Canada 1939 - 1945: The World at War
A Country United
During the 1930s, as the world lurched toward another world war, Prime Minister
William Lyon Mackenzie King had worked hard to maintain national unity. For that
reason, he had deliberately pursued a cautious foreign policy that avoided commitments
abroad that might cause controversy in Canada and divide Canadians. Now, in September
1939, he was finally rewarded for his efforts as Canada entered the Second World War
united solidly behind King’s Liberal government. Reassured that there would be no
conscription, even the government’s ministers from Quebec were firmly on side. While
there were differences in the Cabinet as to how far Canada should contribute to the war
effort, there was no support for remaining neutral.
As the final European crisis unfolded in August 1939, King was kept fully informed by
the British government, but offered no advice. Germany invaded Poland on September 1,
1939; Britain declared war two days later. In contrast to 1914, however, Canada was not
automatically at war. Instead, Parliament reassembled on September 7, and Canada
declared war on September 10. This week of formal neutrality underlined Canada's
National unity also influenced the decision to fight a war of "limited liability." If Canada
did not send a large army overseas, the government hoped the issue of conscription need
never arise. Ottawa agreed in the fall of 1939 to raise only a single infantry division.
Canada's main contribution to the Allied war effort would be the training of aircrew
through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which the Royal Canadian Air
Force would run, and the production of war material and foodstuffs.
Although this kind of limited war seemed possible during the early days - the so-called
"phoney war" - it would be a different story once the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled across
Western Europe in the spring of 1940.
A Step Backward?
From the start, the war raised questions about Canada’s relationship with Great Britain.
Unlike Sir Robert Borden during the First World War, King had no desire to participate
in the higher direction of the war. Becoming too closely identified with the British
government would only hurt him in Quebec; in any event, Canada was not making the
level of contribution that Borden had based his demands upon. More important, King was
worried that co-operating too intimately with Britain would roll back the constitutional
developments of the interwar years.
Not everyone was satisfied with this policy. For example, Lester B. Pearson, at that time
serving on the staff of the High Commission in London, felt that "so far as policy and
planning . . . are concerned, our status is little better than that of a colony."
King appreciated the need for effective imperial co-operation, appointing high
commissioners to all the other dominions by the end of 1939, but he had no use for the
concept of a central imperial war cabinet like that created in 1917. When the idea was
pushed by the Australian prime minister in 1941, King told him bluntly that it would only
give the dominions "responsibility without power." The Canadian prime minister felt that
modern methods of communication, combined with the presence of representatives in
each other's capitals, provided for a "real but invisible imperial council" through which
the prime ministers could express their views. Nor was Churchill, who had taken over the
leadership of Britain in 1940, keen to share power with the dominions.
King also rejected holding a meeting of all the dominion prime ministers, suggested by
Chamberlain in 1940 and Churchill the following year, though he agreed to fly to
England for personal consultations. No general meeting was held until May 1944, during
which King continued to reject the creation of any new machinery for the
Commonwealth, particularly opposing annual meetings on defence questions. Existing
arrangements for consultation, he stressed, were more than adequate. If he needed any
support for this view, it lay in the results of a public opinion poll taken in March of that
year. The poll showed a virtual dead heat between those who favoured an independent
Canadian foreign policy (47 percent) and those who favoured a common imperial foreign
policy (46 percent). In the Liberal Party’s stronghold of Quebec, though, fully 70 percent
supported an independent policy.
The Not-So Neutral Americans
For the second time within 25 years, Canada went to war in 1939 while the United States
remained neutral. Mackenzie King, despite warm feelings for U.S. President F.D.
Roosevelt, was distressed, as were many Canadians who felt that the United States was
once more shirking its international responsibilities. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, however,
Roosevelt did not ask Americans to be neutral in their hearts, and he leaned toward the
Allied side as far as he dared. Indeed, in early September 1939, while Canada debated its
declaration of war, Roosevelt’s administration exploited a loophole in U.S. neutrality
legislation in order to export vital military aircraft to Canada for the Allied forces.
The German victories in the spring of 1940, culminating in the collapse of France and the
evacuation of the British troops from Dunkirk -- a defeat turned into a sort of a victory --
sent shock waves through Canada. The Empire stood alone against Hitler and an invasion
of Britain itself seemed probable. Opinion in Canada shifted quickly in favour of closer
military co-operation with the United States, even, the American minister in Ottawa
observed, among those who "in the past have been least well disposed toward us." Should
Britain fall, North America would face a Nazi-dominated Europe.
Roosevelt, too, was concerned. He had already told King that he thought Canada's
Atlantic defences were inadequate and posed a potential danger to the United States. Now
he feared that Great Britain’s Royal Navy might fall to the Germans. To avoid this he
wanted the Royal Navy dispersed throughout the Empire, and he asked King to convey
this message to Churchill. While Canadians had often prided themselves on being the
supposed "linchpin" between Britain and the United States, King was now placed in a
very awkward position. Churchill was infuriated by Roosevelt's assumption that Britain
would fall, and King was caught squarely in the middle between the two giants.
