Mackenzie King was the ultimate appeaser and no more so than during the final few years of peace in the late '30s. With all the best intentions in the world, he was juggling a handful of contradictory objectives. He desired to enhance his own status and friendship with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt by playing matchmaker between the Americans and the British. As had been his guiding principle since the early '20s, he insisted on an autonomous made-in-Canada foreign policy. Yet in the deepest recess of his soul he understood that as in 1914, if Britain was at war, Canada would be as well. As his principal secretary, Arnold Heeney, recalled of those years, "In the light of the record since revealed it is ironic that the impression over the war years (was) that Mackenzie King preferred Washington over London, the continental association to that with Britain and the Commonwealth. We who worked with him closely had reason almost daily to know the fact was quite otherwise. King was very wary of those he suspected of wanting to make of the British connection the fabric for a centralized political authority, but his attachment to Britain and things British were pervasive."
With memories of the divisive years of the First World War and conscription, King desperately sought to keep Ernest Lapointe, his other Quebec MPs and all of French Canada assured that Canada would not become embroiled in another foreign entanglement. Finally, like other statesmen of this era who did not yet truly grasp the malevolent machinations of the Nazi mentality, King believed and prayed regularly that a reasonable peace agreement with Adolf Hitler was a real possibility.
In trying to balance several conflicting goals, King was forced to be vague about Canada's position in a possible European conflict. "He had decided," asserts historian Norman Hillmer, "that ambiguity would offend the fewest." Offend the fewest, yes, but frustrate, exasperate, drive to distraction — that's another matter entirely. King's ambiguity and cautiousness led him to be unavoidably, albeit unfairly, portrayed as an isolationist and neutralist. As has now been established, he was never that. "King's backing and filling, his evasion and hesitation do not make inspiring reading," wrote historians Jack Granatstein and Robert Bothwell in a seminal article on the subject. "But his actions... indicate his sure grasp of the public mood and his recognition that public opinion cannot be wished into existence simply because one course of action or another is 'right.' When King took a united Canada into the Second World War, he gave Canadians a policy that not only was right to him, but one that seemed right to them."
The ambiguity started with King's stand on the League of Nations. He was committed to peace and to Canada's participation in the beleaguered League, but was absolutely correct in his view that an international organization of collective security that did not include the United States, among other major powers, was an organization that was bound to fail. As he had made clear during the Abyssinia crisis and the question of confronting [Italian leader Benito] Mussolini, he was not about to permit Canada to be dragged into an untenable position — and certainly not into a war.
When Hitler ordered German troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, which was a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact, King became more anxious. "I pray that God may withhold the hand of the aggressor," he wrote in his diary on March 7, 1936. Pressed to explain the government's position by the CCF'S J.S. Woodsworth two weeks after the first of Hitler's numerous belligerent actions, King replied with the haziness that has made him famous, "In a word the attitude of the government is to do nothing itself and if possible to prevent anything occurring which will precipitate one additional factor into the all important discussions which are now taking place in Europe." Two months later, he was more definite, reiterating his support of the League of Nations, but adding perceptively that "collective bluffing cannot bring collective security." (King's ego would have been pleased, though he might also have been astounded, that in January 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush's embattled secretary of state, quoted King's snappy phrase in criticizing the United Nations Security Council's refusal to support a war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.)
He was even more certain of his stand after he arrived in Geneva in September to attend the League assembly. There was an "absurdity," he felt, about "entrusting the affairs of one's country directly or indirectly to an aggregation of the kind which one sees in the Assembly Hall." Cheered on by under-secretary of state for external affairs Oscar Skelton and Labour Minister Norman Rogers — both of whom wanted to distance Canada from Europe's volatile problems more than King did — he told the delegates of Canada's support for the organization in one breath and then in the next declared that the League should "emphasize the task of mediation and conciliation rather than punishment." King had indeed gauged the mood of the country back home. The speech was praised by nearly everyone in the assembly (he made a point of listing each positive comment in his diary) and in newspapers in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Only in Winnipeg did [Winnipeg Free Press editor] John Dafoe predict that King had sunk the League, even though he would have conceded that it was likely sunk already.
