Politics·Analysis

A 'deafening silence': Canada still struggles with the Second World War's legacy, says historian

The Second World War formally ended 75 years ago today with a surrender ceremony aboard a American battleship in Tokyo Bay. The war changed the world — Canada included — but one historian argues Canadians still haven't come to terms with its legacy.

Tim Cook argues Canadians have a blind spot when it comes to their role in a war that changed the world

Col. Lawrence Cosgrave (right), the Canadian defence attache in Australia during the Second World War, accepted the surrender of Japanese forces on the Government of Canada's behalf on Sept. 2, 1945. (Canadian War Museum/Contributed)

Seventy-five years ago today, a little-known Canadian colonel — a half-blind veteran of the First World War — sat pen in hand before a dark cloth-covered table on the quarterdeck of the American battleship U.S.S. Missouri.

Allied warships had assembled in a long, grey line in the stifling heat of Tokyo Bay — a mute audience for the moment the victors met the vanquished.

Along with a host of military glitterati that included U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Col. Lawrence Cosgrave accepted the surrender of the Japanese empire on Canada's behalf. He signed on the wrong line, causing a minor kerfuffle that was soon rectified by MacArthur's chief of staff with a stroke of his own pen.

The Second World War ended at that moment.

A copy of the Sept. 2, 1945 Japanese surrender document, displayed aboard the USS Missouri historical site at Pearl Harbor, Oahu. ( Murray Brewster/CBC News)

The most deadly and destructive conflict in human history — a war that killed at least 75 million people worldwide, claimed 45,000 Canadian lives and left another 55,000 Canadians physically and mentally scarred — was finally over.

Once the shooting stopped, said historian Tim Cook, war-weary Canadians were eager to forget the war — or at least to move on from it. Few people know, and even fewer appreciate, the somewhat droll role Cosgrove played in that great moment three-quarters of a century ago.

That act of collective forgetting bothers Cook. It's reflected in the title of his latest book: The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering and Remaking Canada's Second World War.

One of the book's working titles was "The Deafening Silence."

"It's not easy to talk about our history," Cook told CBC News. "History often divides us."

Cook — one of the country's leading military historians and authors — said he's baffled by Canadians' apparent reluctance to come to grips with the war's legacy.

Historian Tim Cook: "History often divides us." (CBC News)

Following the First World War, Canadians built monuments from coast to coast. Canadian soldiers who served in that war — Cosgrave among them — wrote sometimes eloquent and moving accounts of their experiences under fire.

That didn't happen in Canada following the Japanese and German surrenders in 1945, said Cook.

"We didn't write the same history books. We didn't produce films or television series," he said. "We allowed the Americans and the British and even the Germans to write about the war and to present it on film."

Some Canadian war correspondents wrote books in the immediate aftermath of the victory, hoping to speak to history — but senior military commanders and leaders subsequently shied away.

Unlike the American and British generals who wrote Second World War memoirs (Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Bernard Montgomery), Canadian commanders Harry Crerar, Andrew McNaughton, George Pearkes and Guy Simmonds all chose to remain silent and allowed biographers to tell their stories — sometimes decades after the fact. 

Cook said the reluctance of many returning Canadian soldiers to discuss the war beyond the tight circles of Royal Canadian Legion halls — a silence that persisted for decades — also contributed to Canadians' lack of engagement with the country's experiences in the Second World War.

The 'comfortable' image of Canada the peacekeeper

The advent of peacekeeping has also tainted Canada's view of the conflict, he said.

While some critics have argued successive governments have exploited the peacekeeping mythology, Cook said he's very proud of Canada's peacekeeping legacy. But peacekeeping "became a very comfortable symbol for us," he said. "I argue in the book that it too has contributed to the silencing of the Second World War."

In the 1960s, Cook said, Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada suffered from dwindling attendance. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s — when the war was being re-examined through American popular culture properties like the hit movie Saving Private Ryan — that a deeper appreciation began to take root, he said.

Cook argues that revival of interest happened almost too late — at a time when many veterans had already passed away and few living Canadians remembered the war as a personal experience.

"We shouldn't expect the Americans or the British and the Germans and the Japanese to talk about the war" in the same way Canadians experienced it, he said.

"If you don't tell your own story, no one else will."

History can be "dangerous" for politicians, Cook argues, because of the divisions it leaves behind (the conscription crisis of 1944 damaged English-French relations in Canada) and the effect of its darker chapters — such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians — when they come to light.

Many of the international institutions that were born out of the Second World War are under attack today. That's just one reason why remembering the war is so important, said Cook.

"I'm not suggesting we should write heroic history and that we need to chest-thump and stand behind the flag. But I do think we need to tell our stories."

The American battleship USS Missouri hosted the Japanese surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945. It is now a museum in Oahu, Hawaii. ( Murray Brewster/CBC News)

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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