"Canada Came of Age"

Herewith the dramatic inside story of Canada's behindthe-scenes leadership at the London Conference of Commonwealth Premiers

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1944

"Canada Came of Age"

Herewith the dramatic inside story of Canada's behindthe-scenes leadership at the London Conference of Commonwealth Premiers

BLAIR FRASER July 1 1944

"Canada Came of Age"

Herewith the dramatic inside story of Canada's behindthe-scenes leadership at the London Conference of Commonwealth Premiers



LONDON (By Cable)—If mankind succeeds this time in its struggle against suicide, if this time the structure of enduring peace is not merely lueprinted but actually built, history may well ecord that an essential part of the foundation was aid in London in May, 1944. Five nations of the race, tradition, that fathered free and stable government aere wrought together to create a free and stable orld.

Two vital decisions were taken at London. The rst outlined the general architecture of a postwar orld organization as the Commonwealth nations ould see it. In shaping that decision Canada, like íe other Dominions, played only a passive role— ving approval to proposals Britain was prepared to ibmit to the other major powers.

But the second decision, equally important, itermined how and in what degree the British ommonwealth would support that world organiza3n--whether it would support it fully, unreservedly, K with imperial reservations.

^ The choice was for unreserved support.

In that decision the Dominions played a full part, añada, whose support in the past has been steadfast fß War, but not always steadfast for peace, assumed

the responsibilities of full partnership, and even in some degree—be it said in all humility—of leadership.

Two brief months ago Canada appeared in many eyes to be in the imperial doghouse. True our war effort was admired, our fighting men well-liked, our mutual aid appreciated. But these were merely an ally’s share of the transient struggle, differing in no essential from the contributions of the United States. These things would pass. It was the dream of thousands, perhaps millions, to build now something that wouldn’t pass—the elusive spirit that unites us today—and hold it in a vessel of new contriving.

To this effort they said Canada had nothing to bring. Worse, she was a dissident, a “naysayer.” We were the sand in the gearbox, the skeleton at the imperial feast. We were the reason why the British Commonwealth couldn’t look to speak with one voice to the world.

In Canada, and throughout the Commonwealth, this notion found wide acceptance.

At Ottawa predictions were two to a penny, as late as April 1, that Prime Minister King wouldn’t attend the conference of Commonwealth prime ministers, if indeed the conference were held at all. Westminster had debated Commonwealth unity just before the premiers arrived—the first speaker made three references to Canada, two of them prefixed by the word “even.” “Even Canada,” he said sadly, “cannot afford to ignore facts.” That quotation was fairly typical of most of the speakers in the debate.

The misconception stemmed from two sources. One was Canada’s record of isolationism. Canada was remembered for the slogan “no commitments,” and also as the country whose delegate at Geneva in 1923 moved the resolution emasculating the obligations imposed by the League Covenant.

The other source was a division of opinion within the Commonwealth, erroneously supposed to represent a cleft between the Commonwealth nations. This division itself Is real enough. In other forms it exists throughout the world. In the British Commonwealth it separates the internationalists on one hand from the group believing in a strong Empire first.

To the internationalist, collective security must be

wide open—inclusive, not exclusive, in Winston

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Churchill’s phrase of 37 years ago. The internationalist wants the Commonwealth to stand together, yas; but only as all good will nations stand together in a common endeavor. lie wants them linked as today by blood and friendship, loyalty and tradition, and by an intimacy of collaboration neither they nor any other group of nations have ever reached in all history. But he wants no other exclusion than a kinship which cannot be shared. And he feels that if any attempt is made to give a tangible shape to this fact of unity or to create a constitutional machinery for its expression it will have the effect of creating suspicion in other lands and perhaps defeating the larger aim.

The Issues—And the Men

TO A strong Empire man this isn’t good enough.

He wants collective security, yes; but he doesn’t trust it altogether. He doesn’t bet his shirt on it. He wants to take out an imperial insurance against the failure of the world security system. He would build the British Commonwealth into a league within a league organized on the caucus principle with every member state speaking its mind in private, but pledged to maintain in public a united front on all international problems.

This man doesn’t concede that a strongly integrated Empire is incompatible with a world security system. But even if it were he wouldn’t change his mind—if he must choose he’d rather have a strong Empire than an open league.

