Was King really faced with wholesale resignations of top army brass in 1944 when he changed his mind about conscription? The biographer of The Incredible Canadian now has the answer to this sensational question



Was King really faced with wholesale resignations of top army brass in 1944 when he changed his mind about conscription? The biographer of The Incredible Canadian now has the answer to this sensational question



Was King really faced with wholesale resignations of top army brass in 1944 when he changed his mind about conscription? The biographer of The Incredible Canadian now has the answer to this sensational question

MACKENZIE KING accepted conscription because he had no alternative except a ruinous series of resignations in the high command of the Canadian Army in Ottawa.

The threat of those resignations has been the best-kept Canadian secret of our time. It has been known to only a handful of men. It is still unknown to most of King’s former cabinet colleagues.

TN AN excerpt from Bruce Hutchison’s AThe Incredible Canadian, published here last Oct. 15, Maclean’s recorded an important, and up to then almost completely unknown, chapter of Canadian history :

The spectre of a “revolt” within the Canadian Army’s higher command hung over the deliberations of the late Prime Minister Mackenzie King during the last decisive stages of the conscription crisis of 1944. King, a firm opponent of the overseas draft, called suddenly for the draft on Nov. 22, and induced his divided


When King retired for the night on Nov. 21, 1944, he had endured weeks of turmoil. He had already dismissed Colonel Ralston as minister of defense and replaced him with General McNaughton because Ralston demanded the conscription of the home defense army for overseas service and because McNaughton undertook to secure adequate reinforcements by an appeal for volunteers.

cabinet to support him in a reversal of policy which even the cabinet did not fully understand.

In later years King’s explanation of his abrupt change of mind was this: his new Defense Minister, General A. G. L. McNaughton, himself an opponent of conscription, had been forced to tell the Prime Minister that unless conscription were put into force the army’s upper command would resign.

As he made these disclosures Bruce Hutchison admitted one part of the story was still missing. Had King really been

comronted with the threat of a military sit-down strike, or had he invented the threat to justify his own change of heart and save the government—and possibly the country —from disintegration?

In the article that follows the mystery is at last cleared up. The threat was genuine.

The sources of Hutchison’s information, though not the information itself, were confidential. Through other, and also confidential, sources Maclean’s has been able to verify the information in all its main particulars.—THE EDITORS.

By now McNaughton’s appeal patently had failed. Some of the most powerful members of the cabinet —Howe, Crerar, Macdonald, Ilsley and others—were ready to resign immediately if King did not reverse the whole course of his life and policy by invoking conscrip-

tion. Nevertheless, on the night of Nov. 21 King was still determined never to use conscription.

Those who read extracts from my book in this magazine will remember what happened when King rose on the morning of Nov. 22. The story there told is King’s own version, given to many confidants but, so far as I know, never given in full.

About noon, according to King, McNaughton telephoned him and in a voice harsh with emotion said: “I have terrible news for you, Chief! What I must tell you will come as a body blow.” When he heard McNaughton’s news King knew he had to accept conscription.

What was McNaughton’s news? In public—for reasons which will be plain in a moment—King said only that McNaughton had realized the impossibility of securing sufficient volunteers in the short time available.

King, on Nov. 22, told only one man what McNaughton had discovered. That man was Louis St. Laurent. Hastily summoned to King’s office St. Laurent found the Prime Minister almost beside Continued on page 57

The "Revolt" of the Army


himself with alarm. As the two men faced each other across the desk of the old-fashioned office in the East Block King told his Canadien lieutenant the truth.

The government, said King, faced an uprising hy the military if it did not enforce conscription instantly. Incredulous but ice-cold, St. Laurent replied that if the military proposed to control the government it must be resisted. Otherwise Canada, he added, in a memorable phrase, was reduced to the status of some South American banana republic. The Cabinet must fight the uprising. Fight? King retorted. Fight with what? Our bare hands? No, if conscription were resisted longer not only the government and nation but the whole war effort would fly to pieces.

On hearing King’s further explanations St. Laurent agreed then and there to accept conscription. He took his own political life in his hands and hoped —it was no more than a hope—that hecould persuade Quebec to follow him.

When parliament met in the afternoon only King, St. Laurent and McNaughton knew what King intended to do. All the rest of the cabinet still assumed that there would be no conscription and a smashup by evening. Instead, adjourning the House after a few formalities and then adjourning the Liberal caucus immediately afterward, King entered the cabinet chamber that night and recommended the passage of order-incouncil No. 8891 to conscript sixteen thousand of the Home Army zombies immediately.

That is King’s version of the famous

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secret interview with St. Laurent, and what followed in public.

It was true as far as it went but it was not the whole story. King held back the final fact which would have gone far to justify his great decision. He said repeatedly, growing moré emotional with each repetition, that he had been faced at that dreadful noontime by a military uprising but he never supported his statement with any clear facts. Those facts, he said rather mysteriously, would be revealed in his autobiography, complete with names. He died before he could begin the autobiography.

When I visited Ottawa a few weeks ago certain military men who had kept silent for more than eight years evidently thought the time had come for full explanation. They knew 1 was puzzled by King’s incomplete story, as 1 had fully admitted in my book, and that I suspected, like most other people, that King, clutching wildly for a way out of the crisis, had greatly exaggerated the danger of an open split between Canada’s political and military leaders.

