried to force the United States to drop its neutrality as the price for guaranteeing that the fleet would sail west if the worst happened. Roosevelt insisted on such guarantees as a precondition to American aid. Mackenzie King tried to uncouple neutrality and the British fleet, imploring Churchill to think about the possibility of a British defeat—to no avail.

Finally the swap took place: fifty over-age U.S. destroyers for the right to build naval and/or air bases, with 99-year rent-free leases, on six British possessions in the Caribbean, plus Bermuda; and—most crucially—Newfoundland, then a Dominion separate from Canada. (In a bit of semantic posturing, bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda were given “freely” to the United States, not as part of the destroyers-for-bases deal.)11

British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden labeled the swap “a grievous blow to our authority and ultimately to our sovereignty.” His boss, with a better sense of what mattered, later observed: “The effects in Europe were profound.”12

Perhaps there are no single turning points in history, but there are sine qua nons—things without which something very different likely would have happened. Surely the Ogdensburg agreement fits that description. Historians view the destroyers-for-bases deal as a pivotal point in the process by which the United States entered the war. But for Roosevelt, assurances that the Royal Navy would be sent to safe harbors in the event of a successful invasion of Britain were clearly a sine qua non for any arrangement.13

Ogdensburg gave Roosevelt what he believed he needed should the British Isles collapse—control over the greatest fleet in the world. Canada would be the fleet’s host, but, as the President told Mackenzie King, “It was much better…to have a friendly agreement in advance.” With Nazi Germany astride all of western Europe, Canada’s security depended on the United States, which meant the Americans would control the British fleet. Without Ogdensburg, the Americans might well have stalled and moved slowly toward a defensive mode.14

The Rest of the War

That provides a gloss of the formative first two years of Anglo-Canadian-American wartime relations. But from Pearl Harbor, there were three and one-half years of war to go. That period is, for Canada, best characterized by what Churchill told Mackenzie King after the second Quebec conference in September 1944: “you have been so fine about letting England lead, not making it difficult for us by insisting always on several having direction.” King, gently correcting, replied that he “thought it much better before the world to leave the matter of leadership in the hands of the President and Churchill.”15 In other words, determining grand political and military strategy was left to London and Washington, and, of course, Moscow. Not Ottawa!

The Canadian military contributed heroically to fighting the war: Canadian corvettes and destroyers in the Bay of Biscay after D-Day; a Canadian beachhead at Normandy; the campaigns in Italy are just three examples. Canadian casualty rates were high. But perhaps a few comments and quotations will better explain “not Ottawa” as it related to grand strategy and the politics of war.

Except perhaps in British Columbia, Canadians were not focused on the Pacific War. Prime Minister King restricted participation to the North Pacific, despite pressure from the Royal Navy and Churchill to reassert British influence in all of the western Pacific—something the head of the U.S. Navy, Admiral Ernest King, dismissively opposed. There was the joint Canadian-American invasion of unoccupied Kiska Island in the Aleutians, but not much else.16

One strongly-felt Canadian attitude is captured by the historian John English: “By January 1941, American troops had begun to infiltrate [my emphasis] the Crown colony [Newfoundland, officially a Dominion] under the umbrella of Ogdensburg.”17 Of course the destroyers-for-bases deal, which King supported, had given the United States five leased areas on the island plus the naval base at Argentia.

Well…my dictionary defines “infiltrate” as “entering and gaining access surreptitiously and gradually.” Yet Canadians knew right away that American military personnel were moving onto the island. Since the arrival of forces was far from secret, perhaps “had begun to arrive” would be more accurate and less judgmental.

There is no question that Roosevelt and the Americans pushed hard to take advantage of the strategic facilities and locations that the destroyers-for-bases arrangement offered. After all, German U-boats were patrolling the shores of the western Atlantic, and only in hindsight do we know that Hitler’s invasion of the British Isles would be cancelled. Moreover, while American acquisitiveness is legion, none of the leased territory and bases became permanent U.S. possessions.

The reality was that Roosevelt and Churchill insisted on maintaining full control over the strategic direction of the war, and their military chiefs wanted to maintain similar control over theater and tactical matters: hardly surprising, hardly imperialistic, hardly a veiled threat to Canadian independence.

When Canada was excluded from the Atlantic Charter conference aboard warships anchored off Argentia, Newfoundland, King was hurt and angry. But he quickly realized that the UK could not bring in just one of the dominion leaders. Throughout the war, the British and the Americans excluded Canadian participation in strategic meetings, including the two Quebec conferences, on the convenient grounds that if Canada participated, then so should Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, or Brazil, Chile, and Chiang Kai-shek’s feeble regime in China. Whatever the persiflage, whatever the desire to avoid too many players, FDR and Churchill viewed Canada and the other nations united as supporters, not “deciders.”

