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In The Media

Cooper: We learned the value of vigilance 70 years ago

by Barry Cooper

The Calgary Herald
May 27, 2015

In a 1935 book, Paths of Glory, later a movie starring Kirk Douglas, one of the characters says “war never settled anything except who was strongest.”

Such sentiments were contrary to those expressed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier this month at Wageningen, the Netherlands. His words marked the 70th anniversary of the surrender, on May 5, 1945, of the German army in Holland to Canadian Lieut.-Gen. Charles Foulkes.

Two days later, the remaining Germans surrendered at Reims, France, and a day later, surrendered again to the Soviet Union in Berlin. Victory in Europe, or V-E Day, was officially celebrated on May 8.

Among the Allies, soldiers were relieved and civilians celebrated. Most Canadian cities and towns held thanksgiving services. After liberating several breweries and liquor stores, on May 7 and 8, the population of Halifax also rioted. More than 200 shops were looted, three rioters died, and 2,624 plate glass windows were replaced. A royal commission blamed the navy; the navy blamed city officials.

In Calgary on May 9, a famous de Havilland Mosquito warplane used in 211 combat missions and named “F-for-Freddie” buzzed downtown by flying north up First Street. Persons on the upper floors of the Hudson’s Bay store or the Palliser Hotel could see the plane flying below them. The next day, it crashed, killing the flight crew after making a low-altitude, high-speed pass over the airport control tower.

Things were rather different then. We don’t usually fly planes downtown at nearly 500 kilometres an hour today.

But was anything really settled?

In a recent essay, George Friedman, founder of the intelligence company Stratfor, suggested we look at the way the Second World War began, rather than how it ended, to see what changed. For the three major combatants, the U.K., the Soviet Union and the U.S., the war began with three distinct shocks.

The British were stunned by how quickly the French were defeated. Henceforth, they would have to rely on their air force and navy to keep the Germans at bay until, eventually, the Americans joined the war. The price, American and, as junior partners, Canadian occupation, was worth paying since the alternative was German occupation. But either way, the British Empire would be gone.

The Soviets were shocked in June 1941, when the Germans invaded in violation of the friendship treaty between the two countries. Like the British, they had expected more from the French, so as to give the Red Army the opportunity to attack west when it suited them. Instead, they were attacked when it suited the Germans.

Russia concluded the war by moving its effective borders to Central Europe, thus providing its armies with sufficient strategic depth to prevent any future invasion from the west. President Vladimir Putin’s action in Ukraine today reflects the lesson learned from the German invasion.

The Americans were shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The lesson, that conflict with Japan was likely, not how and when the attack might come, was translated into Cold War strategy: constant vigilance was needed. The lesson was enhanced by the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Americans, along with almost everyone else, also learned that appeasement did not work. If an enemy might strike any time, and if another Munich was to be avoided, then a large military establishment and an American-led alliance were also needed.

Seventy years ago, war settled who was strongest, but it also reminded the victors that defence of what they believe to be justice, about which the prime minister spoke in Holland, is not guaranteed.

Barry Cooper is a research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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