Blogs > Liberty and Power > Attack Canada!

Jul 27, 2008 5:05 pm

Attack Canada!

During the many years I resided in the Seattle area, I frequently drove up Interstate 5 to Vancouver, to eat at a favorite restaurant, visit friends, or just enjoy myself in one of the world’s most spectacularly beautiful cities. At Blaine, Washington, where travelers along this route cross the border into Canada, I always took notice of the magnificent Peace Arch, which sits precisely athwart the border. On the U.S. side, its inscription reads “Children of a Common Mother,” and I was always bemused by what I took to be the implicit ethnocentrism of that expression. It seems to be the sort of thought that occurred naturally to WASP movers and shakers circa 1921, the year the monument was dedicated, but it certainly would not pass muster with today’s multicultural gatekeepers.

Be that as it may, I always relished the idea that the people of Canada and the United States had been peaceful neighbors for so long—memories having faded of U.S. attempts to conquer Canada at the outset of the War of Independence and at the outset of the War of 1812, not to mention the Fenian raids between 1866 and 1871 and the 1859 Pig War (certainly my all-time favorite war, inasmuch as no shots were fired, except the one that killed the pig). Because I have enjoyed so many warm friendships with Canadians and spent so many pleasant times in their country during the past forty years, I confess that the idea of warfare between the United States and Canada strikes me as flat-out preposterous.

So, I was somewhat taken aback when, searching for information on another matter, I stumbled upon a description of War Plan Red, which pertains to a war between the United States and the British Empire. The U.S. Army developed this plan, along with many other color-coded contingency plans, in the 1920s and kept it warm until the end of the 1930s, when new plans were made in which the United States and Canada would cooperate in military actions against common enemies, such as Germany and Japan.

War Plan Red envisioned primarily U.S. attacks on and occupation of various Canadian cities, including Halifax (to be subjected to a poison-gas first strike), Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Victoria. To imagine U.S. Army officers drawing up such a plan only a few years before I was born boggles my mind. What were they thinking?

As if War Plan Red were not bizarre enough, be advised that an enterprising Canadian soldier, Colonel James “Buster” Sutherland Brown (yes, Buster Brown—I am not making this up), drew up a plan in 1921 for Canadian forces to get the jump on the more powerful Americans before the Yankees could invade Canada. Brown’s Defence Scheme No. 1 called for quick Canadian military thrusts to seize various U.S. cities—Seattle, Minneapolis, and Albany, among others—before retreating from them in an orderly manner. The idea was to divert U.S. troops and buy time for the British Empire to bring more powerful forces onto the scene in Canada’s defense. The Canadian military abandoned the plan in 1928, which, strange to say, was shortly after the U.S. Army formulated War Plan Red, a design consisting, for the most part, of plans for an invasion of Canada. For letting down its guard against a possible—nay, a planned—U.S. invasion, I blame Canada. I’m sure you know the lyrics for my indictment.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/30/2008

War of 1812-1814 where it was the USA tha invaded and burned a Canadian courthouse. The second Reil rebellion of Canada in the 1880's almost got the USA involved that could have lead to Canada disappearing from the map. In our a-lines it did not however.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/29/2008

Here are three facts: 1) soldiering is a young man's game; 2) armies are hierarchical organizations, with little room at the top; and 3) soldiers only get to practice their profession in the full sense every twenty or thirty years, on average. The combination of these facts in a peacetime army tends to produce a body of middle-aged men, typically majors, with plenty of time on their hands. Their early education and experience often tends to unfit them for alternative occupations, particularly if they would have to start at the bottom. Since the spread of German-style staff corps and staff colleges, the middle-aged majors have vented their surplus energy by doing war plans for every conceivable contingency. It is a bit like graduate students scrambling for thesis topics.

In the case of the United States Army in the 1920's, there is a further complicating factor, that of institutional jealousy. In the nature of things, the Army could not fight overseas wars unless the Navy took it overseas. This meant that there was an incentive to find a mission which did not depend on the Navy's transport and patronage. A curious story: in 1942, the first Army troops arrived on Guadalcanal, bearing the new semi-automatic Garrand rifles, to reinforce the Marines. The Marines took the new rifles away from the Army, on the grounds that their own need was greater, giving the soldiers their own bolt-action Springfields in exchange. It was understood that the Marines were the Navy's favorite sons, and the Army's encounter with "Howling Mad" Smith on Saipan a couple of years later confirmed the impression.

Alternatively, an overseas operation might work out to reinforcing a foreign ally. American forces were likely to be viewed as replacements for a combat-experienced army. That could be even worse. The Americans might be sent American instructors who had learned their trade in the French Foreign Legion, and who were being lent back to train "les pauvres petits enfants."

Naturally, the Army tended to have a preference for battlefields it could reach on its own two or four feet, as the case might be. In 1941, General Short in Hawaii would comically overinflate the threat posed by the Japanese-Americans because that was the only threat he really "owned." Everything else was work for Marines, or else for aviators and similar disreputable types. In the 1920's, the Army could see Canada as a threat, or it could see Mexico as a threat. Canada was more plausible than Mexico, because it was part of the British Commonwealth.

Robert Higgs - 7/28/2008

Well, it goes without saying that "too much" should not be made of anything, and I should have thought that my light-hearted tone would have signaled that I was, by and large, having a little fun in this post, albeit displaying some interesting and unfamiliar facts at the same time.

Still, my question remains: what were they thinking? I am well aware that professional military planners in all countries have long drawn up, and episodically revised, plans for a great many conceivable wars. Some people, having called this familiar fact to my attention (as if I didn't know), seem to conclude that any critical observations with regard to such planning are pointless, if not naive. But is that so? That all militaries routinely do something does not imply that what they are doing makes sense.

When the military makes plans, it employs scarce resources--its personnel's time and energy, if nothing else--that might be put to alternative uses. To make a war plan for fighting a war with Canada, a country with neither motive nor means of militarily threatening the United States, betokens precisely the sort of bone-headed, cover-all-bases mentality that underlies so many constipated military actions and ossified modes of organization.

This sort of pointless planning is precisely the sort that we tend to find among ALL government bureaucracies--you academics out there know what I'm talking about. Indeed, in my experience, the defining trait of a state university administrator is to occupy himself entirely in pointless planning, complete with insistence on submission of time-consuming reports from underlings and attendance at endless "no business" meetings that tax the patience of everyone dragged into them, some of whom actually have better things to do (e.g., teaching, doing research, napping.

In the private sector, in contrast, where an organization must economize on the use of resources, earn a revenue from willing buyers, and show a profit in order to remain in business in the long run, planning is more pointed, and contingencies that have a likelihood of less than one in a thousand do not become an occasion for the expenditure of scarce personnel resources.

Nathan A Barton - 7/28/2008

It is only fair to point out that this plan was part of a long series of plans, the Color plans, which included plans for invading Italy, Ireland, and lots of other places - a basic, even essential part of military planning and training, and NOT because Canada was deemed to be such a threat or potential target.

Too much should not be made of this.