Canada and NATO
- Pages: 12
- Word count: 2959
- Category: Canada
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Our work aims to research to what extent was Canada a willing participant in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. At first we should make clear what the Cold War itself was. Then we are going to state that Canada helped the US in confrontation but never was the active player.
But when we speak of the Cold War, what do we mean? The state of undeclared hostility–the phrase Cold War is not accidental–between the two groupings has meant that a perpetual state of military readiness has been maintained for more than 40 years. But viewed from the perspective of different countries, in different regions, the concrete reality of the Cold War takes on varied aspects. Each country brought to the Cold War its own history. Traditional foreign policy and defence problems did not evaporate in 1945. Instead, they became the old wine that had to be poured into the new bottle called the Cold War. The Cold War is continued atmosphere of fear. Surprisingly, McNamara agreed, but apparently at that moment a report came in that the Soviets were attempting to fly a plane down from Canada to Cuba, possibly with nuclear weapons on board. 1
The Cold War between two political systems became the logical continuation of the World War II. To understand the role of Canada in post-war confrontation we should see what was before the Second World War. Generally Canada faced a major defence and foreign policy dilemma at the close of World War II. The Canadian Arctic was obviously to be a front line in any future war. Did Canada have the resources to guard that front line to the satisfaction of its superpower ally, the United States? It was obvious, almost from the start that it did not. But could Canada allow the United States to mount that “long polar watch” alone, from Canadian territory? Would this not be an admission that whatever sovereignty Canada claimed in the polar regions was weak at best and nonexistent at worst? Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the high Arctic, especially the archipelago, were not particularly strong in 1945.
They rested primarily on Britain’s transfer of this area to Canada in 1880. British claims had not been based on occupation or use, but on the tenuous rights of discovery and the sector principle. Gordon Smith defines the sector principle this way: “Each state with a continental Arctic coastline automatically falls heir to all the islands lying between this coastline and the North Pole, which are enclosed by longitudinal lines drawn from the eastern and western extremities of the same coastline to the Pole.”2 Although Canada did begin to assert some degree of control over the region as early as the turn of the century, its presence there was almost nonexistent up to the post-World War II era, and its claims to the region were based both on the transfer from Britain and on the sector principle. Both were weak. According to Gordon W. Smith, the transfer of 1880 was “certainly binding upon British subjects, but not necessarily upon foreign states, which conceivably could have raised some awkward questions about them.”3 The United States, for example, never recognized the sector principle as a basis for sovereignty when used by other countries in Antarctica, and never advanced its own claims based upon it.4
And as long as the Cold War continued, Canada would have to submit to American military control. She could not be free. “If the terror were lifted, then the ties between the two nations could be loosened to let Canada stand as independently as any nation can in our day.”5
The Cold War is associated with atomic bombing in the first place. The Canadian External Affairs Minister, Lester B. Pearson, pointed out that “certainly its (nuclear weapon) use for a second time against an Asian people would dangerously weaken the links that remain between the Western World and the peoples of the East. President Truman in his first radio address after Nagasaki he said that United States, Great Britain, and Canada, “who have the secret of its production, do not intend to reveal that secret until the means have been found to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction.” 6
Denis Smith in his book ‘Diplomacy of Fear’5showed how Canada came to terms with its own traditional defence concerns in the changed circumstances of the post-1945 world. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as competing superpowers, Smith shows, forced a geographic reorientation of Canadian defence. With the high arctic now a potential front line, Canada faced a dilemma. Its own assertions of Arctic sovereignty were threatened by U.S. requirements for comprehensive air defence. From 1945 to 1948, Canadian officials and politicians worked hard to discover a way in which both concerns could be met. In a careful examination of U.S.-Canadian discussions, Smith shows that Mackenzie King shrewdly avoided being rushed into a premature decision and finally settled upon a formula where joint U.S. Canadian participation could satisfy the priorities of both nations.
In 1952, the Truman administration decided to construct a Distant Early Warning (DEW) line of radar installations across Alaska and northern Canada. 7 He was absolutely right because the Soviet military would have such a commanding edge in mass and preparedness that, in a war with the North Atlantic Treaty powers, it could undertake the following actions: attacks against Canada, the United States, and Alaska. 8 And really, by August 1951 Joint Strategic Survey Committee (JSSC) had decided that the U.S. would accept war with the Soviets under six circumstances: if the Soviets attacked the U.S. (including Alaska) or Canada. 1
For Smith, Canada’s joining NATO was a continuation of traditional foreign policy: Canada’s foreign relations, he asserts, had always operated “with the approval and protection of the United Kingdom and the United States.”9 Further, he asserts that the creation of NATO was the result of fear, post-war exhaustion, the misapplication of history, and opportunist political calculation. Given this, Smith argues, Canada should reconsider its position.
