Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective

A gallant soldier of the First World War, one of the most honest men in politics, and now a crusader for world disarmament, Green held that Canada should never import nuclear weapons lest she be discredited as an advocate of peace. More profoundly than Diefenbaker, if that was possible, he distrusted the American government. For his part Douglas Harkness, the new defense minister and also a war veteran, was equally resolved to carry through the nuclear commitment. The conflict between these two sincere men pushed the government toward an acute crisis.

Diefenbaker tried to ride both horses in his Cabinet, postponed a final decision on the warheads, and survived some narrow confidence votes in Parliament. Then three events quickly smashed his calculations.

During the Cuban missile crisis of autumn, 1962, Green managed to prevent the Cabinet from immediately endorsing the American quarantine against Cuba and alerting Canada’s defense forces. But after forty-four hours Harkness persuaded Diefenbaker to support the United States. The delay was not overlooked, or forgiven, in Washington.

Shortly afterward, on January 3, 1963, General Lauris Norstad, retiring as supreme commander of NATO, arrived in Ottawa and remarked casually at a press conference that of course Canada had committed itself, by solemn agreement, to accept nuclear weapons for its forces in Europe—a commitment that the government denied. Intentionally or not, Norstad had touched the trigger of a Cabinet explosion.

Then, without notice, Pearson pulled the trigger. Abandoning Green and all his own Liberal commitments, he announced that Canada was bound by its national honor to accept nuclear weapons. In a single speech the opposition leader, as he had planned, split the government in two.

In an attempt to avert a crisis in his government, Diefenbaker fell back on an impromptu conference between himself, President Kennedy, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain that had taken place in Nassau a few weeks earlier. Diefenbaker had arrived unbidden, and only because Kennedy’s departure had been delayed for a few hours was he invited to lunch with the American and British leaders.

It must have been a dreadful lunch. Kennedy had not seen Diefenbaker for eighteen months, and obviously did not want to see him now. Macmillan, for his part, had not forgiven him for angrily lecturing the British government against entering into the European Common Market.

With a good deal of reticence and strain, this odd trio somehow got through the meal. Some of Kennedy’s friends report him as saying afterward, “There we sat, like three whores at a christening.” But, unknown to his hosts, Diefenbaker had learned enough from them to provide, as he hoped, an escape from his dilemma at home.

After Pearson’s dramatic turnabout on the nuclear weapons question, Diefenbaker informed an uneasy Parliament that the Kennedy-Macmillan conference implied “a change in the philosophy of defense, a change in the views of NATO.” Such vital changes were in train, he said, that Canada’s nuclear role “has been placed in doubt. … More and more the nuclear deterrent is becoming of such a nature that more nuclear arms would add nothing material to our defense.” Yet the Canadian government was still negotiating with the United States for nuclear weapons “in case of need.”

These statements baffled Parliament. The Ottawa correspondents interpreted them as meaning that Canada would never accept nuclear weapons, short of war—when they would arrive too late. Harkness interpreted them as meaning precisely the opposite. Diefenbaker said that no interpretation was required.

The official interpretation in Washington was quite different, and totally devastating. At first, Kennedy’s officials were inclined to think that Diefenbaker’s speech was only the preliminary death rattle of his government. They heard it in public silence and private pleasure. But a few days later they were hearing the reaction of the European NATO allies, who suspected that Diefenbaker might have been telling the truth: that Kennedy and Macmillan perhaps had planned some new defense strategy behind their backs. These suspicions had to be allayed at any cost, even if it meant the probable destruction of the Canadian government, and allayed at once.

Late on the night of January 30, without waiting to advise Kennedy of its intentions, his State Department issued a press release that, considering that it dealt with an allied nation, was extraordinarily brutal. The Nassau agreements, it said, “raise no question of the appropriateness of nuclear weapons for Canadian forces in fulfilling their NATO or NORAD [North American Air Defense Command] obligations.” As if this repudiation of Diefenbaker were not cutting enough, the statement added that “the Canadian government has not yet proposed any arrangement sufficiently practical to contribute effectively to North American defense.”

No Canadian government in modern times had ever been treated by the United States in this rough fashion. Even Kennedy was shocked when he read the State Department’s language next morning, but the words had been said, and they immediately caused another explosion in Diefenbaker’s Cabinet.