J. S. Woodsworth, no to war with Germany, Sept., 1939

In September 1939, J.S. Woodsworth stood almost alone in the House of Commons in his opposition to war with Germany.
J.S. Woodsworth, Wikipedia Photo.

James Shaver Woodsworth had an almost prophetic status among members of his CCF caucus and party. Woodsworth was also a pacifist. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and it became obvious that Canada would likely soon be at war, the caucus held a wrenching internal discussion in which most members disagreed with Woodsworth, their leader. When debate on Canada’s course of action was debated in the House of Commons, only Woodsworth and two MPs from Quebec opposed participation in the war. Woodsworth’s remarks make it clear that he could not speak on behalf of his party regarding the war, and that he was speaking only for himself. Poignantly, Woodsworth had suffered a stroke a few days earlier, something, only a few people knew, and in order to deliver his speech he had to rely on cue cards handed to him by Tommy Douglas, who was seated next to him.    

“I cannot give my consent to anything that will drag us into another war”

The Speech  

Tonight I find myself in rather an anomalous position. My own attitude towards war is fairly well known to the members of the House and, I think, throughout the country. My views on war became crystallized during the last war, long before the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation came into existence, but our Co-operative Commonwealth Federation is a democratic organization that decides matters of policy. My colleagues in the House and in the national council of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which has been in session with us almost continuously for the last two days, have very generously urged that I take this opportunity of expressing my own opinions with regard to this matter.

Personal views on war

The position of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation will be stated at the earliest possible opportunity by one of my colleagues. I say, frankly, that with part of that policy I heartily agree, but with some portions of it I cannot agree. Yet I was never so proud to belong to the group with which I am associated. In the time at my disposal tonight, I shall try to give expression to my own personal views with regard to the war, to give my interpretation of the situation that exists today and perhaps suggest some things that should be done. From the scores of telegrams, letters, and communications of various kinds that have come to me in the last few days, and from my own knowledge of the Canadian people, I feel confident that there are thousands upon thousands who hold very much the views which I do.

In my judgment, an individual citizen in a democracy, and much more a representative of the citizens, can make his greatest contribution by expressing his own convictions as clearly as possible. I am trying to do that tonight. I consider that a great many of my colleagues in this House belonging to all parties are quite sincere in the policies which they advocate. I do not question their patriotism. Perhaps I am going too far when I ask them to believe that I and others who feel like I do are sincere in our convictions and are no less interested in the welfare of this country . . .

Versailles Treaty 

It is only a few months since we erected in Ottawa a memorial to the poor fellows who fell in the last war; it is hardly finished before we are into the next war.

After the last war, many of us dreamed a great dream of an ordered world, a world to be founded on justice. But, unfortunately, the covenant of the League of Nations was tied up with the Versailles treaty, which I regard as an absolutely iniquitous treaty. Under that treaty we tried to crush Germany. We imposed indemnities which have been acknowledged by all to be impossible. We took certain portions of territory. Even French black troops were put into the Rhineland, an indignity much resented at the time by the Germans. We took away colonies, sank ships, and all the rest of it. We know that long, sordid story. To no small extent, it was this kind of treatment which created Hitler. I am not seeking to vindicate the things that Hitler has done, not at all. He may be a very devil incarnate, and the prime minister might have read a great deal more than the extracts he read tonight. But you cannot indict a great nation and a great people such as the German people. The fact is we got rid of the Kaiser only to create conditions favourable to the development of a Hitler. Of course, Canada had her responsibility. But the great nations did not take the League of Nations very seriously . . .

Avoid war hysteria

It seems to me that, above all things, we in Canada must avoid hysteria and we are in a better position to do so than are the people in other places. We must devote our efforts to something constructive. Great Britain undoubtedly has heavy responsibilities at the present time, but I would ask whether we are to risk the lives of our Canadian sons to prevent the action of Hitler in Danzig and in the corridor. I would ask what it would mean if there were talk about giving up Gibraltar and the Suez and our control of our interest in Palestine or in the African colonies. What is the result? The League has been practically set aside and now we are back to power politics again . . .

War settles nothing

I would ask, did the last war settle anything? I venture to say that it settled nothing; and the next war into which we are asked to enter, however big and bloody it may be, is not going to settle anything either. That is not the way in which settlements are brought about. While we are urged to fight for freedom and democracy, it should be remembered that war is the very negation of both. The victor may win; but if he does, it is by adopting the selfsame tactics which he condemns in his enemy. Canada must accept her share of responsibility for the existing state of affairs. It is true that we belong to the League, but anyone who has sat in this House knows how difficult it has been to secure any interest in the discussion of foreign affairs. More than that, we have been willing to allow Canadians to profit out of the situation. The prime minister may talk about preventing profiteering now, but Canada has shipped enormous quantities of nickel and scrap iron, copper and chromium to both Japan and Germany, who were potential enemies. We have done it right along. It may be possible now to prevent it, but I submit that if any shooting is to be done, the first people who should face the firing squad are those who have made money out of a potential enemy.

War follows injustice

I am among a considerable number in this country who believe, and we hold it as a mature conviction, that war is the inevitable outcome of the present economic and international system with its injustices, exploitations, and class interests. I suggest that the common people of the country gain nothing by slaughtering the common people of any other country. As one who has tried for a good many years to take a stand for the common people, personally I cannot give my consent to anything that will drag us into another war. It may be said that the boys who stay out are cowards. I have every respect for the man who, with a sincere conviction, goes out to give his life if necessary in a cause which he believes to be right; but I have just as much respect for the man who refuses to enlist to kill his fellow men and, as under modern conditions, to kill women and children as well, as must be done on every front . . .

The world is a crowded community today; yet we are all of us more or less inclined to act as individualists. I remember during the last war adopting as a kind of motto this phrase: “Last century made the world a neighbourhood, this century must make it a brotherhood.” The more I have studied history and economics, the more I have come to the conclusion that that is profoundly true. The choice is that or the deluge.

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Source: House of Commons, Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 18th Parliament, 5th Session, Volume 1, September 8, 1939, pp: 41-47. See here for complete speech.
More information: The Canadian Encyclopedia, “James Shaver Woodsworth”
Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.

4 thoughts on “J. S. Woodsworth, no to war with Germany, Sept., 1939

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  1. Wow. That was some speech. Gives one pause for thought, especially about those who profited from selling to Germany and Japan as they were building up their arsenal.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Lonnie. Woodsworth was a person of great integrity, although those who believed Canada had to go to war (and they were the vast majority in the House of Commons) were also people of good will. Unfortunately, the profiteering from arms sales is likely even more prevalent today, and the economies of many countries are also integrally tied into what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

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  2. Dennis – my favourite Woodsworthian line. The old pacifist had a tough side!
    “I submit that if any shooting is to be done, the first people who should face the firing squad are those who have made money out of a potential enemy.”
    Barry Wilson

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