He looks at the great land massés of the Soviet on one hand and the United States on the other, with their enormous resources and hundreds of millions of people, and he wants Britain’s voice at the council table to be as loud and as strong as theirs. He wants Britain to speak not for the little Island in the North Sea, with fewer than 50,000,000 people on it, but for an Empire on which the sun never sets. He is perfectly sincere in saying that he doesn’t want to set up this organization of forces “against” othei powers—he doesn’t want to fight them or even dispute with them if he can help it. But he does want to meet them on a basis approaching as closely as possible equality of material strength.

It was widely expected that these two viewpoints would clash head on at the London conference. It was the outstanding development of the conference and perhaps the salvation of the Commonwealth that they didn’t.

For Canada had made her choice publicly and irrevocably. She had chosen internationalism. Prime Minister King stated Canada’s position in unmistakable terms in January after the Halifax speech at Toronto had heated the issue of imperial relations to a red-hot pitch. Canadians, whether they liked it or not—and many didn’t—knew where their country’s spokesman would stand in the councils at London. And many thought—some in hope, some in fear—that the rest of the Commonwealth would be solid on the other side. Looking at the form chart, at the personalities of the men at the conference table, it was easy to build a case for this belief: Winston Churchill. The war’s great figure, the very symbol of a courage that throve on the Dunkirk disaster. But also Churchill the statesmanpolitician with a 40-year record as an old-line Tory Imperialist, and proud of it. Churchill, who didn’t become the King’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. Churchill, who with Lloyd George composed the famous press release of 22 years ago whereby the Dominion prime ministers learned from the newspapers that their Dominions had been invited to send troops to fight Turkey at Chanak.

Jan Smuts. Prime Minister of a Dominion where 40% of the voters are solidly republican and antiimperial, but himself a philosopher whose personal creed, which he calls holism, is intensely preoccupied with the oneness of mankind and the universe. By personal temperament a centralizer and a man whose cunning is as formidable as his wisdom—still known to his South African political opponents as slim (Crafty) “Jannie.”

Peter Fraser. Steady man of soDer speech and clear thought, who appeared very sure he bespoke the viewpoint of his little island Dominion—the Dominion that recruited 12,000 troops in five days for the Chanak fight which never came off.

John Curtin. The youngest of the five Prime Ministers and the least known quantity. Two years ago he was speaking sharp words of Britain’s Pacific strategy and pointedly appealing to the United States for help. But he got off the plane at London to proclaim himself the spokesman of

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"Canada Came of Ase"

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“seven million Britishers” in the Antipodes and it was known that he came to the conference as the author and advocate of a plan ftw a new Empire machinery which was everywhere assumed, before the conference began, to be in line with the one-voice principle of imperial foreign policy.

Mackenzie King. The man who proved his courage not by any act of war but by standing for Parliament in North York on an anti-conscription platform in 1917. The man whose name W’as associated with the Canadian slogan, “no commitments”—who for 25 years at home and abroad had been called a panderer to isolationism. True lie was also the war Prime Minister under whom Canada had produced a war effort that had astonished the Commonwealth.

The British knew that. They knew too Canada’s unity problem and understood what Churchill meant when he said “there was no other man, and perhaps no other career any man could have followed, to lead Canada united into the heart of this world-shaking struggle.” They cheered that tribute sincerely. Blit it was easy to forget all this and remember “no commitments.” It was all the easier because Mr. King had never been personally popular, especially with the overseas troops, and Britons thus hear plausible reasons for believing Canada to be a fighting British appendage that somehow keeps electing an isolationist head.

And, of course, it was isolationism they saw—not internationalism. They saw the record of the twenties and the thirties, long black and unforgotten— even the success of the air training plan had not entirely erased the memory of its first rejection.

You can see why so many thought these men would split four to one on the basic postwar issue. That impression was widespread in Canada before we left, and we found it equally widespread here before the conference opened. During the debate in Parliament already quoted, more than 30 speakers partook and only two or three displayed any comprehension of the Canadian position today. The majority of the British Press took it for granted that the conference was aimed at building a new imperial machinery, voiced strong hope that this goal would be reached and hinted with polite concern that Canada might sabotage it.

