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Your History Book Missed It: In 1921, Great Britain and America Nearly Went to War

Your History Book Missed It: In 1921, Great Britain and America Nearly Went to War

Robert Farley

Security,

A U.S. invasion of Canada? What would have happened? One thing is for sure: our world would be a very different place. 

Key Point: The British Army and the Royal Navy could, possibly, have erected a credible defense of Nova Scotia, preventing the United States from completely rolling up Canada. London could also have offered support for resistance forces in the Canadian wilderness, although even supplying guerilla operations in the far north would have tested British logistics and resolve.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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