MACKENZIE KING and the “REVOLT” OF THE ARMY
Was the Canadian Army on the verge of an uprising in 1944? King said it was and sold himself and his Cabinet on a conscription policy in which he never believed. Here, told for the first time, is one of the strangest episodes in Canadian history
THE MOST critical thirty-five days in the political life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, and perhaps in the life of the Canadian nation, began on October 19, 1944, and ended on November 22. In those thirty-five days, after reaching the edge of personal ruin and national chaos, after resisting conscription until the eleventh hour, with a cabinet rebellion on his hands, with hostility toward his government growing by the hour in both French and English Canada, King accepted a limited form of conscription and induced divided country to abide by his decision.
Up to a point, the story has been often told. The parts already known are as bizarre and dramatic as anything in our history. The part that isn’t known is as strange as anything in fiction.
For overnight, at the height of The Crisis, on the eve of ^ decision he could no longer postpone, Mackenzie King either saw or thought he saw, or pretended to see, the Canadian Army
on the verge of seizing political power through a sit-down strike or an open uprising. Much of the evidence suggests he invented this threat by self-hypnosis to save his government, his nation and himself. The evidence that he used it to justify his abrupt about-face and to induce a reluctant cabinet to continue in his support is incontrovertible.
By the summer of 1944 King thought the conscription crisis was already a thing of the past. In the plebiscite of 1942 he had induced the nation to accept the famous formula: Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription. Actually the plebiscite had no military significance for him. It was solely political, calculated at once to save his government from a rupture and the nation from a racial schism such as even his great mentor Laurier had been unable to bridge twenty-five years earlier. He had no intention of enforcing compulsory overseas service under any conditions. Only a few months earlier, moreover, he had had tea with General Montgomery in England as
^HE article which begins on these pages is a condensed extract from what the editors of Maclean’s believe to be one of the most important and engrossing books ever written in this country. Bruce Hutchison's The Incredible Canadian is nominally a biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King. As a biography it would easily qualify as the most brilliant work of one of our most brilliant writers. But
it is far more than that. It is u political, social and economic history of Canada over three decisive decades, built around its central figure, and from it emerges not only a perceptive and detailed portrait of King himself but the dramatic portrait of an era
The Incredible Canadian will be published by Longmans, Green in November. Maclean's will publish another extract in its next issue.
Still fighting off conscription on Nov. 1, 1944, King fired Ralston. In one reckless but pokerfaced gamble he risked his whole career.
Montgomery was preparing the invasion of Normandy; Montgomery had assured him the war in Europe would be over before the end of the vear. Now, with the landings well launched, and with the Canadian Army’s headquarters and overseas staffs repeatedly assuring him that the army faced no serious manpower problems. King had good reason to hope the conscription issue would not arise again.
In August an interesting military' signal from London crossed the desk of King's Defense Minister, Layton Ralston. Among all the innumerable colonels in Ottawa only Ralston was The Colonel, and that name described his unique place in the nation’s life. The pale and haggard man with the massive chin, the limitless patience, the warm heart and the devout belief in God was the custodian of the Canadian soldier’s faith in the government and the nation’s personal guarantee that the war would be fought and won. As such he was essential to King and King knew it.
So far. Ralston had trusted King. A man of simple and direct mind he had. during the plebiscite crisis, withdrawn his initial doubts —and also withdrawn a resignation from the Cabinet—and accepted at face value the promise that conscription would be used ‘‘if necessary.”
The signal Ralston received from London on that August dayin 1944 did not at first strike him as of great importance. He read and initialled it but did not show it to the Cabinet. Ralston’s officers in England informed him merely that a shortage in the army reinforcement pool yvould be made up within two weeks.
No wonder Ralston failed to grasp the signal’s meaning. His staff had told him and was still telling him that no reinforcement problem existed. All casualties would be replaced from the volunteer force now in training. The military' experts had miscalculated the rate of casualties and the reinforcements available to replace them, but Ralston had no means of guessing that in Ottawa.
On Sept. 18 Major Conn Smythe, MC, the hockey magnate, who had come home, wounded, from the war, told the newspapers that the reinforcements now joining the Canadian Army in Europe were "green, inexperienced and poorly trained” and that, as a result, casualties were unnecessarily high.
The Smythe interview angered Canada, disturbed King and staggered Ralston. Were the real facts being suppressed by the army command overseas or the staff at home? Ralston decided to find out for himself at first hand.
In Italy Ralston was asked by the officer in charge of reinforcements if he wanted the official version or the truth. Shocked at this opening question Ralston replied he wanted the truth. He was told the shortage of reinforcements was desperate. The figures proved it. After studying them he tteyv to the northern front and found the same answer at the Canadian headquarters there. In Brussels he learned that men wounded two and three times were being sent back into the line. The Canadians were to be used in clearing the west bank of the Rhine, where they would certainly face still heavier casualties, far beyond replenishment by the available reinforcements.
As an old soldier himself, Ralston was dumbfounded. .As a minister who had l>een misled, he was outraged. As a man long overworked and now self-accused of letting his armv down, he was sick with anger and anxiety. He flew home on Oct. 18. In the evening he gave King a rough outline of the facts as discovered in Europe. From that night onward The Crises spun hour by hour to its climax. A record of the next month reads almost like the stage directions of a play, with an ending almost lieyond lielief.
As summarized below the record is unofficial, unauthorized and. by the nature of the events involved, can never lie completely documented by anyone. Probably there are a few pertinent private documents in existence, as well as Mackenzie King's diary. But the documents cannot tell the story liecause it was contained mainly in unrecorded conversations; the diary will tell it from King's viewpoint only.
What follows represents the recollections of seven major participants, three of whom have since died, among them King himself who provided the most vital passages. Actually, much of this queer business is on the public record of parliament the principle of cabinet secrecy thrown to the winds in such fragmentary and confusing fashion that few have bothered to put it together.
Ralston re[>orted to the War Committee of the Cabinet his findings in Euro|>e. Immediate reinforcements were needed, he said, and could lie secured only by the full use of conscription to send the home-defense draftees overseas.
King listened in silence. He understood little of war on the military side, he distrusted the military mind, but he knew a political catastrophe when he saw it. And this clearly had the makings of a catastrophe for him, his Government and the nation, larger than any since Confederation. As usual, instead of meeting it head-on he attempted to divert it.
As soon as Ralston finished his report King solemnly warned the Cabinet that conscription would split the country irreparably for a generation at least. In any case, he said, conscription was not practical, even from the immediate military standpoint. Before it could lie invoked parliament must l>e called, probably an election would result from parliament's division, action on reinforcements would lie delayed for at least two months and might then lie too late.
This statement amazed Ralston. As he had feared, but never quite believed. King was slipping out of the bargain made in 1942. Wit-hout losing his tenqier Ralston reminded King of the promise that if conscription proved necessary it would lie imposed instantly by order-in-council, without a debate in parliament. Conscription could lie applied in two days at most.