Like the U.S. president, the Canadian prime minister was also concerned with the fate of
his nation should Britain fall to Hitler. Preliminary military discussions with the
Americans were held in Washington in July 1940. Then, on August 16, Roosevelt invited
King to meet him the next day in the border town of Ogdensburg, New York. The
President wanted to create a joint board to oversee the defence of North America --
significantly, one that would continue in existence beyond the immediate crisis. King
immediately agreed to what became the Permanent Joint Board on Defence.
Most Canadians hailed this accord, which was soon known as the Ogdensburg
Agreement, though a handful of committed imperialists like the former Conservative
prime minister, Arthur Meighen, accused King of abandoning Britain and placing Canada
in the control of the United States. Churchill was also perturbed by King's action, bluntly
warning him that "all these transactions will be judged [at the war’s end] in a mood
different to that prevailing while the issue still hangs in the balance." Although later
critics would accuse King of selling Canada out to the United States, what choice did he
have? Indeed, the situation seemed so desperate by the fall of 1940 that the Permanent
Joint Board on Defence approved a plan for the defence of North America in the event of
a British defeat that gave the Americans strategic control over Canadian forces.
Once the military situation improved, however, Canada began to reassert itself. In the
spring of 1941, a new plan was drawn up, to come into effect should the United States
enter the war. This time, Canadian negotiators resolutely refused to give the United States
such extensive control of Canada’s forces, and rejected proposals to integrate much of the
country's defences into Washington’s Northeast and Northwest Defence Commands. The
government was particularly sensitive to the strong American presence in Newfoundland,
which had long been seen as a potential 10th province. King’s government recognized
that co-operation with the United States was essential and unavoidable, but that did not
mean abandoning Canada's national interests.
Canada was also drawn into closer ties with the United States in the economic realm. The
war had one positive aspect: it finally enabled Canada to emerge from the Depression.
Canada's factories hummed as war material rolled off the assembly lines. To maintain
and expand production, however, huge imports from the United States were required, as
were U.S. dollars to pay for them. Canada's huge trade surplus with Britain was useless
for this purpose. The British had made their currency inconvertible, preventing Canada
from changing her sterling holdings into U.S. dollars. A huge trade deficit with the
United States mounted.
The situation became more urgent in January 1941 when the Americans introduced Lend-
Lease, under which the administration would provide war materials to "any country
whose defense the President deem[ed] vital to the defense of the United States." Britain
urged Canada to plead poverty and apply for lend-lease assistance. King refused to place
Canada under such a great obligation to the Americans. Instead, King and Roosevelt
reached a simple, bilateral solution to their economic problems during a summit meeting
in April 1941 at the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York.
Under the terms of the Hyde Park Declaration, the United States would increase defence
purchases in Canada, while material exported to Canada for use in supplies for Britain
would be charged to Britain's lend-lease account. This solved Canada's immediate
financial concerns but placed it even further within the American sphere of influence. As
King told Parliament, it was "nothing less than a common plan for the economic defence
of the western hemisphere." Like the Ogdensburg Agreement, it has drawn fire from
critics for just that reason; like the Ogdensburg Agreement, there was no other choice.
A Very Junior Ally
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States finally
entered the war. Canada suffered a loss of status. It was no longer one of Britain's most
important allies but a junior partner in a great power coalition. From now on, the war was
to be run largely by Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, which entered the
fighting in June 1941. Canada had long abandoned its plans to fight a war of "limited
liability," and was making its maximum contribution to the war effort. Even so, the great
powers were determined to keep the decision making to themselves, and viewed Canada
as one of a number of minor allies that could not be given preferential treatment in case
others demanded it.
Canada was outraged to have no say in areas where it was making a large contribution.
This was particularly frustrating in connection with the combined boards created by the
United States and Great Britain in 1942 to allocate food and war material. Canada was a
major producer of food for the Allies, but was shut out of the Combined Food Board.
Hume Wrong of the Department of External Affairs provided an eloquent argument for a
greater Canadian role, based on the functional principle. Each country should have a
voice in areas where it was a major power; not everyone had an equal right to a voice in
every area. It was a neat way of distinguishing Canada from such minor allies as Brazil or
Mexico, but it was still a hard sell.
Canadian tenacity eventually resulted in seats on some of the boards that were of interest
to Ottawa after long and tedious negotiations, but Canada neither sought nor received
significant influence in the military conduct of the war. Even when Roosevelt and
Churchill met twice in Quebec City to discuss Allied grand strategy, King was content to
play a small role. He took part in limited bilateral discussions with the British and
American leaders, and though he appeared in all of the photographs he did not attend the
actual planning sessions.
