Prime-Minister King: World War II (1939-45)


Figure 1.--Liberal leader William Mackenzie King dominated Canadiann politics, with a few interuptions, for more than three decades, during both the Depression and World War II. Here we see him before these two great national trials. The press caption read, "Canada's Prime Minister likes children. Here the Right Honourable Mackenzie King is chatting with some of the visitors to Young Canada Day at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toranto." The photograph was dated March 26, 1929. King as a leader of a relatively small country did not set Allied policy during World War II, not did he seek to do so. He did succesfully mobilize the resources of a divided country to strongly support the Allied war effort. Canada perhaps more than any other country punched beyond its weight during the War.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, usually referred to as Mackenzie King, dominanted Canadian politics for more than three decades, including both the Depression of World War II. He is an importnt World war II leader as he sucessfully mobilized Canaadian resources to support the Allied war effort. King like other democratic politicans was apauled as Europe moved toward another war. Unlike President Roosevelt, King failed to appreciate the danger posed by the NAZIs. He supported British Primeminister Chamberlin's attempt at appeasement. King had traveled to Europe and met with both Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler, who impressed him. King said at the time that Hitler was a reasonable man who cared for people. He was particularly impressed with how Hitler had led Germany out of the Depression. He wrote in his diary that Hitler "might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world". Anti-Semitism seems to have been a factor here. He told a group of Jews that "Kristallnacht might turn out to be a blessing." His Government made no effort to open immigration laws to offer a have to European Jews. King was primeminister during World War II. After Munich, he revised his opinion of Hitler. He loyally followed Britain into the War and oversaw Canada's participation. Unlike World War I, Canadian participation in the War was not automatic. The House of Commons approved a declaration of war (September 10, 1939). Canada like America was deeply divided by participation in another European War. Canadian public opinionhad, however, shifted decisively after Munich (September 1938). Canada did not have a Pearl Harbor event like America and thus there was some disension. French Canadians in particular were much less committed to the War, even after the fall of France. Ironically while King had built his political career around opposing conscription during World War I, it was King who had to try to sell conscription to Canadians during World War II. He developed a solid working relationship with President Roosevelt and negotiated important defense agreements with the United States.

Inter-War Era

King like other democratic politicans was apauled by the carnage of World wat I and apauled as Europe moved toward war. Unlike President Roosevelt, King failed to appreciate the danger posed by the NAZIs and the evil nature of Adolf Hitler. He supported British Prime-Ministers Baldwin and Chamberlin's attempt at appeasement. After Hitler sent troops in to the Rhineland in flagrant violation of the Versailles Treaty (March 1936). King instructed the Canadian High Commissioner in London to inform the British government that if Britain went to war with Germany over the remilitarization of the Rhineland, Canada would remain neutral. [Emmerson, p. 144.] King met with Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlain a few months later at an Imperial Conference of all the Dominion Prime Ministers in London (June 1937). King informed Chamberlain that Canada would only go to war if Britain itself was directly attacked by the Germans. And if Britain chose to were to become involved in a continental war, Chamberlain could not expect Canadian involvement. [Middlemas, pp. 21–23.] While in Europe, King visited Germany and met with bpth Adolf Hitler and Herman Göring. [King] What King went away from that meeting would taken a world-class psychitrist to analize. King appears to have a mystical experiebce, akin to Paul on the road to Damascus. His love of Wagenrian opera may have been a factor. King said at the time that Hitler was a reasonable man who cared for people. He was particularly impressed with how Hitler had led Germany out of the Depression. He wrote in his diary that Hitler "might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world". But the whole episode wnt far beyond that. King appears to have concluded that Hitler was nothing short of a Wagnerian heroes within whom good and evil were fighting for dominance within him. He somehow decided that good would eventually triumph in this struggle and that Hitler would lead the German people to a peacful, prosperous future. These spiritual revelations would very real in his minf and actually guided Canada's relations with Hitler's NAZI Germany. And King yearning for peace convinced himself that his place in history was to help lead Hitler to peace. King incredibly wrote in his journal, "... he is really one who truly loves his fellow-men, and his country, and would make any sacrifice for their good". [Keyserlingk] He even predicted that "... the world will yet come to see a very great man–mystic in Hitler ... I cannot abide in Nazism – the regimentation – cruelty – oppression of Jews – attitude towards religion, etc., but Hitler ... will rank some day with Joan of Arc among the deliverers of his people." [Davies and Nefsky] Canadians were both divided on Munich. French Canadians were intent on neutrality. Some of King's importnt advisers like Oscar D. Skelton also supported neutrality. English Canadians who were more supportive of the Empire were prepared to back Britain even to the point of war. Even so Canadians like the British and French were relieved that war was averted (September 1938). The future of the Czechs seemed a small price to pay.