Louis St. Laurent iwho now had liecome. as the accepted leader of his people, the fulcrum of The Crisis in Quebec as Ralston was in English-speaking Canada at once expressed strong sympathy with Ralston’s views. He saw the need of reinforcements. But it was late in the day. he said, to change the Continuer/ on page 57
On \ov 22, inth McKaughton tilling Ralston s shot's. King about-turned and acceded to conscription. II as this deleat, or victory?
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 9
Government’s policy. While King had promised conscription “if necessary St. Laurent had taken this to mean “if necessary to win the war,” whereas Ralston seemed to interpret it as meaning “if necessary to reinforce the army at its existing full strength.” It was a quarrel of misunderstanding.
King quickly agreed that St. Laurent had interpreted his original promise correctly. By his definition conscription still was not “necessary.”
King was quibbling with words. The facts were now laid before the Cabinet in i top-secret memorandum from Lieut.-General Kenneth Stuart, Chief of the General Staff In this primary document of The Crisis Stuart admitted his earlier estimates of the army’s need for reinforcements had been wrongly put together in England.
In addition to this technical error the General Staff had been faced with heavier infantry casualties than it had expected. Moreover, an early end of the war, on which the staff’s planning had been based, no longer could be assumed. Thus while other troops were being remustered into infantry formations, to which the whole problem was confined, it appeared that reinforcements would be short by about fifteen thousand men at the year’s end. Reluctantly Stuart asked the Cabinet to send the Home Army conscripts (the Zombies) overseas—fifteen thousand immediately and from then on five thousand three hundred a month.
The Stuart memorandum filled less than two typewritten pages. As its writer doubtless knew, it contained enough explosive power to demolish the Government.
Reading it, King felt betrayed by the military mind. Had he not been assured by Montgomery of a quick victory? Had he not been assured by the Canadian General Staff as late as August that it could find all the men it needed without conscription? Now, without a word of warning, he was handed an ultimatum, and probably would be handed Ralston s resignation also if he did not capitulate. The Government might fly apart on the eve of an election, taking with it the nation’s unity and the work of his own lifetime.
Stuart was called in person before the War Committee and asked to explain his volte-face. He reiterated the conclusions of his memorandum I he Cabinet adjourned without agreement. Ralston was determined on conscription. King was just as firmly opposed tit it. Within the Cabinet two clear sides were taking shape for a showdown.
The War Committee continued a desultory discussion of reinforcement figures while both sides stalled for time Itefore approaching t decision. I he lines were pretty clearly drawn by now.
On one side stood Mackenzie King. Louis St. Laurent. Charles G. (Chubby) Power, James Gardiner Ian Mackenzie and some lesser members who intended to reject Ralston’s ultimatum e\en if he resigned. They were confident, so far, that the Government could survive his resignation.
The other party within the Cabinet was far more formidable and determined than even King suspected. Resides Ralston the conscriptionists now numbered T. A. Crerar. Angus Macdonald. J. L. Ilsley and Colin Gibson. C. D. Howe had remained neutral though the conscriptionists
counted on him in the showdown. There would be others.
The hard core of the rebellion -Ralston. Crerar and Macdonald were as anxious as King to avoid a break-up. These were not amateur adcenturers seeking anything for themselves. They had nothing to gain and knew as well as King what conscription would in-
Nevertheless, they agreed that, if necessary, the risk of disruption must be taken, after every passible chance of compromise and agreement had been exhausted.
Tuesday, October 24:
The argument now moved from the War Committee into the full Cabinet. Still overconfident. King asked the opinion of each minister in turn The Quebec members St. Laurent, Power, J. E. Michaud. Alphonse Fournier and Ernest Bertrand all rejected Ralston’s recommendation. So did Jimmy Gardiner (with his usual vehemence), Mackenzie and General Ia*o LtFleche Humphrey Mitchell, the burly Minister of Labor, who professed to understand manpower problems, in-
sisted that vigorous voluntary recruiting would make conscription unnecessary. Brooke Claxton seemed to agree. J A. MacKinnon thought it was too late to change the existing policy.
The conscript ionist group was smaller in numbers but powerful in influence.
Crerar. the only minister who had sat in the conscriptionist cabinet of the first war. said conscription was necessary now not only to get men but to prevent a revulsion of public opinion against the Government.
Ilsley was prepared to take the final step ;f reinforcements could not be
obtained from any other source. >
Macdonald, while equally deter-} mined, still hoped for a compromise which would apply conscription without smashing the Government and the country.
Gibson, the young Ontario minister, was for conscription and perfectly clear about it.
Howe, obviously to be counted in the conscription camp in the final decision, said rather pathetically that it was tragic to find a purely political crisis threatening to spoil a magnificent national war record. As his colleagues understood his rather confusing statement. he did not care particularly whether the~e was to be conscription or not so long as the war was won and so long as the Government could stand together. With conscription or without it. he urged, the Government must not split. A decision one way or the other there must be. He admitted, however, that he would hardly dare to show his face in his own part of the country if the Government refused to send the Zombies overseas.
The meeting of October 24 settled nothing but it showed King that The Crisis was a much bigger thing than he had guessed. Still, he managed to sleep soundly enough through it all. never lost his temper, his outward composure or his courtesy to the men who. as he thought, were bent on ruining him and Canada.
He believed he could effect a compromise and keep Ralston, or at least Ralston's friends, in the Government —provided he could gain time. Deliberately, therefore, this master of Fabian tactics involved the Cabinet in an interminable argument on the details of the army's needs, the real state of reinforcements available in Canada and every technical point he could raise. He asked his friends to keep talking in the hope that an accommodai ion of some sort would somehow emerge.
The fertile mind of Claston was given full scope in the invention of various interesting and futile devices while Ian Mackenzie hurried between the two factions, called meetings in his apartment, wrote notes to colleagues, and. by a constant flood of correspondence and conversation, tried manfully to disguise the intractable disagreement which his side refused to face.
The Cabinet wearily retraced all the ground of the previous meeting, reargued Stuart's figures and. under King's skilful steering, remained long short of a decision.
The War Committee met at four in the afternoon and received from the General Staff some figures apparently offering an instant escape from The Crisis. There were one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in Canada, in various stages of training, who had volunteered to fight anywhere, and ninety thousand more in Britain.
King and his side clutched eagerly at this calculation for it seemed to deny Ralston's need of conscription. With more than two hundred thousand volunteers available what reason to change the present policy when only fifteen thousand reinforcements were presently required?
The over-all figures, as Ralston quietly informed his colleagues, were misleading. Certainly plenty of men had volunteered to serve overseas but most of them were physically unfit for service or had not been trained as infantryEven the urgent reinforcements could not be squeezed out of the volunteer stream. They could be found only among the Zombies.
King and his side remained , ¡edulous. Ralston’s latest figures must be checked impartially. At King’s suggestion Power and Macdonald were instructed to meet the experts of the General Staff and cross-question them that same night.
As the Cabinet broke up again King confided to bus intimates that there were larger factors in The Crisis than he cared to discuss openly. If he were to be driven from public life, he said, Roosevelt would be gravely embarrassed. since Roosevelt counted upon him to bring Canada into a postwar world security organization and to influence the Commonwealth in the same direction. The conscriptionists, King intimated, were playing with more dangerous international fire than I hev realized.
