History Slam Episode 176: The Third Man

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By Sean Graham

The first time I came to Ottawa to do research at Library and Archives Canada, I was walking back to the hotel at the end of the day and decided to stop at Parliament Hill with a specific goal – to find the statue of William Lyon Mackenzie King. I had spent the day going through Mackenzie King’s papers and wanted to see how he was commemorated. In his papers, he comes across as quite eccentric, but the statue depicts a typical statesman. In the years since, that mismatch has continued to stand out to me as I’ve had the opportunity to delve deeper into Mackenzie King’s life and career.

What makes Mackenzie King such an interesting historical figure is that there are these conflicts in his story. His approach to broadcasting, for instance, is a little all over the place and shows how his personal feelings could influence policy decisions. That version of Mackenzie King is not reflected in the statue. During the Second World War, however, his diplomatic abilities were on full display as he navigated the, at times tense, Anglo-American relationship and used his friendships with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to strengthen Canada’s international standing. That version of King is what comes through in his statue.

That version of King is also the subject of The Third Man: Churchill, Roosevelt, Mackenzie King, and the Untold Relationships that Won WWII by Neville Thompson, Professor Emeritus at Western. In the book, Thompson examines how Mackenzie King was a lynchpin between the United States and Great Britain through the early 1940s. Relying on his personal relationships with the leaders, Mackenzie King emerged as a statesman during these years, with both Churchill and Roosevelt looking to him as a key ally. Relying extensively on Mackenzie King’s unpublished diary, Thompson offers compelling insights into a largely unstudied part of Mackenzie King’s tenure as Prime Minister.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Neville Thompson about the book. We talk about the historical caricature of Mackenzie King, his friendships with Churchill and Roosevelt, and how he used his personal relationships to improve his diplomatic efforts. We also discuss the importance of the two years prior to the United States entering the Second World War, King’s diary as historical source, and his legacy as a Prime Minister. The book is currently available for pre-order and is set to be released on February 16.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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