King was in London in May 1937 for top-level meetings, in addition to attending the coronation of George VI. If anything out of the ordinary transpired on this trip, it was King's private discussion with Joachim von Ribbentrop, who in 1937 was Hitler's ambassador to Britain. The future Nazi foreign minister, who was to be hanged for war crimes in 1946 at Nuremberg, was so impressed with King's enlightening attitude to the League and world events that he invited the prime minister to Berlin for a personal meeting with Hitler. This had been something King had been contemplating for more than a year.
The auspicious encounter with Herr Hitler took place at the presidential palace in Berlin on June 29. A guard led him upstairs, where he was greeted by Hitler's staff and shown into an adjoining room. The führer, who was wearing formal dress accentuated by a white tie, was waiting for him. He shook King's hand warmly. They sat down on two large comfortable chairs, with Mr. Schmidt the translator on Hitler's left. King had brought Norman Rogers's biography of him as a gift for Hitler. As he presented it, he opened the book to show Hitler photographs of his childhood and drew attention to the fact that he had grown up in Berlin, Ontario. Hitler smiled warmly and leafed through the volume. Before King departed, Hitler gave him in turn, as he described it, "a beautiful silver mounted picture of himself, personally inscribed." King was deeply touched by this gesture of "friendship."
The discussion was scheduled for 30 minutes, yet lasted an additional 45. Once or twice, Hitler's secretary reminded him that the allotted time had ended, but Hitler ignored him. The two men spoke about a wide range of topics, with the noticeable exception of the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies, which King would never have dared raise lest he insult his host. (King, however, did manage to let Hitler know that he had "the largest majority a prime minister had had in Canada.") The conversation mainly focused on the European situation, the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, the need for German rearmament and the grave consequences of war. "My support comes from the people," Hitler told King, "[and] the people don't want war." King, in turn, reaffirmed what he had stressed to [Hitler confidant and senior Nazi politician Hermann] Goering: "That if the time ever came when any part of the [British] Empire felt that the freedom which we all enjoyed was being impaired through any act of aggression on the part of a foreign country, it would see that all would join together to protect the freedom which we were determined not to be imperiled."
In Paris a few days later, King repeated the same line for the press, which upset Skelton and the external affairs staff since it implied that Canada would defend the empire's interests and freedom no matter what the circumstances. That was too sweeping a statement for Skelton to stomach, and he gently told the prime minister so.
Like many others who came into contact with Hitler before the Second World War, King was plainly in awe of him, as is clear in the approximate 7,400-word moment-by-moment assessment of the meeting he dictated to [secretary Edward A.] Pickering for his diary. He praised Hitler more than once: "I spoke... of what I had seen of the constructive work of his regime, and said that I hoped that that would continue... That it was bound to be followed in other countries to the great advantage of mankind." To this, Hitler "spoke very modestly" of his accomplishments. He also felt compelled to tell Hitler "how all of our ministers and I, myself, had been prejudiced against him on what we thought were narrow views and nationalistic and imperialistic policies, but that we had all come to feel quite differently and believed policies toward European countries would be wisely administered in his hand."
He left the palace feeling contented, satisfied and optimistic that war still might be averted. King's insight into Hitler is difficult to swallow today. Yet there is no denying the fact that in 1937 Hitler was hailed as a charismatic, if dangerous, visionary, somewhat as Mackenzie King portrayed him.
"To understand Hitler, one has to remember his limited opportunities in his early life, his imprisonment etc. It is truly marvellous what he has attained unto himself through his self education... He has much the same kind of composed exterior with a deep emotional nature within. His face is much more prepossessing than his pictures would give the impression of. It is not that of a fiery, over-strained nature, but of a calm, passive man, deeply and thoughtfully in earnest. His skin was smooth; his face did not present lines of fatigue or weariness; his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicate keen perception and profound sympathy. He looked most direct at me in our talks together... he then sat quite composed, and spoke straight ahead, not hesitating for a word... He has a very nice, sweet, and one could see, how particularly humble folk would come to have a profound love for the man... As I talked with him, I could not but think of Joan of Arc. He is distinctly mystic."
Even as the situation in Europe worsened in 1938, King held on to this numinous image of Hitler. Indeed, he convinced himself that the führer was a fellow spiritualist, guided, as he was, by the spirit of his mother. "No one who does not understand this relationship — the worship of the highest purity in a mother can understand this power to be derived therefrom — or the guidance. I believe the world will yet come to see a very great man... in Hitler."