Having dropped this warning, which, is he knew, would quickly percolate through the entire Cabinet, King retired earlv to bed while Power and Macdonald questioned the army experts until the early hours.
Both men knew this meeting to be vital. If they could persuade the army to find fifteen thousand physically fit men in the Canadian volunteer force The Crisis would be over before dawn. Like Ralston, the army replied that no such reinforcements could possibly be raised.
The discussion continued for five hours, the experts refusing to yield, Power and Macdonald arguing that the necessary reinforcements surely could he raised, if necessary by a slight down-grading of physical standards among a few of them. When the meeting broke up and the exhausted participants went wearily to their homes, they were as far apart as ever.
The War Committee listened to reports from both sides on the abortive meeting of the previous night. They settled nothing.
October 28 to 31 :
As the War Committee continued to meet every day King’s friends began to propose a series of ingenious compromises and diversions.
At one point King said he should perhaps consult Churchill, or even Roosevelt. Frequentlv he repeated that he would never, never use conscripion. If it was to be applied some other rime minister could applv it. With ■qual emphasis he insisted that reinforcements must be obtained by voluntary means and he had no doubt they ould be obtained By now the onscriptionists listened to these repetitions as to a gramophone record. If they had listened more carefully they might have detected more than sound. \ plan was forming vaguely in King’s
With King's encouragement Claxton presented an elaborate plan under which the Zombies would draw lots to decide who would go overseas but on the jutting stone chin of Ralston all ' ompromises seemed to founder.
For sheer improbability the next scene in the unfolding drama of the Cabinet chamber had no parallel in that place. King looked around the table and asked each of the leading ministers one by one if h" could form a government. Ralston refused, remarking icily to King that "! assume you are only asking out of curiosity .’” None of his ministers took King's question seriously. He must have known their answers in advance Why did he conduct this solemn pell ’ Doubtless to demonstrate that he himsi If was the onlv possible prime mini-tei . the indispensable man. No one. not even his strongest critics, had doubled il. All these men wanted King to remain,
the Government to live. The Crisis to be peaceably solved. They differed only on conscription.
The Cabinet debate had become only a kind of ritual, a daily routine. Behind it the real debate was conducted in ministers’ offices, in their homes and on the telephone. No such debate had ever shaken Ottawa before. There had been broken cabinets. There had been resignations, dismissals and rebellions. There had been betrayals. throat-cuttings and Nests of Traitors. This crisis differed from all others not only because it struck far
deeper into the stuff of Canada, not only because it threatened j more deadly wound, but because the element of personal ambition was almost entirely absent.
The leaders of both sides were personally as close as ever They had no secrets from one another, continued to meet as before and together calculated the chances of their victory or defeat.
King’s supporters, for example, finecombed the roll of Liberal members in parliament and concluded that the Government could survive in the
Commons on a non-conscription policy bv about twenty-five votes. This estimate was freely discussed with the conscriptionists and they were inclined to agree with it.
King’s strategy was to hold the rebels one way or another or. if he could do no better, to split them from Ralston. The loss of Ralston would be exceedingly grave If he went out alone that shock could be endured 'The trick was to destroy Ralston singly if that became necessary. So far King dart'd not attempt it.
Observing the calm face of the first
man who had ever seriously threatened him from within his cabinets King seethed with a secret sense of betrayal. He had not been betrayed by Ralston who. as he knew, was incapable of betrayal, but by events, mostly by the blunders of the military men.
“Why blame me for the mess?" he cried out to one of his friends. The mess was the product of the General Staff. It had misled him and the Government by an unforgivable mistake in simple arithmetic. He had always suspected that the generals were overexpanding their army, but when he asked them they invariably replied that they could carry through their plans without conscription. Now, because they had botched their job. they expected the Government to rescue them at the price of its own suicide.
King remained doggedly determined to hold cabinet and nation together, with or without conscription. He was still sure he could succeed without it if Ralston would give him the chance. That was the first question to be answ-ered. If Ralston refused to be reasonable he must go. So much, but no more—no plan for replacing Ralston. no method of holding Ralston's friends —-was clear in King's mind when the Cabinet br )ke up after another worthless meeting on the night of October 30.
In the chemistry now threatening to explode the Government the three basic elements could be distinguished. Each of them was a human being, a passing accident of politics, but each portrayed and temporarily controlled a separate portion of the perpetual conflict of the Canadian species.
On one side of the argument Ralston represented the best qualities of English-speaking Canada. He was not an imperialist. He had no trace of colonialism in him. nor that ‘‘butler mind” of John W. Dafoe's famous phrase. The Colonel was Canadian to the core. He wanted Canada to be a great nation in its own right, not a satellite of Britain or any other outside power. He saw everything of value in Canadian life imperiled by the war and. because he was so Canadian, he wanted his country to fight its own war to the limit of its resources.
To him the reinforcement of the army was the test of Canada’s integrity. of its worthiness to be a nation. He was no hater of the French-Canadians. He understood their feelings as well as any Anglo-Saxon can understand them. He was willing to go a long way to satisfy them, had gone a long way already, had doubtfully accepted the compromise of 1942, withdrawn his resignation, relied on Kins's word and worked within the limits of the Government’s policy.
Now that the final test had arrived he believed that if Canada failed it all the Canadian people. Anglo-Saxon and French alike, would reap the harvest of national failure in the long run and, that, in the short run. the nation would be more seriously split by failure than by a bold decision.
As Ralston represented the pull of history, which sucks the Anslo-Saxon back to his orisins overseas. Power represented the pull of geography, which holds the French-Canadian to his own land. In this ancient struggle the case of Power was the most improbable and accidental element.
Power had no French blood, had learned the French Language only after long study, was himself a wounded veteran of the first war. now awaited news of his son. a prisoner of the Japanese in Hong Kone, and yet he. more than anv other member of the Government, was determined never to i accept conscription.
As this most agile political mind of his generation read the political riddle. English-speaking Canada, busy as usual with its daily business, would forgive and forget Quebec’s refusal to vote the final measure of militarv war. The French Canadians, not so practical and far more emotional, would never forget or forgive their coercion by the majority. Conscription would convert Canada into a second Ireland. And as the Liberal Party would no longer hold Quebec, as Quebec would have no trusted interpreter in Ottawa, it would insulate itself from Canadian life. It would be represented in parliament by a racial bloc wallowing in grievances and hating Confederation.
Besides, as one of the three Defense Ministers. Power believed with King that it was ridiculous to say that fifteen thousand fit men could not be secured among the available volunteers. Was the nation to be mutilated in a mere statistical dispute?
In their personal as in their publiclives Ralston and Power illustrated the Canadian nature. Its elements, always divided, somehow could get along together. Throughout The Crisis Ralston was admired by no one more than bv Power. These two old soldiers might fight on the opposite sides of a political argument. They were united by the ties of affection and memory which nothing could break. In the end Power alone would go with Ralston into the wilderness for opposite reasons of policy but for the same reasons of honor and friendship.
