A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did the U.S. plan an invasion of Canada in the 1920s?

February 4, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I came across something the other day and wondered how much of it was Internet fabrication--namely, a claim that the U.S. had plans to invade Canada (called the "Red army" in the plans) sometime after WW1. First, is this true? Second, if it is true, why? Aside from the War of 1812 and the Fenian revolt in the 1860s, both of which were directed at England, I always thought U.S./Canada relations were pretty friendly. And speaking of the Fenian revolt, how real of a real threat was it? My preliminary research suggests the Fenians didn't manage to amass many troops on the U.S. side of the border, leading me to conclude that they were swatted down pretty easily.

U.S. plans to invade Canada after the First World War? This is one of the most bizarre stories I've come across on the Internet, and the most bizarre part is that it's true. The U.S. military really did develop a "Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan--Red" in the 1920s and '30s, and it really did include provisions for an invasion of Canada by the United States. 

The document was declassified in 1974, so this isn't really a new story, but there has been some hoopla about it lately. Concerns in some quarters notwithstanding, the whole thing was just a theoretical exercise in military planning. The brass would have made better use of their resources planning for a war with Germany, but that wasn't politically expedient. They reasoned that planning for unlikely wars was better than no planning at all. War Plan Red was never intended to be put into action except in the event of a war with the United Kingdom, an eventuality that everyone would agree was highly unlikely after about 1900.

In the color codes used at that time, "Red" referred not to Canada (that was "Crimson"), but to the United Kingdom. The proposed invasion of Canada wasn't an end in itself; it was just the easiest way to hurt the U.K.  The plan called for quickly seizing the key port of Halifax to prevent British resupply; cutting communication between eastern and western Canada by capturing Winnipeg; securing bridgeheads near Buffalo, Detroit, and Sault Ste. Marie; and attacking Quebec overland from New England. If everything went according to plan, the U.S. military hoped to take the Great Lakes region and St. Lawrence valley before moving on the prairies and British Columbia. Later when U.S. naval forces were built up, they might be able to take Bermuda and Britain's Caribbean possessions on the road toward victory.

But there would be a price to pay for any such war. Planners essentially wrote off the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa if the British tried to take them early in the war. Planners also anticipated a possible invasion of the U.S. Pacific coast by an allied force from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The last two unfairly had to share the color Scarlet, despite there being plenty of shades of red available for everyone. Who wouldn't want to read about the army of Fuchsia or the navy of Salmon? It just goes to show you that U.S. military planners were a bunch of Maroons.

War Plan Red wasn't the first contingency plan for a war with Britain that included an invasion of Canada. It was just the best known and (as far as we know) last. There had been others over the previous decades, many of them submitted to the Military Information Division by military officers working on their own time. War Plan Red was one of many "color plans" developed in a fairly systematic way in the 1920s and '30s. Except for "Orange" (war with Japan), the plans were primarily academic exercises, lacking detail and offering only broad outlines of strategy. The plans were an outgrowth of military reorganizations that had led to the creation of the U.S. Army War College (1903) and the U.S. Army War Plans Division (1921).  Planning capability having been established, the military figured its planners had better get in some practice. The result was a dramatic increase in formal planning for various military contingencies, most of them unlikely. 

The idea of systematically developing contingency plans was borrowed from the Prussian-dominated German military, which had been doing similar work since the previous century. Generally the plans weren't requested by civilian authorities (which would indicate an expectation of putting them into practice) but were prepared by the military on its own. However, the plans would be on hand in case the civilian authorities wanted them. There is no evidence that War Plan Red or any other twentieth-century plan for the invasion of Canada was requested by civilian authorities. 

Much of the Army's work on Red was done in the mid-1920s. It evidently didn't attract much attention from the Navy until about 1930, because the admirals were preoccupied with Orange before that.  They would be preoccupied with Orange again after that too; the period around 1930 was a brief respite from work on Orange, which was largely finished but would soon need to be updated.

Other color plans included "White" (domestic uprising), "Green" (war with Mexico), "Gray" (war with any one of the Caribbean republics), and "Purple" (war in Central America). One scenario pitted the U.S. against the combined forces of France (Gold), Canada, and Britain. Another (Red-Orange) pitted the U.S. against a combination of Japan and Britain. This last had more military justification before 1924, when the Anglo-Japanese Treaty was still in force. This treaty would have required Britain to join a war between the U.S. and Japan, but only if another great power (such as France or Russia) also declared war on Japan.

