- Historic Sites
Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective
Can a nice, sensitive, schizophrenic young dominion of only one hundred find happiness on the border of a rich, overbearing old republic nearly twice her age?
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
In our issue of December, 1965, we published a survey of Canadian history, written especially for a United States audience by Hugh MacLennan, eminent Canadian novelist, and illustrated by an extensive picture portfolio. Now, as Canada completes her first century as a nation and celebrates with a world exposition at Montreal, we present an article by another well-known Canadian, the political reporter and, historian Bruce Hutchison, editorial director of the Vancouver Sun and author of Mr. Prime Minister, 1867–1964 and The Struggle for the Border. Mr. Hutchison addresses himself to a more specific theme than did Mr. MacLennan: relations between the United States and Canada during the one hundred years since Canada’s Confederation in 1867. Those relations show surprising turns and juxtapositions, and they are more familiar to most Canadians than to most Americans. But Americans would do well to pay closer attention, for some very good reasons that Mr. Hutchison expresses here with insight and wit.—The Editors
The Canadian nation will be one hundred years of age on July 1, 1967. Throughout its first century, according to a major North American myth, Canada has lived in happy symbiosis with its neighbor the United States. Although certain minor and regrettable clashes occurred along the frontier in earlier days, they now belong to the ages and to the history books (in which they are comically distorted, on both sides).
This pleasant myth, like all myths, contains some truth. Not nearly as much, however, as the American people believe, if they can spare a glance for the birthday party next door, they will see behind the myth at least three contemporary facts surprising to them but deeply engraved on the Canadian mind.
The first is that Canada has made itself more important to the United States than any other foreign nation, for reasons at once geographical, political, military, and economic. The second is that for Canadians the supposedly perfect relationship across the border has always been and remains an ambivalent love-hate complex, interesting to psychologists and baffling to most Americans, who are conscious of no such spiritual stresses and feel only a genial indifference. The third is that the actual relationship, while the closest and best in our disordered world, has lately entered a new and very difficult phase: America, Canada’s enemy in pioneer times, has today become her friendly seducer.
Before a Canadian, with all his native prejudices, attempts to trace the misunderstood history of a relationship unique in human affairs, let it be said at once that the United States, during the last century at any rate, has treated Canada with a good will that is equally unique, though not always with good sense. Outside this continent, a great power requiring Canada's resources would have taken them long ago, by force if necessary, as the United States could easily take them now. The primary American mistake in its treatment of Canada has never been moral, for Canada is the supreme test of the United States’ international morality, and thus far the test has been passed with first-class honors. No, the mistake is one of judgment and manners. On her side, Canada’s mistake is to count on the United States’ unbounded benevolence; to assume that she can escape her own wrenching internal problems by living with Uncle Sam on her own terms, and to underestimate both his onerous world-wide burden and the limitation of his patience.
To understand the affair of the century, as it were, between the Dominion of Canada and the United States, we must look back to 1841, when English-speaking, Protestant Upper Canada and French-speaking, Catholic Lower Canada were joined in a rather unworkable legislative union. A generation of deadlock between the two racial elements was to convince them that they must bring the Atlantic colonies into a larger union of some sort or remain poor, defenseless, and an easy prey to American invasion.
No such threat appeared for a while, however, and an era of good-will on the border produced, in 1854, a reciprocal free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada. But that integrated continental economy, which would have affected the whole future of both countries, did not last long. The American Civil War changed everything.
Though the Canadian colonies remained neutral, they were dragged into the developing quarrel between Britain and the warlike republic beside them. Once Grant’s Grand Army had defeated the Confederacy it could easily have marched northward and taken Canada. Since Britain had backed the South, almost to the point of intervention, there appeared to be good reason for American revenge at Canada’s expense.
Canada’s alarm, while exaggerated, was genuine, and her abler politicians, like Sir John A. Macdonald, skillfully used it to promote the idea of a union of all the colonies. Commercial motives played a large part in this enterprise, but it probably could not have succeeded to the extent that it did without the supposed American threat. The ancient Canadian nightmare, more than anything else, drove the colonies together in their Confederation of 1867.
The American Revolution had supplied Canada with an English-speaking population, the Tories who fled northward as rebellion spread. The American invasion of 1812 had united the two Canadian races and given them their first sense of nationality. The American Civil War completed the process. The new Canadian federal state was built at a conference in Quebec, mainly through Macdonald’s queer genius; but the United States was unconsciously its joint builder.
So began the nation that, by its mere presence, its rich natural resources, and its very weakness, must always deeply affect both the domestic and foreign policies of the United States, for better or worse.
