Militarism: Then and Now

George Drew

Col. George Drew as Premier of Ontario

The first debate in the race to be the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee took place in Las Vegas on Tuesday night and featured Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Ch…  and some other guys who fill out the field. While the debate went largely as expected, one remark by Bernie Sanders stood out. In the section on foreign policy Sanders emphatically stated, “I am not a pacifist” and cited his support for airstrikes against Syria, as well as voting in favour of American military involvement in Afghanistan and Kosovo. While arguing that he would only use military force as a last resort, it is clear that Sanders desperately wanted to avoid the dreaded label of “pacifist”.

Similarly, in the first debate of the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, Tom Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) was asked that, given the NDP’s pacifist origins and their current opposition to military action against ISIS, under what circumstances would the NDP support deploying Canada’s military? Mulcair was quick to emphasize that his party supported Canada’s bombing mission in Libya and that he would be in favour of any military action approved by the United Nations. In the subsequent debate on foreign policy later on in the campaign, Mulcair repeated his position. While the NDP doesn’t support Canada’s current military deployment, don’t be mistaken, they are not the pacifists of their party’s past, they are willing to use Canada’s army, navy and air force given the right circumstances.

Regardless of the country, both Sanders and Mulcair do not want to be tarred with the pacifist taint. Rightly or wrongly, in the 21st century, one needs to be slightly hawkish to be seen as electable. Even men like Sanders, who are willing to openly embrace the socialist label, are not willing to adopt socialism’s traditional antipathy towards military action. Compare this approach to prominent politicians in the first half of the 1930s. While the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) actively campaigned against any military action, leaders across the political spectrum, even aspiring Conservative politicians, were willing to openly advocate for disarmament.

George Drew, in 1934, was one such aspiring Conservative. Best known as the founder of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Dynasty and later leader of the Federal Conservatives, in 1934, Drew’s circumstances were quite different. A Toronto born lawyer who had served with distinction in the First World War as an artillery officer,  in 1931 Drew was appointed by Ontario’s Conservative premier  to head the nascent Ontario Securities Commission. However, after the 1934 provincial election in which the Tories lost to the Mitch Hepburn-led Liberal Party, Drew was fired due to his suspected partisan sympathies. His firing by Hepburn prompted Drew to become more active in provincial politics (he previously had been Mayor of Guelph in the 1920s). Thus, throughout 1934, through to the 1936 Conservative Party of Ontario Leadership Convention, where he ran unsuccessfully for leadership, Drew gave a series of speeches – helpfully preserved in his fonds at Library and Archives Canada – designed to raise his political profile. Commenting on political matters of the day, from unemployment to Commonwealth relations and agrarian protests, Drew sought to demonstrate his expertise and political acumen to Conservative Ontarians.

One of Drew’s favourite subjects was militarism and the legacy of the First World War. Drawing on his own combat experience during the war, Drew talked extensively about what he saw as the folly of modern warfare. His thoughts are best represented by a speech he gave in 1934 entitled “Twenty Years After.” In it, he argued that the war:

… Proved, first of all, the insane and ghastly folly of modern mechanical warfare. It proved also that science and industry have made it possible to destroy our very civilization. And it proved, more than anything else, how dangerous it is to build up great forces of destruction which can be let loose at the whim of a few misguided men.

He went on to highlight how, similar to the years before 1914, world powers were building armaments at an alarming degree. It is this process of armament that Drew argued would only lead to further conflict. In the same speech he stated that:

The first six months of 1934 saw an enormous increase in the production of war equipment. Every manufacturing nation greatly increased its exports. Under the magic name of security, insecurity is being created everywhere. Forces far more powerful for war and much more easily put in motion are accumulating on all sides. It only needs another spark like that at Sarajevo to start the conflagration… And the terrifying thought is that these mighty forces are in the hands once more of a few men, some sincere, some irresponsible.

 Here was a leadership hopeful for the Conservative Party in Canada’s largest province, openly questioning the re-armament policies of many countries’ and arguing that such weaponry actually created greater insecurity. Fast forward to 2015 and a statement like this could now only be found among the most radical left, yet here is an aspiring Conservative openly making such an argument with the hope that it would advance his reputation as a serious and legitimate political leader.  While modern leaders on the left are keen to advertise their willingness to use military force, Canadians from across the political spectrum in the late 1920s and early 1930s were rightfully skeptical of those who were quick to resort to military force.

Admittedly, as the 1930s progressed and Hitler demonstrated that Germany, along with his fascist ally Italy, would once against threaten world peace, some Conservative leaders, such as Drew, did adopt a more militaristic attitude, arguing for rearmament  and military preparedness. However, as in the more famous case of Winston Churchill in Britain, most people ignored these cries in the wilderness, in many ways demonstrating the pervasive and long-lasting appeal of Drew and other’s message from the earlier part of the decade.

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