The Australian Position

This attitude lasted three days after the conference began. Then it was extinguished by the revelation that it was bast'd on a complete misconception. Curiously enough the situation clarified itself publicly before the matter even came up at the closed sessions of the conference proper. It came out at a press conference that Mr. Curtin gave and at another by Mr. Fraser the following day.

At first hearing, Curtin’s pronouncement sounded like the most militant statement favoring imperial integration any statesman had made for decades. He wanted his imperial secretariat and if any other Dominion didn’t like it: “I will go on with what I can get. If 1 can’t have four brethren, well, three are better than none.”

But when we got home we found copies of a prepared press statement which cast a different light on the motivation of the Australian attitude. With almost open bitterness it recalled the Singapore disaster and the collapse of the whole Pacific defense line at a time when Australia had decided to

send practically all her troops abroad. Later we heard of other roots for Australia’s disquiet. For instance there was the Cairo Conference, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang settled the future of half the Pacific, while Australia, whose interests are wholly in the Pacific, was not consulted. Then there was the lingering fear openly admitted by some Australians that the war-weary Commonwealth might relax its efforts and think the war was over when Germany went downmight even negotiate peace with Japan instead of fighting to the bitter end.

All this didn’t lead Australia to want a separate Commonwealth—quite the reverse. Australia is the strongest partisan of closer, firmer Commonwealth relations. But the root of this attitude is partly fear; and its real objective is greater security and a jgreater voice in imperial foreign policy. Australia wants the one voice in the Pacific to be her own—on those terms she will let Britain’s voice be the one voice in Europe.

The next day Mr. Fraser met the press. The assumption had been that New Zealand and Australia saw eye to eye on Commonwealth and foreign policy — an assumption apparently shared by the Australians themselves. This was especially true since the two Dominions had signed an agreement in January setting up a regional consultation system on security and colonial policy—an agreement which in Australian eyes, at least, was very important and perhaps a model of the Commonwealth machinery they hoped to create.

Mr. Fraser shattered these illusions. Asked what he thought of the Australian proposal for an imperial secretariat he said in effect: “I’m from

Missouri. If it will really bring closer relations I’m for it, but I want to be shown.” To realize just how flat a turndown this was for the Australian plan you have to remember that Fraser knew all about the project, had even signed the Australian-New Zealand agreement whose lines might be interpreted as similar. As the Air Force boys say, “He’d had it.”

But the fact was that New Zealand had been watching developments with a sceptical eye since the January agreements. A man who should know told us that in three months no use had been made of the vaunted consultation machinery — New Zealand hadn’t heard from Australia at all, despite the fact that both were coming to London presumably to discuss everything under the sun. Australia, according to this report, did no consulting to find out what New Zealand’s attitude would be —which confirmed New Zealand’s suspicion that any “one-voice system” in the Pacific would make her an insignificant tail to an Australian kite and New Zealand simply wasn’t having any.

Fraser made this clear in polite general terms. Asked if the one-voice system would work he said with great emphasis, “No, that couldn’t be done. That’s quite impossible. I know New Zealand’s problems as well as anyone else. I don’t know Australia’s problems and couldn’t represent Australia. Neither could Curtin represent New Zealand. The idea that one Prime Minister could represent both Dominions can just be washed out.”

Smuts didn’t meet the press here and his public speeches until after the conference were phrased in general terms. But he had spoken to his own Parliament in March, getting little publicity abroad but clearing up misunderstandings regarding the address he delivered in Britain last November. Then he had proposed a British leadership for a European

Federation and was erroneously thought to have been advocating Empire integration on the lines of the Halifax speech. In the March address, which was part of a debate, he stated South Africa’s official position, which was the same as Canada’s—namely, favoring close collaboration within the Commonwealth but no federative machinery.

Britain’s Reaction

And what of Britain? Where did the mother country stand in this debate on the structure of her Commonwealth and Empire?