The third element appeared in St. Laurent. He was the catalyst of this chemistry, inserted in it, as if bydesign, to avert the explosion. He alone possessed the blood of both races and alone could feel their contraryinstincts. In him the ancient conflict achieved a private synthesis, toward which the nation has always groped and is still groping. This fact of itself made him the decisive element in The Crisis and potentiallythe most powerful Canadian when it had passed.
Until now St. Laurent had taken little part in the wrangles of the Cabinet and less in the ceaseless conversations outside it. As King knew, however. St. Laurent's position was vital. King might be able to hold Quebec, or part of it, if conscription were finally invoked, provided St Laurent agreed. If St. Laurent followed the instincts of his French blood, if like Laurier he preferred the fatherhood of his people to public office, if he refused conscription under any conditions, then conscription could onlymean the retreat of Quebec into isolation again, for a long and bitter time to come.
St. Laurent was onlyhalf French, he had no personal ambition except to' retire at the war's end. and. still knowing little of politics, was not thinking of The Crisis with his blood but with the coolest head in the country. What was the practical course? What would do the most good and the least harm?
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St. Laurent was ready to settle The Crisis on any workable compromise, regardless of personal consequences and of strict logic. In his private crisis this most typical of all Canadians turned instinctively to the middle course which is Canada’s destiny. And more than anything else St. Laurent’s willingness to compromise would save Canada from rupture.
These, then, were the two elements of explosion and the third element of peaceful combination. It was for King, the master chemist, to put them together.
October 31 :
King could not delay much longer.
, Ralston evidently would not yield. If thwarted further he would take his friends with him and disrupt the Government. St. Laurent might compromise on conscription but King was still determined never to enforce it.
As King stood alone in his dingy office , on the morning of Oct. 31 and, looking across the Ottawa, Champlain’s river, felt beneath his feet the supreme watershed of Canadian history, a strange accident occurred. A messenger, I arriving hurriedly at the Prime Minister’s door, brought a sealed envelope, addressed in the handwriting of Ian Mackenzie. That prolific inventor of extraordinary remedies had conceived his largest invention and rushed it to his leader in a scribbled note. The ! obvious solution, Mackenzie wrote, was to dismiss Ralston and call in General 1 A. G. L. McNaughton as Minister of Defense on a no-conscription policy.
It took King less than a minute to grasp the possibilities of this diversion.
McNaughton was a fighting soldier, beloved of the army, the very image of Canada in arms. The people trusted him as a man above politics, whose word against conscription would he accepted. McNaughton was known to believe in the voluntary method, yet no one would say, as it might be said of King, that lie was letting down the army, for it was his creation and his darling. Besides, he had i score to settle with Ralston, who had not long before dismissed him as Commander of the Canadian Army Overseas at the insistence of the British General Staff.
As an extra dividend on the transaction. the capture of McNaughton would rob the Conservative Party of the only figure who could possibly revive it.
This, then, was the hour and McNaughton the man.
King telephoned him and arranged an interview for that evening at Laurier House. The tall soldierly figure, with the handsome, grizzled face, the melancholy brooding eye a passionate man who hid his passion under a bluff exterior, a man who might he wrong but never doubted that he was right
reached Laurier House after dinner, his arrival unknown to anyone save King
At the same hour the real powers of the Conservative Party were still discussing ways and means of making McNaughton their leader in place of Bracken, on a polity of conscription. Tliev had approached McNaughton months ago. and even if he had been noncommittal the_\ were confident he would agree in the end. How could they imagine that their hero e\en now was in King's pocket?
While they talked and schemed, while the Cabinet waited innocently for another day of evasion and delay, while the news editors of the morning papers read again the endless speculation and repetition from their Ottawa correspondents, while the nation went quietly to its bed. two men sat before a fireplace in a third-story -oom. beside i the lighted picture of King s mother,
and there they sealed their bargain. McNaughton would get the reinforcements without conscription.
King thought it the best night's work he had ever done.
The morning after the interview at Laurier House was quiet in Ottawa. No whisper of the two men’s secret had leaked out. McNaughton was nowhere visible on Parliament Hill. King was in his office, apparently at work as usual. His ministers went about their departmental business without suspicion and then to their luncheons in the Rideau Club and the Chateau.
Crerar had encountered Howe by accident in the Rideau Club and a fewrandom words passed between them. Howe said he intended to vote for conscription. If any further weight w-as needed, his adherence to the conscriptionist wing of the Cabinet tipped the balance. King could not face the kind of mass resignations now impending.
As he was eating his lunch Crerar was called to the telephone. The voice on the wire was King's with an unusual note of strain in it. The Prime Minister said he had devised a solution. He would bring his plan to Cabinet that afternoon and he hoped that Crerar could support it. Crerar knew better than to ask a farther explanation. He said he would consider King's recommendation on its merits. Meanwhile he agreed to say nothing to anyone.
Claxton was lunching with some trusted newspapermen in a Chateau bedroom. At King's request he was still busily contriving those endless compromises and diversions that would keep the Cabinet arguing, might somehowconciliate it and at least w-ould postpone a decision. In the middle of the meal the telephone rang. Claxton answered it and went suddenly white. In that small room his companions could not fail to hear and recognize the voice of King. His words were few and rapid. A new complication had arisen, a new remedy had been devised and Claxton need not continue his efforts at conciliation.
With «. puzzled look. Claxton hung up the receiver. What had happened ? Like Crerar he could not imagine.
With a few such preliminary warnings by telephone, when it w-as too late for the news to spread. King was preparing his intimates for the shock of the afternoon. It was essential to his strategy that Ralston should have no warning. He had none
In mid-afternoon the Cabinet met as usual. On King's placid face at the head of the table no inkling of the previous night's bargain could be read. To all appearances this was to be another day of fruitless bickering. This dingy room, fronting on the river had witnessed remarkable events, noble tragic and comic. It had heard many Canadian voices, from Macdonald's onwards. But it had contained no personage remotely like King. It was about to witness an event unparalleled in daring, unspeakable in brutality incredible in consequence -of which only King and McNaughton knew the secret.
When Ralston began to speak in his quiet tone King listened with everv appearance of interest and respect.
The time had come, said Ralston, for the Cabinet to accept or reject his recommendation. These were chilling words. They were followed immediately by a last offer of compromise. Ralston would agree to a recruiting campaign only for a brief fixed period, say two or three weeks, and only if he were guaranteed that, in the event of failure, conscription would then be applied immediately.
King listened with respect knowing
all the words to be irrelevant. He was acting the transcendent role of a long theatrical career. The play had now become a solemn travesty. The ageing actor who had played many parts —Uriah Heep. -John Hampden and Galahad among them—had donned, with disarming look, the robes of Lord High Executioner.
Ralston observed no weapon in King's hand. He saw only a small pale man. tapping the table, as always, with the stub of a pencil. He thought he was among friends and colleagues and he was offering generous terms, more generous than the condition of his army justified. While he did not believe that voluntan,recruitment would succeed he was willing to try it if thereby The Crisis could be solved and if he could be sure, here and now, that he would have his reinforcements by one means or another. They must be sent to Europe early in January, he explained, he must order troop ships immediately if they were to be ready in time, and he must know now, today, that the ships would be filled.
