I enjoyed reworking one of my old university essays for publication on this blog last month, and so I’ve decided to do so again. This time my subject will be the foreign policy of former Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker.
Oh, I know: Canadian History, what dreary stuff. Balderdash! Canadian History is boring when it’s taught in a boring way. I took a couple of courses in university that were taught with great fire and enthusiasm by a professor I deeply admire. His passion was obvious and infectious, and his memory for obscure details and stories from Canada’s past was astounding: Several years after taking his courses I ran into him in the halls one day, and he remembered I was a descendant of Empire Loyalists. Hundreds of students had come and gone through his classrooms in the interim, but he remembered that. It impresses me still.
Anyway, I wrote this essay for one of his classes, and I’ve always been fond of it. As I mentioned in April, I’m aware that anything I put up on the internet is free for someone to appropriate, so I’ve taken out the footnotes and bibliography, rendering it much less useful to anyone looking for a quick copy and paste to solve their looming deadline problem. My old homework really shouldn’t end up being someone else’s easy way out. That’s not to say any students reading this aren’t welcome to use this essay as either a source, or perhaps as a jumping off point to go to their school’s libraries and find the monographs that support my arguments. I’d be very pleased if that were to happen.
For non-student readers who feel like taking a mental stroll through one of the more interesting and convoluted ambitions of one of Canada’s most interesting and convoluted prime ministers, read on and enjoy!
Diefenbaker’s Foreign Policy
One Man’s Hopes and Fears Directing Six Years of a Nation’s Political Endeavours
The student of history is often frustrated in attempting to understand the confusing twists and turns of Diefenbaker’s foreign policies as prime minister of Canada. From 1957 to 1963 Diefenbaker fought tooth and nail to distance Canada from the United States, even while the countries became bound together with treaty, trade, and culture. He dithered on the necessity of nuclear weapons, despite agreeing to honour mutual defense treaties that necessitated such an arsenal. Diefenbaker even allowed a personal dislike for Kennedy to open a gap in the unified front the Western World presented to Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Through almost seven years, the only seven years many in his party would enjoy outside the Opposition, Canada’s foreign policy was in constant motion, never settling itself in one position long enough to reap a benefit. The preferences, biases, and most of all the fears of a small town politician from Saskatchewan had become the most important factors directing Canada’s interaction with the rest of the world.
John G. Diefenbaker’s political career was one long disappointment after the next, while in fact each failure was bringing him closer and closer towards governing Canada. He was defeated in 1925 and 1926 for Prince Albert Saskatchewan’s federal seat, and was beaten again in the 1933 election for Prince Albert’s mayoralty. He was shut out in 1929 and 1938 while trying to break into provincial politics, and only won his 1940 seat in the federal conservative constituency of Lake Centre Saskatchewan accidentally, having been spontaneously nominated while giving a speech at the town’s party headquarters.
Even after winning his seat on the back bench, he lost two bids for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1942 and 1948 and lost twice more while trying for the party’s House leadership in 1943 and 1953. He only won the title of Leader of the Opposition in 1956 because the Old Guard among the Conservative Party could not find a man qualified to run against him. Understandably, then, when Diefenbaker finally won control of his party and –in 1957– the country, he was constantly afraid of the two things which could strip him of his position: Usurpers and a loss of public favour. The fear of these two factors came to paralyze him several times during his time as prime minister, and rarely more consistently than in matters regarding Canada’s foreign policy.
One thing that must be established is that Diefenbaker exercised near-total control over the Ministry of External Affairs, so any assertion that his role in foreign policy is overemphasized or that his cabinet worked without his direct supervision is untrue. Diefenbaker did not appoint anyone to the Ministry of External Affairs for the first three months of his government, but when pundits began to complain that he was combining a heavy departmental workload to his duties as PM, he decided to choose a man who was plausible but utterly incapable to fill the vacancy. He chose Sidney Smith.
