The Second World War As a National Experience: Canada
The late General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked that "War is hell"; and he was undoubtedly right. That does not alter the importance or, unfortunately, the frequency of war as an historical phenomenon, or the significance of the marks which it leaves on the lives of nations. The great war in which Sherman played a leading part had consequences for his country whose effect is still felt over a century later.
It is an obvious truism that the same war may have quite different meanings for different combatants. After all, as a general thing somebody wins and somebody loses; but even where there is no clear winner or loser the two sides seldom see things in the same light. The funny little North American War of 1812 is a case in point. Everybody sees it differently. Good Americans are brought up--or at any rate used to be brought up--to think of it as a naval war in which their firbuilt frigates humbled the Mistress of the Seas. Good Canadians are quite sure it was a land war in which the aggressive intentions of our predatory neighbours were frustrated, mainly by the gallant Canadian Militia. But, of course, the happiest of the combatants of 1812 are the English, because they don't know the war happened; it is no part of their national mythology, as it is in North America.
In Canada, it is quite impossible to speak of the Second World War as a national experience without referring back to the earlier war of 1914-18. For Canadians the First World War was a stupendous and utterly unprecedented event. In the summer of 1914 it burst without warning on an isolated quasi-colonial society, and before it had run its four-year course it had in some degree affected every household in the country. The 60,000 dead represented the most terrible shock, but there were many others. The late Leslie Frost, who was Premier of the province of Ontario for many years, fought in that war and carried German shrapnel in him to the day of his death. He was fond of saying that in the extent of its impact upon Canadian society the First World War was a parallel to the Civil War in the United States, and I suspect that he was right. Canada had not been invaded, or occupied, or even bombed; but it had changed all the same. Politically, economically and socially it was a different place when the war was over. In some respects, the First War was more important to Canadians than the Second, simply because it was the First. In 1914-18 everything was new and extraordinary; 1939-45 inevitably seemed like a re-run. Many of the same problems arose and lessons learned under Sir Robert Borden contributed to somewhat easier solutions under Mackenzie King.
If a war often has different meanings for different parties to it, it is equally true that its significance may vary between different sections of the same community. And Canada is a pluralistic state. There is a basic division between the French-speaking Canadians who form nearly one-third of the community and the rest, and these two sections reacted quite differently to the two wars. In general, the English-speaking people of Canada felt bound to Great Britain by many and powerful ties. The French-speakers, on the contrary, had little emotional commitment to Britain, and (though this often surprises outsiders) little to France either. France and French Canada were separated not merely by the Atlantic Ocean, but also by memories of
France's abandonment of her children in 1763, the democratic and secularist French revolution of 1789, and the separation of church and state in France by the Third Republic. Respectable members of the Roman Catholic clergy in Quebec were heard to describe the war of 1914 as a judgment on France for her abandonment of God.1
In both wars the differing attitudes of the two sections were strikingly reflected in the statistics of voluntary enlistment in the forces. In the First War only some 2.4 per cent of the people of Quebec (even including its large English minority) volunteered for service, whereas in the predominantly British province of Ontario next door the figure was 7.5 per cent. The only province apart from Quebec that seemed markedly lukewarm about the war effort* was Saskatchewan, an agricultural province whose population contained many immigrants from central and eastern Europe, including a fair number from the enemy states. Only about four per cent of her people volunteered. By the Second War, Saskatchewan's attitude had markedly changed; she produced in proportion far more recruits than in 1914-18, her effort (over eight per cent) almost approximating to the norm in the non-French provinces. But Quebec in 1939- 45 still remained largely indifferent to the war. Only about four out of every hundred Quebecers volunteered, though in the rest of the country the figure was closer to ten.2 In both wars, it may be said that crises which moved English-speaking Canada to great sacrifices moved French Canada only slightly.
In this connection it is useful to recall the only two occasions when Canadians have been sufficiently moved by events abroad to organize private military expeditions to take part in them. The first was in 1868, when a force of Pontifical Zouaves was raised in the province of Quebec to defend the temporal power of the Pope against Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II. Needless to say, the Zouaves were all French Canadians. The second expedition was in 1937, when something over 1200 volunteers were found in Canada to fight for the Spanish republic. Of these men, who represented almost every other racial strain in the country, only some three dozen are said to have been French Canadians.3 It would be dangerous to deduce too much from these episodes. After all, the two manifestations were not entirely spontaneous; the first was organized wholly by the Roman Catholic Church, the second very largely by the Communist party. Nevertheless, they probably suggest something about the problems besetting Canada's relations with the outside world. Perhaps another story will indicate a little more. In 1946 the Gallup pollsters asked Canadians, "What person living in any part of the world today do you admire most?" Winston Churchill headed the poll by a large margin, with 28 per cent of the votes. If Franklin Roosevelt had still been alive, he would have certainly come next. As it was, the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, slipped in, but only eight percent of the people polled voted for him. And in third place, with six per cent, was the Pope.4 The Pope of the moment was Pius XII, but no doubt any other incumbent would have done as well; and it cannot be doubted that most of the papal vote came from Quebec.
