No. 168  NAI DFA Ottawa Embassy DC/7/8

Letter from John J. Hearne to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(14/168) (Copy)

OTTAWA, 2 January 1942

I have the honour to refer to Mr. Churchill's two-day visit to Ottawa.

With other official representatives I went to the train to meet Mr. Churchill on his arrival on Monday morning the 29th December. When the train arrived Mr. Mackenzie King introduced those present on the platform to Mr. Churchill. The latter said: 'How do you do?' to each. The morning was very cold and the British Prime Minister was quickly brought off, through a cheering crowd of some hundreds who had gathered on the outer platform, to his car. He was driven to Government House where he was to be the guest of the Governor General1 during his visit.

A reception was given in Mr. Churchill's honour at 9.30 that evening at Government House. Mr. King, Princess Juliana,2 Baron Silvercruys,3 Mr. Moffat4 and Mr. Malcolm MacDonald5 were amongst those invited to dine with the Governor General before the reception. We were not invited to the dinner. Neither were we invited to the luncheon given by the Canadian War Cabinet on the next day, Tuesday the 30th December; or to the War Cabinet dinner given by Mr. King at Laurier House on the evening of Tuesday the 30th December. Mr. MacDonald, Sir William Glasgow6 and Mr. Meyer7 were at the War Cabinet luncheon. It was, I think, right that we were not invited to it: it took place immediately after a meeting of the War Cabinet and was intended as an informal continuance of the meeting. The same applies to the War Cabinet dinner.

We were invited to the Governor General's reception on the evening of the 29th December. The Governor General and Princess Alice8 presented the guests to Mr. Churchill. When we were presented Mr. Churchill said: 'It is a great pleasure to meet you'. He then added 'I had a very nice message indeed from your Prime Minister, Mr. de Valera, which I greatly appreciated'.9 I said 'I am very glad, Mr. Prime Minister '. He smiled faintly and we passed on.

Mr. Churchill seemed inexpressibly weary. His eyes were listless, his cheeks fell heavily almost upon his shoulders, his head was thrust forward and downward, characteristically as I recall, and his whole frame seemed to sag with utter fatigue. He did not enter the ballroom where the three hundred or so guests were assembled after passing the receiving line, and where he was eagerly expected. He retired early from the reception: and, no doubt, to make it up to the disappointed guests, the Governor General, the Princess Alice, and Mr. King lingered late in the ballroom talking to everyone. Archbishop Vachon10 had been one of the few brought to Mr. Churchill: he told me that their conversation was vague and desultory.

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday the 30th December Mr. Churchill addressed members of both Houses of Parliament assembled in the Chamber of the House of Commons. He was given a tremendous ovation when he appeared. He spoke for over half an hour, reading, but seeming not to read, from a prepared text. There were no high lights in the speech. It was not one of Mr. Churchill's great oratorical triumphs, although the occasion itself was unique and historic. He spoke quietly: when one expected him to raise his voice, he raised his finger instead and his voice deepened to a growl. The whole impression at those times was of a tired much pampered watch dog growling drowsily at noises in the night but much too sleepy to bother to bark out loud.

It was in his asides that the British Prime Minister drew any applause from his somewhat puzzled audience. When, for example, he spoke of the attitude of the French to the prospect before Great Britain after the armistice of June 1940 he brought down the 'House' by saying: 'They thought that in three weeks Great Britain would have her neck wrung like a chicken. Some chicken! Some neck!' Again he got 'renewed laughter' for the following: 'We must extirpate the Hitler tyranny, the Japanese frenzy, and the Mussolini flop'. The phrase will not, I imagine, become classical.

I send you the text of the whole speech as reported in the Ottawa Journal of the 31st December. Like all Mr. Churchill's speeches it reads much better than it sounded.

It will be observed that Mr. Churchill was particularly severe with the French. The French Minister was present and was obviously much embarrassed by the strictures on his Government.

As I enclose the speech itself you will not desire me to make any commentary on the text as a whole.