The Canadian national experiment looked questionable at best. It included only the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, because Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland refused to join. From the Great Lakes to the Rockies stretched the lonely plains, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, inhabited by Indians and a half-breed race of buffalo hunters called the Metis. Beyond, on the Pacific, lay British Columbia, a royal colony formed in 1858—largely as a move to counter the ambitions of American annexationists.
As against its frightening physical, financial, and racial liabilities, the new Canada had three assets, usually underestimated: the military power of Britain to defend it, if necessary; the antagonism to the United States that had united it in the first place; and a positive will to make a community neither British nor American but solely Canadian—a poor thing, perhaps, but its own.
It was this last element that Americans were slowest to understand; and no wonder, when Canadians could never articulate it. Yet the secret dream of independence burned as brightly behind the ribald public figure of Macdonald, its first Prime Minister, and in the hearts of the backwoodsmen who called themselves Canadians, as it had ever burned in the Continental Congress. Canada lacked a Washington to symbolize its purpose, a Franklin to codify it, a Jefferson to put it into prose, and a Lincoln to redeem it by his martyrdom; but the dream burned all the same and still burns on the nation’s hundredth birthday, unquenched by its temporarily disordered politics.
With all these liabilities and assets, Macdonald risked everything on a gambler’s reckless throw. He guaranteed to build a railway from the St. Lawrence to the Pacific if the British Columbian colonists would enter the new Confederation. Some four million Canadians in the eastern provinces proposed to span a continent with steel. No people of their numbers had ever attempted such a project.
British Columbia eagerly accepted Macdonald’s terms and entered the Dominion in 1871. The Canadian Pacific Railway was a mad scheme nevertheless, as Macdonald’s enemies warned him. Yet if he could succeed, if the United States would let him succeed, the natural economic currents of North America, running north and south, would be cut by a new flow, east and west. A continent evidently suited to contain either one big nation or a congeries of quarrelling little nations, like Europe, would be unnaturally bisected and, north of the Rio Grande, would contain only two.
The United States was no longer openly seeking foreign territory, but it intended to harvest fish off Canada’s east coast and to use Canadian canals on the St. Lawrence. When its negotiators met British delegates at Washington in 1871, to tidy up the trans-atlantic debris left by the Civil War, Macdonald attended as the humble representative of a state whose foreign affairs were governed from London.
He had long been worried by what he called “the pacific hostility of the United States, a judicious alternation of bullying and coaxing,” and now, as he foresaw, Britain sold out Canada’s interests at a cheap price. The fisheries and canals were opened to Americans—but the United States would not revive the former reciprocal free-trade agreement. Macdonald, who wanted reciprocity, had no resort but to vigorous tariff protection. His “National Policy” has lasted, with marginal changes, into our time.
Canada’s reaction to the Washington deal was predictable, as was another result, which, however, surprised Washington and London. Macdonald, the Canadian monarchist from Scotland, had been betrayed, as he thought, by Britain; for all his love of British institutions, he became an implacable Canadian nationalist. So did most of his people. But by 1873 he was a nationalist out of office—and apparently ruined by a mean little campaign-fund scandal. His Liberal successors, facing a prolonged business depression, refused to complete his railway on schedule. British Columbia threatened to leave the Confederation. The Canadian state, without contact between east and west, seemed likely to die in infancy.
That ill-nourished child was sturdier than it looked. When Macdonald returned to power in 1878 he pushed the railway across the Rockies at breakneck speed, almost to the point of national bankruptcy. In 1885 the last ceremonial spike was driven. The trans-continental state had a steel skeleton but not much flesh.
At first the National Policy, undermined by a world depression, could not give Canada the expected prosperity. Perhaps free trade with the United States was better, after all? The Liberal party had always thought so, but after one brief term of power, could never dislodge Macdonald’s Conservative ministry. At last, having found in young Wilfrid Laurier a French-Canadian leader of genius, the Liberals proposed to revive reciprocity. They were defeated on this issue, modified their doctrinaire, laissez-faire liberalism, and reached office in 1896, after Macdonald’s death. Reducing the Canadian tariff moderately, Laurier claimed full credit for the good times that followed a world boom.
Reciprocity was no longer practical politics for the time being, but Laurier fleshed the steel skeleton by populating the prairies with massive immigration, started to build two more transcontinental railways, and created a prosperous, workable economy. Meanwhile, like all his predecessors, he was confronted by the boundary problem in a new guise.
