The Buzz

This is How the U.S. Military Planned to Invade Canada

In the end, however, the United States would have occupied the vast bulk of Canada, at the cost of most of its Pacific possessions. And the Canadians, having finally been “liberated” by their brothers to the south? Eventually, the conquest and occupation of Canada would have resulted in statehood for some configuration of provinces, although not likely along the same lines as existed in 1920 (offering five full states likely would have resulted in an undesirable amount of formerly Canadian representation in the U.S. Senate). The process of political rehabilitation might have resembled the Reconstruction of the American South, without the racial element.

The end of a war only rarely settles the central questions that started the conflict. Indeed, many wars do not “end” in the traditional sense; World War II, for example, stretched on for years in parts of Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

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Even as the guns fell silent along the Western Front in 1918, the United States and the United Kingdom began jockeying for position. Washington and London bitterly disagreed on the nature of the settlements in Europe and Asia, as well as the shape of the postwar naval balance. In late 1920 and early 1921, these tensions reached panic levels in Washington, London and especially Ottawa.

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The general exhaustion of war, combined with the Washington Naval Treaty, succeeded in quelling these questions and setting the foundation for the great Anglo-American partnership of the twentieth century. But what if that hadn’t happened? What if the United States and United Kingdom had instead gone to war in the spring of 1921?

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The Liberation of Canada

The U.S.-Canadian border would have constituted the central front of the War of 1921. Although Washington maintained good relations with Ottawa, war plans in both the United States and the United Kingdom expected a multipronged invasion into America’s northern neighbor, designed to quickly occupy the country before British (or Japanese) reinforcement could arrive. Canadian declarations of neutrality would have had minimal impact on this process. Plans for initial attacks included the seizure of Vancouver, Winnipeg, the Niagara Falls area and most of Ontario.

Given the overwhelming disparity between available U.S. and Canadian military forces, most of these offensives would probably have succeeded in short order. The major battle would have revolved around British and Canadian efforts to hold Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and especially the port of Halifax, which would have served both as the primary portal for British troops and as the main local base for the Royal Navy. U.S. military planners understood that Halifax was the key to winning the war quickly, and investigated several options (including poison gas and an amphibious assault) for taking the port.

Assuming they held the line, could British and Canadian forces have prevented the severing of supply lines between Halifax and the main cities of Quebec and the Great Lakes region? Unlikely. The U.S. Army would have had major advantages in numbers, logistics, and mobility. Ottawa and Toronto might each have proven too big to swallow and digest quickly, but severing their connection to the Atlantic would have made the question of their eventual surrender only a matter of time.

And what about Quebec? The nationalism of the early twentieth century did not look kindly on large enclaves of ethno-linguistic minorities. Moreover, the United States had no constitutional mechanisms through which it could offer unique concessions to the French speaking majority of the province. In this context, Quebecois leaders might have sought an accord with Washington that resulted in Quebec’s independence in exchange for support for the American war effort, and Washington might plausibly have accepted such an offer. An accord of this nature might also have forestalled French support from their erstwhile British allies. If not, the U.S. Army planned to seize Quebec City through an overland offensive through Vermont.

 

Operations in the Atlantic

British war planning considered the prospect of simply abandoning Canada in favor of operations in the Caribbean. However, public pressure might have forced the Royal Navy to establish and maintain transatlantic supply lines against a committed U.S. Navy. While it might have struggled to do this over the long term, the RN still had a sufficient margin of superiority over the USN to make a game of it.

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