Smith, who resigned from the Presidency of the University of Toronto to pursue Diefenbaker’s offer, was well educated and hardworking, but his total ignorance of parliamentary procedures, minimal recognition in political circles, and deep reluctance to consult with ministry personnel necessitated close handling by the Prime Minister. Now Diefenbaker had a man with the appropriate title to satisfy his critics, but who also would allow him to retain absolute control over Canada’s international affairs.
Smith’s unexpected death in 1959 created a stir in the cabinet, as the External Affairs minister was a plum job whose holder was generally considered a favoured successor by the prime minister. Diefenbaker was in a quandary: He had only been PM for less than two years, so he did not want to name a true successor, and he also continued to want to do the new minister’s job, so he had to name another incompetent. Diefenbaker solved his dilemma by promoting a relative nobody to the position: Howard Green, erstwhile Public Works minister.
Green knew nothing about international affairs, had never been to Washington, had only been overseas during his service in the First World War, and cared so little for travel he did not even know how to drive a car. When left to his own devices Green was capable of fairly grievous breaches of diplomatic etiquette, as demonstrated by the incident when he rejected a vacant seat on the United Nations’ Security Council in favour of a communist on the principal that, “We [Canada] are no longer the vassal of the powerful United States.”
Once again, Diefenbaker used the man as a mouthpiece for all but the most trivial work. Green’s role in policy making was so minor that he continued using his civil servants from the Ministry of Public Works, spurning the experts at the Ministry of External Affairs in favour of familiar faces.
Clearly Diefenbaker meant to allow no competent interference in his handling of Canada’s international affairs. They fascinated him, and he showed his immediate enthusiasm for the subject matter by traveling to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London less than three days after the first meeting of his cabinet; his conservative victory after a twenty-two year Liberal Party reign was so unexpected that his reservations at the Dorchester Hotel in England were still in former prime minister St. Laurent’s name.
Diefenbaker was very interested in strengthening ties to the Commonwealth in order to distance Canada from the United States, and this went over very well at the conference. Upon his return –without consulting any civil servants for an estimate of plausibility, let alone detailed plans– Diefenbaker announced he would divert fifteen percent of Canada’s purchases from the US to the UK.
This careless statement promised $600,000,000 to the United Kingdom, something he could not possibly deliver without reducing tariffs to the point where Canadian manufacturers would be destroyed by British imports. The statement caught Britain flat-footed, embarrassing a government desperately trying to convince a lukewarm public that the European Economic Community was the only way to increase prosperity. A single tentative diplomatic mission to Canada asking, “Were you serious?” was enough for the British to realize Diefenbaker had no way of making good on his boast. While Queen Elizabeth II came to Canada twice during his tenure as PM, and he was sworn into the Imperial Privy Council, Diefenbaker lost most of his credibility in the UK over this incident, a loss that was especially felt when Britain courted the European Common Market despite his strong protests.
While the Fifteen Percent Debacle was not an auspicious start to Diefenbaker’s tenure as director of Canada’s foreign policy, his next decision was to have controversial repercussions that would haunt him the rest of his time as prime minister: The Liberal Government had been negotiating a North American air defense treaty, NORAD, for some time up to the election of 1957, and Diefenbaker saw much benefit to the plan: An American supreme commander –with a Canadian as his second in command– would oversee a series of radar installations in northern Canada and coordinate interceptor squadrons to eliminate any long-range nuclear-armed Soviet bombers coming over the North Pole, while notifying the American Strategic Air Command to launch their own bombers in retaliation.
Throughout his term Diefenbaker was anti-American, especially on any issues which threatened Canadian sovereignty, but geography and politics necessitated mutual defense, and there was no valid argument against defending Canadian citizens with American tax dollars. The Liberals had been ready to sign, and the Canadian military was pressuring Diefenbaker heavily, so he agreed to the treaty on August 1st, 1957 without even consulting his cabinet.
Problems began on October 4th of the same year. The Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite, and Chairman Khrushchev proclaimed the manned bomber to be obsolete. The intercontinental ballistic missile could not be stopped by an airplane; Canada’s aging CF-100s were now next to useless as bomber interceptors, but their replacement –the CF-105 Arrow that had been in development for six years– was now also superfluous.