* In the Maritime Provinces the figures of volunteering were low, but this was clearly the result of the fact that the great wave of pre-war immigration from the British Isles had passed them by. Almost exactly half of the Canadian volunteers of 1914-18 were British-born.
Of the issues that divided French and English Canada in the two wars, the greatest was of course conscription. The introduction of compulsory service in 1917 came close to tearing the country apart. It was the memory of this division and its political consequences that frightened Canadian politicians most as the Second War loomed on the horizon. In March 1939 the two chief political parties found a formula which went a long way to keep the country united when war came six months later: a pledge against conscription for overseas service. But in 1944 mounting casualties led to an increasingly strident demand from English Canada that the trained conscripts being held in Canada supposedly for home defence should be sent overseas. Only a threat of mutiny in his Cabinet forced Mackenzie King to yield to the demand. It was obvious, however, that he had fought against compulsion as long as he dared French Canada, whose defection would have meant his political ruin, continued to stand by him; and the right in the country never became quite as serious as it had been a quarter of a century before.
Much has been said and written about the growth of national spirit and sentiment in Canada (unfortunately, one needs to add, in English Canada) in 1914-18. It was the fruit of effort and sacrifice. The creation in France of the fighting force called the Canadian Corps--within which the new spirit moved more strongly than among civilians--was the greatest thing Canada had ever done. And feats of arms at Second Ypres and Vimy and Passchendaele and Amiens had their parallels in the council chamber. In 1917 the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, found it expedient to call the Dominions, which were doing so much in the field, to British councils in the Imperial War Cabinet and Imperial War Conference; and at the end of the fighting it was simply impossible to exclude them from the Peace Conference or, as it turned out, from the League of Nations. They emerged from the war period with a new national status within what was coming to be called the British Commonwealth and, somewhat less clearly established, within the world community. Sir Robert Borden claimed, with considerable reason, that Canada had been the leader in these advances.
The momentum the war had lent to the movement toward total Dominion autonomy continued to operate after the war itself had passed into history. It was responsible for the celebrated pronouncement of the Imperial Conference of 1926 proclaiming the British Dominions equal in status with Great Britain, and for the Statute of Westminster which translated this into legal terms five years later. The word "independence" is not in that statute. Nevertheless, in historical retrospect it appears as a declaration, peaceful and multilateral, of Dominion independence. Everyone today regards Canada as an independent country; and if you seek for a date on which that independence was achieved, no other can be found than December 11, 1931--the day on which the Statute of Westminster became law. It was thus as a country possessing complete legal independence that Canada went to war again in September 1939. That independence was reflected in her separate declaration of war, one week after the United Kingdom's. But the more important fact that she did go to war, following Britain as in 1914, reflected the continuing strength of ancient ties as well as (and probably more than) the reaction of a society of decent democrats against the things that Hitler stood for.
The Canada that fought the Third Reich was not, of course, quite the same country that had fought the Second. One statistic suggests the change that had taken place. In the First War, only about fifty-one per cent of the men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were Canadian-born; in the Second, the figure for the Canadian Army had risen to about eighty-five per cent.5 One cannot help feeling that the army of 1914-18 was in the beginning to some extent a sort of colonial levy, the product of a society of immigrants camped on the soil rather than
rooted in it. It became a national army only under the influence of the shared experience of years of battle. The national spirit that grew up in it derived mainly from the older Canadians, the ones who had roots in the soil. But the men who came back, whatever their origins may have been, came back as committed Canadians. The army of 1939-45, the Canadian-born army, was rather different. It came from a maturing society, the society, incidentally, that had demanded and supported the advances in constitutional status that had taken place between the wars.
Pursuing this thought, one can compare the parts Canada played in the conferences at the conclusions of the two wars: the Peace Conference of Paris in 1919, and the San Francisco Conference of 1945 which established the United Nations.
