John Buchan: Author, Pacifist, Canadian

People often wonder why no one tried to stop Hitler before 1939. One answer is the influence of pacifists, including John Buchan.

His desire to come up with some way to achieve peace in Europe led Buchan to hold secret meetings with Roosevelt on behalf of Chamberlain while serving as Canada’s Governor General, writes Kate Macdonald, in her book  “Reassessing John Buchan: Beyond the Thirty Nine Steps.”

The most obvious constructive outcome of Buchan’s partly secret, partly public approach was a series of high-level meetings and state visits involving Buchan and President Roosevelt during the late 1930s. From Washington, Roosevelt made active use of Buchan as an informal—but high-level—channel of communication with British political leaders in London, doing so, it seems, to circumvent the influence of the American State Department and British Foreign Office. Buchan, as focused as Roosevelt on the vital issue of peace in Europe, was only too happy to oblige the president by acting in this way, even though he should not (as governor-general) have engaged in this subterfuge.”[1]

Buchan’s public popularity made him invaluable as an go-between for British and American interests. The Scottish National’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps had just become a mystery thriller movie by Alfred Hitcock and he was also he was voted Time Magazine’s man of the year when the The British Government appointed him Lord Tweedsmuir in 1935. The Lordship was a necessary step to allow him to be appointed Governor General of Canada on August 10 that same year.

His appointment as Governor General of Canada was meant to signal a new era. Leaders were buoyant that the depression would end and employment would rebound. The dust bowl storm of the previous spring was over and a new government had taken power. Unemployment was still high and many people were still struggling to feed themselves, but countries that had been closed to exports were opening up.

As Lord Tweedsmuir, Buchan outlined two international trade agreements in his speech from the throne which began Canada’s 18th parliamentary session on Thursday, February 6, 1936.

I am happy to be able to inform you that a trade agreement between Canada and the United States of America was concluded on Armistice Day, 1935, and that the trade dispute with Japan, which had seriously affected the trade of both countries, was adjusted before the end of the old year. The Canada-United States Trade Agreement will be submitted for your approval. You will also be forthwith advised of the basis on which normal trade relations between Canada and Japan have been restored.[2]

In addition to travelling throughout Canada, welcoming the new King and Queen, establishing the first proper library at Rideau Hall, and founding the Governor General’s Literary Awards, Buchan represented three different Kings during his five year reign. George V died in January 1935. Edward VIII abdicated eleven months later. George VI took office in May 1937.

He spent most of his time, however, supporting desperate Canadians and meeting with leaders to convince them not to go to war.

Their efforts to build a European peace failed.

On Thursday, September 7, Tweedsmuir made the following speech:

Honourable Members of the Senate:

Members of the House of Commons:

As you are only too well aware, all efforts to maintain the peace of Europe have failed. The United Kingdom, in honouring pledges given as a means of avoiding hostilities, has become engaged in war with Germany. You have been summoned at the earliest moment in order that the government may seek authority for the measures necessary for the defence of Canada, and for co-operation in the determined effort which is being made to resist further aggression, and to prevent the appeal to force instead of to pacific means in the settlement of international disputes.

Already the militia, the naval service and the air force have been placed on active service, and certain other provisions have been made for the defence of our coasts and our internal security under the War Measures Act and other existing authority.

Proposals for further effective action by Canada will be laid before you without delay.

Members of the House of Commons: You will be asked to consider estimates to provide for expenditure which has been or may be caused by the state of war which now exists.

Honourable Members of the Senate: Members of the House of Gommons: I need not speak of the extreme gravity of this hour. There can have been few, if any, more critical in the history of the world. The people of Canada are facing the crisis with the same fortitude that to-day supports the peoples of the United Kingdom and other of the nations of the British Commonwealth. My ministers are convinced that Canada is prepared to unite in a national effort to defend to the utmost liberties and institutions which are a common heritage.[3]

After both houses voted to support the plan, Canada went to war with Germany on September 9, 1939.

[1] Macdonald, Kate, Reassessing John Buchan: Beyond the Thirty Nine Steps, London: Pickering and Chatte, 2009, , 1851969985 p 113.

[2] Journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Session 1936, 18th Parliament of Canada, J.O. Patenaud I.S.O., February 6 to June 23rd, 1936, Thursday, February 6, 1936, p 12.

[3] Journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 5th Special War Session, 18th Parliament of Canada, J.O. Patenaud I.S.O., Thursday, September 7, 1939, p 1.