No Canadian seriously expected or requested representation on the Combined (Anglo-American) Chiefs of Staff which directed wartime planning and strategy. As Mackenzie King put it: “. . . jointly they [the Anglo-Americans] have supreme direction of the war. I have conceded them that position.” Canadians fought and fought well in the Mediterranean and European theaters, but their leaders concerned themselves with tactics, not grand strategy.18

Perhaps the style of Roosevelt’s firm refusal to include King or the Canadian chiefs of staff in any substantive meetings made First Quebec in 1943 “embarrassing to Churchill,” as David Dilks has written. But “the way she was shunted aside in World War II Allied councils” was without doubt a Churchill-Roosevelt agreement, not just an American idea. Twelve years later, King ruefully referred to his role at the meeting as being akin to that of “the General Manager at the Château Frontenac.”19 Yet King’s meetings, however informal, with Field Marshal Alanbrooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), at Second Quebec in 1944, suggest that Canada’s leader was brought into the information loop, if not “consulted.”20

Roosevelt’s concerns about too many players was more than just a patronizing attitude. He was curiously focused on fears of renewed expansion of the British Empire and European colonialism—a kind of mental vestigial remain. Yet by the end of the Forties, the United States was promoting and funding continued British control (informal, of course) over strategic sites deemed necessary in the Cold War.21 A knowledge of history does not always prepare one for the future.

In September 1942, Mackenzie King (prompted privately by Alanbrooke) advised against sending a Canadian general, Andrew McNaughton, to Moscow to discuss Churchill’s strategies for northern Norway. Churchill “became very worked up,” complaining that “this machine of war with Russia at one end and America at the other was too cumbersome to run any war with.” A minor flare-up perhaps, but indicative of two attitudes: first, the likelihood of too many cooks spoiling the broth; second, that by 1942 King’s policies had prompted Churchill to conflate Canada and America.22

Professor Kimball, a senior editor of FH, edited the Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence and has written extensively on the Allied leaders in World War II. He spent two years at St. Jerome’s College in Kitchener, Ontario, and two of his grandparents were born in New Brunswick.


1. The epigram is from J.L. Granatstein, “Mackenzie King and Canada at Ogdensburg, August 1940,” in Joel J. Sokolsky and Joseph T. Jockel, eds., Fifty Years of Canada-United States Cooperation: The Road from Ogdensburg (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 24. See also Granatstein, How Britain’s Weakness Forced Canada into the Arms of the United States (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); Granatstein, “Happily on the Margins: Mackenzie King and Canada at the Quebec Conferences,” in David Woolner, ed., The Second Quebec Conference Revisited (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998), 49.

2. John Alan English, “Not an Equilateral Triangle: Canada’s Strategic Relationship with the United States and Britain, 1939-1945,” in B.J.C. McKercher and Lawrence Aronsen, eds., The North Atlantic Triangle in a Changing World: Anglo-American-Canadian Relations, 1902-1956 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 147-83; quote on 174. I am struck by the tendency of many, though not all, Canadian historians to depend upon British histories for their narratives about U.S. policies. Is this a reflexive withdrawal from what they perceive is the American gravitational pull, or a byproduct of their often British educations—or both?

3. “Canada” in I.C.B. Dear, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Second World War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 182-83. Paul A.C. Koistinen, Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 498-500, argues persuasively that, despite “impressive” gross figures, by the peak production year of 1944, the United States “was producing munitions at almost exactly the level it should have been” within the context of production capabilities; Canada’s production rate was lower, but higher than any other major belligerent. Of course neither nation was being bombed or invaded.

4. Galen R. Perras, Franklin Roosevelt and the Origins of the Canadian-American Security Alliance, 1933-1945 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger 1998), 54-55; Dan Middlemiss, “The Road from Hyde Park: Canada-United States Defense Economic Cooperation,” in Fifty Years of Canada-United States Cooperation, 176.

5. Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins, 98; English, “Not an Equilateral Triangle,” 161; David Dilks, quoted in Gordon Walker, “‘In the Line’,” Finest Hour 154, Spring 2012, 47.

6. Granatstein, “Quebec Conferences,” 60. John English, “Atlanticism at High Tide: The Quebec Conference 1944,” in The Second Quebec Conference, 107-12.

7. Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins, 52.

8. Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins, 76-77; Terry Reardon, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King: So Similar, So Different (Toronto: Dundern, 2012), 123-25; English, “Not an Equilateral Triangle,”163; Middle-miss, “The Road from Hyde Park,”177, and “Introduction,” Fifty Years of Canada-United States Cooperation, 1-2. Fred Pollock’s “Roosevelt, the Ogdensburg Agreement, and the British Fleet: All Done with Mirrors,” in Diplomatic History 5 (Summer 1981), 203-19, remains the definitive account of FDR’s role in the agreement. The talks, which included Henry Stimson, who had become secretary of war only a month earlier, actually took place on the President’s railroad car heading for the little village of Heuvelton, seven miles southeast of Ogdensburg.

9. Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins,77. Granatstein, “Mackenzie King and Canada at Ogdensburg,” 9-29.

10. Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins, 74.

11. Pollock, “The Ogdensburg Agreement,” 211 and passim. FDR casually suggested that George VI could, if necessary, move to Canada, but Secretary of State Cordell Hull warned that isolationists would claim FDR was “establishing a monarchy on the North American Continent.” They settled for Bermuda: ibid., 207. The domestic details on the destroyers-for-bases deal, accurate despite hyperbole about how the arrangement “changed the role of the American presidency,” are in Robert Shogun, Hard Bargain (New York: Scribners, 1995). Churchill’s government could make such commitments for Newfoundland because it was not part of self-governing Canada (unlike Nova Scotia, which FDR would have preferred), but rather a Dominion administered since 1934 by a British-appointed governor and six civil servants, who reported directly to the British government in London (in effect a Crown colony). In 1949, by a close vote, Newfoundland became a province of Canada. Those concerned about the U.S. swallowing Canada should know that when Newfoundland voted, there was another choice: the Economic Union Party (EUP), which proposed closer economic ties with America—but gained fewer votes than did those who preferred the status quo.

12. Eden is quoted in Perras, Roosevelt and the Origins, 75. Churchill’s comment is in his book, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 416.

13.  Kimball, ed., Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), I 57-69; Shogun, Hard Bargain, 220-23.

14.  It has been intriguingly suggested on occasion that King was the linch-pin for the destroyers-bases deal, a plausible conclusion mentioned by Terry Reardon in his Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King. If that were the case, why is there no indication in King’s obsessively complete diaries of his acting as the indispensable connection during those crucial months? Reardon, 139, refers only once to the destroyers-for-bases “transaction,” not mentioning King. Nor have researchers found any mention in Canadian or U.S. records of King acting as go-between for Churchill and Roosevelt. Shogun, Hard Bargain, 213-14, states that Churchill had sought King’s help in “lobbying the Americans,” but offers no details. He also states (Hard Bargain, 222, a biography of FDR’s attorney general) that between 22 and 25 August 1940, Roosevelt and Churchill discussed negotiations on the telephone. That is plausible, but not mentioned elsewhere; for example, Kimball, ed., Churchill and Roosevelt, I 57-69.

15. King diary as quoted in Granatstein, “Happily on the Margins,” 62.

16. One of the few joint U.S.-Canadian operations came in the Aleutians, some of which had been occupied by the Japanese. On 15 August 1943, a Canadian-American assault force of 35,000 landed on Kiska in the Aleutian chain that wanders out some 1200 miles from southwest Alaska toward the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia. It was a sad comic opera; the Japanese had left the island three weeks earlier, yet there were over 300 casualties from either friendly fire, booby-traps and mines, frostbite and trench foot. Four Canadians and seventeen Americans were killed. That night, Japanese warships, thinking they were engaged by Americans, shelled and attempted to torpedo the tiny nearby islet of Little Kiska and the Japanese soldiers waiting to escape. Admiral Ernest King reported to the secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, that the only things that remained on the islands were dogs and fresh brewed coffee: “The Japanese are very clever. Their dogs can brew coffee.” This story is taken from Wikipedia, 8 October 2012, but see the intriguing study by Galen Roger Perras, Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), 136-57. Perras offers slightly different casualty figures.

17.  English, “Not an Equilateral Triangle,” 166.

18. Granatstein, “Happily on the Margins,” 50; Reardon, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King,147-48.

19. Dilks, “Churchill and Canada,” Finest Hour 154, 18, and editor’s notes, 13. Martin Gilbert makes no mention of Churchill’s being embarrassed in Road to Victory, 1941-1945; nor could I find any mention of it in the usual sources and books, including Reardon, Churchill and Mackenzie King, 245-46. Lord Moran mentions a proposal (from Churchill) that King “take part in the Conference,” but quotes Churchill’s report to his War Cabinet that King and the Canadian government were “delighted” and felt “thoroughly ‘on the map.’” Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 117, n.3. FDR rejected advice from his military chiefs of staff that the Canadian prime minister attend the conference sessions without his own military chiefs; Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt, II 343.

20. Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman, eds., Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries, 1939-1945 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 591.

21. Warren F. Kimball and Fred Pollock, “‘In Search of Monsters to Destroy’: Roosevelt and Colonialism,” in Kimball, The Juggler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 127-57; Wm. Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Decolonization,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 22, no. 3 (September 1994), 462-511. Churchill’s concern about China’s vote is in Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 562.

22. Alanbrooke in War Diaries, 191, 323-24, 432. For a full discussion of Churchill’s efforts to manipulate McNaughton in the hope of gaining support for “the liberation of northern Norway,” see Reardon, Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King, 221-24.

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