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Pearl Harbour Day December 7: how Ottawa reacted

Pearl Harbour Day December 7: how Ottawa reacted

On this the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour it is interesting to see how the event unfolded in Canada, as it meant that the United States would now enter the war and Britain and the Commonwealth would no longer be alone against the Axis powers, which Japan had joined. The Diaries of Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King are as usual, a rich source of not only the facts of the day but also of his personal thoughts, emotions and fears at the time.

The actual attack on Pearl Harbour may have been a surprise but the fact that there was going to be war with Japan was not. As early as January 1941, 11 months before the attack, King worried in his diary about the likelihood that Canada and Japan would be at war. He noted in his diary that Britain was pressing Canada to stop Japanese ships in BC and search them for contraband, something he did not want to do. “”It was inviting far too great a risk, focusing all displeasure of Japan on Canada, risking the possibility of riots in Vancouver (by Japanese-Canadians) and giving the Japanese if they decide, an excuse for declaring that we had been guilty of an act of war.”

Prime Minister King shown here with President Roosevelt in September 1944. The two leaders took part in a press conference confirming that Canada will be a partner in the coming undertakings against Japan

 In February King commented that Canada should avoid provoking the Japanese because it would be far better to have the United States involved in a clash with Japan that would then see the US finally enter the war. Nevertheless, later that month he took a rather bold step of blocking sales of Canadian wheat to Japan, even though the US was still shipping its wheat there, writing; “I took the position that Japan was really an enemy. We would never be forgiven, should she go to war, for having supplied her in advance for food for her army.” A couple of months later he rescinded the order, fearing it would be a provocation.

In May, King was shocked to learn that Winston Churchill had sent a threatening letter to Japan saying that Japan would be destroyed if she started a war, but amazingly revealing the strategy that was apparently already decided upon to destroy Germany first before turning on Japan. King couldn’t believe that the Brits would show their hand like that.

While King rejoiced at the US entry into the War, it also meant that his special status as a go-between for Churchill and Roosevelt was at an end. With the US no longer needing to keep up the appearance of neutrality, the two superpower leaders could meet directly.

By November King was sure war with Japan was at hand. “I don’t know of any day when I have felt a greater concern about the outcome of the war than today. It is perfectly clear that Japan intends to fight, and that, very soon…The world has never felt anything so terrible in the course of its existence.”

Finally it was December 7th. King was having an afternoon nap. “had just more than closed my eyes when McLeod cam to tell me that Roberston (Norman Roberston External Affairs Minister) wanted me on the phone. %Robertson sated there was a rumor that the Japanese had attacked Manilla and Hawaii…It was an immense relief to my mind however, to know that their attack had been upon the US in the first instance and that the opening shots were not between Britain and Japan.”

Later that afternoon the attack was confirmed and King got on the phone to the leaders of the opposition parties to discuss a possible declaration of war. Britain it appeared would likely declare war at any moment, and the Canadian Parliament had already agreed to support Britain in any further action that might ensue during wartime. The opposition leaders told King to go ahead and that they didn’t think it necessary to recall parliament. Later that evening he was advised that Germany and Italy had declared war on the US.

Later in the evening word was received that the Japanese had also attacked British holdings in the Far East and had formally declared war on both the US and Britain. Wrote King ”I said that Providence had certainly been on our side in that the attack by Japan was on the US in the first instance.” It ended up that Canada issued its declaration before either the US or Britain because Britain wanted to wait until after the US had declared, and the US congress wouldn’t  meet until the next day December 8th. Wrote King, “it was a clear indication that our action was our own, and not of any direction from Britain.”

King met with the media at 10:30 and listened to the 11PM news “which had the announcement that Canada had declared a state of war to be in existence.” Regarding Japan, “their negotiations with Washington were all a blind…the reports make clear that the Japanese had their plans very fully and carefully worked out…the US has suffered a heavy blow…losses of a large number of planes and a couple of ships…possibly several ships.”

“It was just 11:30 when I got back to Laurier House and turned out the lights at midnight.”

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