In 1903, after the Yukon gold rush, President Theodore Roosevelt had decided that the uncertain line separating Alaska and Canada must be settled, with force if necessary. Canada needed a port on the Alaska panhandle, but Roosevelt intended to hold that entire region and bar the Yukon Territory from the sea.
The resulting arbitration by three “impartial jurists” from the United States, two from Canada, and one from Britain gave Roosevelt all he wanted when the British Chief Justice, Lord Alverstone, sided with the Americans. Britain could not afford to quarrel with the United States, and Canada was still expendable—expendable but enraged by what it considered another British betrayal.
From then on Laurier was resolved that Canada must achieve full control of its foreign affairs in dealing with neighbors who “are very grasping in their national actions and who are determined on every occasion to get the best of any agreement which they make.” The Alaskan boundary settlement powerfully stimulated Canada’s appetite for independence.
Complete national autonomy, however, lay some years ahead, and it would not necessarily exclude reciprocity with the United States. In 1911, Laurier felt strong enough to resurrect that almost forgotten objective of his youth, less for reasons of principle than for the sake of winning a difficult election.
By mere chance a sweeping reduction in tariffs likewise suited the political convenience of President William Howard Taft, and for exactly the same reasons. Overnight, partisan necessities on both sides produced a new agreement, not quite as comprehensive as the old one of the nineteenth century but given the same name. The new reciprocity deal—an agreement, not a treaty—provided free trade in most natural products, and lower duties on some manufactured articles.
Taft could be sure of pushing the necessary legislation through the American Congress. Laurier felt even more confident in a Parliament that he had so long dominated. Though he was past his prime, this majestic, knightly figure with chiselled face, a nimbus of white curls, and a voice that pealed like an organ, equally melodic in English or French, still looked almost immortal to his countrymen. Besides, the Conservatives, discouraged by frequent defeat, surely would rather oppose motherhood than reciprocity, since it promised to open a long-sought American market for Canadian goods. In the nick of time Laurier’s aged and tired government had apparently found a winning issue, thanks mainly to Taft.
But for once the master of Canadian politics had misjudged his people, his political enemies at home, and his friend in the White House.
When the reciprocity agreement was published, Robert Laird Borden, the able, plodding, lackluster Conservative leader, who had never been able to challenge Laurier’s brilliance, sank into despair, as his diary candidly admits. But within a few days Borden began to suspect Laurier’s mistake and his own. Reciprocity was not popular with most Canadians after all. The manufacturing interests and their workers, who had enjoyed the protection of the tariffs, naturally were against it. “I’m out to bust the damn thing,” said William Cornelius Van Horne, the ex-American who had built the Canadian Pacific Railway. The formidable Clifford Sifton, once Laurier’s chief lieutenant, organized the Conservative campaign.
With plenty of campaign funds and a dogged perseverance, Borden launched his attack on reciprocity, calling it a threat to end Canada’s independence. Economic union, he said, must mean political union. Week after week and month after month his blockade continued in the House of Commons—until Laurier lost patience, called an election, and, never doubting the result, took his policy to the voters.
The election of September 21, 1911, was more important to the United States than any in previous Canadian history. It involved nothing less than the continent’s whole economic future, the futures of Laurier and Taft being incidental. In Canadian mythology the election would be remembered as turning on the simple issue of reciprocity. In fact, it turned on a masterpiece of cynical politics to which the honest Borden was a reluctant but consenting party.
In isolationist, anti-British Quebec, where reciprocity cut little ice, the Conservatives indicted Laurier for his plan to build a navy and fight Britain’s imperial wars. In the English-speaking provinces his reciprocity scheme was condemned for selling out Britain and serving the imperial interests of the United States. By making political capital of both these grievances, the Conservative opposition hoped to destroy the government.
Yet they could hardly have succeeded without Taft’s help. The American President rashly affirmed that reciprocity “would make Canada only an adjunct of the United States.” And Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, added, with peculiar insensibility, “I hope to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole.”
That was all Borden needed. The blundering official voices from Washington instantly invoked the ancient ghosts of annexation, convinced a majority of the Canadian people that reciprocity would engulf their nation, as Borden had warned, and brought him into office. The chance to integrate the continental economy had been lost for another half century at least, and perhaps forever. (A minor footnote to these events may indicate how little the American people understood or remember them. The writer discussed the election of 1911 with Senator Robert Taft, the President’s famous son, not long before his death. He said he vaguely recalled that his father had negotiated some sort of tariff bargain with Canada, but that he had entirely forgotten its contents. When I outlined the reciprocity agreement, he expressed surprise and admiration. Some day. he hoped, it could be revived, even if imports of Canadian foodstuffs might make trouble in the American farm belt. At the proper time he intended to reintroduce some such scheme in the Senate. A few months later, he was dead.)
While Borden pursued a traditional Conservative policy of protection, it was submerged, as a practical issue, by the rapid decay of his synthetic alliance with the anti-Laurier faction in Quebec, and then by World War I. For Canada the war became a long, agonizing hemorrhage of its best blood; but it also became Canada’s passport to nationhood. For the United States it was a brief and comparatively painless interlude. But the two nations were allied for the first time, and their commerce spilled in a rising torrent over the postwar tariff walls erected on both sides of the common border.
Another development of major concern to the United States largely escaped that country’s attention. Having competently managed Canada’s war effort, Borden represented Canada at the Versailles Conference. He insisted, over the objections of Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George, that Canada must sign the peace treaty as an independent state within the British Empire. After some unpleasant haggling, the American and British governments grudgingly accepted Borden’s signature. In principle it established Canadian sovereignty, which was further strengthened by separate membership in the League of Nations. Thereafter the United States must deal directly, and not through London, with another state rather than an overseas British territory. The new Canadian status tacitly accepted at Versailles was finally codified, in 1931, by Great Britain’s Statute of Westminster.
Meanwhile the United States discovered that the constitutional entity beside it could be useful as well as irritating. Borden was succeeded, in 1920, by Arthur Meighen, a man of unrivalled intellect and bad luck who could rarely win an election. During his short tenure he persuaded Britain to abrogate its alliance with Japan, solely because it was objectionable to the American government. Meighen raised tariff walls “brick for brick” between the neighbors, but he recognized their growing interdependence, both political and economic.
He also recognized Canada’s unique position as an interpreter between London and Washington. Canada, now a giant trading nation, occupied one vital corner in the North Atlantic trade triangle. It was a vital area of American defense, too, in any future world war, and without its co-operation the undeclared American-British alliance could not work. Though Canada had little power, it controlled a strategic geography and an increasingly rich economy.
These facts, so generally overlooked, were perfectly clear to William Lyon Mackenzie King, who took office in 1921 and remained Prime Minister, with one interruption, longer than any English-speaking statesman in history. This tiny and mysterious personage, with his plump boy’s face, his starched, old-fashioned clothes, and his deceptively innocent look, was a Liberal, a theoretical free-trader, a social reformer—and an ardent spiritualist who frequently conferred through mediums with his dead mother, his beloved Irish terrier, and, after 1945, with his departed friend Franklin Roosevelt. In these séances Canadian-American relations reached a new psychic plane, but their secrecy was well guarded, for King’s Cabinet never heard of them before his death.
Despite his otherworldliness, he was the most canny politician of his time, too wise to risk reciprocity but eager to reduce tariffs as far as practical politics allowed. This work had barely started when the Great Depression defeated him in 1930.
King’s successor, the self-confident Conservative Richard Bedford Bennett, combining wealth with piety and courage with pettiness, guaranteed to cure unemployment by raising tariffs to a record level. Under the Hoover administration, the United States was doing the same thing. In both nations economic lunacy could go no further.
The pendulum swung after Roosevelt’s arrival in Washington and King’s re-election in Canada. A moderate reduction of American and Canadian tariffs followed. Now again Canada’s influence on its neighbor, while seldom acknowledged, was quietly increasing, mainly because the gray, self-effacing Prime Minister had built an unlikely friendship with the colorful President. Their contrary dispositions fitted smoothly together.
Roosevelt found in King a trained economist, a scholar of political science, and a discreet, avuncular confidant who could safely be told secrets not always revealed to the American Cabinet. King regarded Roosevelt as a supremely great man but also as an economic illiterate constantly in need of educated, neutral advice. More than once, returning from Washington aglow with presidential flattery, King informed this writer that his friend simply knew nothing of economics, and did not even understand his own New Deal. He would add, with a mischievous chuckle, that Roosevelt “would like to take over Canada entire, as who wouldn’t?”
The first results of this strange intimacy appeared in 1937, when Roosevelt and King agreed privately to begin joint continental defense planning. The following year their public oratory, if one read between the lines, proclaimed a de facto military alliance inside but not beyond North America. Soon after Canada entered the Second World War, not at Britain’s behest but by the vote of its own Parliament, the alliance was formally written—at Ogdensburg, New York, on August 17, 1940. The agreement signed by the two friends in the President’s railway car bound the United States and Canada to common defense if either was attacked. The signatories had acted without the authority of their legislatures; but none was required when Hitler had overrun France and stood poised to invade Britain. A common peril had united the neighbors.