Here the one-voice idea was nothing new—in fact it was traditional. The sacrifice of the diplomatic unity of the Commonwealth was the last and most reluctant sacrifice to the growth and maturity of the Dominions. Many would still endorse the words of Lord Curzon voiced before the 1923 Imperial Conference: “We have to see how far by consolidation, by improvement of communications, we can develop common policy on international matters so that the Foreign Minister of this country when he speaks may speak not for Great Britain alone but for the whole British Empire . . . Think of the addition to his power and strength if, in speaking, he knows, and the world knows, there lie behind him the sentiments and might of the British Empire as a whole.”

Unquestionably this view was widely held among the British public—or among the small section of the British public that ever thinks about the Commonwealth at all. Unquestionably it had a considerable reflection on Parliament. There is even reason to believe that it is held in some degree by some members of the British Government itself and prior to the conference there were some, not altogether uninformed or unjustified, who thought the issue might arise.

As already explained, however, Australia’s position wasn’t quite what the British one-voicers had expected, although it might have gone down with some of them. With the Government, however, it had no chance. Neither the Foreign Office nor the Dominions Office were willing to contemplate for one minute such an abdication of their functions as a prior commitment to back up any Australian position. That game was not worth the candle.

Moreover, Britain’s real spokesman at the conference table was not Churchill, who is an impeccably impartial chairman, but Cranborne, the Dominions Secretary. Scion of Cecils, one of the oldest families of Britain’s aristocracy, Cranborne is a true democrat, internationally as] well as nationally. He made a tremendous impression on the Dominion delegates, not only with his skill as a diplomat, which was effectively concealed behind a diffident almost apologetic manner, but also with his grasp of their problems and beliefs. Cranborne is one of the few Englishmen who really understand the concept of Dominion status. And it was known that his views on Commonwealth and international policy were shared by the man voted the next prime minister by public opinion poll — Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

Officially, imperial relations was the last item on the agenda and was discussed one afternoon only. Unofficially it was learned the subject came up indirectly on other occasions in connection with foreign policy and postwar organization, so that by the time the formal discussion opened its result was a foregone conclusion. Each time, according to the report, Smuts and Fraser both warmly supported Canada in advocating an international as opposed to the Empire approach.

Britain shared this view. In so far as the opposing idea was concerned it was a lone idea — paradoxically the advocacy of a chorus had become a solo.

This was the situation when, near the end of the conference’s second week, Prime Minister King made the position explicit in his address to both Houses of Parliament. Luck was with him on the timing. The speech, which a fortnight before would have been defiant, a week before controversial, had become the keynote.

Moving Scene

To a Canadian it was a moving scene as both Houses assembled to hear and honor Canada’s spokesman. And so far as one can judge the sense of the meeting they appeared receptive and approving to what the Prime Minister said. On the straight Commonwealth issue he was firm and frank, “Let us beware lest in changing form we lose substance.” They took that in silence, but the next few sentences, quoting Churchill, that “Empire should be inclusive not exclusive,” won applause, and more applause sounded when he turned from negation to affirmation:

“The only way to maintain world unity is to base it on principles that can be universally applied . . . Surely it is ours to help fashion a new world order in which social security and human welfare become a part of the inheritance of mankind.”

True there was still “no commitment.” But the spirit of the pledge was there and a week later it took firm shape. Canada’s was the first of four Dominion signatures on a document which for the Dominions combines and advances the principles of the Atlantic Charter and the Moscow Declaration. There is no escape from the promises of the declaration of London:

“We are determined to work with all peace-loving peoples in order that tyranny and aggression he removed or if need be struck down wherever it raises its head.”

It is idle to pretend that the London conference could build a new world order. Russia, the United States, China and the rest of the United Nations are indispensable partners to any successful effort. The possibility of failure still ahead shouldn’t be minimized by easy optimism.

But if the London conference lacked the power to build a new order it did have the power to wreck it. If we had refused to accept or offer co-operation the new league would have been stillborn. And if we had placed imperial above world loyalties the result might well have been the same. For the withdrawal of the United States or Russia would be equally fatal and there is good reason to suppose that the United States, at least, might have had a much harder fight with its own isolationists had the Commonwealth taken any other turning.

We chose to gamble for peace, and Canada backed the choice to the full. The answers of 1923 or 1937 would have meant failure for ourselves and the world. The answer of 1944 lit the torch for mankind—the same torch we failed to hold high the last time. At London in 1944 Canada came of age.


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