The A. V. Roe Company’s plane had been contracted back in 1952 to outfly and outfight a new generation of Soviet turbojet-powered bombers, but the Arrow was still in test flights when its target went from the best weapon of the Red Menace to a nuclear afterthought.
To make matters worse, Diefenbaker was unable to persuade anyone to buy the fighter once it was ready for production. The Arrow had been designed with Canadian conditions in mind: Flying across a vast and sparsely populated northern territory had necessitated a two-engine aircraft with a backseat navigator, and this made the plane much more expensive than its nearest American counterpart. Only a big production run would keep the cost from being prohibitive; the one hundred aircraft required by the Royal Canadian Air Force would cost $1,261,000,000 in addition to the $171,000,000 spent on development unless foreign buyers were found to reduce the per unit price tag.
Conservative or Liberal, Diefenbaker or Pearson, the Arrow had to be scraped. While squandering millions always looks bad, Diefenbaker’s insensitive handling of the issue was further exaggerated by the Liberals in the Opposition who complained not about scrapping a fighter rendered obsolete and frightfully expensive before its production run began, but about crippling Canada’s aerospace industry. Diefenbaker, ever conscious of the way public opinion was blowing, stood against a hurricane of protest. His decision put 14,000 people out of work, and affected at least 34,000 families across Canada. In 1958 Diefenbaker had won the largest majority in Canadian history on the vision of Canada prospering without American interference. Only a few months later he allowed American factors to cripple one of Canada’s most prestigious industries. Canadian nationalism was turning against him.
Diefenbaker did what he had to do and cancelled the Avro Arrow on February 20th, 1959, but he then argued for a less expensive way to honour his NORAD obligations that no one approved of: Instead of a dozen fighter-interceptor squadrons in the far north that would cost over a billion dollars, Diefenbaker proposed to build two surface to air missile bases –one at North Bay, Ontario, and one at Mont-Laurier, Quebec– that would then tie into a thirty-base network in the United States. America would foot two-thirds of the construction budget, so the program would only cost Canada $40,000,000.
The bases would be equipped with Bomarc missiles, designed to knock down Russian bombers farther away and higher up than would have been possible for a plane. The drawback was that the Bomarc-A was obsolete, and the Bomarc-B had never had a successful test as of the National Defense Minister’s White Paper in April of 1959.
The greatest problem with the plan was that while a Bomarc-B with a conventional warhead could in theory knock down a Russian bomber, the Soviets had many more bombers than the Canadians would ever have missiles. For the system to knock down all the Russian bomber squadrons the Bomarcs would need nuclear warheads. It is unclear whether Diefenbaker was willfully ignoring this fact at the time, but as of March 10, 1959 the prime minister’s position was, “[This] Government does not anticipate concluding a formal agreement with the United States government on the acquisition of nuclear warheads in the immediate future.”
Meanwhile, the air arm of Canada’s NATO contingent in Europe was made up of antiquated CF-86 Sabres in serious need of replacing; NATO wanted Canada to replace them with American designed CF-104G Starfighters to fill a new niche in air warfare, that of Reconnaissance/Strike. Diefenbaker realized the public backlash that would result from buying American fighters so soon after canceling the Avro Arrow, so he negotiated the Defense Production Sharing Agreement (DPSA) with the United States, allowing Canadian manufacturers to place bids on the American defense market: Canada would build her own Starfighters –and Germany’s– under license, despite the Buy America Act the US had passed specifically to forbid such an action.
This was not the only controversial aircraft purchased by the Diefenbaker government; the final ignominy of Canada’s northern air defenses was that the CF-100s were incapable of intercepting the Soviet Bombers for pre-Bomarc launch identification; Diefenbaker would have to either allow the United States Air Force to have permanent interceptor bases in the Canadian North, or he would have to buy new planes.