The Paris Conference is in the textbooks. They tell us, quite truly, that the main concern of the Canadian representatives, Sir Robert Borden and his colleagues, was to use the conference to enhance the status of Canada. And this they did very successfully. No one, certainly no Canadian, can object to this. Canada, after all, had to establish herself as an international person before she could hope to exert much international influence. It is arguable that what little influence she had on the general Paris settlement was used on what most people today would consider the side of the angels.6 But it was mainly on the basis of its meaning for Canadian status that the settlement was discussed in the Canadian press and Parliament; few people seem to have been much interested in any other aspect.
By 1945 that Canadian national status--for what it might be worth in a world dominated by the great powers--was well established and accepted. The country had a string of missions abroad and a foreign service of recognized competence. As the San Francisco conference approached Canada had some special local concerns to look out for. In particular, with domestic considerations in view--- and this as usual meant mainly Quebec--the Canadian government thought it important to ensure that a country like Canada, when not a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, would not be compelled to put its military forces at the Council's disposal without an opportunity of being heard at the Council board. After a good deal of difficulty, this concern was met by the inclusion in the United Nations Charter of Article 44. Apart from this, however, the Canadian delegation had much larger objects in view. It is clear that it considered that the future of mankind was likely to depend upon the successful formation of a world organization that would have as members both the United States and Soviet Russia, which were already emerging as the two super-powers of the post-war world.
To achieve this Canada was prepared both to make and to counsel sacrifices. The Canadians disliked important features of the plan which the Great Powers had made for the organization. They considered that the Great Powers were going to dominate the scheme far too much, and in particular they had no use for the Great Power veto in the Security Council. Nevertheless, at San Francisco the Canadians saw that the veto, and other concessions to Great Power dominance, were the price of Russian adherence to the organization. Herbert Evatt of Australia fought the veto and fought the Great Powers generally, noisily and aggressively; but he got no help from Canada. Referring to Evatt's campaign, Norman Robertson, the Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, reported to Ottawa, "It seems clear to us that, in this year of grace, there cannot be a World Organization established, with Russia a member, unless it provides for voting rights in the Security Council substantially as set forth in the Great Power memorandum.... Our view is that it is better to take the Organization that we can get
and... to refrain from further efforts to pry apart the difficult unity which the Great Powers have attained. This means foregoing the luxury of making any more perfectionist speeches...." Mackenzie King fully supported this attitude.7
Canada's influence at San Francisco was of course small, but such as it was it was exerted sanely and responsibly. The British delegation's report on the conference, which had hard words for Evatt, remarked that the Canadians, "one of the strongest and ablest teams at the conference", had "displayed a real solicitude for the welfare of the organization".8 This seems to be fully supported by the record. This episode at the end of the Second World War was evidence of a growing maturity in the Canadian community. One need not go as far as claiming that it proved that Canadians had risen to the point where they automatically put the welfare of mankind at large ahead of their own local and special interests. There is a great deal of evidence that they had done no such thing. But it does seem to indicate that the makers of Canadian policy had at least appreciated that Canada was involved with mankind, and that enlightened self-interest required that the country should do whatever it could towards the creation of an organization that might prevent a third world war. It also suggests that they had learned enough about the realities of international relations to recognize hard facts when they saw them, and to be aware of the necessity of compromise. They were, in fact, becoming sophisticated.
If it is really true that Canadian society in 1945 was somewhat more mature than it had been a generation before, it is in order to speculate on the influences that brought this result about. It would be simple-minded to say that it was all caused by the Second World War. Very important that war certainly was; but we should see it as the culmination of a long process of development rather than as an isolated explosion of energy. The grim experience of the Depression of the 1930s certainly left a deep mark on the country. And a great number of the advances as well as the problems resulting from the Second World War are prefigured in the events of the First. To mention one obvious example, the Canadian industrial revolution of 1939-45, of which much is made in the books, was only a more sophisticated and larger version of what happened between 1914 and 1918. Enormous amounts of war material were made in Canada in those years, the gross value of iron and steel production leaping up from less than $150 millions in 1910 to nearly $500 millions in 1918. Variety was limited, but quantity was great. The production of iron and steel never fell to pre-war figures again, except momentarily in the depths of the Depression.9 And along with industrialization went urbanization. The decade of the First War was the moment when urban population in Canada first moved ahead of rural.10 Canadians since then have become increasingly a nation of town-dwellers. In this respect the Second War merely continued and accelerated a movement that was already in progress.
