John Diefenbaker’s tenure of nearly four decades in parliament traversed a time of many changes for the country that he led for six of those years. The time from his first election in the early stages of the Second World War in 1940, to his death in the latter half of the Cold War in 1979 saw not only monumental changes in Canadian society, but also an irreversible shift in Canada’s role in global affairs. Our country’s stature among the nations was transformed from a minor colonial state stuck between the influence of two great powers, to a rapidly modernizing, diversifying and increasingly independent middle power about to sever its last constitutional links with the United Kingdom.
At the heart of these forty years lay the pinnacle of Diefenbaker’s career. His ascendance to the Premiership in 1957, followed by two subsequent election victories (the first three-term conservative government since the time of John A. Macdonald), was arguably the bridge between these two Canadas. This was exemplified in key moments of his foreign policy, particularly in relations with the United States and the UK. They demonstrate a leader and his decisions caught between Canada’s past and future, conflicted with the desire to maintain a bond with the mother country and keep a calculated distance from the giant to the south.
One of his earliest strategies in doing so occurred just weeks into his first minority government, at a meeting of the commonwealth prime ministers. Diefenbaker caused a stir among even his own advisors by offering to redirect 15% of Canadian imports from the U.S. to Britain. At the time, the U.K., led by Harold MacMillan, was seeking to join the European common market, an early precursor to the EU.
This was a conspicuous attempt to accomplish two goals: simultaneously draw Canada and the U.K closer, and distance the latter from these early steps towards greater European integration. These obvious ambitions were certainly known to the British, who responded with an offer of a free trade deal, which was in turn rejected by Diefenbaker and his government.
His goals therefore remained clear, and they had little to do with any actual concerns over trade with an increasingly integrated Europe. While the U.K’s membership was vetoed by the French, Canada saw a significant increase in exports to the original six Western European common market member states throughout Diefenbaker’s time in office. Rather, it is evident that this was Diefenbaker’s attempt at asserting Commonwealth priority in matters of trade.
When it came to the U.S, the Diefenbaker period saw a mix of pragmatism and arm’s length relations, and was influenced by the prime minister’s personal whims and attitudes toward his American counterparts. He was undoubtedly a staunch nationalist and an opponent of undue U.S influence in his country: as he put it, “I am not anti-American. But I am strongly pro-Canadian.” During the 1957 campaign, Diefenbaker lambasted what he saw as a Canadian over-reliance on U.S exports, and in a speech after his election at Dartmouth College warned that it was “an inherent danger for Canada” and made the country “vulnerable to sudden changes in trading policies in Washington.”
Practically, Diefenbaker showed a willingness to accept increased American influence where it made sense. His early decision to sign off on the creation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command in 1957 was one such instance. American responsibility for the defense of Canadian airspace (at great expense to the American taxpayer) was certainly worth it, especially at the height of the Cold War.
Dealings with the U.S were also influenced by Diefenbaker’s personal relationships with President Eisenhower and his successor, John F Kennedy. With the former, he found much in common: they shared similar rural backgrounds and hobbies, and Diefenbaker was a strong admirer of Eisenhower’s wartime service in Europe. The two men bonded over fishing, and Diefenbaker was one of only five world leaders to receive a letter from Eisenhower when he departed the White House in 1961.
Although Diefenbaker hoped that Vice President Richard Nixon, with whom he also shared a friendly relationship, would succeed Ike after the 1960 presidential election, the young John F. Kennedy won the presidency by a razor thin margin. The opposite to his predecessor in more ways than one, Diefenbaker resented him nearly from the beginning as a pompous upstart. The prime minister took early slights from the young President very personally, from a slow response to his initial letter of congratulations after the election to repeated mispronunciations of his name in their first meetings.
Those snubs contributed significantly to Diefenbaker’s decisions during the Kennedy years. Coupled with a continued desire for Canadian foreign policy independence, these included such actions as Canada’s continued dealings with the Castro regime in Cuba, and a slow response to place Canadian forces on high alert during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, much to the chagrin of the U.S (and in the case of the latter, the Canadian public). Diefenbaker’s continued refusal to join the nascent Organization of American States (he saw it as an American scheme to shore up their influence in the Americas) was also a case of those two factors coming into play. The antagonism was mutual; Kennedy saw his Canadian counterpart as stuck up and overly hostile, and clandestinely provided support to Lester Pearson’s Liberals during the 1962 election.
Ultimately, foreign policy troubles were arguably what brought the Diefenbaker era to its conclusion in 1963. Repeated obfuscation on the issue of whether to accept American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil reached a boiling point when the head of NATO, during a visit to Ottawa, asserted that Canada would be failing the alliance were it not to accept the warheads. The prime minister, again seeing the problem as an American plot, refused to commit even as his Cabinet grew ever more divided, leading to resignations, and ultimately, a successful vote of no- confidence which led to an electoral defeat that year.
Nothing shows Diefenbaker’s lasting reputation of a strong personality, eccentricity and staunch Canadian nationalism as much as his foreign policy. In a present-day environment where every move Canada makes in foreign affairs is carefully scripted and calculated, his demeanour at the helm of our country is truly that of a bygone era. Diefenbaker was a flawed character who had a habit of letting his personal feelings interfere with Canadian interests, but his staunch view of his country’s place in the world stood as a proud symbol of a fast-changing postwar Canada.
While one may argue that the importance of Commonwealth and subsequently the importance of Canada’s relationship with the U.K declined, it is clear that Diefenbaker’s successors continued his legacy of careful dealings with the U.S, balancing strategic closeness with courteous disagreement when necessary. While the degree to which his successors have done so has varied, there is no doubt that he set a high bar for future Canadian prime ministers in ardently defending Canadian economic and foreign policy independence from the United States, and for that he should be thanked.