Over the course of the past few months we have examined Canada’s role in the Cold War. Our examination thus far has situated Canadian interests generally within a North American context, where the United States has featured predominantly as Canada’s primary Cold War ally. Today we shift our focus away from North America and the Canada-United States bilateral relationship to examine a unique episode of the Cold War when Canada acted autonomously from its closest postwar allies.
By the 1950s the British Commonwealth of Nations was losing its international influence as its nations forged their own path, not necessarily with the former British Empire in mind. Other international organizations were supplanting it, most obviously the newly formed United Nations. Canada, as one of its founding members in 1945, also sought to expand the organization to include developing countries. At the time, the UN was universal in theory only, because the Americans and the Russians blocked the admission of new member states that were either too pro-Communist or too pro-Western. In 1955 Canadian diplomacy helped to alleviate the situation by successfully proposing the admission of trade-offs that were Communist, neutral and pro-Western. As a result, the UN was able to admit many of the newly independent countries that emerged from the ruins of European empires across the globe.
For Canada, the growth of the UN came at a price. The admission of new member states maintained the UN as a near-universal organization but the newly accepted countries began to tip the balance of power in the UN away from the Western powers, which until then had maintained a secure majority in the General Assembly that was able to thwart a pro-Communist agenda. The admission of newly independent countries annoyed the Americans and in particular the British, who were a declining power in the 1950s.
The waning international clout of the British government made them uncertain, or at least unfamiliar with their new status. Their policy was volatile and often flexed its great power muscle in an attempt to maintain a measure of influence globally. One such example was in the nation of Egpyt in 1956.
Egypt had gained its independence in 1922, but the British maintained a military presence there until 1952. Then, a military coup led by General Muhammad Naguib and Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser overturned the Egyptian monarchy and proclaimed itself a republic. Nasser, the architect behind the revolution, was soon President and Naguib was put under house arrest. The change in power led to a dispute over the ownership and management of the Suez Canal, which became a crisis for British foreign policy that quickly turned into an international situation. The English and French owned Suez Canal Company, which had operated the vital transport vein since 1869, was seized by the new nationalist Egyptian government. The canal was a narrow and artificial waterway that extended roughly 160 kilometres through Egypt to join the Mediterranean and Red seas, and both the British and French considered it vital to their economic trading interests in the area. Together with the help of Israel, Britain and France used military force to reclaim control of the canal from Soviet-supported Egypt. Fearing that Soviet intervention in Egypt might signal the beginning of a third World War, the United States chose to refrain from action and left Canada in the precarious position of having to choose which of its closest Cold War allies to support.
As military operations continued, the UN eventually decided to intervene. Led by the efforts of Lester Pearson and the UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and through emergency sessions adopted resolutions that created the United Nations Emergency Force that would separate the two forces. The UN force that was authorized included a significant contingent of Canadian troops, and for his help in enforcing a peace between Egypt and Britain, France and Israel, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
While the crisis over the Suez Canal had far-reaching consequences for American-Soviet relations, for Canada it represented the enshrining (or perhaps adoration) of a new method of diplomacy. “Peacekeeping” would become synonymous with Canadians’ conception of their national identity, though how truthful that statement was remains disputed by historians and contemporaries alike. As well, for Canadian government officials at least, it demonstrated how successful a “Middle Power” like Canada could be in influencing global affairs even without having the clout of the world’s superpowers. Even as Canada accepted the benefits of American military and economic ties, it also strove to establish its separation from the totality America’s influence. Similar to our history with Britain, this dichotomy between independence and dependence would prove to be a rough path to follow.
This is easily exemplified in the case of Canadian diplomat E. Herbert Norman. Norman was a Canadian diplomat accused of being a possible Soviet agent. He served as the Canadian representative to the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers for the Allied occupation of Japan after the Second World War. In his youth he had been a member of communist organizations and subsequently during the 1950s he was accused of being a Communist agent. American diplomats refused to send any sensitive information through Norman, but he was fiercely protected by his longtime friend Lester Pearson. Pearson was also once called “the most dangerous man in the Western World” due to his influential position and accusation that he too was a communist agent. (Ironically he was also rejected by the Soviets as the first UN General Secretary in 1945 for being too close to the Americans.) Pearson continued to defend Norman in light of these accusations, while the Americans refused to back down from them. Their confidence in Norman’s guilt came from a variety of coincidental reports from various Soviet spies or defectors. Historians have concluded that there was no substantial evidence of Norman’s guilt.
Regardless, in 1957 Norman was serving as the Canadian ambassador to Egypt amidst the aftermath of the Suez Crisis as the United States Senate Committee on Internal Security launched another investigation into Norman’s affairs. In April, Norman jumped from the roof of the Swedish Embassy in a case of apparent suicide, though the tragedy spawned numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the “true” reason for his death. The Canadian public was horrified. At best, Norman had committed suicide from American pressure concerning his loyalty, a situation that Pearson and many other Canadians found abhorrent. At worst, he had been a Soviet agent and a traitor, which was equally distressing.
The controversy over Norman’s death would continue to be debated even into the 1990s, though no one has ever conclusively proven his guilt other than some connections to communist groups. Pearson saw it as one more example of the danger of American extremism and its disregard for Canadian independence. It would help define Pearson’s position towards Canada's allies during his tenure as Prime Minister. Ultimately, the crisis over the Suez Canal and its aftermath played out for Canada within the context of the Cold War. To the Canadian government, the Suez justified a strategy that sought to keep “Third World” countries neutral in the struggle between Communist East and democratic West. The price for neutrality in international diplomacy was high, but for Canada it seemed to be the proper choice.