With regards to relations with the United States, we think of the era of the Second World War as the period when Canada's traditional British ties began to slacken off, and the American relationship became more and more important. The Ogdensburg Declaration of August 1940, brought about by the two countries' common fear of Hitler after the collapse of France, attracts the historian's attention as the point where these communities, which had twice fought each other and had frequently viewed each other with suspicion thereafter, became for the first time, in effect, formal military allies. Close economic cooperation in defense matters by the Hyde Park Agreement. Yet it is worth recalling was effected the following year that there were fairly important examples of Canadian-American military cooperation in the First War. Sir Robert Borden in 1918 made an arrangement with the Wilson administration in Washington that was a precise parallel to Hyde Park11 (though nobody seems to have
remembered it in 1941). And it is quite arguable that the moment when Canada, as Donald Creighton would put it, took the wrong turning and went off down the American road whoring after the strange gods of Wall Street and Washington, was not at Ogdensburg but five years earlier, in 1935, when for the first time in seventy years the country made a general trade agreement with the United States. That agreement was a product not of war but of depression.
On the whole, I still incline to the opinion that the First World War was the greatest event in Canadian history. But I am quite prepared to admit that the Second War was the second greatest. If the influences on national development which it exercised were largely extensions of those that can be identified in 191418, they were still vastly important. In both wars Canada, it must be said, was by comparison with many other countries extremely fortunate. Sir Charles Lucas wrote of her after the first one, "She earned what she reaped, but she reaped much. She gave greatly to the war and in turn the war gave much to her."12 The same was true in 1939-45. It was a mixed experience. From that war, as from the earlier one, she emerged richer than she had been before, just as her neighbor the United Stated did. Close to a million volunteer servicemen and their families made great sacrifices for the cause, but the community as a whole waxed fat. Nearly 50,000 of the servicemen died, but the prudent people who stayed home were quite safe from enemy action. They suffered only relatively minor discomforts, such as mild rationing, difficult travel, some disruption of routine. Dreadful as it may seem, for a few years it actually became impossible to buy a new car. People worked very hard, and taxes were very heavy. But there were high wages and full employment, and the country got a permanent dividend in the form of a stronger and more diversified industrial structure. Economically the war was in the end almost an unalloyed blessing. Politically and spiritually not so much can be said. The effort of war is often a unifying force. In both 1914-18 and 1939-45 this was the case within English-speaking Canada, but between English and French, thanks to the conscription question the effect was not to unify but to divide. The damage was less in the Second War than in the First, but an old sore was re-opened with unfortunate results.
One development of the period might have been expected to tend to draw English and French-speaking Canadians closer together. A growing maturity in Canadian Attitudes towards the outside world has been mentioned. This, many would say, was reflected in a further growth of that sense of independent nationality which appeared during and after the First War. This found symbolic expression in a measure passed by the Canadian Parliament soon after the end of the Second. In January 1945 Mackenzie King told his Cabinet that he thought it was time to establish a status of Canadian citizenship,13 something until then very nearly unknown to the law. Generally speaking, Canadians at that time were simply "British subjects", in common with other subjects of the King around the globe. The Canadian Citizenship Act became law in 1946. It proclaimed that "A Canadian citizen is a British subject", but the reverse proposition was not included. Canadian citizenship was now to be, in the words of the Secretary of State who introduced the bill "the fundamental status upon which the rights and privileges of Canadians will depend"14. This may be called the logical culmination of the national policy that Mackenzie King had always pursued. It did not escape criticism in Parliament and elsewhere, but it was in tune with the general feelings and opinions of Canadians at that moment in history. The experience of two wars had certainly gone far to produce this result.
French Canada, of course, had always favored the national rather than what may be called the imperial or the colonial view of Canada's position with respect to Britain and the world; and in one sense the development of events may be said to have brought the English-speaking majority round to something very like the traditional French-Canadian opinion. This
might have provided a basis for a more perfect union between the country's two great sections. Unfortunately this has not yet come to pass. A new unity on external questions has not been enough to overcome the effect of the particularistic nationalism which, in Quebec as in other parts of the world, has been in the ascendant. The future of Canadian confederation, which English and French Canadians created 112 years ago, seems to hang in the balance today.
Things like the impact of a war on a particular society are impossible to measure with computers, and difficult to assess with precision by any means the historian has at his disposal. We look at statistics, we read newspaper editorials, we study the files of government departments, we reflect on personal experiences we or our friends may have had; and on the basis of such things we pontificate, as I have been pontificating here. But I find that as I grow older I put forward generalizations like those in this essay with less and less confidence. Who am I, I find myself saying to myself, to presume to explain one generation of humanity to another? I realize that if these subversive doctrines gained currency many historians would be on welfare. Nevertheless I feel disposed to end by disavowing any purpose to be even mildly dogmatic. The modest interpretations that I have offered here are nothing if not tentative, and if people disagree with them I shall neither be surprised nor complain.
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Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation