William Lyon Mackenzie King was the grandson of one of Canada’s most famous rebels and heir to our strongest twentieth-century political brand. Born in 1874, he is best known for his long run as prime minister (twenty-two years), for his devotion to his mother, Isabel King (mentioned thousands of times in his diaries), and for his “double life,” which included a passion for the occult. He would live until 1950, and many observers credit him as the architect of an independent Canadian foreign policy.
For those who care deeply about Canada’s role on the global stage, Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators will be a difficult, uncomfortable read. It attacks conventional wisdom, while delivering an excruciating account of how one of our most dominant political leaders — inheritor of Laurier’s “sunny ways” and mentor of St. Laurent and Pearson — cravenly coddled dictators.
Roy MacLaren — a former diplomat, Liberal cabinet minister, and high commissioner to London — shows that Mackenzie King wasn’t just grossly immoral and strategically lost: he actually admired Hitler and Mussolini, right up to the eve of war. Unlike the U.K.’s Neville Chamberlain, who at least despised Hitler privately, King doted upon the Führer, both privately and in his scandalously fawning June 1937 visit to Berlin, which must have cemented Hitler’s conviction that the British Empire’s democratic leaders were blind or indifferent to his murderous intentions. Even after Hitler had violated the Munich Agreement, King was reportedly “aghast” at the guarantee of Polish sovereignty given by Chamberlain and the French leadership, made public March 31, 1939. Such assurances went against King’s stubborn “no commitments” isolationism.
This is a mind-boggling story, which MacLaren structures around four stages of King’s descent into full-blown appeasement. In this unvarnished telling, King’s personal eccentricities do not drown out the nuts and bolts of a high-stakes chapter in Canadian history, which saw us blind to unprecedented threats and mostly unprepared for war. We are left with a clear sense of how important it is in a major democracy for political leaders to have a clue about what is going on beyond our borders.
In 1908, after eight years as Canada’s deputy minister of labour, thirty-three-year-old Mackenzie King was hand-picked by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to be his go-between with London. With Japan’s prestige soaring after its victory over Russia, in 1904, and Westminster cementing a new alliance with Tokyo, the president sought to stop Japanese immigration in its tracks — a Rough Rider version of “Build the Wall!” — this time aimed at the Pacific coast of both the U.S. and Canada. But Roosevelt wanted Britain to twist Japan’s arm.
King was the conduit for an ultimatum. Both he and Roosevelt had been at Harvard, albeit almost two decades apart. In the febrile, polarizing climate of clashing nationalisms that preceded the First World War, later triggering its monumental slaughter and multiple revolutions, it was logical for Roosevelt to choose King, who argued in his doctoral thesis that the “desire to restrict immigration from the Orient” was more than natural, as well as that it was “highly necessary on political and national grounds” that “Canada should remain a white man’s country.”
Many of King’s friends and allies shared this view, including Robert Macpherson of Vancouver, MP during the city’s anti-Asian riots in 1907, and the Canadian-born British MP Hamar Greenwood, who had studied with King at the University of Toronto. If Britain could not persuade Tokyo to act, Roosevelt was prepared to use force against Japan. (He also made thinly veiled threats against Britain itself, which King feared would cost Canadian territory.) Eager to pre-empt a showdown, London secured a “gentlemen’s agreement” and the Continuous Journey Regulation, which slowed Japanese immigration to a trickle.
King so relished his role that, while in London, he also sought restrictions on Indian immigration to Canada — a policy that had not been on Roosevelt’s wish list. Arthur Balfour, Edward Grey, Winston Churchill, and Leo Amery (Greenwood’s brother-in-law) were only too happy to oblige. This led, among countless other disastrous consequences, directly to the turning away of the Komagata Maru in 1914. Tighter restrictions on African, Asian, Caribbean, and Jewish immigration, among others, would follow for decades, until the Diefenbaker government “eliminated overt racial discrimination from Canadian immigration policy,” as the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 puts it, in 1962.
After doing Roosevelt’s dirty work, King was elected to Parliament for the first time in the fall of 1908. The following year, he became Canada’s first minister of labour and received his PhD. King lost his seat in 1911, but he would succeed Laurier as leader of the Liberal Party in 1919. By then, he was notably disengaged on international issues, even though Canada had earned a seat at the Versailles negotiations that would end the war. The former deputy minister, who had eagerly restricted immigration, was unenthusiastic about the League of Nations by the time he became prime minister for the first time, in 1921. A year later, he achieved one of his few foreign policy successes during the Chanak Crisis — when the U.K. and Turkey were on the brink of war — by asserting Canada’s autonomy in foreign policy, later formalized in the 1931 Statute of Westminster.
King’s ignorance of world events was self-inflicted: he refused to read British diplomatic cables and kept Canada’s embassy network tiny. As a result, he had little or no grasp of the forces already at work in the 1920s that would put Nazism, Stalinism, Italian Fascism, Japanese militarism, and Chinese Communism on a collision course with the world’s democracies — costing over 100 million lives by the end of the Korean War, in 1953.
The second stage of King’s decline into total appeasement involved Mussolini. One month after the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which “outlawed aggressive warfare,” the prime minister made a “private visit” to Rome — his only stop in Europe beyond London, Paris, and Geneva. He had visited Italy twice before, but, as MacLaren puts it, this time “there certainly was no mistaking his enthusiasm for Mussolini and his fascist regime.” After a morning call on Il Duce in the Palazzo Venezia, King wrote gushingly of Italy’s strongman, describing him as “a truly remarkable man of force, of genius, fine purpose, a great patriot.”
This encounter set up the third stage of King’s accession to isolationism. In August 1930, his government fell, replaced by R. B. Bennett’s Conservatives. Bennett was still prime minister in early October 1935, when Mussolini, a latecomer to the European scramble for Africa, invaded Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), lumbering the doomed League of Nations with yet another crisis. Bennett was inclined to join France and Britain in sanctioning Mussolini, but he lost the general election to King just a few weeks later. With the government in transition, Canada’s League of Nations delegation sat at the table without clear instructions.
Walter Riddell — a civil servant from Stratford, Ontario, who had been at the League since 1924 — opted for principle by suggesting any sanctions regime would be incomplete until oil, coal, iron, and steel were included. This “Canadian proposal” sparked a brief flurry of excitement that the League might be growing a backbone. But it was not to be. King quickly returned to form and ordered Riddell to back down. Britain and France soon agreed to the Hoare-Laval Pact, allowing Mussolini a free hand to force Emperor Haile Selassie into exile. The League’s credibility never recovered.
This was a dark moment in world history: Fascism was rising in Italy and Spain. Ukraine was dealing with the aftermath of Stalin’s terror-famine, while brutal purges, gulag labour camps, and forced relocations multiplied across the Soviet Union. Japan was expanding its imperialist hold on China beyond Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Hebei, preparing for full-scale invasion in 1937. Germany was in the throes of galloping Nazification, industrial-scale propaganda, and Gleichschaltung, consolidating Hitler’s absolute hold on power. MacLaren argues that King’s ambivalence toward punitive action against Mussolini helped mark “the end of Abyssinia and, except on paper, the effective end of the League of Nations.” Perhaps not surprisingly, when Hitler occupied the Rhineland in spring 1936, King instructed his government to “say nothing and do nothing.”
Two years later, King was back in Europe to meet the Nazi leaders Göring, Hess, and Neurath, before being ushered into Hitler’s presence by the British ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, whom MacLaren describes as the “arch-appeaser.” King and Hitler met at noon on June 27, 1937, a moment that should live in infamy in our political annals.
By the time the Canadian prime minister left, he was convinced there would be no war. He recorded Hitler as saying, “Nothing that can be said to me will ever cause me to commit Germany to go to war.” King found in Hitler a “calm, passive man, deeply and thoughtfully in earnest,” whose actions could all be explained by the “unjust” terms of the Treaty of Versailles. King drew these grossly naive conclusions one year after the reoccupation of the Rhineland — mere months before Hitler’s Hossbach Memorandum articulated war aims for “the preservation of the German race,” including the annexation of Czechoslovakia and Austria.
King’s disastrous meeting with Hitler was the fourth and most egregious stage of his comprehensive failure to grasp reality. In his blind enthusiasm for coddling Europe’s madmen, King did more than badly misread events. By backing down over Ethiopia and reaching out to Nazis, already determined to subjugate continental Europe, King fed Hitler’s view that a declining British Empire would remain on the sidelines of war. He also reinforced Chamberlain’s instinct to ride the appeasement train through to its final destination at Munich. Would a more skeptical take on Germany’s dictator, or a principled refusal to meet with him in mid-1937, have made any difference to the ultimate shape of the war? Perhaps, perhaps not: such retrospective thought experiments are ultimately futile. MacLaren’s great achievement is to show how we blindly missed our last, best opportunities to blunt, confront, and derail, in whole or in part, Hitler’s demonic plans — when few had discerned the threat’s full scale.
This is a fair, clear-eyed account that does not set out to condemn King. Instead it dispassionately chronicles the common denominator in his reprehensible approach to immigration, his “muddle” over the invasion of Ethiopia, and his long infatuation with dictators: Canadian isolationism.
King was desperate to avoid global responsibility, leaving him not a leader but an epic follower, who was ultimately a prisoner of decisions taken by others in the capitals of dictators and misguided allies with their own delusions of imperial grandeur. As a result, Canada exercised less strategic influence in the Second World War than it had in the First, when Borden, Currie, and Holt triggered major policy adjustments within the Imperial War Cabinet. King did the opposite: the pre-1939 appeaser became a wartime wallflower who left the big decisions to Winston Churchill and, later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while posing nervously with them for the cameras at Quebec.
The Canadians who played truly strategic roles in the war effort — including the press baron Lord Beaverbrook and the spymaster William Stephenson — did so as part of Churchill’s team. As the only major Allied leader in office for the entire conflict, King abdicated a unique opportunity to do much more. The sad and dispiriting legacy of his inaction had consequences that lasted well into the post-war era.
On the whole, Mackenzie King in the Age of Dictators is refreshingly revisionist. MacLaren demolishes the persistent myth that the Department of External Affairs inaugurated a golden age in Canadian foreign policy before the war. In 1937, for example, there were eleven officers at its Ottawa headquarters, only four more than in 1929. Undersecretary Oscar Skelton, the biographer of Laurier who steered bare-bones diplomacy for fifteen years up to 1941, reinforced King’s worst instincts. As MacLaren notes, “Skelton would have had an isolationist Canada shelter behind an isolationist United States in an extension of the Monroe doctrine to Canada.” Left to Skelton and his ilk, Canada might have simply followed the American lead and not entered the war until December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor — instead of joining Britain and France when they declared war on Germany in September 1939 following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, an invasion joined from the east by Stalin sixteen days later.
One glaring omission here is King’s policy toward Lenin and Stalin. This is a recurring problem: even the first volume of John Hilliker’s official history of the Department of External Affairs, covering 1909 to 1946, barely mentions the Soviet Union, except for a brief account of the Gouzenko Affair, which King also bungled. The bitter reality is that King was indifferent to events abroad — unless they involved the Harvard Club, the White House, or spiritualism.
At its peak in Canada, around 1930, spiritualism counted at best a few thousand serious followers. But the movement had prominent Canadian roots: Margaret and Kate Fox, the sisters who first reported rapping noises in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, had been born across Lake Ontario in Consecon, Prince Edward County. King was their most influential Canadian convert. That such a long-serving prime minister considered advice from the dead more useful than debate with the living illustrates his overriding preference for political instinct over painstaking analysis. As MacLaren shows, this predilection had dire consequences: disastrous decisions, repeatedly blessed by dubious punditry and public opinion as expressed through successive elections.
In our current consternation at the interplay between political polarization and vacuous policy making, have we forgotten the disasters of the twentieth century? Today Canada has a prime minister who has expressed admiration for “China’s basic dictatorship,” who considered Fidel Castro a “larger-than-life figure,” and who explained Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as sour grapes for an Olympic hockey loss. While today’s context is quite different, the growing influence of dictators genuinely parallels the developments of the 1930s, with far too many countries willing to “knuckle under” or avert their gaze. Is Canada drifting back toward a policy of “no commitments”? Are isolationism and appeasement back to stay in 2019? These are questions that deserve serious, sustained, and urgent debate — before it’s too late to stop the bullies, as it was by 1935.
Canadians may downplay the need for such a debate, just as they have long soft-pedalled, made excuses, or simply chuckled over the failings of our longest-serving prime minister. But anyone looking for clarity on today’s international situation would do well to study King’s four major stops on the road to disastrous appeasement: his anti-immigration diplomacy, his admiration of Mussolini, his emasculation of the League of Nations, and his macabre meeting with Hitler. King’s policy to “keep Canada united, and avoid controversies” gave him political longevity, but his disregard for true international leadership made us complicit in appeasing dictators, while ignoring genocide, invasion, and war.
Canadians should read this book — and buy copies for friends and family.
Chris Alexander served as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.