According to King something else, too momentous and sensitive for public disclosure, also happened at Ogdensburg.
Roosevelt had proposed a gift of American destroyers to a desperate Britain in return for British military bases in the Western Hemisphere, but the negotiations proved slow and difficult, Churchill being unwilling to meet the President’s terms. Their disagreement, King said later, was threatening to undermine the transatlantic friendship, and only he could hope to save it. The Canadian interceded with Churchill, mollified him, and closed the breach. Such is King’s story, told by him only among his intimates. They rather doubted it; but he carried in his wallet a precious cable of thanks from the British Prime Minister to support his claim.
King’s view of the Canadian role was accurate. In its fictitious neutrality the United States must somehow ensure Britain’s survival, if it could, and the channel of communication between Washington and London ran naturally through Ottawa.
Whatever Canada may have contributed to British-American understanding, the country was near bankruptcy by the spring of 1941. To supply Britain with munitions it had to buy various components in the United States, and now its last reserves of American dollars were running out. How, Roosevelt asked King, as they drove around the President’s Hyde Park estate in his little hand-operated automobile, could Canada’s needs be met? The trained economist had a ready answer: let the United States buy Canadian materials and munitions for shipment to Britain under the lend-lease formula, and pay for them in American dollars. The “economic illiterate” pronounced this a “swell idea” and asked his friend to put it in writing. On a slip of paper King wrote the Hyde Park Declaration, which effectively integrated the Canadian and American economies for war production. A delighted Roosevelt appended his own postscript: “Done by Mackenzie and F.D.R. on a grand Sunday in April.” No one else had ever called King “Mackenzie”; but then, no one else, Canadian or American, had ever trusted him so much.
Far beyond the Hyde Park Declaration, the American government already was committed to Britain’s survival, no matter how the laws of Congress might read. And even if it could have remained legally neutral, at the cost of leaving all Europe under Hitler’s control, the United States must be involved in the war, indirectly at least, because its neighbor and ally was. The Japanese clarified these truths by bombing Pearl Harbor. From then on, the United States and Canada fought side by side as in World War I.
Their wartime co-operation lingered for a while into the peace. In 1947, during another Canadian exchange crisis, King even explored the chance of “real reciprocity,” as he described his plan that anonymous officials carried to Washington. Then, to the disappointment of his free-trade colleagues, he retreated in panic, remembering the Liberal defeat of 1911. Since then no Canadian political party has sponsored reciprocity, in anything like the original version, for a third time.
King was succeeded by a French Canadian from the Quebec isolationist belt who was nevertheless an outright internationalist. Louis St. Laurent, who looked and behaved like a grand seigneur of the ancien régime, had a mind much clearer than King’s, with more candor and warmth but less subtlety. To this man of facts the interdependence not only of the United States and Canada but of the whole North Atlantic region was obvious. Before NATO had become practical politics in Washington, St. Laurent proposed a Western alliance against communism, and when it was framed he stationed Canadian troops in Europe, took his country into the Korean War, and committed its commercial policy to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
St. Laurent’s brisk, pragmatic approach to the problems of the continent was emphatically approved in Washington. Yet as his articulate foreign minister, Lester Bowles Pearson, remarked in a speech resented and misunderstood there, Canada’s relations with the United States could never again be “easy or automatic” as in older, simpler times.
Their complexity was given a vivid, though hazardous, demonstration in the Suez crisis of 1956. Pearson, now a kind of smooth universal joint in Western diplomacy, devised a settlement, helped to reconcile the quarrelling American and British governments, and won a Nobel Peace Prize. Canada had reached the peak of its international influence.
But shortly after Suez a new and prickly factor entered the continental equation. In John George Diefenbaker the Conservative party of Canada chose as its leader the ablest campaigner that the nation had ever known. No one seemed to observe at the time that he was not really a conservative. Raised on the prairies and scarred by the Great Depression, he was an agrarian radical, filled with pity for little men like himself and living in his own steaming private world of contradictory emotions. He voiced them with horrendous passion and unfailing courage, but they were never realized in a workable policy. Like King, he had sure intimations of immortality, considered himself an instrument of Providence, and yearned to do its will without knowing exactly how to do it in the public world of politics.
These virtues and defects were not yet known to the Canadian electorate and would have been of minor concern to foreigners if they had not included an instinctive, unalterable distrust of the United States, later to issue in some ugly consequences.