In Britain, the United States, and Canada two lessons above all were drawn from the Nazi experience: that aggressive dictatorship should not be appeased and bought off, but rather confronted early with real military force; and that the United States, which might have restrained the dictators if it had not chosen renewed isolation after 1919, should be brought permanently into the system of post-war guarantee. These beliefs, accompanied by a commitment to the international free market and expanding world trade as the other source of peace, freedom, and prosperity, formed the core of the liberal internationalist consensus.
Speaking of Russian aggression, Prime Minister St. Laurent of Canada said: “I do not think I will ever live to see aggression, and I expect to live many years longer.” This denial of our Soviet world conquest dogma came one day after Soviet Marshal Sokolovsky had published an article alleging that United States imperialists had “set up a goal of establishing world rule” and were “preparing a new war against the U.S.S.R 10
On March 15 Canada’s Minister for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, said at the National Press Club in Washington that the United States would have to consult with its allies now if it expected support for its massive retaliation policy. “To put it bluntly,” he said, “agreements on ‘policies and tactics and timing’ were essential ‘if this policy of preventing aggression by the threat of immediate and overwhelming devastation is to work collectively’.” Pearson wanted to know what the words “instantly,” “means,” and “our” meant in the new American formula of depending primarily “upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.” The reporter added that “similar questions have been raised in recent months in all the free world countries affected by United States defence policy.” 11
Pearson went on to explain the Canadian “feeling that our destiny…may be decided not by ourselves but across our border ‘by means and at places not of our choosing’.” The uneasiness of Canadians as they looked south and realized that they were “quite unable to escape the consequences of what you do or don’t do” induced “‘an agonizing reappraisal’ of the glory and the grandeur of independence.” 12
Forty years ago, on March 11, 1948, Prime Minister Mackenzie King received an urgent message from the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, expressing the British government’s alarm at the consolidation of Communist power in Czechoslovakia two weeks earlier, and its anxiety over where and when Soviet pressures might next be revealed.
What was necessary was “a regional Atlantic pact of mutual assistance” to be joined by “all the countries threatened by a Russian move on the Atlantic, “13 including the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.
The British Prime Minister proposed to Prime Minister Mackenzie King (and simultaneously to President Truman) the immediate convening of secret talks between Britain, the United States, and Canada to explore the creation of an Atlantic security system.
Mackenzie King, too, needed unusual justification to commit Canada to any continuing peacetime obligations abroad. Attlee’s message to King provided the necessary alarm from the appropriate source, for King deferred more easily to the British than to the Americans on post-war international issues. When Attlee’s message arrived, King consulted three persons: Louis St. Laurent (Secretary of State for External Affairs), Brooke Claxton (Minister of Defence), and Mike Pearson (Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs). Pearson drafted a reply which was agreed upon and dispatched that evening. In it King offered Canada’s commitment to join in a treaty of mutual assistance under Anglo-American sponsorship.
As a complement to such action, Canada should pursue active discussion with the Soviets on measures of arms control and other common purposes in the area of our greatest mutual concern (the Arctic), with Canadian national interests firmly in mind–just as the Americans and the Europeans have pursued their own bilateral arrangements for detente with the Soviets, according to their own calculations of interest, since the early 1970s. We should begin in earnest, too, the complex task of reassessing the whole range of our intricate North American defence arrangements with the United States, with the clear objective of assuming, where technically and economically feasible, a greater measure of autonomy in our policies than we have permitted ourselves since 1945. Canada should begin at home, that is, to weigh and assert its strength in its own national interest, just as other confident and mature nations expect to do. In the present international atmosphere, handled skilfully, that would be a contribution to stability. But Canada’s long membership in NATO has given us the debilitating illusion that we need never act in defence of our own perception of our highest interests.
After the outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950, the NATO military structure was erected in Central Europe to resist such anticipated aggression. The vast panoply of U.S. forces and arms in Europe, under the seas, and in the missile silos on the U.S. plains, was created to reassure Americans and Europeans that they were under the protective care of the U.S. deterrent against Soviet military attack. On the other side of the line, the response was the Warsaw Pact, which was popularly taken in the West to confirm the claim of Soviet aggressive intent. On both sides, as the arms proliferated, the forces and weapons themselves (when combined with the fixed ideas that justified them) became the primary source of danger, more real in the 1980s than in the 1940s.
While the issue of NATO’s purpose and strategy has generated a continuous flow of analysis and commentary in the United States and Europe since the 1960s, there is virtually no Canadian equivalent. (There was a burst of discussion in the late 1960s which exhausted itself by the settlement of the Trudeau policy in 1971). Canada’s fitful defence debate has tended to focus on North American defence, North American Air Defence (NORAD), and the Arctic rather than on NATO and European defence; that balance in the domestic debate probably reflects the essentially marginal or subordinate role that Canada chose to take in the alliance from the beginning.