German victories in Europe combined with Japan's entry into the war in December 1941
ended Canada's attempt to limit its military role in a conflict that had now become a war
of survival. Following the German successes of 1940, the government sent the Second
Division overseas and began mobilizing two other divisions. At the request of the British
government, Canadian troops were hurriedly sent to defend Hong Kong against Japanese
attack in the fall of 1941. Ill-equipped and poorly trained, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and
the Royal Rifles of Canada were all killed or captured when the Japanese overran the
colony in December 1941. The Canadians in England, on the other hand, endured a long
period of inactivity. Both the government and the military were anxious to have them see
action, which helps explain Canadian participation in the ill-fated Dieppe raid of 1942.
During this raid, more Canadians were killed or made prisoner for no military gain.
It was only in 1943 that Canadian forces participated in a major campaign, the Allied
landings in Sicily. This was an important occasion for the government, because the
Canadian public was becoming increasingly restive about Canada's lack of involvement.
The government therefore was duly disturbed by the original description of the landing
force as Anglo-American. After urging from Mackenzie King, Roosevelt agreed that the
Canadians should be credited for their participation in the assault.
Later, a further division was sent to Italy, where the Canadians experienced savage
fighting during the course of the Italian campaign. Eventually these troops were recalled
from Italy and sent to join their comrades in northwest Europe, where Canadians had
been involved since the June 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy. It was not until early
1945 that the First Canadian Army fought as a unit under the command of General
H.D.G. Crerar. Canadian forces played a key role in the liberation of Holland, forging a
link between that country and Canada that persists to this day.
In addition to the appointment of dominion high commissioners early in the war, the
conflict forced King to increase dramatically the range of Canadian diplomatic activity,
necessitating a rapid expansion of the Department of External Affairs. In the first months
of the war, the government had appointed high commissioners to Australia, Ireland, New
Zealand and South Africa. The German blitzkrieg forced the closure of posts in
continental Europe and the evacuation of personnel, sometimes under extremely
harrowing conditions. Representation was maintained and expanded with European
governments in exile in London.
With Latin America increasingly vital as a source of trade and war supplies, missions
were appointed to Brazil and Argentina in 1940 and to Chile in 1941. Missions were later
opened in Mexico and Peru in 1944 and in Cuba in 1945. Major allies, the Soviet Union
and China, were accommodated in 1942. With the liberation of Europe, Canadian
diplomats returned to Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and new posts were opened
in Norway and Greece.
A hard-pressed headquarters in Ottawa resorted to various expedients but still remained
understaffed throughout the war. Highly qualified people were recruited from the
universities as temporary wartime appointments. Women, who at this point were not
eligible to become foreign service officers, were hired as clerks to do the same work as
junior officers but at only 60 percent of the salary. Twelve women, all highly educated,
most with postgraduate degrees, were in this unfair situation. But at least they were in
place and prepared for the postwar period, when women would finally be welcomed into
the Foreign Service.
An "Army of Occupation"
The entry of the United States into the war brought a flood of American troops and
civilians into the Canadian northwest. One of the Americans' principal concerns was the
threat that Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands posed to Alaska. When the American
military concluded that a highway to Alaska was essential, Canada quickly agreed to its
construction. Other large projects quickly followed: the Canol pipeline, to ensure the
supply of oil to U.S. forces in Alaska; a series of airstrips to ferry U.S. military aircraft to
Alaska, en route to the Soviet Union; other facilities to help aircraft make their way to
Europe; and a network of weather stations. By 1943, there were over 33 000 American
soldiers and civilians in Canada’s north. U.S. headquarters in Edmonton supposedly
answered the phone with: "Army of Occupation."
Although this huge American presence had distinct implications for Canadian
sovereignty, the government did nothing until the alarm was sounded by the British high
commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald, following a northern visit in March 1943. In a
report to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, he pointed out that Canada had little say in the
placing of these projects, which were designed with American interests, including
postwar interests, in mind. The government's response was twofold. In May 1943, a
special commissioner was appointed to the northwest to keep an eye on the Americans
and to keep Ottawa informed. Later, in December 1943, the government announced that
Canada would repay Washington for all permanent military installations constructed
during the war, ensuring that the Americans would not retain possession of these for
Relations with France
France posed one of the most difficult diplomatic problems for Canada during the war.
After France fell in 1940, the Germans set up a puppet French government in Vichy.
Canada maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy regime, partly at the request of
the British government, which wanted to keep open a channel of communications. In fact,
the Canadian representative, Pierre Dupuy, made several visits to Vichy from his London
base, but his optimistic reports on the prospects of Vichy resistance were eventually
As an alternative to Vichy, Ottawa could recognize the Free French forces of General
Charles de Gaulle, but there were two complicating factors. The collapse of France had
left Quebec feeling, in the words of one observer, "suddenly isolated on this continent."