Meanwhile Diefenbaker’s tall, lean, twitching body, the black, metallic curls, the grooved and mobile actor’s face—a living portrait of the prairie earth— the hoarse and moving rhetoric, and the boundless pledges of good government, offered the nation a dramatic change from St. Laurent’s plain, homespun methods.
As the election of 1957 began, perhaps nobody except Diefenbaker believed that the regnant Liberal party could be defeated. Singlehanded, he miraculously defeated it and, though he lacked a majority in Parliament, formed the first Conservative ministry since 1935. The following year, a second election gave him the biggest majority on record. These were astounding feats that the American government had not expected, and now seriously misconstrued.
Soon, however, Washington guessed that something more than accident had occurred north of the border, especially when Diefenbaker announced a plan to divert about fifteen per cent of Canada’s foreign trade from the United States to Britain and, in a speech at Dartmouth College, openly voiced the apprehension that for a long time had haunted the Canadian people and colored their national policies: the menace of peaceful American penetration. Diefenbaker declared that “there is an intangible sense of disquiet in Canada over the political implications of large-scale and continuing external ownership and control of Canadian industry. The question is being asked: ‘Can a country have a meaningful independent existence in a situation where nonresidents [i.e. , Americans] own an important part of that country’s basic resources and industry and are, therefore, in a position to make important decisions affecting the operation and development of the country’s economy?’ ”
The menace had been brought into the open. But geography and economics were sure to frustrate Diefenbaker. Inevitably he failed to divert the currents of trade from North America. Buying more than half its imports from its neighbor, and selling about the same proportion of its own products in the American market, Canada could not extricate itself, even marginally, from the continental economy.
A country small in population had become the United States’ largest customer, supplier, and area of foreign investment. The largest volume of business flowing across any frontier had forced Canada to accumulate an excessively high deficit—almost two billion dollars a year, equivalent to about thirty billion dollars in the American economy.
Since the deficit had to be financed mainly by capital imports from the United States, a massive fraction of Canadian industry was sold to Americans. Struggling with this problem, the Diefenbaker government worsened it by budgetary deficits and huge borrowings. They raised interest rates and drove private Canadian borrowers to Wall Street for cheaper money, thus increasing American investment still further.
All these things, and a growing suspicion of American motives, were in Diefenbaker’s mind as he welcomed President Kennedy to Ottawa on May 16, 1961, a date that both statesmen were to remember with bitter regret.
Unaccountably, a young President who always did his homework and prided himself on the “style” of his administration grossly bungled his first approach to his admiring neighbors. In an eloquent ceremonial speech he strongly urged Canada to join the Organization of American States. The Canadian government had already been considering this proposal, and was at the point of a favorable decision, but immediately abandoned it, for fear of seeming to be dominated by Washington’s pressure.
Unaware that his public manners were resented, Kennedy met the Diefenbaker Cabinet to discuss private business. He carried with him a half-page memorandum written by Walt Rostow of the White House staff and titled “What we want from the Ottawa trip.” It was only a harmless check list to refresh the President’s memory. Among other things, it reminded him to “push” again for Canada’s entry into the O.A.S. After an inconclusive conversation the meeting broke up, but Kennedy forgot to take the Rostow memorandum with him.
Someone discovered it lying on a sofa and gave it to Diefenbaker, who staggered his officials by refusing to return it to its owner, Canada’s honored guest. Instead, he locked it up for future use.
The President and his advisers had long forgotten the memorandum when Livingston Merchant, retiring as United States ambassador to Canada, paid an official farewell call on Diefenbaker on May 4, 1962. Merchant was dumfounded to hear the Prime Minister accuse the President of interference in Canadian affairs, and incredulous to learn that “an offensive document” left by Kennedy in Ottawa would be used, if necessary, in a Canadian election then pending.
This threat, without precedent in Canadian-American relations, was reported at once to Washington. Hot with rage, but avoiding a public brawl, the President instructed Merchant to give Diefenbaker a way out of his folly. In diplomatic doubletalk, which both men understood, the Ambassador told the Prime Minister that he had decided not to report the incident, since it would certainly end Kennedy’s dealings with Diefenbaker.
The counterthreat succeeded. Though Diefenbaker required all the arguments he could find for his election, he did not publish the “offensive document.” The Canadian people heard nothing of it for some time; they had no reason to suspect that a promising personal friendship between Washington and Ottawa was finished for good. Nor did they hear the Washington gossip that Kennedy’s check list had referred to Diefenbaker, in a scribbled marginal note, as an “s.o.b.” The President denied this piquant addition to the story. “I couldn’t have called him an s.o.b.,” he said among his intimates. “I didn’t know he was one—at that time.”
