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book review

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in Quebec City for the First Quebec Conference in August, 1943.The Globe and Mail

  • Title: The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt, Mackenzie King, And The Untold Friendships That Won WWII
  • Author: Neville Thompson
  • Genre: History
  • Publisher: Sutherland House
  • Pages: 498

Canada began the Second World War struggling to assert its independence from Great Britain, and ended the war struggling to preserve its independence from the United States. Neville Thompson has written a compelling story of that triangle, as seen through the eyes of William Lyon Mackenzie King.

The historian Michael Bliss once described King as “the greatest and most interesting of Canada’s prime ministers,” condemning the giggling derision by some historians over his fondness for communing, through seances, with his dead mother, his dead dogs, and Wilfrid Laurier.

King was certainly our most contradictory prime minister. A superb reader of other people’s character, he was almost friendless. Vain, selfish, even narcissistic – “I never saw a touch of greatness in him,” Norman Robertson, who served as his undersecretary at External Affairs, remarked on his death – he guided Canada through the Roaring Twenties, the last half of the Depression and the Second World War, as the country evolved from a dominion of the British empire into a confident, independent middle power, though one already worried about its dependence on the American juggernaut.

During that war, King sought to serve as a bridge between Winston Churchill – who led the British resistance to Hitler’s Germany in the months after the fall of France in 1940 – and American president Franklin Roosevelt, who empathized with the British but who initially did not understand or trust Churchill. King sought as well to preserve Canadian interests, and Canadian independence, once America joined the fight.

Neville Thompson, professor emeritus of history at Western University, had the inspired idea of telling that story from King’s perspective, by mining the diary that the prime minister kept throughout his adult life. King’s insightful observations of Churchill and Roosevelt, and his efforts to influence their counsels, make for a compelling variation on the geopolitical story of the war, enlivened by clear prose and a dry wit.

When King returned to power as prime minister in 1935, after R.B. Bennett’s interregnum, he made a point of getting to know the American president through repeated visits to Washington and Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s beloved estate on the Hudson River. The two men became friends and confidants – at least in King’s eyes – even though King privately disapproved of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

King had known Churchill for decades, and once admired him, but by the late 1930s considered him one of the most dangerous men alive, because the British statesman, now an exile within his own Conservative Party, wanted to confront and contain Germany’s rising power, while King and most other politicians sought to appease it.

But Churchill was right, and Canada found itself in the fight against Nazi Germany – though the government declared war independently, King never felt he had any real choice – as Hitler’s tanks swept across Europe in the spring of 1940.

In those months, King passed messages between Churchill, now prime minister, and Roosevelt, who was trying to bring isolationist citizens and senators round to confronting the Nazi threat, and tried also to explain each leader to the other.

“The purpose of his life was to bring Canada, the United States and Britain together,” Thompson writes. The highwater mark of that purpose was helping to negotiate Lend-Lease, in which the Americans loaned Britain vitally needed supplies and equipment in exchange for leases on British bases in the hemisphere.

King also navigated a teapot tempest, after the Free French forces of Charles de Gaulle occupied the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which were under Vichy French control, in December 1941. Roosevelt wanted either the Canadians or the British to expel the invaders, but King and Churchill ragged the puck until the Americans moved on.

The Churchill family are greeted on their arrival in Canada by King on Aug. 15, 1943.The Globe and Mail

By then the United States was in the war, Churchill had practically taken up residence in the White House, and while King was invited down to Washington for talks, it was clear the two great powers intended to conduct the war in partnership, without involving Canada or any other ally except for the USSR’s Josef Stalin, whose army was doing the bulk of the fighting.

While some historians have focused on the role of the young men at External Affairs – Robertson, Hume Wrong and especially Lester Pearson – in developing a Made-in-Canada foreign policy during the war years, Thompson treats these aides as peripheral figures.

He also ignores a recollection of John Diefenbaker, who in his memoirs claimed that King raged against Churchill in a private meeting: “In your last speech, who did you mention? Did you say what I’ve done for this country? You spoke of Churchill. Churchill! Did he ever bleed for Canada?” (The author may not have trusted the source.)

Instead, Thompson keeps the focus firmly on the triumvirate of King, Churchill and Roosevelt, even if King was, as often as not, odd-man out.

The most telling example of King’s peripheral role was the first Allied conference in Quebec City in August 1943, code-named Quadrant. The Americans made it clear that, while King was welcome to host the summit, neither he nor the Canadian general staff were welcome at the private meetings. “We have,” Roosevelt told Churchill, “until now succeeded [in] preventing the deterioration of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington into a debating society by refusing membership to representatives of other Allied Nations.”

In these and other occasions, King accepted the inevitable, losing his temper only rarely, such as when neither Churchill nor Roosevelt gave him advance notice of the landings on Normandy on June 6, 1944, even though Canada contributed one of the five armies assaulting the beaches that day.

Through it all, King took note of the conversations, the briefings, the gossip, Churchill’s prodigious drinking and the clear physical deterioration of Roosevelt during the war.

He witnessed as well Britain’s steady decline in wealth and power, as the Americans fought successfully in both the Atlantic and Pacific, while equipping its allies at the same time. Canada also contributed to keeping Britain solvent and equipped, which gave King the right to veto British efforts to forge a united Commonwealth foreign and defence policy. Canada had its own interests, King told Churchill at a conference in the leadup to D-Day, and would conduct its own foreign policy. It was the beginning of the end of the empire.

Thompson relates these stories with the skill of a storyteller as well as a historian. And if attention starts to wander at the description of this breakfast meeting following that evening discussion, it’s no loss to skip ahead.

The one substantial criticism is editorial: the book badly needed another pass by a proofreader. There are missing words – including the “in” in the quote above – errant commas, at least one wrong date, even an editorial query that failed to be expunged from the footnotes.

That reservation aside, The Third Man offers new insights into the complex but magnificent friendship between Churchill and Roosevelt, as told by a leader who was present at the discussions or who at least learned about them afterwards. It reminds us as well of how masterfully Mackenzie King navigated Canada through the decline of the British empire and the rise of the American.

Those who care about how our most baffling and skillful prime minister led this country through the most terrible of all wars will want this book.

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