This was Ralston’s ultimatum. The Crisis had been reduced to a single question: Not whether voluntary
recruiting should be attempted, for all were agreed on that, but whether there was to be a fixed time limit on it.
The argument on the single point of the time limit proceeded in a fragmentary and half-hearted fashion. After an hour of this play acting King looked around the table and judged that his moment had come.
Still in the matter-of-fact tone of ° man who discussed Q purely routine affair he remarked that some two years before Colonel Ralston had submitted his resignation. At this the dullest mind in the room could guess that a blow of some sort was about to fall. The conscriptionists exchanged quick glances. Ralston sat motionless in his chair, regarding King with a steady eye. His expression did not change.
In the sudden silence following his first observation King added that, in view of Ralston’s present attitude, there appeared to be no chance of agreement in the Cabinet. For this reason he had decided to accept the resignation submitted by Ralston in 1942. Ralston’s place would be taken by General McNaughton, who was confident of securing voluntary reinforcements.
That was all. The execution of Ralston had been performed in less than a minute. With a few crisp sentences, without a change of voice. King had struck down the idol of the army, the most respected member of the Government and. though few j could realize it then, the most powerful man in Canada.
Would that man use his undoubted power? There was King's gamble, the most reckless of his life. The next moment would decide everything for him. for his Government and for the
As King waited through that endless fraction of time Ralston rose slowly from his chair. Would he accept this dismissal, a stroke of ruthlessness without precedent in this room of many strange acts, or would he rebel and carry half the Cabinet with him? In their anger and pain Ralston's friends watched his face. It still showed no change. When he spoke the voice also was unchanged.
He said he would send i formal resignation to the Prime Minister tomorrow.
The conscriptionists. the men who loved Ralston and some who loathed Kins, were stunned and uncertain. Should they go with their friend? Should they remain and condone his destruction? They had no time to
think. Ralston calmly thanked King and the Cabinet for their co-operation, picked up his papiers and walked around the table, shaking the hand of each man as he passed. When he reached King no word passed between them. The two shook hands and Ralston strode briskly from the room.
As the door closed. King, a little flustered at last, remarked that he deeply regretted this unfortunate occasion.
Ralston went home to write his resignation and prepare » speech for parliament. With that speech he could defeat King. McNaughton and the Government, if he cho.se. By one word of invitation he could take all his friends out of the Cabinet and command the support of a large group, perhaps a majority of English-speaking Liberals, in parliament. The whole Conservative Party was eager to follow him if he chose to form a conscriptionist coalition government.
No private member of parliament had ever occupied a comparable position of power before. Would he use it to revenge himself on King and McNaughton. to enforce his conscription policy and to make himself prime minister? Ralston had no such intention. His only interest was to assure sufficient reinforcements for the army, whether McNaughton obtained them
by voluntary methods or by conscription. He would wait and see.
King realized Ralston’s power of destruction but was hopeful it would never be used. He had gauged Ralston’s course accurately. Ralston, as King knew, had no personal ambition and would give McNaughton every chance to make good the voluntary enlistment campaign. As King had no doubt of McNaughton’s ability to find the necessary volunteers the problem apparently had been solved or soon would be.
With equal accuracy King had gauged the course of The Colonel’s friends. Crerar. Macdonald, Ilsley and other conscript ionist ministers had been too flabbergasted by the afternoon’s events to utter a word of protest at Ralston’s dismissal. Their first impulse had been to leave the Cabinet with him. Then, without a moment to confer, they reached the simultaneous decision to remain and see The Crisis through. There would be plenty of time to resign and join Ralston if McNaughton failed and King still refused to invoke conscription. As soon as the Cabinet adjourned they asked Ralston’s advice. He told them emphatically to hang on.
The magic of McNaughton’s name and legend were now on trial. While the overseas army was staggered to find that its spiritual father apparently had Jet it down by opposing conscription, the officers of the army in Canada
promised to redouble their recruiting efforts among the Zombies.
On Nov. 8 King spoke to the nation by radio, urged the Zombies to volunteer and announced that parliament would meet on Nov. 22.
His confidence was shaken when McNaughton faced a public meeting at Arnprior and was greeted with derision. A second speech in Ottawa went no better. The magic W'as not working as King had expected.
There was no doubt in McNaughton’s mind. If his officers would waive their prejudices and go to work the Zombies could be persuaded to volunteer. Actually no significant number volunteered. Between Nov. 1 and 18 McNaughton secured only five hundred and forty-nine recruits.
A meeting of the “loyalists,” as King’s Cabinet supporters were calling themselves, agreed that voluntary recruitment would fail. The loyalists suggested to King that he face the possibility of parliamentary defeat, see the Governor-General immediately and make sure that if the Government fell it would be granted a dissolution and not replaced by a conscript ionist government without a general election.
King had become suddenly worried and irritable at McNaughton’s obvious failure. He said he was being “undermined” and was determined to find out who were his friends and who his enemies in the party.
When parliament opened he would find out. He was sure he could carry parliament with him. There was no need to discuss dissolution.
The loyalists considered at length the strategy to be followed when parliament met eight days later. It was agreed that the Government would present a formal vote of confidence in itself to proclaim its anti-conscription policy and to test its support in the House.
The position of McNaughton was more ticklish. He was not a member of the House and could not appear there to defend his recruiting campaign to justify his refusal to invoke conscription. Further discussion devised a solution—let McNaughton Ire appointed to the Senate where he could speak as freely as in the Commons. King promised to consider this suggestion.
By now the conscriptionists were satisfied that McNaughton had failed completely, that conscription must follow and that King would never agree to it. Once the issue was raised in parliament they would resign and join Ralston. They did not agree on the Government's prospects. Some thought it would survive, others that it would fall and be succeeded by a conscriptionist coalition under Ralston.
A Sunday conference between the leaders of the loyalist bloc went over the roll of parliament and concluded that the Government could carry it by a small majority on a no-conscription policy. No one doubted that the Cabinet would spl't. Crerar and Macdonald at least would resign. Ilsley might be persuaded to stay The prospects, if grim, were far from hopeless.
A new cloud now appeared on the western sky. It was no bigger than a man’s hand hut in King s mind it grew7, during the next forty-eight hours, into the shape of a cyclone. General
G. R. Pearkes. VC, commander of the 6th Division of drafted men. called an unprecedented press conference to give his officers the opportunity of discussing their difficulties with the public. Thus instructed to tell the truth about the recruitment problem the officers declared that they could not persuade any substantial number of their men to volunteer for overseas service. The Zombies, they said, would not volunteer, though they would go overseas willingly, even eagerly, if they were ordered there.
General Pearkes added that his officers “have never been in revolt but, on the contrary, have loyally supported the Government policy of producing the reinforcements for overseas."
The newspaper reports of the press conference astounded King. Evidently Pearkes, a highly respected officer, had undertaken in defiance of all military tradition to put pressure on the Government and to discredit the voluntary recruiting system in public. At first King thought this merely intolerable. As he brooded over the incident it ippea red worse than that. Was military discipline among the high ifficers breaking down?