The results of the Ottawa affair, much larger than personalities, were not long delayed; but for the time being the 1962 election campaign diverted Canadian voters not merely from a backstage international feud but even from their most urgent domestic business. Diefenbaker’s sorcery on the platform hid all the real issues of policy, pushed Pearson, now leading the Liberal party, into the background, and raised the oldest cry of governments in trouble—“Canada First.”
None of this mattered much. What did matter was a sudden withdrawal of American money from Canada after investors had been frightened by the government’s latest budgetary deficits. The Bank of Canada watched its dollar reserves falling and saw that the nation had reached the brink of insolvency. Before election day the government was forced to devalue the Canadian dollar to 92½ United States cents, though it had previously rejected any manipulation of the exchange rate as “a gigantic financial speculation with no assurance of success.”
Even this public admission of a monetary disaster could not quite destroy Diefenbaker. He lost his huge majority of 1958 but, leading the largest group in the new Parliament, had enough strength to carry on a minority government. It appealed for credits to the International Monetary Fund, to the British government, and, with unconscious irony, to the government of the United States, which Diefenbaker had been so long criticizing in public and detesting in private. Would Kennedy seize this opportunity to humiliate Diefenbaker? Or would he see that Canada was more important than its temporary Prime Minister?
There could be only one answer to this question. Ample credits were supplied by the fund and by American and British banks. The Canadian government imposed emergency tariffs and some slight cuts in expenditure, patriotically labelled as a program of “austerity.” Thus the crisis passed. But a far worse crisis, and an open quarrel between the neighboring nations, already had begun.
It originated in the Canadian government’s decision, back in 1958, to install American Bomarc missiles at two bases north of the Toronto-Montreal metropolitan area—and its announced intention to equip them with nuclear warheads. This policy, still not acted upon at the end of 1962, was accepted by Canada’s defense department but not by Howard Green, its newly appointed Minister of External Affairs.
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.
Harkness and two other leading ministers resigned because the Prime Minister still refused to clarify his nuclear policy. The Canadian ambassador to Washington was recalled to Ottawa “for consultations.” Official business between Canada and the United States was virtually suspended. Diefenbaker, replying directly to the State Department, told a tense House of Commons: ” … I believe in co-operation, in the closest co-operation, but not in the absorption of our viewpoint by any other nation. I believe in the maintenance in spirit and in fact of Canada’s identity, with the right to determine her own policy without extramural assistance in determining that policy.”
These brave protests could not hide the government’s disintegration. On the night of February 5, Parliament put it out of its misery by an overwhelming vote of no confidence, and Diefenbaker called an election.
In the campaign of 1963—perhaps his greatest, considering the odds against him—his lieutenants warned him to play down his anti-Americanism, believing that it would lose more votes than it would win. Diefenbaker listened to their advice and seemed to accept it, but he had not been long on the road before his real feelings leaked out in sarcastic asides and winking innuendoes that the public could easily understand.
While the election was fought on many domestic issues, the basic issue of Canadian-American relations—the old love-hate complex in its most naked form—ran clearly through all the planned and unbelievable confusion. On that one issue Pearson was ready to stand or fall: if elected, he would end the poisonous quarrel with the United States.
The votes counted on April 8, 1963, gave Pearson enough seats to form a minority government. But if the Kennedy administration thought that the Canadian people had thus endorsed Pearson’s attitude toward the United States, it was mistaken. Diefenbaker had lost, but his heavy vote, and the large Conservative opposition in Parliament, showed deep resentment against American meddling in Canada’s business. Moreover, Pearson was preparing to plunge into his own anti-American fiasco.
This was not yet conceivable, to him or anybody else, when he took office. Nor had the character of the new Prime Minister been fully exposed to his people. Among all Canadian statesmen, past or present, Pearson must be judged the most complex, subtle, and solitary. Those who have known him on intimate terms for three or four decades have learned that they hardly know the inward man at all. The bow tie, the rumpled hair, the boyish grin, the gregarious style, and the apparently reckless candor disguise the loneliest man in Ottawa.
They also disguise a political method as devious, and a nature as secretive, as King’s, though much more honest, unselfish, and compassionate. Pearson’s tactics of compromise and endless flexibility are the same. So are his dream of a just society and his almost religious alarm for the future of mankind.
No one knew the real Pearson when he flew to Hyannisport and, in a long talk with President Kennedy, apparently ended the neighbors’ quarrel. But the Liberal government’s first budget, proposing harsh, discriminatory taxes on foreign investment, should have warned Washington that Pearson, for all his lifelong internationalism, instinctively feared the penetrative power of the United States and would curb it if he could.
