Canada’s Cold War is often incorrectly dichotomized in historical scholarship. Examinations into the era often produce work strictly focused on the ‘front lines’ (Europe) or ‘home front’ (North America). Over the past few months we have probed Canada’s Cold War experience using a variety of analyses and perspectives, and have attempted to reconstruct a nuanced narrative to introduce our readers to some of the key events and personalities that shaped socio-cultural, political, technological, and economic change in Canada and abroad between the 1940s and 1970s. Today, in our fifth and perhaps final installment of Cold War history, we seek to determine if Canada was able to act autonomously during the era.
Under the North American Air Defence Command agreement (NORAD), agreed to in principle in 1957 and ratified in 1958, Canada accepted specific military and monetary obligations that significantly decreased the sovereign autonomy of its defence policy decision-makers. At times, it seemed Washington was able to push its own agenda for continental defence regardless of the political and economic consequences to Canada. These were adverse effects that John Diefenbaker did not foresee when he approved the agreement because he understood NOARD to be a North American extension of its Western security alliance, whereby any and all executive decisions were to be made at all times in accordance with the strategic objectives of the NATO Council. This understanding was predicated in part by discussions that took place between Diefenbaker and American President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as Canadian intelligence of Soviet air capabilities. Yet by 1961 both had changed. John F. Kennedy replaced Eisenhower as president and the Soviet’s successfully deployed the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which theoretically replaced long-range aircraft bombers as the primary offensive threat to North America. Both changes significantly affected Canada’s defence policy and Diefenbaker’s political career.
As Canada was pulled into the military orbit of its southern-most neighbour, NORAD’s signing indirectly sealed the fate of Diefenbaker’s government by creating unwanted political drama. The drama climaxed in 1962 when the Soviet’s allegedly constructed intermediate-range missile launch sites on Cuba, at which point President Kennedy asked Diefenbaker to place Canada’s NORAD surface-to-air missile launch squadrons on maximum alert, armed with nuclear warheads. The prime minister refused, in part because he feared public reaction to the acceptance of nuclear weapons in Canada, and in part because he was furious that Kennedy had decided to initiate NORAD protocol without first consulting the NATO Council. Even though the Soviet’s removed the missile launch sites, ending what was a harrowing two weeks commonly known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Diefenbaker’s conduct of foreign relations was highly criticized. His hesitation to arm Canada’s NOARD squadrons led the Americans to accuse him of neglecting Canadian obligations to North American (and by extension) Western security. In response, Canada’s federal Liberals under the leadership of Lester Pearson, accused the prime minister of letting emotions govern his decision making and charged him with mishandling Canadian affairs. These charges legitimized a motion of non-confidence that toppled Diefenbaker’s government and opened the door to the Liberal electoral victory of April 1963.
Pearson, though opposed to American militarism, argued that under NORAD Canada had to accept the missiles. He saw a political opportunity and made the most of it to win an election, coming within five seats of winning a majority. Here, Canada’s role in the Cold War shifted more as a result of Pearson’s political necessity rather than his ideological beliefs. Although the newly elected prime minister was willing to accept the use of nuclear weapons as a method of deterrence, he opposed American “extremes” internationally, such as intervention in the conflict in Vietnam. Canadians continued to be more and more nationalistic in the 1960s. As they witnessed alongside their neighbours the turbulent years of the JFK assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, race riots in Detroit and other cities, they grew more and more aware of their own distinctly Canadian identity. With the centennial in 1967, a new flag, and (soon) a powerful, young, charismatic leader in the form of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canadians emerged out of the 1960s further separated from their American allies and less convinced of the need for an aggressive Cold War policy like the kind King, St Laurent (and Pearson) had called for in the 1950s.
The last years of the 1960s brought a new dynamic liberal leader to power, Pierre Trudeau. He faced an incredibly difficult time in October of 1970, when the terrorist group, the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ), kidnapped a British Trade Commissioner and a Quebec Provincial politician. The members of the FLQ believed they were fighting a post-colonial battle against the “imperialist” Anglo-Saxon English Canada. They aligned themselves publicly with other colonial struggles, such as those in Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba. Though the Soviet Union made sure that they were not identified as any way connected to their own operations, ideologically they believed they were fighting in a global struggle against capitalism for the “workers” of Quebec. The “FLQ Crisis” is not now seen as directly related to the Cold War, but at the time their rhetoric certainly echoed other colonial struggles that were often communist or supported by the Soviet Union.
Trudeau was a strong supporter of both Cuba and eventually China, despite their communist governments being more or less enemies of the United States. As a testament to their relationship, Fidel Castro would attend Trudeau’s funeral in 2000, sitting beside former President Jimmy Carter. The recognition of China and his friendly attitude towards Cuba angered the US President Richard Nixon, who as you can find elsewhere, half-believed Trudeau himself to be a communist. Trudeau had visited China in his travels around the world and was impressed by the country. In 1961 he published his travels to China as a book called Two Innocents in Red China, where he ridiculed China’s exclusion from international organizations and by Western democracies. China, of course, had a positive image of Canada even before it recognized its communist government. The pioneering Canadian surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune had gone to China to help Mao Zedong and his communist forces as a battlefield doctor. He developed the first mobile blood transfusion service in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. He died in China of blood poisoning, but would be remembered as a hero of the communist struggle by Mao and to this day.
It was not surprising that American and Canadian relations became further and further separated under Trudeau, who had little patience for the American right-wing’s attitude towards communism and their militarized stance towards the Soviet Union. Trudeau, who had developed his ideas of international policy as a result of his experiences travelling the world and seeing the dangers of extreme nationalism and militarism, pushed Canada away from its traditional British roots. He decreased military spending, partly as a result of economic pressure and partly as a result of his negative attitude towards the Canadian military forces. He did not agree with the perceived obligation to keep Canadians stationed in West Germany against; what he believed to be a non-existent threat. Trudeau’s partial withdrawal from NATO obligations worried Canada’s global allies, but few Canadians protested it during the tough times of the 1970s. It was the Americans who saw it as a threatening move away from defensive readiness.
Canada’s Cold War was made all the more complex by the rapid evolution of the strategic balance and the drastic changing state of global affairs. In defence of the West, Canada entered into a close bilateral relationship with the United States and stationed forces in Europe to assist efforts of postwar reconstruction in hopes of expanding alliance relationships. The nuances of that Canada-United States relationship defined Canadian foreign and domestic policy for much of the Cold War, but recent investigations into the era suggest that Canada was able to act autonomously of its American neighbour, both at home and aboard. As a “middle power” it seems Canada, despite alliance commitments, was able to gain a slight voice over matters concerning both domestic and international security during the Cold War. That “voice” remains as important today as it did then. Pressures to correspond to both American and Western security continue to challenge Canadian sovereignty. Although circumstances today and in the future may have a decisively different flavour than those of the Cold War era, the decisions of a few remain extremely influential on many. Today as in the past you should ask questions of your government, as they are certainly asking questions of you.