In 1960 he reluctantly decided it would be better for Canada to buy replacement fighters and remain in control of her own national defense than to leave the decision of initiating hostilities over Canadian airspace up to American pilots. Canada would buy the McDonnell CF-101B Voodoo interceptor, complete with the two engines and backseat navigator that had made the Arrow so unappealing only two years before. He could not even win DPSA concessions on this purchase. The Opposition and the newspapers roasted him, and Diefenbaker’s popular support grew even thinner, but again he made the hard decision.
After all these unpalatable but necessary policy initiatives, one is left with the question of why. Why did Diefenbaker take so much of the Ministry of External Affairs workload onto himself when it was earning him nothing but grief? The answer was that the PM had one vaulting ambition: To earn his place in the history books as the true mediator of a disarmament treaty between the two nuclear superpowers, and in this he found Howard Green an enthusiastic if bumbling puppet.
Unfortunately, the prime minister and the External Affairs minister were so honest and open in their proposals that they upset every party involved, each in a different way: At the Ten Nation Disarmament Committee of late 1959 and early 1960 Diefenbaker suggested each power state exactly what it had and where it had it before beginning to scale back its nuclear stockpiles, to eliminate all its biological and chemical weapons, and to ban the development of armed satellites. The USSR disagreed with the required full disclosure of the location and nature of its weapons of mass destruction before any reductions began, so it accused Canada of a conspiracy to permit espionage on the behalf of her American allies.
Then at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament on the 26th of September, 1960, Diefenbaker made a proposal more sensitive to Russia’s complaints, but including so much tough talk that the neutral nations balked at supporting it. Later in the year Green overruled his ambassador to the United Nations’ pleas and made Canada vote in favour of a demand for Eisenhower and Khrushchev to meet and hash out arms reductions personally.
Out of ninety-five voting countries, Canada was one of only five to support the proposal. This particular round of talks had been stalled by Eisenhower, and he was deeply upset at Canada’s ‘anti-American’ vote. In the space of eight months Canada had earned a rebuke from the USSR, had stunned the neutral countries into frosty silence, and had snubbed the United States.
So much for history’s great peacemaker.
Diefenbaker did manage one diplomatic success that was to be hailed by both sides of the House and earn him the praise of most of the English speaking world. At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference of 1961 he prevented the vote to expel the new Republic of South Africa on the basis of its racial segregation policies, a vote that might easily have torn the Commonwealth apart, as nations like the UK and New Zealand were willing to turn a blind eye while nations like Nigeria and Kenya were not. Diefenbaker found the way out, allowing everyone to dodge the bullet: The Commonwealth would declare racial equality to be a principal that all members must hold dear. South Africa withdrew its application on the grounds that it did not meet the entry requirements, and so Diefenbaker had his moment of glory as the saviour of the Commonwealth.
The good times would not last.
The single most important international issue Diefenbaker had to deal with arrived in 1961: The first Starfighter squadrons were deployed to Europe; the first Voodoo squadrons were being deployed in the North; the Bomarc bases were coming online, and Canada’s army brigade in Germany had adopted Honest John surface to surface missiles to counteract the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority. Millions and millions of dollars had been spent, Diefenbaker’s reputation had been badly bruised, and now that the weapons systems were all in place, all of them would require nuclear weapons to do what they had been purchased to do. Was Canada willing to become a nuclear power? Diefenbaker, who dreamed of melting the Cold War and pulling the Nuclear Teeth out of the Russian Bear, did not want to, but he understood that his NORAD and NATO obligations –that he had agreed to in good faith– necessitated Canadian missiles and planes carry nuclear warheads.
The Cold War’s balance of terror was referred to by the apt acronym MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The USSR and the USA each had enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the other, but neither could knock out the other’s ability to retaliate in kind. Canada had three places in the nuclear deterrent: Canada would use nuclear Bomarc-B missiles in conjunction with nuclear-tipped Genie missiles carried by CF-101B Voodoos as a defense against the Russian bomber fleets; Canada would use nuclear Honest Johns as a defensive weapon to hold back the communist hordes in Europe, and finally Canada would use Starfighters carrying nuclear bombs as an offensive weapon to strike deep behind the Iron Curtain, reducing targets of opportunity to radioactive glass.
Without nuclear weapons the Bomarcs and Voodoos would stop only a handful of bombers, the Honest Johns would be little more than a one-shot artillery weapon, and the Starfighters would merely take photographs of the Soviets’ vulnerable supply lines and axes of advance below. Canada’s defenses would be a joke, and her retaliatory powers would be laughable.
Diefenbaker had entered into his NORAD and NATO obligations voluntarily, and still believed that Canada needed to fulfill those roles. At the same time his two weaknesses, fear of usurpers and sensitivity to public opinion, were working against Canada’s nuclear responsibilities.
Defense Minister Douglas Harkness, who would one day bring Diefenbaker’s government crashing down, was all in favour of nuclear weapons, and the PM was being targeted by a letter writing campaign by Canada’s equivalent to the Ban the Bomb movement. Here Diefenbaker had a potential usurper supporting the bomb, which meant supporting Canadian nuclear weapons would weaken his own position in cabinet, and the ‘public’ –For he did not recognize the campaign as the effort of a vocal minority of political opinion– was writing him thousand of letters demanding he refuse to proliferate nuclear weapons, which implied he would lose the faith of the people. For Diefenbaker there was nothing demanding he accept nuclear weapons except strategic necessity.
With so little benefit to settling the Nuclear Issue, Diefenbaker hedged: He decided Canadian forces would use nuclear weapons in wartime, but no Canadian base, in Canada or in Europe, would store the bombs. Here Diefenbaker’s preconceptions clouded reality: Diefenbaker’s personal experiences in the First World War had taught him that a conflict proceeded by an ultimatum, allowing all sides to mobilize their forces and marshal their munitions before conflict began at the pace of a steam-powered locomotive.
The Cold War was different. There would be no ultimatum, for the USSR’s only hope was a surprise attack to destroy America’s ability to retaliate, and vice versa. No one would know the war had started until missiles were launched and bombers were flying with nuclear payloads in their bomb bays. The nuclear deterrent of MAD worked on the principal that the USSR would not dare use nuclear weapons because her enemies also had nuclear weapons standing by on a hair trigger. If Canada’s nuclear weapons were being stored on American soil, it was as useful a deterrent as if she had no nukes at all, and in the event of a shooting war Canada would be unable to access her nuclear arms until it was all over. Still, Diefenbaker had decided to hedge, and he was a stubborn, prideful man.
The best example of Diefenbaker’s tenacious obdurateness was his relationship with America’s thirty-fourth President. While he had always been a Canadian Nationalist who resented America’s influence, Diefenbaker had at least respected President Eisenhower as a man. Kennedy and Diefenbaker, on the other hand, shared a mutual loathing that would bear only bitter fruit. Kennedy came to describe the Canadian PM as, “Nothing but a platitudinous bore”, and Diefenbaker was even less polite, referring to the American President as, “That young fool.”
Arguments over who won the War of 1812 and a confidential brief accidentally left by Kennedy in Ottawa permanently soured an already rocky relationship, and Kennedy swore at least once that he would never speak to Diefenbaker again. The Canadian PM, for his part, spend much less time coordinating with American foreign interests than he had with Eisenhower, and made millions trading with communist Cuba and China, despite Kennedy’s vocal protests.
Diefenbaker was destined to allow his personal bias against Kennedy to put Canada in jeopardy; When Kennedy decided to begin a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent the completion of interregional ballistic missile bases ninety miles off the Florida coast, he had one of his aides give the Diefenbaker government notice of his intent less than twenty-four hours before he addressed the nation on television; in his speech Kennedy assured his fellow Americans that they had Canada’s full support, which had not been indicated in anyway. Diefenbaker was furious that, once again, America was usurping Canada’s most sovereign right, control of her armed forces. Members of his cabinet clearly remember him saying, “That young man has got to learn that he is not running the Canadian government.”