Holocaust

Anti-Semitism was wide-spread in Canada during the inter-War era. Not the virulent anti-Semtism of Europe, but more of a 'gentelemann's' form. It was most pronounced in Quebec. Anti-Semitism nay have been a factor in King's assessment of Hitler. He told a group of Jews that "Kristallnacht might turn out to be a blessing." His Government made no effort to open immigration laws to offer a haven to European Jews. As in the United States, anti-Semitism was deeply seated within the civil service. This was epitomized by Frederick Blair who was Canada's Director of Immigration (1937-43). Blair developed and rigorously applied strict immigration policies based on race and used them to sucessfully to deny Jews trying to flee NAZI Germany refuge in Canada, not only before the War, but during and after the War. The policies were supported by Prime-Minister King. Canada as a result of Blair's restrictive policies allowed less than 5,000 Jews into Canada (1933-39). By comparison the United states admitted 200,000 Jews and Mexico 20,000. After the War this hard to understand policy continued. The Canadians accepted only 8,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors (1945-48). Two historians write, "That record is arguably the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states." [Abella and Troper] This meant death for many European Jews. Canada along with the United States refused to allow the ocean liner St. Louis carrying 907 Jews to dock. It was one of tragic examples of the unwillingness to assist Jews fleeing the NAZIs before the war. Some 44 prominant Canadians (including professors, editors, and businessmen) urged Prime-Mininister King to offer them sanctuary, but King adamently refused.

Reassment (1938-39)

King after Munich, began to revise his opinion of Hitler (September 1938). King served as his own secretary of state for external affairs (foreign minister). He told intimates thatb, said privately that if he had to choose he would not be neutral, but he made no public statement. And he began to realize that his assessment of Hitler was fundamentally wrong. Canada was going to have to fight another war with Germany.

Declaration of War

King despite his reservations during the inter-War wea, loyally followed Britain into the War after Hitler launched the invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939). King like the Britih were aware that Hitler was preparing to invade Poland. He ordered the Canadian military to begin mobilizing (August 25, 1939) and then full mobilization when the Germans actually struck (September 1). Canada in World war I was legally at war when King George V declared war on Germany (1914). King did not want this tobbe the case in World war II. If Canada was going to fight another war, he wanted the decision to be made by Canadians. King convened the House of Commons (September 7), a month before the scheduled opening. Parliament approved the declaration of war (September 9). King instructed the Canadian High Commissioner in London to request King George VI as King of Canada, to declare war on Germany.

American Neutrality Laws

Canada's declaration of war created a problem for the war effort. The American Meutrality Laws precluded sales of war material to all beligerant nations. Cnada was even less oreoared for war thn Britain and America. One of President Roosevelt's priorirites was to repeal thevNeutrality Acts which he achieved (November 1939).

Divided Country

Canada like America in 1939 was deeply divided by participation in another European War. Canadian public opinionhad, however, shifted decisively after Munich (September 1938). Canada did not have a Pearl Harbor event like America and thus there was some disension, basically over the ethnic/linguistic divide. French Canadians were much less committed to the War, even after the fall of France. French Canadians voted overwhelmingly against conscription even though conspripts were not to be sent iverseas while a majority of English Canadians voted for it (1940). King attempted for 2 years to fight the War with volunteers. He approved a massive publicity campaign to recruit volunteers. The heavy losses beginning with the Dieppe Raid (1942). And further losses ocurred in Italy (1943) and Normandy (1944). Finally King decided that here was no alternative, but to send conscripts to Europe to reinforce the depleted Canadian divisions. The result was the Conscription Crisis of 1944, but it was not anything like the World War I crisis. The Germans began to collapse after the Bulge which was mostly fought by the Americans and Soviet offensives in the East. The Germans surrendered before many of the conscrips reached Europe.

