John and Ike: The "Diefen-hower" Years

"...Presidnet Esienhower and I were from our first meeting on an 'Ike-John' basis... we were as close as the nearest telephone." (One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker)

Canada-U.S. relations, particularly the working and personal interactions between Canadian Prime Ministers and American Presidents, have always been an important matter to both countries.

From their first meeting, Diefenbaker and President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the U.S. President for the majority of the time Diefenbaker served as Prime Minister, enjoyed a positive relationship. The two men had spent their youth in similar Western farming communities and their political and economic policies were closely aligned. Almost the same age, and both having served in the military, the two heads of state also shared many personal values.

Even their wives became good friends. The respect that Diefenbaker and Eisenhower had for each other was reflected in Canada-U.S. relations during this time.

Fallout on the 49th Parallel

Compared to his close association with Eisenhower, Diefenbaker’s relationship with John F. Kennedy was frosty. From the time Kennedy took office in 1961 until the end of Diefenbaker’s term as Prime Minister, the situation continued on a downward spiral. Never before had relations between a Canadian Prime Minister and an American President been as strained as they were between 1961 and 1963.

It was no secret that Kennedy preferred the Liberal leader of the opposition, Lester B. Pearson, to Diefenbaker. In fact, Diefenbaker believed that Pearson succeeded him because Kennedy had intentionally destabilized the Diefenbaker government during the 1962 and 1963 elections. On the campaign trail, Diefenbaker asserted that Canada had to be protected against American influences. Security, according to Diefenbaker, lay in forging closer ties with Britain ton counterbalance American hegemony. The implication was that Pearson’s relationship with Kennedy compromised Canadian sovereignty.

Mr. Diefenbaker Goes to Washington

The tensions between Diefenbaker and Kennedy were apparent from their first official meeting in Washington. While Diefenbaker and Eisenhower had shared many political perspectives, Kennedy and Diefenbaker clashed frequently.

The men had decidedly different personalities, temperaments, and political ideologies. Kennedy saw Diefenbaker as a leader who had trouble connecting with a younger generation of voters. Diefenbaker attributed Kennedy’s political success to a privileged background and personal connections rather than to genuine support.

"I would like to announce that i have invited the Prime Minister of Canada the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbawker [sic] to make a brief visit to Washington on Monday, February 20th, for discussion of matters of mutual interest to our two countries."

(President John F. Kennedy announcing John Diefenbaker’s official visit to the U.S., 8 February 1961)

Mr. Kennedy Goes to Ottawa

Kennedy’s behaviour during his first visit to Ottawa on 16 May 1961 did little to change Diefenbaker’s opinion of him. In his speech, Kennedy twice mispronounced Diefenbaker’s name, then drew attention to the Prime Minister’s halting use of French by joking, “I am somewhat encouraged to say a few words in French from having had a chance to listen to the Prime Minister.”

After their meeting, Diefenbaker discovered a memo that Kennedy had forgotten titled, “What we want from the Ottawa trip.” It advised Kennedy to “push” Diefenbaker in four policy areas, including the placement of American nuclear missiles in Canada. Diefenbaker perceived the communication as another example of Kennedy’s bulling. Diplomatic protocol required that the memo be returned to the American embassy, but Diefenbaker kept it, and made sure that Kennedy knew it.

"The Cuban Missile Crisis;" Canadian Challenges to U.S. Responses

On 15 October 1962, Kennedy was informed that Soviet missile installations had been discovered in Cuba. For a week, Kennedy was cloistered in confidential discussions with his twelve most trusted government advisors. When he finally alerted other nations to the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” the American Strategic Air Command had already placed all U.S. forces on "Defense Condition 2" ("Defcon2"). This was the highest state of military readiness — only one step away from nuclear war. Kennedy had expected unconditional support from the Canadian government, but Diefenbaker refused to immediately commit Canadian forces.

Ultimately, global nuclear war was averted, but Diefenbaker was incensed at what he perceived as Kennedy's arrogance.

"I knew that President Kennedy... thought he had something to prove.... I considered that he was... capable of taking the world to the brink of thermonuclear destruction to prove himself the man for our times, a courageous champion of Western democracy."

(One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker)

The Bomarc Missile Controversy

Bomarcs were supersonic, surface-to-air, long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. They were designed and produced by the U.S. as anti-aircraft weapons to intercept and destroy Soviet bombers before they reached North America. For the system to be entirely effective, some of the missiles had to be installed at strategic locations in Canada.

In 1958, Diefenbaker hesitantly agreed to deploy 56 Bomarcs in Ontario and Québec. He made efforts to ensure they would only be employed for defensive action and that the Americans could not launch them without Canadian consent.

“The sole authority to authorize the use of those weapons in Canada would be the Prime Minister… who… would… give directions as to when and how they should be actually used.”

(Minister of National Defence, Major General George Pearkes addressing Parliament, 5 August 1960)

When Diefenbaker’s government installed the Bomarcs in 1958, they did not make in known the Canadian public that the missiles were to be fitted with nuclear warheads. When this detail surfaced in 1960, fierce public opposition arose over the presence of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. Losing support, the Progressive Conservatives withdrew their commitment to the program, but the damage had been done – Diefenbaker’s cabinet split over the dispute. The government was forced to call an election in 1963 and lost to Lester B. Pearson.

“The Pearson policy is to make Canada a decoy for international missiles.”

Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 1963

The Liberals deployed the first nuclear-armed Bomarcs during the same year as Pearson’s electoral win.