Seventy-five years ago, on Sept. 1, 1939, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was awakened early in the morning with news that the German Wehrmacht had crossed the border into Poland.
For the British and French this was the final straw in the frustrating negotiations with Adolf Hitler that had been ongoing for several years. The two western European powers declared war on Germany on Sept. 3.
Within a week Canada had also issued its own declaration of war; for unlike in August 1914 the country -- as a result of the Statute of Westminster of 1931 -- was not automatically at war with the British declaration. Nonetheless, despite Canada's new autonomous status within the empire, there really was never a doubt that Canada would stand by Britain's side in 1939, just as the country had during the First World War.
Ever since his celebrated meeting with Hitler in Berlin in June 1937, King believed war with Nazi Germany could be averted. Like many other world leaders who came into contact with the Hitler in the late '30s, King regarded him as a charismatic visionary, though unpredictable and possibly dangerous. As the situation worsened in the spring of 1938, King wrote in his diary that he was confident the world "will yet come to see a very great man ... in Hitler."
A few months later, King and almost everyone else in Canada (with the notable exception of Free Press editor John W. Dafoe) was delighted with the Munich Agreement negotiated with Hitler by Britain and France. Yet appeasing Hitler, who was intent on expanding German territory, proved impossible -- as Hitler's actions in September 1939 showed.
A special session of Parliament was convened on Sept. 7. In the House of Commons the next day, King somewhat uncharacteristically gave an impassioned speech.
"We stand for the defence of Canada; we stand for the co-operation of this country at the side of Great Britain; and if this house will not support us in that policy, it will have to find some other government to assume the responsibilities of the present." Press reports about King's performance the next day were positive; even the Globe and Mail, no fan of the prime minister, applauded his "strong, ringing voice."
The cabinet had gathered a night earlier. There was talk and fear of conscription -- that had torn apart the country during the First World War -- by some ministers, which King quickly quelled. He later spelled out his position on this explosive issue in his diary: "There would be no conscription under the present Government, which means I would send the resignation of my colleagues and myself before allowing the measure of conscription of men for overseas to be introduced. It may conceivably come to conscription for our own defence; nothing has been said against that."
In the House, King suggested a Nazi attack on Canada was likely since no other territory was as coveted. "There is no other portion of the earth's surface that contains such wealth as lies buried here," he said. "No, Mr. Speaker, the ambition of this dictator is not Poland ... Where is he creeping to? Into those communities in the north, some of which today are going to remain neutral."
Quebec was most wary of another conflict and the possibility of conscription. Yet when it was the turn of Ernest Lapointe, King's most influential Quebec cabinet minister, to speak, he said what he knew had to be stated for the record. "I hate war with all my heart and conscience," he declared, "but devotion to peace does not mean ignorance or blindness. ... I say to every member of this House that by doing nothing, by being neutral, we actually would be taking the side of Adolf Hitler." That did not mean conscription, he said, which he and other French-Canadian ministers would never accept, but it did mean sending a voluntary expeditionary force to Europe.
With a near unanimous voice of support -- only the CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth, a pacifist who resigned the leadership of his party over the issue, as well as a few Quebec Liberal MPs spoke against participation -- Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 10 and voted $100 million for the defence budget.
The War Measures Act had been proclaimed on Sept. 1 and although few could have predicted at the time, this meant government by order-in-council for the next five years, censorship of the press and radio, and detention of enemy aliens. Other than the French Montreal newspaper, Le Devoir, which insisted that Canada was headed towards adopting conscription, every other English and French language newspaper in the country stood behind the government.
In a long cabinet meeting on Sept. 12, King maintained that despite the fact he had been "persecuted" for his cautious approach to a declaration of war, such a strategy had in the end paid off. The country, he stated, "had come into war with a quietude and peace almost comparable to that of a vessel sailing over a smooth and sunlit lake."
King innately understood that when the call came, Canada stood by Britain, as was her duty. And that was the only reason. No matter how the decision has been spun since, the declaration had nothing to do with any other greater or idealistic purpose. It was "not for democracy ... not to stop Hitler.. (and) not to save Poland," as historians Jack Granatstein and Desmond Morton argue. "Canada went to war only because Neville Chamberlain felt unable to break the pledges he had made to Poland in March 1939. Had he slipped free, as he tried to do, Canada would have sat by and watched the Reich devour Poland without feeling compelled to fight.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context. This article is partly adapted from Levine's book, King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny (2011).