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Dec 4, 2004 3:26 am

President Bush Gets His History Wrong on His Visit to Canada

Joanne Laucius, in the Ottawa Citizen (12-2-04):

George W. Bush' speechwriters got a bit of U.S. history wrong yesterday in his Halifax speech. ... In the speech at the historic Pier 21, where thousands of immigrants have entered Canada, the president urged "energetic defence" as an important duty. And he quoted Canada's wartime prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to bolster his argument.

In the "early days" of the Second World War, when the U.S. was "still wrestling with isolationism," some Canadians were arguing that Canada was not being attacked and they weren't interested in fighting a distant war, said Mr. Bush.

Mr. King's response to this was that "to remain on the defensive is the surest way to bring war to Canada," Mr. Bush said in his speech.

Mr. Bush went on to quote Mr. King as saying Canada should protect itself against attack but, also, "we must go out and meet the enemy before he reaches our shores. We must defeat him before he attacks us, before our cities are laid to waste."

"Mackenzie King was correct then, and we must always remember the wisdom of the words today," Mr. Bush told his listeners.

But the problem was this: the King speech Mr. Bush quoted was made on April 7, 1942. Canada had been in the war since September 1939. The U.S. had also been in the war since Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and was therefore no longer isolationist.

A senior administration official in the White House said the point of the King quotation was that Canada entered the Second World War before the U.S.

"Canada was there when there was no direct threat," he said.

Mr. Bush used Mr. King's speech out of context, said political and military historian Desmond Morton.

Mr. King's Liberals had repeatedly promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service, which Quebecers strongly opposed. In 1942, a plebiscite was being held to ask Canadians to release the government from its promises. The King speech was aimed at persuading Canadians to give the government a "free hand in the discharge of its duty in carrying on the war." In the end, Quebec voted against conscription while the rest of the country was strongly in favour.

But taking history out of context is not unusual in political speeches, said Mr. Morton....

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