His suspicions were not entirely baseless: The Canadian Navy went on alert at the same time as the American Navy, thanks to the American commander of NORAD. An emergency cabinet meeting was held, in which National Defense Minister Harkness begged Diefenbaker to agree to assist the United States, and use the Missile Crisis to push nuclear weapons onto Canadian bases immediately while the press and Opposition would be unable to complain, and where they would be urgently needed if a Third World War broke out. Diefenbaker refused and even delayed bringing Canadian forces onto full alert. Harkness managed to covertly bring the Canada’s armed forces up to DEFCON 3 on 22nd of October, two days before Diefenbaker would give the order, but aside from that he could do nothing without Diefenbaker’s approval.
Every one of America’s allies agreed to support Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis except Diefenbaker.
Even French President De Gaulle, notorious for causing difficulties when asked to honour his treaty obligations, said, “Well, if a great nation like the United States in these circumstances says they have the proof, I don’t have to see it.”
Only Diefenbaker demanded every shred of evidence, and then decided it was not enough. In all of NATO only Canada refused to offer support. The crisis ended with Diefenbaker still firm in his resolve not to support the Americans.
The Canadian public did not like Diefenbaker’s pettiness, and the Liberal Party smelled blood in the water. Diefenbaker beat off two non-confidence votes in the weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it would be the Nuclear Issue that finally finished him. At the beginning of 1963 a retiring American General named Norstad, who had been the commander of NATO for most of Diefenbaker’s time as PM, arrived in Ottawa on his way to Washington and gave a very blunt press conference, assuring the Canadian people that they were not meeting their treaty obligations without the bomb.
Douglas Harkness saw this as the last straw; Harkness knew Diefenbaker’s ‘we have the bomb, we just don’t hold the bomb’ hedge was a strategic nonsense, and as Harkness was the National Defense Minister he was unwilling to enter an election without nuclear bombs on Canadian bases.
On February 4th, 1963, Diefenbaker had a showdown in cabinet, demanding to know who was still ‘with him’. Harkness resigned. The next day the Conservative party lost two non-confidence votes in Parliament. The day after that Parliament disbanded. By February 9th Diefenbaker’s cabinet broke apart with the resignation of several more ministers. The Elections on April 8th, 1963, saw the Conservatives put back as the Opposition Party. One of the first foreign policy decisions of the Pearson government was to bring nuclear warheads onto Canadian soil.
Canada’s foreign policy from 1957 to 1963 was all about Diefenbaker’s hopes, fears, and sometimes his fantasies, because Diefenbaker was so involved in Canada’s foreign policy that they had the same values and judgements.
When Diefenbaker became the prime minister of Canada after a lifetime of failed attempts at political authority, he ran every which way at once with his new powers, testing the limits and boundaries the People, the Party, and the World would enforce upon him. When his gallivanting provoked hard decisions, he made them, and if he blundered he shouldered the blame stoically.
In the end it was his own stubbornness that defeated him; his personal feelings towards Kennedy became national policy, and the entire world may have suffered if things had gone differently.
Diefenbaker hoped for a Canada free of America, so he tried hard to make Canada one of the brightest stars in the Commonwealth constellation. He feared a loss of power, so he frequently went against the common good in favour of public opinion or to frustrate a rival, as he did with the Nuclear Issue. Diefenbaker dreamed of being the great statesman, he even once said wistfully, “Oh, it’s not easy for us, the Macmillans, the Kennedys, the Adenauers, and the de Gaulles…”
In attempting to attain his hopes he could be painfully naive and optimistic, as happened in his Commonwealth adventures. In his efforts to put down his fears he could be pigheaded and shortsighted, as happened with the Nuclear Issue. In reaching for his fantasies he could be so honest and friendly that everyone involved could not help but rear back in suspicion of treachery, as happened in his attempts to bring about an end to the Cold War’s balance of terror. If one thinks of Diefenbaker’s foreign policy as an extension of the man, with all his capacity for intelligence and ignorance, foresight and hindsight, genius and stupidity, the mystery falls away. Diefenbaker’s policies became his nation’s policies. He worked hard to make Canada a better place by his own efforts, and if he failed it was only because his vision was greater than his ability.