||Obituary Charles Perry Stacey 1905-1989
by Desmond Morton
ON NOVEMBER 18th, 1989, Colonel Charles Perry Stacey died, without pain, happily married and, at 83, still at work on one of those innumerable reviews in which he chided, encouraged, and corrected colleagues.
Stacey was one of the great Canadian historians. Carl Berger, in The Writing of Canadian History, called him "the best technical historian" the country has known. Not only did he write brilliantly of wars and generalship and the intricacies of foreign policy, he was also expert in getting complex facts right, and understandable. Stacey had a gift for exploding the nonsense that encrusts popular history. Politicians, editors, and academics found it harder to natter about Canada's century-old undefended border after a Youthful Charles Stacey reminded them of the massive lumps of masonry erected between 1820 and 1871 and now visible to any tourist. Textbooks that explained how Upper Canada's militia had sufficed to throw back U.S. invaders in 1812 survived Stacey's well-ordered presentation of the facts only because they were textbooks and immune to revision.
Stacey's most popular books were his outline history of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, for which he earned the Governor General's non-fiction award in 1948; a brilliant study, Quebec, 1759, which demolished any claim that either Wolfe or Montcalm was a military genius; and A Very Double Life, his extraction of the inner life of our strangest prime minister from the Mackenzie King diaries. The Half Million, written with Barbara Wilson and published in 1987, celebrated the amazing Canadian invasion of Britain during the last war, of which hardly a trace now remains.
Stacey himself never doubted that his masterworks were the three powerful, authoritative volumes he wrote as official historian of the Canadian Army and his two-volume history of Canadian foreign policy. The painstaking labour behind the official histories was matched by the weary political struggle Stacey waged to have them appear. Worried that the record might not show King's wartime government to be brilliant or omniscient, postwar Liberal ministers did their best to suppress books they had promised to publish. Stacey outmanoeuvred, outwaited, and outfought them. (in contrast, Stacey's military superiors, by no means treated gently in his books, had accepted their lumps.)
What unified Stacey's mass of published work -- sheaves of reviews, articles, and letters as well as books -- was a pride in Canada and its role in the world. Though in time he admitted that Mackenzie King was "an awfully good politician," Stacey never overcame the feeling that the plump, self-preoccupied little man had let down his country on the world stage. A favourite story, repeated in Stacey's memoirs, recalled the time when he accompanied the prime minister on a postwar tour of Normandy. Battlefields and cemeteries bored the old politician; crowds were something else. In one town square, a French guard of honour stood stiffly at attention while a band struck up its best approximation of "La Marseillaise" and "0 Canada." Seeing hands to shake, King waddled out in mid-performance to seize the bandmaster's glove. Stacey, at least, was humiliated for Canada.
Stacey was a formidable figure -- short, robust, with a high-domed forehead and a grey, bristling moustache. He was firm in the Victorian Tory values he had inherited as a Toronto doctor's son. He might have been an anachronism when he returned to the University of Toronto in the 1960s: instead he became a bridge between the elders and the impatient, radical young. A combination of irreverence and scholarly professionalism made him irresistible. When a festschrift was proposed for Stacey, the department's leading radical became co-editor.
Affectionate colleagues called him "The Colonel" but Stacey had never really interrupted the academic career he began at Princeton in 1933. Overseas from 1940 to 1945 and in Ottawa for 20 years after the war, he collected and trained a score of able historians. Under Stacey, the Army Historical School became a graduate school in uniform. He presided over the Canadian Historical Association, served as secretary to the Royal Society of Canada, and wrote profusely for learned journals.
History is the most impermanent of literary forms. Stacey's official histories are already being revised by some whose experience is with documents, not men and events. Stacey understood his generals and their limits but he left the details for his memoirs and his memories. Because he knew them, Stacey believed that they had done their best for Canada as Mackenzie King, in his view, had not. No fool, Stacey knew that other ages would have other judgements. Very few would be more fully informed