War Plan Red: The U.S. Plan to Invade Canada

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

(Image credit: Flickr user Library and Archives Canada)

When this bizarre story surfaced a few years ago, it reminded us if this quote, attributed to Warren G. Harding: "I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends -they're the ones that keep me walking the floors nights."


If you had to invade another country, how would you do it? Believe it or not, the United States military spent a lot of time pondering that question in the late 1920s, when it came up with a plan to invade its closest neighbor, Canada.

There was certainly a precedent for the two nations battling it out. The Continental Army invaded Canada during the American Revolution, and the U.S. Army made repeated incursions during the War of 1812. In 1839 the state of Maine only narrowly avoided a shooting war with the province of New Brunswick over a border dispute. Then, in 1866, about 800 Irish-American members of a group called the Fenian Brotherhood tried to occupy part of Canada for the purpose of using it as a bargaining chip to force Great Britain to grant independence to Ireland (They were quickly driven back across the U.S. border).

That last invasion had an upside for Canadians: It convinced the last holdouts in the independent provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec that they'd be better able to defend themselves against the next invasion if they banded together to form the Dominion of Canada, which they did on July 1, 1867.

Canadian soldiers in World War I. (Image credit: National Library of Scotland)


Of course, these skirmishes paled in comparison to World War I, which raged from 1914 to 1918. That war, which was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, caught most of the belligerents by surprise. It also lasted longer and was far more costly in blood and treasure than anyone ever dreamed a war could be. None of the nations that fought in it wanted to be caught off guard again; many began planning for whatever war might be lurking around the corner. The American military drafted a whole series of color-coded war plans to cover just about every conceivable scenario: War Plan Black was a plan for war with Germany; War Plan Orange dealt with Japan, a rapidly growing power in the Pacific. Other colors included Green (Mexico), Gold (France), Brown (The Philippines), and Yellow (China). There was even a War Plan Indigo, in case the United States eve had to invade Iceland, and a War Plan White that dealt with civil unrest within America's own borders.


War Plan Red was America's plan for going to war with the British Empire, in the unlikely event that Britain (code name: Red) decided to "eliminate [the United States] as an economic and commercial rival." Since Canada (code name: Crimson) was part of the Empire and shared a 5,527-mile border with the U.S., much of the plan dealt with invading Canada and knocking it out of action before the British could use it as a staging ground for attacks on the U.S.

Here's how an invasion of Canada would have gone:

* The United States (code name: Blue) would attack and occupy halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada's largest Atlantic port. The attack would deny Britain access to the rail and road links it would need to land troops in Canada and disperse than across the country.

* Next, the U.S. Army would attack across the border along three fronts: Troops would attack from either Vermont or New York to occupy Montreal and Quebec City; from Michigan into Ontario; and from North Dakota into Manitoba. The effects of these attacks would be to seize Canada's industrial heartland while preventing similar attacks on America, and to further disrupt the movement of Canadian troops from one part of the country to another.

* Troops would cross from Washington into British Columbia and seize Vancouver, Canada's largest Pacific port. The U.S. Navy would blockade the port of Prince Rupert, 460 miles to the north.

Once the crisis passed and relations between America, Canada, and Great Britain returned to normal, the U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Canadian territory, right? No- "Blue intentions are to hold in perpetuity all Crimson and Red territory gained," the military planners wrote. "The policy will be to prepare the provinces and territories of Crimson and Red to become states and territories of the Blue union upon the declaration of peace."


(Image credit: Flickr user Prayitno)

So how seriously was the United States considering invading Canada? In all probability, not very. War Plan Red doesn't go into nearly as much detail as War Plan Black (Germany) or War Plan Orange (Japan), which military planners correctly assumed were much more significant threats. The intent of the other color-coded plans may have been to make war plans involving Germany and Japan seem less controversial. Why the subterfuge? After the horrors of World War I, in which nearly ten million soldiers died, many people concluded that planning for wars only made them more likely.

The U.S. military didn't feel this way, of course, and one way they may have gotten around public opinion was to come up with all kinds of improbable war plans to make the real plans more palatable. A public that would not have tolerated the idea of preparing for war with Germany and Japan would be less alarmed by the idea of the United States preparing for war with Germany, Japan, Canada, Iceland, Jamaica, Monaco, and Andorra.


Any sting Canadians might have felt when War Plan Red was declassified in 1974 was offset by the knowledge that Canada had drafted its own plans for invading the United States, and had done so several years before War Plan Red was approved in 1930. "Defence Scheme No. 1," as it was called, was created in 1921 by James Sutherland "Buster" Brown, Canada's director of military operations and intelligence. In many respects it was the opposite of War Plan Red: In the event that an American attack was imminent, Canadian forces would strike first, attacking and occupying key cities such as Albany, Minneapolis, and Seattle.

Unlike with War Plan Red, these cities wouldn't be annexed or even occupied for any longer than was absolutely necessary. The idea was to knock the U.S. off balance, then retreat back into Canada, blowing up bridges and destroying roads and railroads along the way in the hope of delaying the inevitable American counterattack until British reinforcements arrived. The plan received mixed reviews from the Canadian military: One general called it a "fantastic desperate plan that just might have worked"; other officers thought Brown was nuts. It remained on the books until 1928, when it was scrapped as impractical.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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I think that Robert Conroy wrote an alternate history novel to that effect. I don't think that it's plausible. Even in the event that Germany is able to conquer the UK (very fanciful: Operation Sea Lion was wishful thinking), there's no reason to think that an independent Canada would permit German troops to simply sail in. And certainly Canada had the military capacity to resist such an invasion--not that the US would have permitted Germany to attempt it.
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Another scenario where a plan like this might have come into use is if Britain had fallen to the Nazis in WWII. Canada being a part of the Commonwealth (without military support from Britain) might have been invaded and used as a staging ground for a US attack and invasion. The US could have invaded and occupied parts of Canada and Mexico (to prevent a southern invasion that would have been more likely) to keep the Nazi's from getting a strong hold in North America. Thankfully none of this happens and our Canadian brethren continue spread their delicious maple syrup and delightful politeness!
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