Following the Second World War, suspicions of growing Soviet influence engulfed the Western world.  Winston Churchill famously declared that an “iron curtain” had descended and the world had been divided between two ideologies. An ideological battle between democracy and communism ensued while the world was both captivated and terrified by the new nuclear age.

The ideological threat of communism became a reality when Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista and declared Cuba – located a mere 90 miles from American soil – a revolutionary socialist nation.

The Cuban Missile Crisis began 14 October, 1962, when an American U2 spy plane flying over Cuba photographed the construction of several missile deployment sites.  Kennedy did not begin consulting with world leaders until a few days into the crisis, and when Diefenbaker was informed about the situation he initially doubted the intelligence that he was provided - asking for more photographs of the missile sites in Cuba. Diefenbaker was supportive of American action during the crisis, but did not give them the unequivocal support that Kennedy had expected.

Much to Kennedy’s annoyance, Diefenbaker recommended that independent United Nations inspectors should go into Cuba and survey the nuclear sites.

Diefenbaker refused to put Canadian troops on alert,  and deliberated for several days over raising the military awareness level to DEFCON 3 as Kennedy had requested.  Personal animosity may have influenced Diefenbaker’s delay during the crisis, as relations between the Canadian leader and American President were particularly uneasy.

Following a meeting with Kennedy in May 1961, the Prime Minister discovered a paper left behind by an American advisor.  The infamous “Rostow Memo” outlined several desired results that the United States hoped to “push” Canada toward during the meeting.  Diefenbaker was livid, as this incident reaffirmed his nagging belief that the United States wished to dominate Canada.  The Kennedy camp was equally enraged: Diefenbaker refused to return the memo even though proper diplomatic decorum required him to do so. Their relationship would never fully recover from this incident. 

Eventually Diefenbaker did agree to put Canadian troops on alert, as all other NATO members supported a proposed blockade and agreed to aid the United States if an attack occurred.  However, due to his reluctance to respond to the situation, Diefenbaker acted only after the crisis’ climax had passed. Also, under the guidance of the Department of Defence, the Canadian military had taken informal steps to put itself on alert. Ultimately, Diefenbaker believed that Kennedy’s “arrogance” had endangered North America and could have resulted in nuclear war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most heated moment of the Cold War.  As these two hegemonic superpowers struggled for ideological dominance, the world lived in fear of nuclear annihilation.  International alliances were challenged, great leaders arose and were broken, and life-threatening decisions were made during thirteen uneasy days in October. The Crisis was the crux of nuclear terror and continues to be referenced as nuclear questions are once again at the forefront of international debates over North Korea, Israel, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent today.


John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy seated and chatting in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C.
John Diefenbaker with John F. Kennedy

Media and Document Gallery

Images

John G. Diefenbaker and Olive Diefenbaker with the Kennedys
John Diefenbaker and John Kennedy
Formal photo of John G. Diefenbaker
John Diefenbaker talking with John Kennedy
John Diefenbaker with John Kennedy
John Diefenbaker with John Kennedy
John Diefenbaker with John Kennedy

Audio

Telephone conversation between John Diefenbaker and President John F. Kennedy, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | United States – Head of State | Communication Systems – Canada and the United States | Yukon Territory

Description: John Diefenbaker, from the ceremony opening the Whitehorse Microwave System, shares a telephone conversation with United States President John F. Kennedy, who is in the Eastern United States; both men praise the partnership between their two countries which made the Microwave System possible

Date Created: 22 July1961

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T58-JGD57

Speech by John Diefenbaker to open 1957 federal election campaign at Massey Hall, Toronto

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Parliamentarians | Canada – Personalities | Canada – Election Campaigning | Canada – Opposition to International Communism | Canada – Relationship with the United States

Description: John Diefenbaker explains the Progressive Conservative Party’s policies in regards to freedom from communism and the leadership the United States provides, internationally, in ensuring the survival of freedom

Date Created: 25 April1957

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T134-PAC6a

Documents

Confidential memo from the Prime Minister

Creator: Mr. Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – Cold War

Description: Regarding statements made by Deane Finlayson, leader of Progressive Conservative Party of British Columbia, who made discouraging remarks about actions taken by the government.

Date Created: 26 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038976 – 038978)

Secret Memo from E. Davie Fulton to John Diefenbaker

Creator: E. Davie Fulton

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – RCMP | Canada – International Relations | International Situation – Cuba | Soviet Union – Nuclear Weapons

Description: Extracts from a Communist Convention infiltrated by RCMP in October 1960.

Date Created: 12 December1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038859 – 038861)

“Certain General Views of the Government” regarding Cuba

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | Canada – Relations with United States |

Description: Outlines policy of Canadian government regarding the threat of Cuba.

Date Created: 12 December1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038867 – 038869)

Message from Harold MacMillan to John Diefenbaker

Creator: Rt. Hon. Harold MacMillan

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | International Situation – Cuba | International Relations – United Kingdom

Description: Message in which MacMillan supports Canadian stance of utilizing the United Nations as a forum for solving problems in Cuba.

Date Created: 30 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038996)

Message from Khrushchev to Kennedy

Creator: Nikita Khrushchev

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | International Situation – Cuba | Soviet Union – Nuclear Weapons

Description: Outlining the reasons for assisting Cuba in attaining defensive weapons

Date Created: 21 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038985 – 038987)

Letter from John Diefenbaker to J.W. Murphy

Creator: John Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | Canada – Relations with United States | United States – Senate | International Situation – Cuba

Description: Statements by American Senator Kenneth Keating on 07 February CBC Broadcast.

Date Created: 8 February1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038870 – 038871)

Printed transcript from Parliamentary debate

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of State | International Situation – Cuba | Canada - Parliamentary Debate | Canada – Relations with United States | United States – Head of State

Description: John Diefenbaker makes official statement on Cuban issue, following the television broadcast by the President of the United States.

Date Created: 22 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038902 – 038903)

Statement by Diefenbaker

Creator: John Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – Head of State | Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | International Situation – Cuba

Description: Diefenbaker announces an end to the potential conflict with Cuba.

Date Created: 28 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038993)

Transcript of Parliamentary Debate

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Cold War | International Situation – Cuba | Soviet Union – Nuclear Weapons | Canada – Parliamentary Debate | Canada – House of Commons

Description: Debate in which Mr. Diefenbaker makes official statement on “Cuban Situation”.

Date Created: 25 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038971 – 038973)

Secret Memo

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – International Relations | International Situation – Cuba | Soviet Union – Nuclear Weapons

Description: Secret memo outlining Soviet intentions and reactions during Cuban situation.

Date Created: 26 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038979 – 038982)

Document outlining Canadian trade with Cuba

Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – Trade with Cuba | Canada – International Relations | Canada – Relations with United States | International Situation – Cuba

Description: Brief document outlining stance on international trade with Cuba regarding American trade sanctions.

Date Created: 23 December1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038862 – 038865)

Letter from Ivan B. White to Howard Green

Creator: Ivan B. White

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – Relations with United States | United States – Head of State | International Situation – Cuba | Soviet Union – Nuclear Weapons

Description: Text of President Kennedy’s Proclamation on “Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba” made on 23 October 1962.

Date Created: 24 October1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (038925 – 038929)

“Your Emergency Pack”

Creator: Civil Defence, Department of National Health and Welfare

Subject: Canada – Cold War | Canada – Civil Defence

Description: Instructions for creating proper emergency preparedness and survival kit.

Date Created:1959

Identifier:MG01/XII/C/120 Volume 56 (042309 – 042316)