Meet Minister-Counsellor "Mike" Pearson, the hard-driving young Canadian from Toronto Varsity who heads the United Nations Interim Commission on Food
ROBERT T. ELSON
THE UNITED NATIONS met last spring and agreed upon 33 omnibus resolutions destined to achieve the first of President Roosevelt's four
freedoms—freedom from want. Everyone agreed it was desirable. The man who was given the job of seeing what could be done about it is a 46-year-old Canadian diplomat whom everybody calls “Mike.” Thus Lester Bowles Pearson, O.B.E.—otherwise “Mike”—became chairman of the United Nations Interim Commission on Food and Agriculture. Just recently he was appointed chairman of the Supply Committee of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, but this appointment is not expected to be permanent as Pearson has not the time to devote to the job. The Food Commission, however, is the first really important nonmilitary United Nations organization in the field. It is also the biggest job Pearson has yet handled in his diplomatic career—but only a part-time one. His full-time a mupation is that of Minister-Counsellor of the Ct »adian Legation in Washington—one of the real top-ranking career posts in Canada’s young but expert foreign service.
Pearson has had plenty of experience in handling two jobs at once. He once lectured in Modern history at the University of Toronto and coached the happygo-lucky “Orphans” in the Ontario Rugby Football Union and, in the winter, hockey. The handle “Mike” may better suit the character of a football coach than a diplomat. But it also has its uses in diplomacy
because it fits him like a glove; and the man, the name and the personality disarm the unwary.
Fortyish, Pearson hasn’t yet acquired the standard trademarks of that period—the heavy jowls, the expanding corporation. There is a boyish look about his face but he isn’t quite as rock-ribbed as when he played rugger at Oxford or coached Varsity football in Toronto, and his wife sometimes enjoins him to watch his diet. But he can still stand a stiff set of tennis—he held his own with the diplomatic set at the United Nations food conference. And he works off his physical energy whenever he can. Last winter he cut wood with Jack “Sandy” Sanderson, then Washington correspondent for the Canadian Press.
Informal in approach Pearson works informally. His intimates admit that he doesn’t organize his work
in traditional civil service channels. He piles it up in front of him and plows through. And he does get through. When he wants to get at arm’s length on a tough problem he often swings back in his chair and hoists his feet up on the desk. He talks best in afterhour conferences when in this position. In Washington summers he belongs to the shirt-sleeve school, with the sleeves rolled well above the elbows.
Pearson, unlike many a diplomat who talks his way through, can write well and his official dispatches are not inhibited by the fact that they come under the Prime Minister’s official eye. But he does like to work in conferences, and in the development of the United Nations food commission he often schedules two or three a week. His weakness is that he denies himself no callers, although he has a neat trick of terminating the interview. Mike stands up, holds out his hand and the visitor is bowing out the door with Pearson’s broad smile warming him, inwardly assured the interview was entirely successful. For a top-rank civil servant Pearson could have been a useful politician.
He makes decisions quickly, seldom worries about them. He has n quick wit. Such as his wry comment on the necessity of making five copies of all reports for the British War Office in the early days of the war: “If the carbon paper holds out undoubtedly wo will win . . . ” At Hot Springs, Virginia, in the first days of the food conference n dangerous debate threatened to develop on whether French would be the official language. The French delegation wanted to establish its claim as the language of diplomacy. Obviously there could be no decision without acrimonious exchanges. Pearson without waiting for the cue adjourned the debate. No precedent was established. The French are free to present their claims at future conferences because the decision wasn’t taken and there were no hard feelings. Both sides thanked him.
As a Canadian, Pearson is much better known in Washington and certainly in London than he is Toronto, his birthplace, Montreal, or Vancouver. Ever since he was recruited by the late Dr. O. D. Skelton, former Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, Mike has been a young man very much on the move. They early discovered in Ottawa that Pearson had a finely trained mind, a solid-built rock-ribbed physique, gained from his early days in sport, and almost boundless energy. “Mike’s” major triumphs in diplomacy rest on his open approach backed by an infectious swift smile that invariably lights his dark, mobile, expressive face.
In London this informal approach was considered typically Canadian. In Washington it obviously fitted right in with the American conception of a Canadian, which is summed up by the phrase “one of us.” In Canada such clashing personalities as Lord Bennett and Prime Minister Mackenzie King have agreed in the Commons that Mr. Pearson is a civil servant meriting special consideration from his country. He doesn’t fit into the Canadian picture of the typical civil servant but he is typical of the young men in External Affairs who have given Canada one of the best staffed, if undermanned, foreign services in the world.