But King did not exaggerate. Up to Nov. 22, 1944, the army command had loyally attempted to carry through King’s policy of voluntary enlistment under McNaughton. It did not believe the policy would work but it was willing to try to make it work with every resource of persuasion in its power. While the cabinet wrangled and split, the General Staff and its district commanders exhorted the zombies to volunteer for overseas service. All but a few of the zombies replied that if the government wanted them overseas it should conscript them. Against that hard rock of resistance the recruiting drive was failing. By Nov. 22 the army leaders judged that it had completely failed.

On that morning McNaughton met his leading military advisers. His overseas commanders were not, of course, among those present, but most members of the Ottawa-based Army Council were. Some of those present did not speak at all and I have not been able to ascertain whether they all accepted the opinion of the majority. For that reason, although I know the names of most of the'men who attended the meeting, I am not identifying any of them as individuals.

When the meeting came to order McNaughton must have realized at once that he faced a situation without parallel in the record of the Canadian Army which he had recently commanded overseas. The men responsible for that army at the Ottawa level now laid before him a chilling memorandum. It recommended that the zombies be conscripted because they could not be persuaded to go overseas voluntarily.

This, then, was the end of the voluntary method which McNaughton had undertaken to carry through when he replaced Ralston as defense minister. On the word of the men ultimately responsible for the maintenance of the overseas army the King-McNaughton policy was a failure. If the army commanders could take no further responsibility for enforcing it no government could hope to maintain it, even as a fiction.

The memorandum is in the official files and presumably will he published at the proper time. But it was the lesser half of that memorable interview. The larger half was verbal and never recorded. It explains everything.

When they had handed their memorandum to McNaughton the army officials added bluntly that if their recommendation in favor of conscription was not accepted they must resign forthwith. That was the terrible news,

the body blow, which McNaughton quickly communicated to King by telephone.

McNaughton must have known and King saw instantly that a general resignation among the chief army officials was not only unprecedented but unthinkable. It would destroy the government, of course—a government which had lost the confidence of its military advisers—but that would be an incident in the larger damage to the unity of the nation and to the whole war effort. In King’s judgment, government, nation and war effort were

looking down the gun barrel of total catastrophe.

Nothing less than that danger would have altered King’s policy or moved St. Laurent. The danger was so overwhelming that King did not dare to confide in his cabinet.

That night, a few minutes before he asked the cabinet to impose conscription ostensibly because the recruiting drive had failed he appealed to C. G. Power, his minister for air, to retract the resignation which Power felt bound to offer because he had promised his people never to support a conscrip-

tionist policy. Yet King never hinted to Power, his oldest confidant, that the army commanders were ready to resign.

This fact is cited by King’s critics as proof that the whole story of trouble iri the army was pure invention, for if it were true why was Power not told and persuaded to remain in the cabinet? The question was raised in my book but not answered.

Now the answer is obvious: Knowing the gallant and unshakable Power, King knew that just as he would never accept conscription, he would be just as ready to resist the army command.

Had Power been told the whole truth he would have made King’s position still more difficult. So he was told nothing.

The rest of the cabinet could not be told either, for the secret thus widely shared would have leaked, as all the cabinet’s recent secrets had leaked, and for both political and patriotic reasons King could not afford to let the public know that the nation had come within an inch of what he was to call “anarchy.”

He used that word a few days later in parliament—guardedly, obliquely in a tortured speech—and he meant it. The House did not understand his meaning because it did not know what lay behind it.

Nor did the House understand St. Laurent’s curiously reticent speech of Dec. 6 in which he said:

“The Prime Minister has told the House that on Nov. 22 General McNaughton himself, in conference with his staff, had come to certain conclusions and had presented them to the government on the evening of that day. As a result of that presentation I had to bring my mind to bear upon two different aspects of the problem which had not before impressed me as they had perhaps already impressed some of my colleagues.”

These two aspects were the technical difficulty of getting fully trained infantry reinforcements and the dangerous psychological effect on the fighting army overseas if it believed that those reinforcements would be inadequate.

When King referred to the possibility of “anarchy” and St. Laurent to McNaughton’s “conference with his staff” both had in mind the secret they could not divulge, the awful knowledge that the army high command would resign and perhaps could not be replaced if conscription were longer resisted.

For similar reasons of patriotism the military men kept their unspoken vow of silence so long as it was required. They had only one interest—to maintain the overseas army at full strength by any method which would work. They were concerned solely with the facts, not with the politics of any government or party. They had no selfish motives of any kind. They had come to the point of resignation—an act without precedent in wartime—simply because they placed the safety of their army above their own careers or any other consideration.

How many of them actually would have resigned if King had rejected conscription will never be known. The final threat was not put in writing along with the officers’ memorandum and, in that tense hurried interview, no one seems to remember exact'y what was said or who said it. 'Fl ere can be absolutely no question, however, from the information given me quite voluntarily from military sources, that the resignations would have been wide and distinguished enough to produce disastrous consequences.

As he grew older King may have exaggerated those consequences. He spoke repeatedly of a military uprising and of anarchy. Nothing of the sort was intended by the officers, who only intended to resign quietly when they could no longer take responsibility for the existing policy.

At the time of the crisis King took no one into his confidence except St. Laurent (McNaughton necessarily being the third confidant) until the cabinet meeting on the night of Nov. 22. And then he withheld the final facts as too damaging to himself, to the government, to the nation, to the army and to the war effort. He was waiting for the publication of his autobiography which he would never write. ★