Written by: Donald Moncreiffe (@Dunbrachen)
Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 60th anniversary of which has just passed, was Howard Green, who was born on this day in 1895.
This soft-spoken, introverted British Columbian was a fierce advocate of Canadian independence and a committed proponent of nuclear disarmament. Before he left office Green proved to be one of the most important members of John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government (1957 to 1963) at one of the most dangerous moments in human history. He is the unsung hero of a principled foreign policy who deserves to be remembered as a man of rare integrity in Canadian public life and one of the most inspiring and influential people to serve as his country’s foreign minister.
Green entered Canada’s Parliament as a Conservative MP for Vancouver in 1935. When Diefenbaker won the 1957 election and became prime minister, he appointed his old friend to his cabinet as Minister of Public Works and Government House Leader. However, it was as Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1959 that Green became a key player in Canadian Cold War politics.
The appointment of Howard Green to head External Affairs was a surprise to almost everyone. He was regarded by the Liberals with typical patrician disdain for his lack of foreign policy experience and was seen by senior Ottawa mandarins as an ‘innocent abroad’ unlikely to carry much weight in the global corridors of power. This patronizing attitude was shared by top American officials. They were bemused by the low-key Canadian, who neither drank nor smoked, and they often made jokes about Green’s idealistic outlook, as they saw it.
Diefenbaker shared Green’s concerns about Canadian independence, particularly from American power. This proved to be crucial during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the mutual hatred and mistrust between the Canadian prime minister and the US president, John F. Kennedy, led to a major crisis in relations between the two countries. Green had already angered Kennedy for telling reporters that the disastrous American Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 had been a mistake, even though this was just stating the obvious. When the US imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in October 1960, it expected Canada to do the same and was annoyed when it didn’t. Nor did Kennedy appreciate Green’s public comment that ‘we no longer are a vassal of the powerful United States. It’s only too obvious that we have adopted a more independent attitude toward our friends and neighbours across the border’.
When a request was received in Ottawa from NORAD HQ in Colorado Springs at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Canada match the alert level of American forces, it was hotly debated in cabinet. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had already refused such a request from the US, fearing it would be unnecessarily provocative in the circumstances. Diefenbaker agreed and told his colleagues so. Green backed the prime minister, warning that Canada should not blindly follow the American lead. ‘If we go along with the Americans now’, he said, ‘we’ll be their vassals forever’. The Minister of National Defence, Douglas Harkness, argued the opposite case but cabinet supported its leader. So Harkness decided to secretly raise Canada’s military alert status anyway, against the express views of the prime minister and cabinet, effectively obeying the US government over his own government.
Canada was also under intense American pressure at the time to accept their Bomarc nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. But this contradicted Canada’s support for nuclear non-proliferation, a policy contradiction that was never satisfactorily resolved by the government, eventually destroying it. Green, who was passionately devoted to disarmament, successfully pressed Diefenbaker to resist the American nukes. Harkness predictably opposed Green on this. Diefenbaker was caught in the middle, although he increasingly sided with Green, who had always been uneasy about US military operations in Canada. Green greatly annoyed the Americans in 1959 when he intervened to stop ‘Operation Sky Hawk’, a joint military exercise with the US in Canada’s north. Diefenbaker’s stalling on the Bomarc issue incensed the Americans, who expected Canada to fall quietly into line behind them in foreign and military affairs. That was certainly Kennedy’s attitude, which partly explains why he came to hate Canada’s nationalist prime minister so intensely. ‘I thought he was a prick’, he is reported to have said of Diefenbaker, and told his advisors ‘I don’t want to meet that boring son of a bitch again’.
Harkness agreed with Kennedy and resigned over the Bomarc issue, which led to the fall of Diefenbaker’s government and a general election, in which Pearson’s Liberals won a minority. Kennedy, whose administration interfered directly in that election on Pearson’s behalf, was delighted. ‘He’ll do!’, the president exclaimed about the new prime minister, who obligingly accepted the American nuclear missiles, despite having long opposed them.
Sadly for Canada, Howard Green lost his seat in the 1963 election, which was one of the most consequential in the country’s history. The new Liberal government meekly followed a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards the US in order not to antagonize them. Diefenbaker fought on until he was forced out in 1967 as leader of his party, which turned its back on the tradition of Macdonald to which he and Green belonged and became instead an avowedly pro-American, continentalist party. By contrast, the Liberals under their new leader, Pierre Trudeau (who had denounced Pearson as ‘the defrocked priest of peace’ for reneging on his promise not to accept US nuclear missiles), became increasingly sceptical of American economic and military power. But eventually they too obediently accepted Canada’s position as an American vassal state. Green was one of the very few 20th century Canadian politicians to strongly advocate an independent foreign policy.
Howard Green was a nationalist and an internationalist in the best sense of both. He bravely and forcefully asserted Canadian independence against American domination to a far greater degree than anyone had in a generation or more, or since. And he campaigned tirelessly to limit the spread of nuclear weapons at a time when they nearly destroyed the planet. His special place in Canadian public life is best summarized by the philosopher George Grant, who admired him greatly:
For those who accept Howard Green’s interpretation, his actions during those months make him one of the rare politicians who literally deserve the prefix “Right Honourable”. Whether wisely or not, Canada played a more independent role internationally during those short months than ever before in its history.