Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective

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Despite his otherworldliness, he was the most canny politician of his time, too wise to risk reciprocity but eager to reduce tariffs as far as practical politics allowed. This work had barely started when the Great Depression defeated him in 1930.

King’s successor, the self-confident Conservative Richard Bedford Bennett, combining wealth with piety and courage with pettiness, guaranteed to cure unemployment by raising tariffs to a record level. Under the Hoover administration, the United States was doing the same thing. In both nations economic lunacy could go no further.

The pendulum swung after Roosevelt’s arrival in Washington and King’s re-election in Canada. A moderate reduction of American and Canadian tariffs followed. Now again Canada’s influence on its neighbor, while seldom acknowledged, was quietly increasing, mainly because the gray, self-effacing Prime Minister had built an unlikely friendship with the colorful President. Their contrary dispositions fitted smoothly together.

Roosevelt found in King a trained economist, a scholar of political science, and a discreet, avuncular confidant who could safely be told secrets not always revealed to the American Cabinet. King regarded Roosevelt as a supremely great man but also as an economic illiterate constantly in need of educated, neutral advice. More than once, returning from Washington aglow with presidential flattery, King informed this writer that his friend simply knew nothing of economics, and did not even understand his own New Deal. He would add, with a mischievous chuckle, that Roosevelt “would like to take over Canada entire, as who wouldn’t?”

The first results of this strange intimacy appeared in 1937, when Roosevelt and King agreed privately to begin joint continental defense planning. The following year their public oratory, if one read between the lines, proclaimed a de facto military alliance inside but not beyond North America. Soon after Canada entered the Second World War, not at Britain’s behest but by the vote of its own Parliament, the alliance was formally written—at Ogdensburg, New York, on August 17, 1940. The agreement signed by the two friends in the President’s railway car bound the United States and Canada to common defense if either was attacked. The signatories had acted without the authority of their legislatures; but none was required when Hitler had overrun France and stood poised to invade Britain. A common peril had united the neighbors.

According to King something else, too momentous and sensitive for public disclosure, also happened at Ogdensburg.

Roosevelt had proposed a gift of American destroyers to a desperate Britain in return for British military bases in the Western Hemisphere, but the negotiations proved slow and difficult, Churchill being unwilling to meet the President’s terms. Their disagreement, King said later, was threatening to undermine the transatlantic friendship, and only he could hope to save it. The Canadian interceded with Churchill, mollified him, and closed the breach. Such is King’s story, told by him only among his intimates. They rather doubted it; but he carried in his wallet a precious cable of thanks from the British Prime Minister to support his claim.

King’s view of the Canadian role was accurate. In its fictitious neutrality the United States must somehow ensure Britain’s survival, if it could, and the channel of communication between Washington and London ran naturally through Ottawa.

Whatever Canada may have contributed to British-American understanding, the country was near bankruptcy by the spring of 1941. To supply Britain with munitions it had to buy various components in the United States, and now its last reserves of American dollars were running out. How, Roosevelt asked King, as they drove around the President’s Hyde Park estate in his little hand-operated automobile, could Canada’s needs be met? The trained economist had a ready answer: let the United States buy Canadian materials and munitions for shipment to Britain under the lend-lease formula, and pay for them in American dollars. The “economic illiterate” pronounced this a “swell idea” and asked his friend to put it in writing. On a slip of paper King wrote the Hyde Park Declaration, which effectively integrated the Canadian and American economies for war production. A delighted Roosevelt appended his own postscript: “Done by Mackenzie and F.D.R. on a grand Sunday in April.” No one else had ever called King “Mackenzie”; but then, no one else, Canadian or American, had ever trusted him so much.

Far beyond the Hyde Park Declaration, the American government already was committed to Britain’s survival, no matter how the laws of Congress might read. And even if it could have remained legally neutral, at the cost of leaving all Europe under Hitler’s control, the United States must be involved in the war, indirectly at least, because its neighbor and ally was. The Japanese clarified these truths by bombing Pearl Harbor. From then on, the United States and Canada fought side by side as in World War I.

Their wartime co-operation lingered for a while into the peace. In 1947, during another Canadian exchange crisis, King even explored the chance of “real reciprocity,” as he described his plan that anonymous officials carried to Washington. Then, to the disappointment of his free-trade colleagues, he retreated in panic, remembering the Liberal defeat of 1911. Since then no Canadian political party has sponsored reciprocity, in anything like the original version, for a third time.