Thursday, April 7, 2011

Walter Riddell: The Canadian at the League of Nations who tried to stop Mussolini


In the early 1920s, Canada was a young country with a population of less than 9 million. It was casting off the remnants of colonialism and trying to establish itself as a nation. The post-World War I era presented Canadians with an opportunity to enter the world stage. This was a fitting time to join the newly formed League of Nations. The League, a multilateral international organization, was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson was a man of vision. He dreamed of a general association of nations to broker a lasting and effective peace. Horrified by the carnage of World War I, Wilson made the creation of a League of Nations a priority and the final point of his famous Fourteen Points. Sixty-three nations, including Canada, signed on with the League. The United States, ironically, was not a signatory.

In spite of the president’s efforts to promote and establish the League, his own country never became a member. Sadly, Wilson was unable to reach accommodation with influential members of the Republican Party. The Republicans controlled the U.S. Congress and they ultimately prevented American entry into the League. Although an ailing Wilson survived long enough to see his dream come to fruition, the League never lived up to Wilson’s ideals. Hampered from the start by the absence of America’s power and influence, it was tragically incomplete.

The League of Nations came into existence on January 10, 1920 and was based in Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland was an obvious choice for the League’s headquarters. The Swiss were neutral and Geneva was the city where the Red Cross was founded. From the outset, Canadians played an active role in the League of Nations. Montreal-born businessman and philanthropist, Sir Herbert Ames, was the League’s first Financial Director. He held the position until 1926. Renowned Canadians such as future prime minister Lester B. Pearson and future governor general Georges Vanier played significant roles at the League during the early years of their diplomatic careers.

Fist Assembly of the League of Nations

Canada's delegation to the League - 1920

In 1927, Vanier held the rank of lieutenant colonel and was sent to Geneva as a Canadian military advisor to the League of Nations on disarmament: He left in 1931 to take a diplomatic posting as High Commissioner in London. Vanier went on to become Canada’s first governor general from Quebec. Lester Pearson participated in sessions of the League of Nations in 1935. For Pearson, this served as a launching pad to an outstanding diplomatic career which culminated in his winning the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.

Canada had an excellent opportunity to exert its influence when it served on the League’s council from 1927 to 1930. Although the League of Nations was often ineffective and its members unable to agree, Canada did have its successes at the world organization. One occurred in 1929 when the Canadian representative on the council, Raoul Dandurand, proposed improving the League procedures in overseeing the treatment of linguistic and religious minorities in Eastern Europe. It is interesting that in 1924, Dandurand uttered the classic statement of Canadian isolationism when he declared, "We live in a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials."

In the 1930s, members of the League were unable or unwilling to stop the aggressive actions of Japan, Italy and Germany. One Canadian, however, made a noteworthy effort. His name was Walter Riddell and he was the leader of Canada’s delegation to the League. Riddell’s actions put him on a collision course with the government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Walter Alexander Riddell was born on August 5, 1881 in Stratford, Ontario, the son of a locomotive engineer and ardent labour activist. The young Walter and his family migrated to Denver, Colorado in the 1880s, but returned to Canada in 1892, this time to a Manitoba farm. Riddell’s father had a hunger to work the land and become a pioneer-settler. He moved the family to a homestead north of Boissevain, Manitoba where his growing son soon experienced the hardships and challenges of pioneer life.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba, Riddell spent a year as a student missionary in British Columbia. Later he was given charge of a mission in Weston, Manitoba, just outside of Winnipeg. Much of Weston’s population was comprised of Old Country Labour and was of a decidedly leftist bent. When citizens came to the mission house, they were eager to put forth their opinions on Marxism - as soon as they had dealt with their spiritual welfare, of course.

Walter Riddell went on to attend Columbia University and he eventually received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1912.  He became a clergyman, scholar, public servant and labour specialist. This multifaceted man was also an accomplished author. He wrote about the early social history of Quebec. One of his books, The Rise of Ecclesiastical Control of Quebec, was a major authority on the subject for many years.

In 1919, W.A, Riddell was appointed Ontario’s first deputy minister of labour. During his short term as deputy labour minister, Riddell made his mark by playing a role in drafting the provincial Mother's Allowance Act and the Minimum Wage Act. In May of 1920, he left Toronto to begin a long and distinguished career as a diplomat. Riddell went overseas to serve as Canadian delegate to the International Labour Organization in Geneva where he led the Immigration and Employment Section. It was, however, during his tenure as Canadian Advisory Officer to the League of Nations, that Riddell made his greatest impact.

From the beginning, Canada was regularly represented at League assemblies. Still, it was not until January of 1925 that Riddell became Canada’s permanent advisory officer. In 1931, the League of Nations faced a major crisis when Japan brazenly invaded the province of Manchuria in northern China. Although the League condemned Japan, it took no strong measures to hold back Japanese aggression. Canada also refused to support any active resistance to the occupation of Manchuria.

On February 24, 1933, the Japanese delegation walked out of the League Assembly after its approval of the Lytton Report which rejected the legitimacy of Japan's occupation of Manchuria.  A motion was then raised to declare Japan the aggressor in the conflict whereupon he leader of the Japanese delegation, Yosuke Matsuoka, stormed out of the hall proclaiming “We are not coming back.” On March 27, the Japanese government announced its formal withdrawal from the League of Nations and made it abundantly clear it had no intention of abandoning its military ambitions.