Later that same day McNaughton met a smaller group of the loyalists at Ian Mackenzie’s apartment. One of he ministers noted that the command>rs of the military districts throughout Tañada had met in Ottawa the previous A-eek and seemed to agree that volunarv recruiting was bound to fail. Some >f them, it was said, had told McNaughton frankly that they could not persuade the Zombies to volunteer.
McNaughton was asked outright if that was true. McNaughton replied that he had every confidence in his military officers, mostly men whom he had chosen and who had served with him overseas. The officers of the army could be trusted. That statement was accepted at the moment.
On Nov. 20. while his friends conferred in Mackenzie’s apartment, what secret calculations were forming in King’s mind behind the stubborn refusal to accept conscription or to admit that his present policy might fail? Was he meditating already the somersault and transformation to be executed two days hence? There was as yet no sign of it, no hint of any change, no mention of the army’s loyalty. That must be noted. As of Nov. 20 King stood against conscription. expected McNaughton to deliver the recruits if he had more time and believed the Government could carry parliament.
At the Cabinet meeting later in the day King appeared more firm than ever. When Crerar, Macdonald, Mulock and Gibson demanded a deadline on voluntary recruiting—Ralston's original request for which he had been dismissed
and suggested Dec. 1, King still objected.
After the Cabinet meeting King conferred privately with McNaughton St. Laurent and Gardiner another meeting to be noted on this frantic day. when events moved by the hour, almost by the minute, toward their curious culmination.
The leading anti-conscription ministers told King flatly on this occasion that they would not serve in a Cabinet which enforced conscription. King faced his inevitable choice of evils. If he failed to impose conscription Crerar. Macdonald. Ilsley, Howe. Gibson and Mulock, perhaps others, would resign If he imposed conscription he would lose not only all his Quebec ministers but Gardiner. McNaughton and perhaps others from the English-speaking provinces.
If this must be the choice King evidently had made it. He would still
Each autumn, we rake Fallen leaves in a pile.
Let there he no mistake As to who'll do it. I’ll !
IV w J. COLLINS
reject conscription. Or so it seemed to his friends. In retrospect even they cannot be sure.
The day of Nov. 20 ended with three facts apparently clear: McNaughton
believed he would finally get the recruits without conscription; the loyalty of the army commanders, their determination to carry through the voluntary recruiting campaign, could not be doubted; and King was set against conscription.
All these three assumptions, the whole basis of Government policy, would not last two more days.
November 21 :
A new and moody King sat disconsolately at the head of the Cabinet table. Overnight he had sunk into a state of depression never seen in Cabinet before. He opened the meeting by remarking, rather listlessly, that he thought he should resign. Bv now his ministers were so physically exhausted, so punch-drunk with continual shock, that nothing could surprise them. They greeted King's announcement in silence.
As the Cabinet despairingly avoided the final break the discussion drifted aimlessly away from the only point of importance.
Some of King’s friends suggested that if he intended to resign he should first tell the Liberal caucus his plans.
As he had done so often before Howe demanded that the Cabinet decide for or against conscription "For God’s sake, let us make up our minds!” King was not ready to make up his mind. Its present contents might have startled even his shockproof colleagues.
Macdonald, his long patience quite worn out. said he would certainly resign if McNaughton did not get the recruits without further delay. There followed i long digressive argument about the procedure to be followed in parliament next day as if procedure mattered now when the Government had no agreed policy and seemed likely to explode before nightfall.
How wa« McNaughton to be brought before the House of Commons to present his defense? It was agreed that the House would meet for a few minutes the next day. and on the day following would hear a statement from McNaughton. He would say what he could say in public and ask for a secret session to give further military details. McNaughton's speech - and this fact is important to remember in the subsequent chronology — already was prepared.
The Cabinet recessed and King suggested to a group of the loyalists that he would ask the House for a vote of confidence on a startling proposition: McNaughton would be given a short period to test out the voluntary svstem thoroughly. If at the end of that period reinforcements were not sufficient King would retire and allow some other Liberal to form a government. His successor would not be bound by King’s pledge to submit his policy to parliament and could send the Zombies overseas by simple order-in-council.
The anti-conscription ministers announced that they would retire with King, if it came to the breaking point.
The meaning of this announcement was plain—a Liberal conscriptionist Government would follow King's resignation and doubtless it would immediately coalesce with the Conservatives. The Liberal Party would be smashed again as in 1917, Quebec would be driven into isolation and the races of Canada would be split for another generation.
That was King’s threat. It was intended to go home on both sides and, if possible, drive them together on the lip of the catastrophe. He pointed to the catastrophe, he made the threat, but did he mean it? Probably we shall never know, for the next day’s events were to make the threat irrelevant.
To understand the events of the next day it is necessary to note that on Nov. 21 McNaughton was still assuring his colleagues that the voluntary recruiting drive would succeed. He mentioned no sign of trouble in the
Thus, with a Government on the verge of dissolution, a Prime Minister ready to resign (or so he said) after the destruction of his quarter century of work, a Liberal Party apparently back to its schism of 1917, the Conservative Party eager to return to power under Ralston in a conscription coalition. Ralston still silent with the future in his hands, a Quebec angry with the racial anger of betrayal. English-speaking Canada determined not to accept the domination of a minority and parliament ready to erupt on the morrow, the night of Nov. 21, 1944, passed into the dawn of the weirdest day in Ottawa’s memory.
King arose at Laurier House in the full knowledge that before another night his eareer would be remade or broken forever. With complete sincerity he believed that if he failed the nation would be broken also. Whether, in the early hours of that morning, he already had decided on his great somersault history may never know.
While King either meditated his coup or. as he told the story, awaited the climax which he still did not foresee, his ministers were preparing for the debacle due that afternoon.
Power was ready to resign quietly to save King embarrassment. If he and other Quebec ministers left the Government King would be free to adopt conscription on some formula that might satisfy the national majority. It would mean of course, the loss of French Canada to the Liberal Party. In any case Power would not accept conscription.
St. Laurent did not believe for a moment that King would accept conscription. Then came the first clear intimation of St. Laurent's dimensions and the factor which might yet save the Government. He told his friends that he would be ready to accept a measure of conscription if the voluntary system were given a further brief, fair trial and if. at the same time. King announced that its failure would be followed by the dispatch of the Zombies overseas
This was a vital change in St. Laurent’s immediate position and could alter the balance of the Cabinet It represented no change, however, in St. Laurent’s original thinking. He had refused to pledge himself to his electors against conscription under any circumstances and had warned them candidly that it might be unavoidable. He wished to make sure, by a last trial of the voluntary method, that it could not provide the troops which he was determined to secure.
In the judgment of the Quebec ministers St. Laurent’s acceptance of conscription, if proved necessary, might
save King for the moment. It would not save Quebec for the Liberal Party. Even St. Laurent, they thought, could not hold his people on such a policy oi prevent the dreaded racial rupture. The Quebec ministers were wrong.
Many secret and hurried conferences were held on that electric morning. Mackenzie, still believing that King would never adopt conscription, had drafted another of his paper Cabinets.
But the arguments, manoeuvres and wrigglings of the last fortnight had become meaningless. A telephone cal) to King’s office had changed th nation's history in the space of few seconds. The great coup wu. under way.
