Canada's Cold War - Part III

This post is part three of our examination into Cold War Canada. In our first post we situated Canada’s post-1945 national interests within the context of a North American bilateral security relationship with the United States, and in our second post we broadened that framework to examine social and cultural implications that resulted from the so-called “Gouzenko Affair” of 1945-46 and the subsequent “Red Scare” that took hold in Canada as well as the United States. Today we return to the topic of national security to further examine the unique defence relationship which emerged in northern North America during the early Cold War period.

War-torn and cash-strapped, Britain was forced to turn its resources inward to rebuild following the Second World War. For Canada, a nation that had always relied on the British Empire (now the Commonwealth) for financial assistance, this meant looking elsewhere to procure the resources necessary to maintain national security that it could not otherwise afford. Developing geo-strategic realities also determined Canada’s fate in this period, as geography placed Canadian territory in the cross-hairs of a potential Soviet aggressor that was armed with newly-developed intercontinental weaponry. Considering that Canadian security was indivisible from North American security, there emerged in Ottawa at this time a sense among some Canadian officials that separating from Britain was necessary to cultivate stronger security ties with an impatient American ally. Others remained hesitant to warm up to the Americans for concerns of Canadian territorial sovereignty.

Canadian officials ultimately agreed that Washington was fully prepared to protect its geo-strategic interests in northern North America regardless of whether or not Canada was on board, so in order to maintain a measure of control over its own territorial sovereignty Canada willingly entered into a security partnership with its American neighbour. Yet Canada-American defence ties predate the onset of the Cold War and the need for regional cooperation.

Officially, coordination of North American defences began in 1940 with the Declaration of Ogdensburg that marked the creation of the Permanent Joint Board of Defence (PJBD). While the Second World War raged on in Europe, diplomats in Ottawa and Washington had decided to focus on continental defence for precautionary reasons. The PJBD was the link between political and military coordination in North America. It permitted the creation and implementation of joint defence plans, the construction of infrastructure necessary for their implementation – namely bases, routes, and weather stations – and the formulation of guidelines for combined military operations in case an attack on the continent ever occurred.

As regional defence was born, critics in Ottawa argued that even bilateral relations afforded Washington too much control over Canada’s national security. Ties of cooperation with the U.S. reduced the decision-making autonomy of the Canadian government in matters of defence and, in particular, the government’s ability to define what constituted a military threat, as well as the strategy and the means to respond to such threats. In order to address these concerns the Canadian government created the Military Cooperation Committee (MCC) in 1946. As a subsidiary to the PJBD, the MCC was set up to oversee issues pertaining specifically to Canada’s physical defences. But while the creation of the MCC helped Ottawa retain power over its security interests in North America, it had no effect on a global scale so the Canadian government worked hard at helping to establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. A connection to NATO gave Canada a voice on the international security stage and acted as a counterweight to American influence in North America, both of which secured a measure of autonomy for Canada’s national security interests at home and abroad during the Cold War years.

The formation of NATO placed Canada into the integrated defence of the “West” alongside its Europeans allies. For Lester B. Pearson and other Canadian diplomats, diplomacy in this regard was in part predicated on past experience. Their developing years had been in the 1930s and 40s when they witnessed the failure of appeasement towards Hitler and the increasing dissolution of international cooperation in the face of Italian and German demands. The immense and large scale cooperation of the Second World War between Canada, the US, Britain, and the other Allied countries, had demonstrated the power of coherent and strong willed international coalitions. Pearson and his fellow civil servants therefore believed similar diplomacy could persevere against the Soviet threat. As a result, they were quick to agree to Canada’s participation in the Korean War (1950-53). Supporting the United Nations (UN) action in Korea seemed both logical and potentially effective.

While the Canadian government acknowledged American political goals and pursued even closer bilateral ties in North America, Ottawa still valued a measure of separation or independence from Washington control. Canadian interests might presently align with those of the United States, but only because the Americans supported the fundamental concept of international cooperation against a common totalitarian enemy. When in 1951 General Douglas MacArthur suggested that the Korean War might be extended after the Chinese entered the conflict in November of 1950, Pearson made a speech arguing that the UN must not be the “instrument of any one country” and that any country had the right to criticize American policy. Though MacArthur was fired by President Truman soon after, Canadians had reminded their allies that a common goal did not equate to identical international policy or national interests. American extremism towards its enemies did not appeal to the more moderate Canadians, who valued their nation’s “middle power” status.

Although Canada maintained its political distance from American policy during the first decade of the Cold War, it was becoming increasingly integrated into continental defence during the 1950s. By the midpoint of that decade, the concept for a North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) had been introduced and Ottawa contracted Washington to construct radar lines in the Arctic to bolster continental defences. As part of a $500 million investment, the Pentagon used materials and manpower to construct early warning radar stations across Canada’s North. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line consisted of 78 radar sites, 75 of which were in Canada along the 70th parallel of north latitude, while the Mid-Canada Line consisted of 98 sites along 55oN. With the construction of these radar lines, operational continental air defence co-operation intensified, and NORAD entered into force in 1958 with a headquarters located in Colorado Springs. In combination with radar, NORAD ostensibly allowed for the defence of the North American continent against the possibility of Soviet attack.

The construction of the DEW Line, whose anti-bomber radar stations stretched halfway across the circumpolar world from Alaska to Greenland, and the creation of NORAD both signalled a new direction for Canadian defence policy. Cementing the ideas behind the Ogdensburg Agreement, Canada and the United States created many joint-agreements aimed at defending North America. The slow shift away from British dependency was effectively replaced by a unique dependence on American defence of the North American continent. Under NORAD, Canada agreed to specific military and monetary obligations of North American continental defence that significantly decreased the sovereign autonomy of Canada’s defence policy decision-makers during the early Cold War. So much so that, at times, Washington was able to push its own agenda for continental defence regardless of the political and economic consequences to Canada. Consequences that we will further explore as our examination into Cold War Canada continues in the weeks to come – stay tuned.