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Review

Canada’s Road to the Pacific War: Intelligence, Strategy, and the Far East Crisis

By Timothy Wilford

November 4, 2013

Review By James Wood

Canada’s Road to the Pacific War examines the role of intelligence in Canadian strategic planning during the year preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Drawing on archival resources in Canada, Britain, and the United States, Timothy Wilford has retraced Canada’s steps toward the Pacific War, revealing the extent of intelligence that was available to Canadian planners in 1940-41. Through an effective analysis of these documents, many of them only recently declassified, Wilford has written a history that highlights the growing probability of war with Japan throughout 1941, while also explaining why the actual targets and timing of the Japanese offensive could not be accurately determined before it began.

Readers from British Columbia, the province most immediately affected by the Japanese threat, will find Wilford’s examination of this period to be of particular interest. Using a military and political framework that centres on RCMP and Royal Canadian Navy intelligence gathering, his discussion of preparations for the internment of Japanese Canadians shows how difficult it was for an elected government to achieve a balance between executive authority and public accountability in wartime. By focusing on the documentary evidence, Wilford demonstrates the depth of concern among government officials over possible Japanese attacks against British Columbian fishing fleets and the threat of clandestine activities along the coast. His approach sheds new light on Canadian government investigations, some taking place as early as October 1940, into the registration, internment, and repatriation of Japanese-Canadians. While Wilford shows clearly that decisions were being made in light of the available intelligence, he concludes that BC’s Japanese community was “completely innocent” of any transgression and was “the object of intense anti-Asian racism” (204).

Canada’s Road to the Pacific War also addresses lingering controversies surrounding possible foreknowledge of the Japanese attack that brought the United States into the war. Of particular interest is Wilford’s discussion of an affidavit of Murton Seymour, released in 2001, contending that the British and the Americans had received convincing intelligence that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor in early December 1941 (154). In contrast to Wilford’s earlier work that endorses a revisionist view, Canada’s Road to the Pacific War strikes a closer balance between traditional and revisionist perspectives.  He shows clearly that sufficient intelligence existed in 1941 to predict a Japanese attack in early December, but he is careful to note that key evidence concerning the recognition and impact of this intelligence remains missing or is not yet available. Likewise, Wilford shows that active Canadian involvement in intelligence gathering allowed the country to be better prepared for the Pacific War than has been previously thought by historians (xii, 51). Carrying this argument over into a discussion of the decision to send a contingent to reinforce the British garrison at Hong Kong, however, leads the reader to question whether the Canadian government knowingly sent these soldiers to certain disaster.

Canada’s Road to the Pacific War raises awareness of the motivations behind military planning and political decision-making during the final months before Canada’s war with Japan. Wilford presents his research with methodical organization, effective transitions and summaries, and rich documentation, to provide an insightful explanation of Canada’s evolving wartime relationship with Britain and the United States. He shows the extent to which racism coloured the judgment of military and government decision-makers, both in underestimating Japanese military capabilities and in overestimating the threat posed by Japanese-Canadians living in coastal British Columbia. Above all, Wilford gives us an intelligence-based understanding of the Mackenzie King government’s decisions to prepare for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, to support the trade embargo against Japan, to send Canadian soldiers to the ill-fated defence of Hong Kong, and to be the first Allied nation to declare war against Japan.

Canada’s Road to the Pacific War: Intelligence, Strategy, and the Far East Crisis
By Timothy Wilford
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 312 pp, $34.95 paper