According to King’s account, McNaughton telephoned him about noon and. in a voice hoarse with shock, exclaimed: “I have terrible news for
you, Chief! What I must tell you will come as a body blow.”
The military commanders of Canada said McNaughton, no longer would accept the responsibility of directing the army unless conscription were applied immediately.
A body blow. Perhaps a death sentence on the Government. So thought McNaughton. How could he suppose that King would turn the death sentence into a last-minute reprieve?
Even King (according to his own version) could see no hope of survival. He hung up the telephone knowing, he said, that he no longer faced a political crisis, or even a racial schism, but the disintegration of the army, a military uprising which might seize the civil power, a state of national anarchy, nothing less.
The secret was too terrible for communication to the Cabinet. Only St. Laurent could be told, for now St. Laurent had become the key to everything. Standing together, King and St. Laurent might still fend off anarchy—provided St. Laurent would accept conscription, to which anarchy now seemed the certain alternative.
Called to King's office and told McNaughton’s news, or King’s version of it. St. Laurent replied bluntly that the military must be resisted. Otherwise, he said. Canada was reduced to the status of some South American banana republic where the officer class could alter governments at will. The Cabinet must fight the uprising.
‘‘Fight?” King retorted. "Fight with what? Our bare hands?”
The calm man from Quebec was incredulous. Civil government threatened by a military putsch/ It was impossible. Yes, said King, but true. There could be no doubt about it. He had McNaughton’s word. And if the army now seized actual control of the government St. Laurent must ask himself whether the civil power could ever recover. There was only one possible thing to do. said King—the Government. by yielding to the demand for conscription, could maintain its outward direction of events and. when The Crisis passed, could master them again.
As St. Laurent listened in silence
tells the story of how
MACKENZIE KING won his
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
King felt himself standing, with his secret, on the lip of bottomless chasm and black night. Whether St. Laurent believed King only St. Laurent knows. Whether King believed himself, forced himself to believe or was acting a part unbelievable and grotesque only King
Or perhaps King himself never knew, for he could believe anything he wished to believe, and at this moment complete belief in his intended course was essential. We have only King’s own version of this strange meeting, the version which he repeated with rising passion and conviction until his death. So stands the only known record.
St Laurent may have believed King and shared his alarm. He may have thought that King alone or King and McNaughton together were exaggerating the danger, unconsciously or deliberately. to force conscription on the Cabinet. In the few minutes granted him St. Laurent must have realized that if he opposed conscription further there might or might not be military disintegration, as King feared, but in either case the Government, the party and the nation would fly apart before the day was out.
St. Laurent may reveal in due time his thoughts on that noon of Nov. 22, 1944. All w-e know yet is that he was ready for conscription and always had been, if it could be proved necessary, and only wished the issue settled on its merits. Now it was to be settled by pressure and panic.
Nevertheless, the need of conscription had been finally proved beyond doubt—McNaughton could not get volunteers and the Prime Minister expected national anarchy. St. Laurent was left with no option. The man who knew Little of politics saw that the historic forces then in play had become irresistible. He consented to immediate conscription.
In that consent he had saved the Government, the Liberal Party and perhaps the nation. He had made himself the nation's future master. In human measurement he had proved himself a much larger man than King.
King had acted from the heart, by the compelling instinct of the AngloSaxon. had yielded to the call of history had moved with the majority of his own race and had accepted the easier political alternative: whereas St. Laurent had acted from the head, by reason. against the instincts of his race and against all his political interests. For something larger than Quebec he had taken the harder alternative and risked his whole career without a minute's hesitation. Thereby, without knowing it. he had prepared himself. his race and the whole nation for yet another crisis and another enemy now six years off
Never before, except perhaps on that September dawn of 1759. when Montcalm faced Wolfe on the river bluff, had two men so held the fortunes of Canada in their hands. King and St. Laurent parted, only half aware of their power and with no assurance that it would outlast the day. By agreement neither of them repeated McNaughton’s secret.
When parliament opened that afternoon King went solemnly through the empty motion of tabling Ralston’s resignation, remarking that this was one of the most painful experiences of his life and paying a generous tribute to his former colleague.
Gordon Graydon, now leading the Opposition as John Bracken’s locum tenens, demanded debate on a “high plane.” condemned all partisan manoeuvre and formally moved for the imposition of total conscription.
King was ready for him. Mr. Speaker Glen ruled that the motion
required forty-eight hours’ notice. He would not permit an appeal from his ruling. At King’s suggestion the House agreed to hear McNaughton next day and adjourned at 4.30.
Nothing stood at that hour as it seemed to stand. Every posture was false. The Cabinet ostensibly opposed conscription. The conscriprionist ministers planned to resign before next morning. RalstoD watched in silence —a spectator or tomorrow’s prime minister0 The Conservatives crouched for the long-awaited pounce on a victim who was no longer there. King and St. Laurent had kept their secret.
The Liberal caucus met immediately after the House adjourned. As usual. King was late in arriving. Meanwhile in the caucus chamber only St. Laurent knew what lay ahead ( though King had hinted discreetly to Macdonald, the most implacable of his opponents, that the situation had changed and Macdonald. therefore, should do nothing prematurely).
Unaware of any such change. Crerar. the elder statesman around whom the rebellion was centring, rose to address the caucus. He never uttered the words that would have proclaimed the conscriptionists' mass resignation. He was cut short by King who entered the room at that moment and quietly asked the caucus to adjourn while he discussed “important new developments" with the Cabinet.
The caucus broke up in a buzz of rumor and speculation. King left without another word. The conscriptionist ministers met and agreed to resign that night.
The Cabinet had been summoned to meet at eight o’clock with the clear impression that King would reject conscription, face the mass resignations and survive or fall in parliament next day.
Power, just out of hospital and ignorant of the day’s secret events, was summoned to King’s office at a quarter to eight.
The Prime Minister was in a state of extreme agitation. “Chubby.” he said. “I don’t know what I w-ould do without you!”
Hurriedly, in a few shaky sentences. King explained that he had heard from McNaughton that day. McNaughton had told him that the game was up. he could not get the reinforcements, there was nothing for it but conscription.
There was no word of any miiitary uprising, not a hint of the day’s real secret. Could it not be shared even with Pow-er. from whom no secrets had ever been withheld? Or did King know that Power would refuse to believe it? Here again the King version encounters only silence and mystery. If that version is true, if the danger of military uprising was indeed a fact and not a figment contrived for King's purposes, why was it not told to Power at this critical moment when Power's support was vital to King when Power might be persuaded in the nick of time to support conscription? Of that the King version tells us nothing.
With no means of knowing what was in the other's mind Power listened to King's plans. The Cabinet, said King, would be asked that night to conscript sixteen thousand draftees of the Home Defense Army and send them overseas.
Would Power accept this compro-
In the hardest moment of his life Power did not waver. He said he would resign without any word of complaint against King. The other Quebec ministers. under St. Laurent’s influence, doubtless would support the conscription formula.
In a last entreaty King suggested that Power could oppose conscription
and still remain in the Government. It was a wild stab in the dark and would look only absurd in tomorrow’s daylight. Aghast at such constitutional nonsense Power merely repeated that he would resign in the morning and left King alone in his office with his untold secret.