That judgment perhaps needs some reflection, because it would certainly be disputed by most Canadian governments since 1949. In their rhetoric, NATO has been the most significant part of the country’s foreign policy, a historic departure from its previous peacetime isolationism. It has involved, they would say, a fundamental acceptance of collective security in principle and, since 1950, a major burden of defence spending and military participation as well. And it has been an emphatic expression of Canada’s perception of the world conflict. More subtly, the professional diplomats first hoped, and then asserted, that NATO would give–had given–Canada a privileged place at the table in making Western policy, and a multilateral means of restraining the ambitions and impulses of the Americans. These claims have some weight, but they are devalued by the realities that the rhetoric ignores.
What really distinguish Canadian membership in NATO are not its historic boldness and novelty but its caution and conventionality. The principle of Mackenzie King’s diplomacy before 1948, when he allowed Canada to act in the world at all, was to do so with the approval and protection of the United Kingdom and the United States. The principle of Canada’s entry into NATO was identical. NATO provided the traditional umbrella for Canadian diplomacy. An Anglo-American initiative was King’s prerequisite for Canadian participation in a security treaty; for Norman Robertson it was “a providential solution for so many of our problems.”14 Put in other words, the creation of NATO meant that Canada could leave the thinking about the big questions to others, as it had always done before, but now with the comfortable illusion of participation in high decisions.
NATO was Canada’s new fireproof house. If the existence of strategic weapons and long-range air power made Canada physically less secure from attack than it had been in the 1930s, the country was made more secure in another sense by the resolute guarantee of the United States and the United Kingdom to deter aggression–a guarantee previously missing and whose absence had apparently brought on World War II.
To participate effectively Canadians thought coherently about strategic policy as have been not done since the 1940s; and then Canada will have to take initiatives. Increasing and concentrating our military contribution to NATO, as the Mulroney government now proposes, did nothing to encourage movement in the right direction. However, a withdrawal from NATO was not the only alternative. Canada gained from the political connection. 5 Canada should emulated the French, who withdrew from the integrated military command in 1966 and threw NATO headquarters out of the country, but remained active as political members of the alliance; or the Spanish, who followed their recent entry into NATO by refusing to renew their bilateral treaty to permit the stationing of U.S. fighter-bombers on Spanish soil; or the Danes and Norwegians, who refuse bases on their territory for their NATO allies.
As a complement to such action, Canada pursued active discussion with the Soviets on measures of arms control and other common purposes in the area of our greatest mutual concern (the Arctic), with Canadian national interests firmly in mind–just as the Americans and the Europeans have pursued their own bilateral arrangements for detente with the Soviets, according to their own calculations of interest, since the early 1970s. The complex task of reassessing the whole range of our intricate North American defence arrangements with the United States, with the clear objective of assuming, where technically and economically feasible, a greater measure of autonomy in our policies than we have permitted ourselves since 1945. Canada began at home, that is, to weigh and assert its strength in its own national interest, just as other confident and mature nations expect to do. In that international atmosphere, handled skilfully, that was a contribution to stability. But Canada’s long membership in NATO was given the debilitating illusion that we need never act in defence of Canadian perception of their highest interests.
- Botti, T. J. (1996). Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, p. 211.
- Smith, G. W., (1986). Sovereignty in the North: The Canadian Aspect of an International Problem. Arctic Frontier, 214-226
- Ibid., 201-202.
- Ibid., 218-220.
- Smith D., (1988). Diplomacy of Fear. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Radio address of 9 Aug. 1945, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1945 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1961), pp. 212-213.
- Millett, A. R., & Maslowski, P. (1984). For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. New York: Free Press, p. 495.
- Ojserkis, R. P. (2003). Beginnings of the Cold War Arms Race: The Truman Administration and the U.S. Arms Build-Up. Westport, CT: Praeger, p. 31.
- Chapin, M. (1960). Contemporary Canada. The Nation, February 6.
- Sokolovsky, M., (1954). The New York Times, February 24, 25.
- New York Herald Tribune, December 5, 1950.
- Schmidt, D. (1954). The New York Times, March 16.
- Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations to High Commissioner for United Kingdom, Ottawa, no. 220, March 10, 1948, DEA files 283(s), quoted in Smith, Diplomacy of Fear, 230.
- Canadian High Commissioner to Secretary of State for External Affairs, April 2, 1948, DEA files, 264(s), quoted in Escort Reid, Time of Fear and Hope, 132.