- Canada’s Road to the Pacific War: Intelligence, Strategy, and the Far East Crisis by Timothy Wilford
Timothy Wilford’s study of Canadian policy on the eve of the outbreak of war with Japan appears as part of the Canadian War Museum series, Studies in Canadian Military History, supported by ubc Press. The series itself is a commendable project, hosting a variety of studies of Canadian military history focused mostly on the period from the First World War to the present.
Wilford combs through the Canadian archives relentlessly and imports a good deal of summarization of official records into his account. This makes for sound scholarship but not for very exciting reading. The methodology of his work would have to be described as traditional, insofar as it is concerned with official high policy and works directly from the archival database. Wilford shows that the Canadian government was reasonably well informed, mostly from allied sources, about developments in the Pacific, and made some preparations, both in policy (including steps toward internment of Japanese Canadians) and in military readiness, to meet the possibility of a Pacific war. Whether the availability of information and the steps taken ever amounted to a Canadian “strategy” remains less well demonstrated. [End Page 140]
The prominent place given to discussions of intelligence in this book is perhaps its most unusual, and potentially its most valuable, feature. But there are pitfalls in Wilford’s account. He never defines what he means by intelligence and makes no effort to distinguish secret sources of information from diplomatic reporting and accounts by private persons, such as business travellers and former officials. He fails to develop a picture of what the small Canadian intelligence establishment of pre-1941 days actually looked like in its organization, resources, capabilities, and effectiveness.
There are some natural questions embedded in any discussion of Canadian Pacific War policy and the role played by intelligence. Three stand out: what prompted the ill-fated dispatch of a Canadian military contingent to Hong Kong in the fall of 1941; did intelligence information make any contribution to the internment of Japanese Canadians; and what was the Canadian understanding of an impending war prior to the Pearl Harbor attack? Of these three, Wilford’s account is passable about the Hong Kong commitment, showing that it had to do less with any real determination that a Canadian contingent would make a difference to the defence of Hong Kong and more with imperial solidarity and an ill-considered military desire not to surrender outposts to the Japanese. To those ideals, two thousand Canadian troops were sacrificed.
Wilford’s discussion of internment is less satisfactory. He shows that domestic politics and the impact of forced registration of Japanese Canadians by the rcmp played roles in preparing the ground for internment. He credits a desire to follow in lockstep with us policy, but doesn’t really explore what is probably the most important factor underlying internment – the shock effect of Japanese military successes with all the panic and xenophobia they generated. Where he goes badly astray is in accepting a Canadian memoir account published in 2001 (Gil Murray’s The Invisible War), suggesting there was secret intelligence from wireless intercepts indicating that Japanese agents were hiding and operating among the fishing boats operated by Japanese Canadians in British Columbia coastal waters. No supporting evidence for this anecdotal story has ever emerged, and there is no reason to elevate “intelligence” as an important contributor to the internment decision.
Something similar is at work in Wilford’s account of Canadian knowledge of an impending Pearl Harbor attack. Wilford seizes yet again on a personal memoir, a “sworn affidavit” dated 1967 from a Colonel Myron Seymour, who was involved in recruitment of flyers for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in 1941. Seymour [End Page 141] claims to have been summoned to a meeting by a defence department staffer at the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa on 1 December 1941, at which conclave the staffer, one Joseph Apedaile, spilled the beans...