As a result, sympathy for the Vichy government and its conservative social and religious
policies was widespread in some Quebec circles.
In addition, the United States had developed an intense dislike for the imperious de
Gaulle, particularly after his forces seized control of the islands of St. Pierre and
Miquelon from Vichy authorities in December 1941. Furious, the American government
accused Ottawa of aiding de Gaulle, which was not accurate, and demanded that Canada
oust the Free French from the islands, which lie just off the coast of Newfoundland.
Although the crisis blew over, Canada could hardly recognize de Gaulle in the face of
During the next three years, Mackenzie King’s government moved cautiously. Canada
eventually broke off relations with Vichy in November 1942, following the entry of
German troops into its territory. Almost a year later, in August 1943, Ottawa recognized
the Free French as responsible for France's overseas territories. Finally, in October 1944,
following a triumphant visit by de Gaulle to Ottawa and Montreal, where he was
welcomed by Quebecers as a conquering hero, Canada recognized the Free French as the
provisional government of France. But de Gaulle, who never forgot a slight, would
remember this long delay in Canadian recognition of his status.
Planning the Postwar World
Well before the war ended, but when victory seemed assured, Allied leaders turned their
attention to the shape of the postwar world. A new world organization to replace the
failed League of Nations was already promised in the Atlantic Charter issued by
Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941. Citing the functional principle, Ottawa was
determined that Canada should play a role appropriate to its status in this and any other
international organization created. Canada especially would not accept any lesser position
than she had held in the League. For that reason, Canada opposed Churchill’s suggestion
that the new world body rest on a system of regional powers. In this scheme, the
Commonwealth, with Great Britain firmly at its head, would join China, the Soviet Union
and the United States, as great powers dominating the organization. At the prime
ministers' conference in May 1944, King stressed that this idea - a faint echo of Britain’s
fading hopes for a common imperial foreign policy - was unacceptable to Canada.
The British were not the only problem. All the great powers sought to create an
organization that would best serve their own interests. While determined to preserve its
own hard-won status as a middle power, Canada did not wish to challenge the delicate
balance worked out by the great powers to an extent that would cripple the new body by
prompting either the Soviet Union or the United States to withdraw.
Thus, in the negotiations to establish the United Nations, Canada did not oppose a veto
for the great powers in the Security Council, but it did insist that non-Security Council
members should have the right to attend Council sessions when the use of their military
forces was under discussion. Canada also succeeded in inserting a bit of functionalism
into the United Nations charter, which stated that "due regard" should be paid to the
contribution of members to the work of the United Nations when electing the non-
permanent members of the Council.
Canada was also deeply involved in the creation of several United Nations agencies and
other international organizations. A Canadian delegation took part in the Bretton Woods
conference in 1944, which established the International Monetary Fund and the
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. A British economist commented
that, apart from the British and Americans, the Canadians were virtually the only others
who "seemed capable of understanding the international monetary problem as a whole."
Similarly, as one of the world's leading air powers, Canada played a large and
constructive role in the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
A number of the subsidiary bodies established under the United Nations were of
importance to Canada. The Food and Agriculture Organization was obviously key to a
major food producer like Canada. So was the World Health Organization, whose first
director-general was a Canadian, Dr. Brock Chisholm, a former deputy minister of health.
The government was more hesitant about the United Nations' growing interest in
promoting human rights, for it feared that this activity might encroach on areas of
provincial jurisdiction. Even so, another Canadian, John Humphrey of McGill University,
drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations approved in
A Different World
The world of 1945 was a far different place from that of 1939, and Canada a much
different country. The old centres of power had been destroyed. Europe lay in ruins and
its colonial empires in Africa and Asia seethed with unrest. Two superpowers - the Soviet
Union and the United States - now dominated the world. And it was a much more
dangerous world, for the end of the war proclaimed the dawn of the nuclear age, signalled
by the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Britain, victorious in war, was crippled by its efforts and could no longer provide Canada
with a counterweight to offset the growing American influence. With Britain weakened,
Canada had drawn irrevocably closer to the United States both militarily and
Canada emerged from the war immeasurably strengthened. Her economy was booming
and more diversified than ever; in 1945, Canada even racked up its first trade surplus
with the United States. Although many feared a new depression, that did not occur, and
the nightmare of the 1930s seemed a long way away.
There was no move toward the isolationist policies that had attracted Canadians after the
First World War. A poll taken in November 1943 showed that three quarters of
Canadians favoured their country's taking an active role in the world, even if it meant
sending troops abroad. Canada’s diplomats enthusiastically helped create the new
multilateral organizations that burgeoned in this period, and Canada began to assume a
more prominent role in world affairs that reflected her new status as a middle power.
How comfortable that role would be, in a world dominated by two increasingly hostile
superpowers, remained to be seen.