And Canadians should not have expected that Washington’s habit of genial indifference would suddenly be broken. The Pearson government had just settled into office when the Kennedy administration absentmindedly aimed a lethal blow at the Canadian economy. Its proposed tax on exports of American capital, announced on July 18, 1963, without advance warning to Ottawa, confronted Canada with catastrophe. If, as seemed certain, the tax should prevent Canadian borrowers from raising enough money in Wall Street to cover a gigantic trade deficit, Canada would go broke not in weeks or days but in hours. It was incredible but true that Kennedy’s experts had never thought of these consequences.
Louis Rasminsky, governor of the Bank of Canada, and the one man able to grapple with such a threat, had left Ottawa for a fishing trip in Quebec and heard nothing of the American move. The desperate Cabinet finally reached him by telephone in a remote village store.
By automobile and airplane he hurried to Washington on a weekend when, fortunately, the money markets were closed. If they opened on the following Monday morning without any change in American policy, Canada’s exchange reserves would fall disastrously. Kennedy’s experts quickly saw Rasminsky’s point. The United States, having no wish to cripple its best customer, exempted new Canadian security issues from its tax, and the crisis passed on that harrowing Sunday. For Canada it had been a traumatic experience, for the United States only a brief embarrassment. How much had each learned from it?
These questions, among others, were studied subsequently by two eminent North American diplomats, Merchant for the United States and Arnold Heeney for Canada, under a hopeful arrangement between Pearson and President Johnson. But the Merchant-Heeney Report, urging improved manners and more careful consultation in the joint business of the two nations, made little impact on either. It was soon lost in the rush of more spectacular events. On April 2, 1965, Pearson, in a speech at Philadelphia, called for a temporary pause in the American bombing of North Vietnam. On hearing that the distinguished guest of his country had implicitly criticized its high policy, President Johnson was furious, and it was over a year before the two men were publicly reconciled—at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Campobello estate in the summer of 1966. Only a few months passed before Canada risked American resentment again (though this time without any breach of manners) by proposing that Communist China be admitted to the United Nations, provided that Nationalist China was still recognized.
Thus Canada’s centennial year opened with many unsolved problems, and the makings of many new frictions, on the border. Largest among them, from the Canadian viewpoint, was still the massive American penetration into Canada’s economy, its culture, and all its affairs.
Few Canadians believe that the United States has any sinister designs on their country. Most of them understand that they have sold their industries and committed their trade to their neighbor of their own free will. Probably most of them understand, too, that their high living standard has been built largely by American investment. Nevertheless, the fear of absorption by peaceful means, where war has long since become unthinkable, is stirring with new force in the Canadian unconscious. Though the sun of ancient friendship shines through the broken clouds, they are still there, as they have been since Champlain built his Habitation at Quebec.
Now that Canada is one hundred years of age, a durable fact and no longer an experiment, the lesson taught by a joint North American experience without parallel elsewhere ought to be plain enough to sensible men on both sides of the border.
After being successively the exiles of France, the wards of Britain, the target of American attack, and the independent allies of the world’s greatest power, Canadians have learned that they must resist the peaceful magnetic pull of the United States with their own energies, since no one else can help them.
Experience has also proved that they alone, by the clash between their French-speaking and English-speaking communities, can destroy their nation so long as the United States defends without coercing it.
Finally, the experience should have convinced the present generation of Canadians that they cannot take American good will for granted. If this is just as true in reverse, Canada must accept the full responsibilities, along with the privileges, of a sovereign state, possibly the most fortunate in the world when such a neighbor stands beside it.
For Americans the lesson should be equally clear: the United States is involved in Canada’s future as it is involved with no other foreign nation. It cannot prosper in peacetime without Canada’s business, cannot fight any major war without Canada’s physical resources, and, for all its power, money, and cultural penetration, cannot turn Canadians into Americans. Less obvious but more significant, the United States cannot mistreat Canada without losing its moral leadership everywhere. If it fails in its immediate neighborhood, the world will never trust it.
These self-evident truths have not been fully learned yet on either side. There will be further neighborly collisions of interest, more economic and political disputes, more foolish rhetoric in Parliament and Congress, more self-pity in Canada, more genial indifference in the United States. But so far as any human arrangement is safe in these times, it is the Canadian-U.S. border, maintained without force or threat, by men—not by God, geography, or guns. It may even teach some lessons to a distracted species beyond this continent’s shores.