War Leadership

King was prime-minister thougout World War II and oversaw the Canadian war effort. King developed a solid working relationship with President Roosevelt even before America entered the War. He negotiated important defense agreements with the United States. Despite Canada's reluctance to enter the War and mixed feeling about the War, Canada under King's leadership can be said to have punched above its weight in the War. This was true of the Dominions in general and is something the Axis failed to take into account. The Canadian 1st Infrantry Division at the time of Dunkirk was the only combat ready divson in Britain. Canadian infantry played an nimportant role in Italy and the liberation of Western Europe beginning on D-Day. And often ignored is the vital role played by Canada in the Battle of the Atlantic. Allied war policy was largely determined by President Roosevelt and Prime-Minister Churchill. King was consulted, but played no important role in war strategy. King actually was willing to defer to Chamberlain and Churchill. He wanted no hand in shaping strategy, even when before America entered the War and increasingly shaped allied policy. He apparently felt it would force him to commit more forces than Canada was able to without resorting to conscription. Of course he would eventully have to resort to conscription. King did take four important steps. First, he moved to link Canadian defense policy with America. He and President Roosevelt signed a defense agreement at Ogdensburh, New York (August 1940). This led among other matters a massive American building program (roads and bases) in the Yukon and Newfoundland. Second, King finally agrred to a conscription law, although limiting overseas deployment to volunteers. Third, organized a highly effective mobilization effort. This made possible huge shipments of supplies and equipment to Britain and a massive building program of naval vessels, mostly corvettes--small escort craft to protect the Atalantic convoys. Canada had vurtually no navy before the war and one of the world's largest navies by the end of the War. Fourth, as part of Canada's military effort, he built the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) literaly from scratch to a substantial military force. He insisted that it be kept separate from Britain's RAF. King played an important role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, signed in Ottawa (December 1939). This bound Canada, Britain, New Zealand and Australia to a program that would train half the airmen from those four nations which fought in the Second World War.[Stacey] Located in Canada rather than Britain meant that the training actinties were secure and there was unlimited supplies of fuel. Of all the World War II leaders, King appears to have been the only one unpopular with the troops in Europe. There are reports of him being booed with he visited Cananadian units. This is not commonly mentioned in Wotld War II histories. And we would like further confirmation that this was in fact th case. We are not sure why, but believe that many Canadian servicemen in Europe belived that they were not being properly supported. And that conscripts should be sent overseas to reenforce their depleted ranks.

Conscription

Conscription was by far the most difficult issue faced by Prime-Minister King during the War. King had become a leading political figure by opposing conscription during World War I. Ironically, as Prime-Minister during World War II, King was in the uncomfortable position of selling conscription to the Canadian public. Unlike Roosevelt who managed somehow to usher a conscription law through Congress before the War, conscription remained controversial in Canada even after the country entered the War. King's promised not to impose conscription appears to have been a factor in his Liberal Party winning re-election (1940). Shortly after, the stunning German defeat of France dramatically changed the war situation. As a result, King usjered a conscription bill for home service through Parliment. Only volunteers were sent overseas. King was trying to avoid a repeat of the World War I Conscription Crisis in 1917. The Canadian military after Dieppe stronly pressed King for more troops meaning conscripts to send overseas (1942). King's answer was a national plebiscite. He asked Canadians to relieve him of the commitment he had made during the 1940 election campaign. He explained somewhat ambiguously that his policy was 'conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription'.

Sources

Abella, Irving and Harold Troper. "'The line must be drawn somewhere': Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939." in Iacovetta, Ventresca, and Draper (eds). A Nation of Immigrants (1998).

Davies, Alan and Marilyn F. Nefsky. How Silent Were the Churches?: Canadian Protestantism and the Jewish Plight during the Nazi Era (Wilfrid Laurier UP: 2010).

Emmerson, James Thomas The Rhineland Crisis, March 7, 1936: A Study in Multilateral Diplomacy (Iowa State University Press, 1977).

Keyserlingk, Robert H. "Mackenzie King's spiritualism and his view of Hitler in 1939," Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 20, No. 4, (1985–1986), pp. 26–44.

King, Mackenzie. "Mackenzie King in Berlin". A Real Companion and Friend: The diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King (Library and Archives Canada).

Middlemas, Keith. Diplomacy of Illusion: The British Government and Germany, 1937–1939 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 1972).

Stacey, C. P. Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939–1945 (Queen's Printer: 1970).







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Created: 7:26 AM 3/1/2017
Last updated: 7:26 AM 3/1/2017