Canada's Cold War - Part I

Today we launch the first of a series of posts examining Canada's Cold War. It is a political history and our aim is to explore the ups and downs of the relationship between Canada and America. Canada's Cold War was anything but boring – as you will find out in the coming weeks – but we were not always the most stalwart ally to our American neighbours.  

Canada's Cold War, Part I

Canada’s role in the Cold War remains a highly contested topic, especially from a foreign relations perspective. In 1945, it was clear that Canadian security was stretching far beyond the familiar confines of the Commonwealth. Communist ideologies were spreading and an ‘Iron Curtain,’ as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described, had descended on Europe. Britain formally acknowledged that defence planning for the Commonwealth needed to abandon its old central concept of regional association. For Canada, this meant defence ties with the United States needed to be strengthened. But the Americans were fully committed to resisting the spread of Communism throughout the world, and adopted a policy of counter-force through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan that was meant to challenge the threat posed by the Soviet Union. These circumstances posed a unique dilemma for Canadian policy-makers. A bilateral relationship with the U.S. meant that Canada would enjoy the benefits of an American security umbrella, but also meant the adoption of unwanted adversaries.

To understand Canada’s Cold War, we must first examine its origins as a peacetime conflict. It is said that Americans were all too happy to work with the Soviets after the Second World War, because working with Joseph Stalin could not possibly be worse than working with British Prime Minister Churchill and General Bernard Montgomery. Remember that the American-British alliance in the Second World War represented one of the most complex, far-reaching, and intricate sharing of military resources, strategy and cooperation in history. It did not always work. Just as the Americans had many difficulties working with their British allies, so did Canadians. Even though they had achieved some amount of independence in the inter-war period since being allowed a separate signature on the Versailles Treaty and the Treaty of Westminster in 1931, Canadians were still largely attached to British military affairs during the Second World War. We went to Hong Kong at their request, we attacked Dieppe as part of British plans, helped invade Sicily and then Italy to get in on the action in Europe, and had our own separate beachhead at Normandy as part of the British-American attempt to end the war in 1944. We also suffered a higher percentage of casualties compared to Britain in Italy and Normandy, and many Canadian soldiers died clearing the Scheldt Estuary to satisfy Montgomery’s failed operations. Although we provided much towards winning the war, our former colonial motherland gave us little thanks or recognition, particularly in dealing with our military officers. Though Canadian General Guy Simonds might have had the opportunity to plan and enact combined-arms operations using ground, air and naval support in the Netherlands in a way no other Canadian General ever had, he was still considered a ‘colonial’ by our allies.

This feeling of neglect was also reflected within our diplomatic corps. The 1930s and the war years were the beginning of the golden age of the Canadian civil service. Under the leadership of O. D. Skelton, ‘mandarins’ (as historian Jack Granatstein called them) like Vincent Massey, Hume Wrong, Lester Pearson, Norman Robertson, and others all came through Canada’s burgeoning External Affairs Department. These men, and other civil servants, would form the core of Canada's government policy in the 50s and 60s. Many of these men, serving abroad in the war years, returned to Canada with a sense of their own nation’s importance to itself, rather than its historic motherland. Their exposure to England, be it through education, service for the Army (WW1) or with the Ministry, often reminded them that they were Canadians, no matter how much time they spent at Oxford or in London. The group that emerged from the Second World War was convinced that Canada’s future lay on its own path, and their efforts would contribute to moving away from our historic ties with England towards the United States. Some historians have referred to this as a “reorientation of Canada’s national allegiances.” Yet this was a transition that was anything but clear cut.

After the Fall of France in 1940, the British Isles lay open to German bombers and the situation of the Allies seemed increasingly dire. Imagine a world where Great Britain faced a Europe conquered by fascist Germany, a neutral and silent Soviet Union, and retreat on almost all fronts. Its most powerful ally was the nation of Canada – not exactly an inspiring position for the Empire. In this context, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King met with his American counterpart, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to discuss the future defence of the North American continent in the border-town of Ogdensburg, New York. The aptly named Ogdensburg Agreement created a Permanent Joint Board of Defence that was concerned with the defence of North America against the threat of German attack. The Board remains operational today and helped coordinate much of the joint defence operations of North America throughout the Cold War.

A year later, in April 1941, King released the Hyde Park Declaration that stated American produced war materials would be bought by Canada, nominally to continue to aid Britain like the Lend Lease program. In practice, this meant that the American and Canadian economies were increasingly intertwined as they supplemented absences in each other (in terms what resources they had/didn't have available) and was another step towards a continental philosophy guiding Canadian economic policy and successes (as opposed to with Britain or across the Atlantic). These two agreements would put Canada in closer step with American foreign policy and economic decisions, and importantly set up the post-war Canadian alignment with North America rather than the British Empire.

Only after the war did these links become more permanent. During a January 1947 lecture given in Toronto, Louis St. Laurent, then Canada’s External Affairs Minister but future Prime Minister, firmly placed Canada in a Western alliance against the Soviet Union. Because Canada had the duty to act, according to St. Laurent, in accordance with other ‘like-minded countries,’ such as the nations of the British Commonwealth, France and the U.S. Independently, Canada’s resources were considered too few to support its future security requirements, so partnering with other nations was necessary to sustain Canadian security longer than its long-term resources might otherwise allow. St. Laurent also suggested that Canada’s foreign policy should support the political liberty of the West by sustaining a rule of law in Europe and North America, and noted that Canada would co-operate as a ‘secondary power,’ by following international action instead of pushing for it. Another “world war” could only be avoided through international cooperation.

Thus Canada’s Cold War co-operative defence relationship with its allies was governed by the foreign policy described by St. Laurent and his ‘mandarin’ predecessors. The Canadian government followed a strategic security policy that was predicated on underlying principles of geography and security. Since North America is a single geo-strategic entity, the military threat to Canada was indivisible because the only direct and major threat to the continent was the prospect of strategic nuclear war between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. For these reasons, as well as finance and technology, Canada formed a uniquely close bilateral defence relationship with its southern neighbour. As an ancillary benefit, the United States was forced to actively support Canada in the case of military aggression against its territory.

The importance of Canada’s geo-strategic position was magnified by the development of long-range weaponry and the escalation of East-West tensions throughout the 1950s and 60s. By the Korean War (1950-53), the Soviets had developed their own long-range bombers capable of intercontinental nuclear drops, which reinforced the need for some form of continental defence in North America. A security alliance with the U.S. appeared to be the only option available for Canada. For this reason, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration worked with John G. Diefenbaker’s government to approve the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) agreement, and on 12 May, 1958, the two sovereign nations entered into a formal continental defence partnership.

By choosing to adopt a cross-border approach to defence procurement that was predicated on a strategic dependence provided by the militaristic capabilities of an American air surveillance and protection system, Canadian defence policy shifted from independent to coexistent with the defence policy of the United States. Canada was the clear subordinate power, however. So to offset its position relative to the U.S., the Canadian government sought a strong role as an original signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was signed in 1949. Stationing forces in Western Europe to support allied defence measures was intended to provide Canadian governments with a multilateral political counterweight to the American presence in North America. Unfortunately for Canada, NATO was a military partnership in which the U.S. held all the trump cards. Thus, in a rather ironic twist, Canada’s planned counterweight fell somewhat under the control of a member whose influence it was partly intended to offset. Regardless, throughout the second half of the twentieth century Canadian security was defined to a North American context, and it is within this framework that we will further explore Cold War Canada as this series continues in the weeks to come.   


A link to the second post in this series.