Review: Ditches Of Expediency

“It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk,” wrote English author Rebecca West. This is enough to make you wary of history that smells like violets.

Winston Churchill & Mackenzie King casts these “two elderly statesmen” as wartime peers out to save democracy. Author Terry Reardon is struck by parallels. Both were Sagittarians born in 1874, both had blue eyes and “large egos,” both stood 5’6”.

In chronicling their fifty-year acquaintance Reardon sees two dynamos of the Second World War. Well, not exactly. Churchill’s own Foreign Office in 1940 described King as “lukewarm about any war measure which he cannot show to redound to Canada’s own advantage.”

King took no part in battlefield strategy. No Allied leader took his advice too seriously. Even fellow Liberals considered King a partisan, cheese-paring functionary who was forever “traveling in the ditches of expediency,” as Air Minister Chubby Power put it in 1948.

Angus Macdonald, Canadian navy minister, considered King “weak at all points where pressure has been exerted – on conscription, on labour matters, on financial concessions to this or that group,” he wrote in 1944.

In his wartime diaries King emerges as a lonesome bachelor and scheming administrator devoid of any heroic impulse. To read King’s daily scribbling is to search pointlessly for any broad insight into WWII as compared to, say, a byelection in Cartier.

An example: On July 12, 1941, with Nazis approaching Leningrad and the RAF executing daylight raids over France, King confided the highlight of his day was singing to his little dog Pat:  “I sang over to myself and to him the little hymn Safe In The Arms Of Jesus, as beautiful a hymn as I knew from those childhood days.”

“King’s reputation did not survive the day of his resignation,” Max Aitken, Churchill’s wartime supply minister, wrote in 1959. No historian has yet made a persuasive case that King was any more than what he was, though many have tried including Reardon.

“During the lifetime of these two products of the Victorian age the world evolved into a global village,” he writes. “On the world stage, Winston Churchill still towers as the great leader in the cause of freedom. In Canada the orchestrator of the successful development of the country during the turbulent first half of the twentieth century has been recognized as Mackenzie King.”

There is no evidence Churchill thought much about King. His most candid reflections are sadly lost to history. We will never know Churchill’s reaction in 1947 when King privately told him of his fascination with séances and Ouija boards.

In pairing Churchill and King as wartime giants, “so similar, so different,” the author unfortunately omits evidence to the contrary including juicy bits. In 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, as Churchill galvanized his people with a pledge to fight to the death, the Luftwaffe bombed Westminster Hall. On hearing the news, King secretly cabled the Canadian mission in London to retrieve stones from the rubble for his private rock collection. The British declined.

By Tom Korski

Winston Churchill & Mackenzie King: So Similar, So Different by Terry Reardon; Dundurn Press; 432 pages; ISBN 97814-5970-5890; $35

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