Watson Kirkconnell’s Covert War against Communism

By Gordon L. Heath

The recent publication of my article on Watson Kirkconnell’s covert war against communism reminds me once again of the serendipitous surprises one experiences while doing research in archives.1

A number of years ago, as I was toiling away in the Baptist archives at Acadia University, Pat Townsend (the archivist) asked me if I would be interested in looking at some boxes of Kirkconnell’s papers she was cataloging.2 I took a look and quickly agreed with her that there were treasures in the boxes. I went back to my original project, but I showed up a year or so later to examine his involvement in dealing with what he deemed to be a mortal threat to life and liberty.

Photo from Acadia University website. Click on photo for link.

Kirkconnell (1895–1977) was a polymath, with wide-ranging interests, responsibilities, accomplishments, and accolades. He held academic posts in three different regions of Canada: professor of English at Wesley College in western Canada (1922–1940), head of the English department at McMaster University in central Canada (1940–1948), and president of Acadia University in eastern Canada (1948–1964). During those years he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1936), and played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Humanities Research Council of Canada (1943). He was active in denominational work, serving as moderator of the Red River Association of Baptist Churches (1937), president of the Baptist Union of Western Canada (1938–1940), and was the founding father of the Canadian Baptist Federation (1944).3 Kirkconnell mastered approximately fifty languages, and his ground-breaking translations of literature from Canada’s ethnic minorities gave a voice to “new Canadians” who were often marginalized by the two founding European peoples, the British and French. He played a key role in shaping Baptist (and Canadian) views of non-Anglo Saxon immigrants, contributing to a vision of a multi-ethnic Canada. His translation efforts also gave him access (and sympathy for) peoples under Soviet rule in eastern Europe. His output of scholarship was prodigious. Kirkconnell received numerous accolades, including twelve honorary doctorates, two knighthoods, and the Order of Canada (1968).

He was also a secret ally of Canada’s security forces fighting the threat of communism.

There was both a public and private element to Kirkconnell’s dealing with communism. There was nothing secretive about his anti-communist sentiments, for his public lectures and publications made it clear that he was an ardent opponent and critic. He had established his anti-communist credentials through his condemnation of communism during the Second World War, often even criticizing Canada’s wartime ally the Soviet Union. After the publication of Seven Pillars of Freedom (1944), a book warning of the growth and threat of communism in Canada, Kirkconnell faced public censure by two communist members of the Canadian House of Commons, the Russian press, and Canadian communist publications, one of which called him a “fascist, mad dog, and a traitor.”

What is most striking is his private correspondence with the RCMP and other government agencies (as well as members of parliament). For years the RCMP sought his input, provided him with secret government material, and gave him input for dealing with various schemes and dilemmas all related to Kirkconnell’s relentless private investigation into the communist identity of professors, politicians, publishers, and even students. Kirkconnell willingly provided such material to the RCMP.

Senator Joseph McCarthy. Click photo for link.

He distanced himself from U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s roughshod tactics: “I have an uneasy feeling that Senator McCarthy messed up an important job by handling it in an offensive and blundering fashion. It is tragic that the very exposure of the Communist infiltration in the United States fell into his hands.” Neither was Kirkconnell in favour of banning or outlawing communist organizations or publications. He was certainly tenacious in his methods (some would say badgering), and was definitely happy to see communists exposed for what they were. However, he did not advocate for a policy of suppression. His methods were rooted in lofty notions of democracy and freedom of speech, as well as in the pragmatic consideration that exposure was much more effective than suppression. He believed that the publicizing of Soviet actions and intentions was a key component in the war against communism, and his covert work was tactically necessary to achieve a larger strategic goal.

As you can well imagine, there are troubling and ironic aspects to his covert war on communism. While Kirkconnell’s covert collaboration with the RCMP and other government agencies may not have been as nefarious as eastern European clergy plotting with the communist secret police, his relationship with the RCMP raises moral and legal questions regarding the frequent exchange of information between citizens and police. Kirkconnell’s coy responses with regard to the sources of his information certainly make him appear to be a shifty character with a duel identity: public professor/president by day, and private informer/spy at night. The ironic element to his role as anti-communist crusader was his contribution to the growth of a surveillance and security state. The postwar reaction to fears of communism in Canada led to rapid expansion of state sanctioned surveillance and the loss of certain privacy rights, and Kirkconnell’s covert activities were a move in that very direction. Finally, Kirkconnell’s covert activities raise questions as to the extent to which some Canadian church leaders and academics were willing to go in their crusade against communism.

Perhaps it will take another serendipitous discovery of papers of other Cold War warriors to reveal whether Kirkconnell’s activities were an exception or a rule.

* * *

Gordon L. Heath, PhD, is Professor of Christian History, holds the Centenary Chair in World Christianity, and is Director of the Canadian Baptist Archives, all at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, ON. He is also Secretary of the CBHS.

Endnotes

  1. “Gordon L. Heath, “Watson Kirkconnell’s Covert War against Communism,” In North American Churches and the Cold War, edited by Paul Mojzes, 64–79. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.
  2. Thanks Pat!
  3. Now known as Canadian Baptist Ministries.

 

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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