After these weeks of anguish the Cabinet meeting was a strange anticlimax. As the ministers waited to hear from King, McNaughton said quietly that he had received a disappointing report from his staff officers. They had concluded that the voluntary system could not supply the reinforcements urgently required. Without offering further argument or any excuse for his voltc-face he recommended that sixteen thousand of the Home Army be made subject to immediate conscription.
King said that with reluctance he supported McNaughton’.« recommendation.
St. Laurent nodded his approval. For a moment the Cabinet was silent. What could be said? The conscriptionists knew that they had won. that the magic of McNaughton had failed that Ralston had beaten King. The Quebec ministers knew that further protest was bootless. They must accept follow St. Laurent or retire. OnlyPower was ready to retire but he said nothing. The formal decision to impose conscription, to reverse the whole course of King’s policy and life work, to concede that the conscriptionists were right and Ralston victorious was made with hardly a word of debate.
What may be regarded as the most extraordinary if not the most important cabinet decision since Confederation had passed without a whisper of anger from the defeated faction or a gesture of triumph from the victors.
The Cabinet went home to bed. Power to write his resignation and \ great Canadian soldier, now a sadder and a wiser man. locked himself up with his experts to rewrite in opposite terms the speech against conscription already prepared for tomorrow’s session of parliament. McNaughton also was worn out by his first failure in the art of polities, which he did not understand. Toward dawn he sought a few hours’ sleep before his next ordeal. His experts finished the task of turning his speech inside out by 5 a.m. and they in turn went home, exhausted. At that moment The Crisis was over.
Out of the events of Nov. 22 two questions arise.
First, had King won his greatest
victory or suffered his worst defeat?
By all public appearances he had retreated under fire, swallowed his pride and his record, yielded to Ralston and done what, up to that very day, he had sworn never to do.
King rejected this conclusion then and rejected it with increasing vehemence until his death. Nothing enraged him so much as the accepted theory that Ralston had defeated him. In his own judgment he had won a triumph unequalled by any Canadian statesman. He had succeeded where Borden had failed in persuading the responsible leaders of Quebec to accept conscription. He had saved the Liberal Party and Quebec from the isolation into which Laurier had plunged them. Under almost unbearable pressure he had kept intact the structure rebuilt in 1919. And he had kept the nation
Second, had there been any danger of ? military uprising, even of a few officers' resignations? Had McNaughton reason to believe that his army command was disintegrating? Had lie received actual threats and, if so were they real threats from men of importance? Or had King seized on some minor discontent in the army, exaggerated it into the threat of anarchy, convinced St. Laurent of this danger and thus forced conscription on the Cabinet because he knew that anything less would produce the deluge'’
In short, was King’s decision l>a«ed on a cold-blooded calculation of the political forces in play, had lie reali/i“d that he could not maintain a noconscription policy, had he invented the military coup and forced McNaughton to recommend conscript ion. or had Canada stood, in November 1944. in the shadow of chaos'.’
King's answers to these questions in his old age were unequivocal emphatic and angry. He said he had positive information showing that the army command was about to break down The plot also involved prominent political personages whom he would not name He had the record, however and would print it in his autobiography for the world to judge 1’hen the world would see that in the face of national cataclysm he had done the only thing he could do not because reinforcements were lacking, not because conscription was needed not because he had been wrong in his former judgment but solely because he and he alone was called upon to save the nation.
While all this, no doubt, is set down
in King's private records, they cannot answer the most fascinating riddle in Canadian history. For King may have misconstrued as a dangerous conspiracy the mere mutterings of some army officers, the prospects of a few resignations. With complete sincerity, or his habitual self-deception he could easily have built this evidence into „ formidable brief for the defense.
Those who were close to King are split into two groups, the believers and the disbelievers. The believers so fax have produced no concrete evidence to support King's conclusion. They have not named a single officer who was about to resign. They are not sure how much King knew, or thought he
But they argue, and powerfully, that the whole atmosphere of the army, as indicated by the Pearkes' press conference, was charged with eruption. Only a few more days, perhaps hours, of resistance to conscription would have uncorked the volcano. And, they say. only a few resignations at the top would have been necessary to start the full lava flow of disaster. The situation, in fact, was getting completely out of control by November 22 when King heard of it and. in his most heroic act, extinguished the fatal spark.
Perhaps the best evidence in King's
brief is the attitude of St. Laurent. He was not a man to see ghosts He was the last man of all to be terrified by threats. Yet King evidently convinced him, if not that a general conspiracy was hatching, at least that the nation was in danger.
On the other hand, as far as this writer can discover, few if any of King's other colleagues credited the story of an impending military uprising. They believed then and believe now that while the army command certainly was restive and dissatisfied it had no intention of adventuring into politics, no thought of defying the government, no plan of general resignations.
The disbelievers, or some of them, are ready to agree that King may have convinced himself of these dangers, since he could convince himself of anything at will, but they think it was an act of will in pursuance of a deeplaid strategy. King, in this new. had reached the end of his no-conscription
His problem, then, was to sell the opposite policy to French Canada and that problem centred in St. Laurent. There was no use trying to persuade St. Laurent or Quebec to accept conscription on its merits, especially when King himself still did not believe in it. Even the prospect of a party smash
would not be enough to overcome French Canada's objections. Some much larger argument some supreme emergency and nothing less could shake St. Laurent and the other Quebec leaders.
When King heard the first whisper of trouble in the army—so this version goes—he seized it in a clutch of desperation and used it as only he could use it. with a transcendent actor's art. If this were not so. how to explain King's silence to Power a few hours after the secret burst upon him and a few minutes before the Cabinet decided on conscription? Here was the one trump in King's deck which might have outbid Power's objections. It was never played. Nor did King mention his discovery to other colleagues until long afterwards when most of them dismissed it with a shrug of disbelief. Again, why had McNaughton heard nothing of trouble in the army before midmoming. November 22? Why had he told his colleagues, the day before, that he could get the needed volunteers.
The believers are unmoved by this argument. They say that of course the conscriptionist ministers disbelieved King because they wished to believe that they and they alone had defeated him. They would not share
____ their victory with
1 the restless army.
I As for the army 1 itself, some of the leading figures like General Stuart are dead. Most of the higher officers were overseas throughout The Crisis. This writer, after diligent enquiries, can discover no home-service officer who had heard anything whatsoever of King's nightmare.
If resignations were pending they were well hidden. If the whole affair was indeed i figment in King’s imagination, placed there with or without prompting hy McNaughton. it served its purpose. Without it, real or unreal, The Crisis probably would have lurched into incalculable confusion far more destructive than the ruin of
Possibly of all living men o n ! y McNaughton knows the truth. Having sealed his papers in ihe Archives he has kepi his honorable \ ow of silence, accepted the humiliation which was to follow the shift of Nov 22. 1944. and gone placidly to other heids of public
Was he persuaded, ordered or tricked by King, or was he compelled by the facts into recommending conscription on one day after opposing it the day before? That is the hard core of the riddle. Some time, perhaps. McNaughton or his papers will answer it. ★