A skillful administrator and consensus builder and an astute politician, King deserves much of the credit for Canada's remarkable economic and military mobilization during World War II. In September 1939, French Canadian support for the war was lukewarm at best, and a great many among the English Canadian majority questioned their fellow citizens' loyalty. King forged a precarious unity by promising his Liberal government would emphasize war production rather than expeditionary forces. This policy of "limited liabilities" did not, however, survive the defeat of France in June 1940. King also promised not to impose conscription for overseas service. Luck—the Canadian army saw little combat until mid-1943—combined with a sincere political effort not to isolate the people of Quebec and simultaneously to reach out to "moderate" English Canadians almost got the country through unscathed. With the Allies facing a desperate shortage of infantry reinforcements in the autumn of 1944 and with his own leadership at stake, King reluctantly implemented limited overseas conscription that November. In retrospect, his handling of the explosive conscription issue was a singular political achievement.
Although Canada's international stature and national pride grew dramatically during the war years, the ever cautious King was content for the country to continue playing the role of a loyal subordinate. His relationship with British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill was often strained, but his government still provided enormous military, economic, and financial assistance to the "mother country," most of it ultimately at no cost. In contrast, his relationship with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was warm. Common sense, of course, dictated that King encourage closer ties with the United States. The wartime advantages of this policy were immeasurable for Canada. Few Canadians warmed to King, but in the June 1945 election, running on a platform of progressive social and economic measures for the postwar era, his government won a majority (albeit a slender one). Worn out by his wartime exertions, King retired in October 1948. He died in Ottawa on 22 July 1950.
Patrick H. Brennan
Dawson, Robert MacGregor. William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1958.; Granatstein, J. L. Canada's War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939–45. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1975.; Granatstein, J. L. How Britain's Weakness Forced Canada into the Arms of the United States. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1989.; Pickersgill, J. W. The Mackenzie King Record. 4 vols. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1960–1970.