For political reasons, "Black" (war with Germany) was not highly developed at all. When word of planning for a war with Germany was leaked to the press in 1927, the isolationist public was outraged and the project was shelved. This echoed the situation in 1916 when President Wilson threatened to fire the entire general staff if he learned they were planning for war with Germany. (This was an election year when Wilson's slogan was, "He kept us out of war.") Serious planning for war with Germany was not done until 1939 when work began on the five "Rainbow" plans. These dealt with simultaneous threats from both Atlantic and Pacific--in other words, war with the Axis countries. By that time the threat was too great to ignore, even though public sentiment was still strongly isolationist.

Apparently in the 1920s only certain scenarios could safely be considered: Japan because of the threat it posed to the Philippines, and Latin America because of U.S. interests there. But war against a European power could be contemplated only if such a war was so unlikely that it could be brushed off as a mere exercise if the newspapers got wind of it. That was essentially the case with War Plan Red, though presumably it would have been dusted off and used in the unlikely event the U.S. declared war on Britain. The plan was called "obsolete" and "inapplicable" but was not officially withdrawn until 1939. It was not destroyed as other obsolete plans were because the military felt the naval part of the plan would be helpful in fighting any enemy in the Atlantic.

Much of the recent attention paid to War Plan Red has been due to the writings of one Floyd W. Rudmin, a social psychologist with American and Canadian citizenship. He wrote a 1993 book, which I have not read, titled Bordering on Aggression: Evidence of U.S. Military Preparations against Canada. He views Canadians' generally blasé attitude toward the plan since it was declassified as evidence of blindness to the American threat. He sees the plan in a much more sinister light than do most military historians, implying that there was a high likelihood of its being implemented.

There is a much better, though less recent, example in support of Rudmin's contention of Canadian blindness to the U.S. threat. This was the 1890s border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, in which Canada had no direct part. The jingoistic president Grover Cleveland viewed the dispute through the lens of the Monroe Doctrine and sided with Venezuela against Britain, threatening war unless Britain submitted to arbitration by himself. Some British and Canadian officers took the threat of war quite seriously, but Canadian civilians generally laughed it off. In fact, U.S. military planning was much more extensive than the public realized at the time, and Canada would have been the first target. Secretary of the Navy H.A. Herbert in 1896 ordered a plan to seize control of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence in the event of war. As I noted above, the fact that the military makes plans doesn't necessarily mean anything, but a civilian request for a plan indicates that it might well be put into action. However, it's not clear whether Cleveland knew what Herbert was up to. Eventually tensions subsided and the border dispute was resolved by arbitration in 1899. I won't say we were ever on the brink of war during the Venezuela crisis, but we were surely closer then than at any time during the era of War Plan Red. Within a few years, though, various events including the Spanish-American War (and the British reaction to it), the Boer War (and the American reaction to it), and the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty made an Anglo-American war a remote possibility.

The United States wasn't the only country preparing for war in North America after the First World War. There is no evidence Britain continued to plan for war with the U.S. after the war (perhaps because they were freer to plan for war with more likely enemies). But in 1921 Canada's Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, Col. J. Sutherland-Brown, produced a remarkable document called "Defence Scheme Number 1" to deal with possible war with the U.S. As in the U.S., isolationism ran high in Canada and it was politically difficult to plan for war in Europe. "Defence Scheme Number 3" did eventually deal with that scenario, but not until a decade later. ("Defence Scheme Number 2" dealt with war against Japan.) DS1, as the name implies, was primarily a defensive plan, but it included invasions of the U.S. in the first days of war as a means of gaining time until troops from elsewhere in the Empire could arrive. These invasions would have been aimed at Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle, and other northern cities, to be followed by a slow withdrawal and destruction of bridges and railroads. The plan was withdrawn in 1929, about the same time the finishing touches were being put on War Plan Red. There is no evidence that U.S. and Canadian planners knew of each other's work.

You asked if the Fenians--militant Irish nationalists in the U.S.--were a serious threat. It seems unlikely they could ever have conquered Canada as they hoped, but they were more than a mere nuisance. A history lesson is in order for the U.S. audience. I for one was never taught anything about the Fenians in school, probably because the episode casts the U.S. in a poor light.

The Fenian Brotherhood (pronounced "fee-nee-an"), made up of Irish immigrants in the U.S., was the American branch of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. The I.R.B. was established in 1858 to overthrow British rule in Ireland. In late 1865 a series of raids by British authorities in Ireland disrupted plans for an uprising there. The American branch bickered over the best way to proceed, with one faction advocating an invasion of the province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec, then still a British colony) and using it as a base against Britain.