Mr. Conway and I remained for some time in the Parliament Buildings after the proceedings. We talked, separately, with different members of the Canadian Cabinet, members of Parliament, members of the corps, and others. No one made any comment at all upon Mr. Churchill's speech. The experience in the ladies' galleries was similar. The conclusion to be drawn, and here reported, is that the performance was an anti-climax. No human being could possibly rise to Canada's expectations of the British war leader. For two years Canadians had regarded him rather than Mr. Mackenzie King as their leader. For two years, idealized portraits of him had hung in their homes. Editorial articles had lauded his orations, and children in the schools were given passages to learn. He was Canada's great hero in the epic of the war. The stage, on this day, had been set for a stupendous act in the great drama in which Churchill was to rise to supreme heights of eloquence and perform, as never before, in the role which they had created for him and expected him to play. But the great actor failed. As he left the Chamber, strolling, with an uneasy nonchalance, through the door behind the Speaker 's Chair, one felt that the legend of Winston Churchill was passing out of the minds of those who looked on.

One comment was general a day or two after. 'Why didn't he pay a decent tribute to Mackenzie King? Only for him where would they be?' That criticism was justified. And one was glad to hear it more for what it implied than for what it said. It showed, for one thing, that the mind of the average Canadian was beginning to realize how well their own statesmen measure up to others, especially how well their own Prime Minister measures up to the British statesman whom they had invested with a fabulous fame. Another question was: 'Why did he attack Vichy France at a time when we are trying to keep them from handing over France's African bases and the French fleet to Hitler?'. And so on. When it is borne in mind that before Mr. Churchill came to Canada no one dared criticise anything he said or did, the significance of these and similar comments will be clear. They would seem to indicate something much deeper than disappointment at Mr. Churchill's forensic failure on a great occasion. They spell a question mark into their faith in the British Prime Minister 's ability to carry the great burden of responsibility which rests upon him, and which they, of all others, had heretofore been content that he should bear alone.

Mr. Churchill left Ottawa twenty-four hours before the time originally planned as announced in the press. (But the press announcements may not have been accurate). The hour of his departure for Washington by train was kept a secret. There was no great send off: Mr. King and a few others went to the train, and some scores of the general public happened to be at the station.

I have never seen Mr. Mackenzie King so preoccupied as he was during Mr. Churchill's sojourn in Ottawa. During the brief speech in which he introduced him in the House of Commons Mr. King's hands shook nervously, and he looked haggard and drawn. He seemed gravely concerned for the success of the whole affair.

But the press and the radio saw to it that Mr. Churchill's speech was head- lined as a personal triumph and the visit as a political event of the highest importance at a crucial stage in the war. My own, and, I imagine, the general impression is different. There is good reason, moreover, to believe that those upon whom the responsibility for the success of Mr. Churchill's public appearances fell breathed a sigh of relief when he left the capital. So far, the rest has been silence.

In the whole result, the British Prime Minister 's visit to Canada did not enhance his prestige.

The only official comment, or rather the only comment by an official, which I have heard on Mr. Churchill's visit to Ottawa was made to me by Mr. Pearson, Assistant Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs.11 He asked me what I thought of the events of the week. I said that everything went off very well, that the reception at Government House was a grand affair and that I would always remember the scene in the House of Commons. Mr. Pearson, in no sense deceived, smiled and said: 'Well, you see, Churchill is the only man they want in England. There is no alternative to him. But it will be a mercy if he is not at the Peace Table. He has got the most terrible ideas as to what to do with the Germans if the Russians and the Americans win the war for us. I often ask myself what the world will come to if we win, and men like Churchill write the Peace. He expressed the most outrageous views at War Cabinet meetings which I attended when in London'.

1 Major General Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone (1874-1975), Governor General of Canada (1940-6).

3 Baron Robert Silvercruys (1893-1971), Belgian Minister to Canada (1937-43).

4 Jay Pierrepont Moffat (1896-1943), United States Minister to Canada (1940-3).

5 Malcolm MacDonald (1901-81), Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (1935-8); British High Commissioner in Canada (1942-6).

6 Sir William Glasgow (1876-1955), Australian High Commissioner in Canada (1939-45).

7 Dr. David de Waal Meyer, South African High Commissioner in Canada.

8 Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone (1883-1981), wife of the Canadian Governor General, the Earl of Athlone.

9 See No. 159.

10 Archbishop Alexandre Vachon (1885-1953), Catholic Archbishop of Ottawa (1940-53).

11 Lester 'Mike' Pearson (1897-1972), Canadian diplomat, Assistant Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs (1941-2), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1957), Prime Minister of Canada (1963-8).


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