The League’s handling of the Manchurian crisis demonstrated that it was too weak to enforce its decisions. Japan had shown that it could blatantly defy world opinion with impunity. The lesson was not lost on other nations with aggressive intent. When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party assumed power in Germany, the regime’s first significant step in the area of foreign policy was the announcement of Germany's withdrawal from the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations (October 14, 1933).

In the autumn of 1935, Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, demanded extensive territories in Ethiopia (historically known as Abyssinia). Mussolini was emboldened by Japan’s aggressiveness in China and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations to prevent it. He promised the Italian people a “place in the sun” and was determined to have an empire in Africa.

On October 3, 1935, the Italian army crossed the Mereb River and attacked Ethiopia. The Ethiopians were no match for the modern military might of the Italians. It would only be a matter of time before Ethiopia would fall to its European invaders. The League Assembly denounced Mussolini’s actions. Economic sanctions against Italy were recommended and a committee was duly set up to study their application.

Although members of the League were not permitted to supply goods to Italy, there was one glaring omission on the list of sanctions – oil. Oil was essential to Mussolini’s army. The Italian dictator threatened that the imposition of oil sanctions would mean war.

In the Canadian election of October 14, 1935, the Liberals defeated the Conservative government of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Mackenzie King was returned to power with a strong majority government. The Liberals were willing to support the four economic sanctions against Italy already recommended, but refused to recognize a binding commitment of military sanctions.

Walter Riddell was a member of the committee studying the application of sanctions against Italy. Riddell decided to take the initiative. Without his government’s instruction or approval, he advocated further sanctions. On November 2, after being advised by none other than Lester B. Pearson, Riddell proposed ceasing all exports of oil, coal and steel to Italy. The scholarly Canadian diplomat caused an immediate sensation and set tongues wagging. The “Riddell Incident” succeeded in putting Canada in the spotlight, much to the consternation of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

The prime minister was wary of involvement in foreign wars. By the end of World War I, most Canadians had had more than enough of such entanglements, especially French-speaking Canadians. King's goal was domestic harmony and he was well aware that foreign policy issues divided Canadians profoundly. With the Conscription Crisis of 1917 never far from his mind, King certainly did not want to polarize the country yet again. His attitude can be summed up in a statement he made in the House of Commons in March of 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II. He declared that “A strong and dominant national feeling is not a luxury in Canada, it is a necessity. A divided Canada can be of little help to any country and least of all to itself.”

Within days, Ottawa disavowed the stand taken by Riddell at Geneva. Riddell was publicly repudiated by his own government. On December 2, 1935, King’s trusted Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe (the acting prime minister at the time) stated that in adding oil to the list of economic sanctions against Italy, Dr. Riddell had been expressing his own opinion, and not the opinion of the government of Canada. A front page headline in the December 3, 1935 edition of The Toronto Daily Star blared that the United Kingdom knew that Canada was not behind Riddell.

After the stir created by Dr. Riddell, Canada maintained a low profile at League meetings. On May 5, 1936, the Italians occupied Addis Abba, Ethiopia’s capital city. Four days later, the country was formerly annexed. Canada, Britain and Australia soon decided to abandon sanctions against Italy. On June 30, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie made a dramatic appearance before the League of Nations in Geneva to plead for assistance. He condemned the use of poison gas on his people which he said killed both civilians and soldiers

The following year, Walter Riddell was withdrawn from Geneva and sent to Washington as counsellor at the Canadian embassy. By 1939, the world was once again at war, a war the League of Nations failed to avert. Riddell completed his diplomatic career with a posting as Canada’s High commissioner to New Zealand in 1940. After World War II, the League of Nations was dissolved and replaced by the United Nations.

In 1946, Riddell resigned his post in New Zealand. After 26 years of diplomatic service to his country, he returned to Canada to become director of international relations at the University of Toronto. On July 27, 1963, he died at his cottage in Algonquin Park

There will always be an intriguing question surrounding the career of Walter Riddell. What would have happened if the Mackenzie King government had supported him in 1935? We can only speculate. It is, however, interesting to note that author Pierre Berton once expressed his opinion on the matter.

In November of 2001, the outspoken Berton gave his view of Canada’s wars to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. “Three of them – the Boer War, the Great War and Korean War – we shouldn’t have been in” he declared. “And the fourth – World War II – could have been avoided if our prime minister had backed the Canadian representative to the League of Nations in 1935.” “No other country had the guts to stand up and say let’s stop Mussolini, “Berton told the Record. “When King undercut Riddell he paved the way for Hitler.”

It is debatable whether the imposition of an oil blockade would have stopped Mussolini. After all, the Americans controlled much of the oil trade and they did not have membership in the League. Furthermore, Nazi Germany was not willing to assist in blockading Italy. Whether one agrees with Pierre Berton’s staunchly pro-Riddell assessment or not, there is little doubt that Walter Riddell was a man of principle and courage. He was willing to take a stand and accept the consequences.  

- Joanne


  1. Hi Joanne,
    Do you have citations of the resources you used to create this post?

    1. Most of the information in this post has been taken from CANADIANA ENCYLOPEDIA, THE CANADIAN ENCYLOPEDIA, TORONTO STAR news clippings (I used to work at the library of the Toronto Star) and a 2001 story from the KITCHENER-WATERLOO RECORD.

    2. Thanks!
      This was a great post, by the way - it was clear and well laid out. :)