In a bizarre twist, the theretofore anti-invasion faction struck first, in an apparent attempt to regain credibility within the organization. In April 1866, a force arrived in Eastport, Maine, hoping to take over nearby Campobello Island in New Brunswick (which would not become part of Canada until the next year). Some cross-border raids were made and some warehouses were burned, but no one was killed. The attempt fizzled when U.S. authorities seized a shipment of weapons and started patrolling the area. 

That was essentially the end of this faction of the Fenian Brotherhood, but the other faction was just getting started. They made no great secret of their plans, but U.S. civilian officials were reluctant to interfere for fear of alienating the Irish vote. On the night of May 31, about 1,000 Fenians crossed the Niagara River into Ontario. On June 1, the U.S. revenue cutter Michigan arrived, discouraging resupply of the force. On June 2, about ten miles from the border, the Fenians won the Battle of Ridgeway against a force of Canadian militia. But fearing the approach of British regulars, they returned to the river and tried to cross back into the U.S. early on June 3. They were arrested in U.S. waters by the Michigan before they could make land. Meanwhile, the Fenian leadership was planning to invade Quebec, hoping (very optimistically) for a force of 16,000. But by the time they could carry out their plans, U.S. authorities were finally getting serious about interdiction of the flow of men and weapons. Fewer than a thousand entered Quebec on June 7, only about half of whom were armed. They were quickly routed by the defenders. In all, nine Canadians and at least eight Fenians were killed, mostly at Ridgeway.

Again for fear of alienating the Irish vote, the U.S. failed to bring to trial any of the Fenians it had arrested. Twenty-five of those captured in Canada were convicted and sentenced to death. But their sentences were commuted to twenty years' hard labor, thus depriving the Fenian leadership of some much-needed martyrs. As one of the leaders put it in a letter to a prisoner, "I regret to tell you that you are not going to be hanged." Except for one who died in prison, the men were all pardoned and released within a few years.

With each failure, the Fenians lost more and more support. Their last halfway serious threat was another invasion of Quebec from Vermont in 1870. Only 200 Fenians took part, and they were easily defeated by the defenders. Four Fenians were killed versus no defenders. This time the U.S. did try some of the leaders, eight of whom were convicted and sentenced to short prison terms. President Grant pardoned them within a few months after they promised not to try again. Some of them, it turned out, were lying, but after 1870 their efforts were little more than a nuisance.

I'm afraid I can't agree that relations along the border have always been friendly since the end of the War of 1812. Other than the Fenians' activities and the Venezuela crisis, there were several other incidents that might conceivably have erupted into war. 

The Caroline affair of 1837 involved the destruction of a private American ship of that name by Canadian authorities in U.S. waters near Buffalo. It was being used by the supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of a rebellion against British authority in Canada. One U.S. citizen was killed. A Canadian deputy marshal was later arrested and tried by New York state for his part in the attack, but he was acquitted.

The so-called Aroostook War of 1839 was a border dispute between Maine and New Brunswick that saw no bloodshed, but thousands of troops were rushed to the area. The dispute was peacefully settled in 1842 by the Webster-Asburton Treaty.

In 1846 the Democratic slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" promised war with Britain unless the U.S. were granted that part of the Northwest up to 54°40' north latitude. The slogan was revealed as mere rhetoric when later that year the U.S. and Britain signed the Oregon Treaty setting the border at 49° north latitude.

In 1864 during the American Civil War, a group of about thirty Confederate raiders entered Vermont by way of Quebec and robbed several banks of about $200,000 in the town of St. Albans. At least one townsman was killed. Upon their return to Quebec, the raiders were arrested by local authorities there, but to the dismay of Union officials they were soon released.

Also stemming from the Civil War was the Alabama affair. This involved several Confederate warships including the Alabama that were illegally built and outfitted at British ports. There was some fear in Canada just after the Civil War ended that the U.S. would take out its frustrations on Britain by invading Canada. But the U.S. was in no mood to fight another war that would likely have been about as bloody as the one it had just fought. The Alabama issue was finally settled in 1872, when an international arbitration board awarded the U.S. $15.5 million damages. Canada had hoped to receive reparations from the U.S. for the Fenian attacks, but it was not to be. It evens out in the end, anyway. I still think we Americans deserve reparations for Celine Dion.

Further reading:

The Defence of the Undefended Border: Planning for War in North America 1867-1939 (1977) by Richard A. Preston

"Joint Plan Red" by Thaddeus Holt in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, volume 1

Fenianism in North America (1975) by W. S. Neidhardt

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