The public picture of diplomacy as a leisurely occupation has always been out of focus when applied to the young men who ventured abroad from Canada’s East Block. As Minister-Counsellor in Washington, Chairman of the Supply Committee of the UNRRA, member of the United Nations Information Board
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and of the Wartime Information Board of Canada, Pearson’s days begin at nine and he seldom dines before eight— and still there is work to do. The other day an editor of Fortune was in the waiting room; the Canadian correspondents were interviewing Pearson, and within five minutes there had been two calls from the East Block in Ottawa requiring detailed specific answers.
Chief responsibility for Canada’s representation falls on Hon. Leighton McCarthy, Canadian Ministerat Washington. He is the main contact with the White House and State Department. But diplomacy is not entirely made up of full-dress encounters at top level but on day-to-day bread-andbutter meetings of career men in the department and experts of the Legation. Pearson has had to handle many of the details required in negotiations for some of the joint boards that now represent the wartime marriage of convenience between Canadian and American economies. The main negotiations are, of course, carried on through the Canadian Minister, the White House and the State Department.
The minister was up in Canada arranging for Roosevelt’s forthcoming holiday visit when Prime Minister Mackenzie King carried his complaint to Washington about the proposed omission of news about the Canadian troops in the first communique on the Sicilian landings. It was Pearson who late on the day before the operations took place went down to see President Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins about Mr. King’s request. That would be an interesting story, if he could tell it, which he can’t. There was a light in Pearson’s office until past 1 a.m. that morning.
Frankly, Pearson loves pressure and has been under it ever since he joined the service. He came to diplomacy after detours in the Royal Flying Corps, the sausage business and the academic life. A product of the “Manse,” his father and his grandfather were Methodist ministers of distinction. He was born in Newton (now within Toronto’s city limits) April 23, 1897—which is also Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day. His father filled so many appointments throughout Ontario that Pearson is constantly receiving clippings from Ontario newspapers claiming him as a home town boy.
If “Mike” is a diplomat by choice his love of sport, certainly his second dominating interest, is inb:>rn. Both his father and his grandfather were keen about all sport, particularly baseball. One of Mike’s earliest memories is taking his grandfather, the Rev. Marmaduke Pearson, one of the distinguished leaders of the Methodist Church in Ontario, to a baseball game. At that time Grandfather Pearson had almost lost his sight so “Mike” gave him what amounted to a personal play by play account.
As a relation of Chancellor Bowles and the son of a United Church minister it was inevitable that Pearson should have entered Victoria College. A future boss, the Hon. Vincent Massey, was then dean of residence at Burwash Hall. Pearson only finished a year of Varsity when he enlisted with the University of Toronto hospital unit. That was how he got the name of “Mike.”
Lester, his buddies told him, was no
name for a soldier, not even a baby face of 18. And so they christened him “Mike.” The name has prevailed against academic formality, civil service decorum and the strict social boundaries of striped-pants diplomacy. Even an O.B.E. made no difference. Canadian newspapers which reported the award gave him his name in full and then carefully identified the recipient as “Mike.”
Early in his military career an old sweat gave the young soldier invaluable advice— if Mike had only followed it.
“The only way to stay alive in this war,” he told him, “is to keep on transferring.”
Pearson did keep on transferring. But he didn’t do it in either the orthodox way or with due regard to the safety factor. From the University of Toronto hospital unit Mike had entered the Imperials and found himself in Salonika, where it was quiet but dreary and dull.
He tried to transfer back to LondonHe failed. Then he showed for the first time his genius for cutting red tape. Leighton McCarthy has told the story several times in introducing his young assistant.
Pearson wrote his father for help. His father was an intimate friend of Col. Sam Hughes. Hughes volunteered to get young Pearson back into the Canadian Army. He did so by peremptorily ordering the Imperial War Office to deliver the body of one Lester Bowles Pearson back to the Canadian Army. Imagine the surprise of the Imperial Command in Greece confronted by this demand for the person of one very young and at that time insignificant member of the Imperial forces. But he was transferred to London where after rising to the rank of lieutenant Pearson joined the Royal Flying Corps. They were then measuring the lives of the eager young men not in days but hours. “Mike” was sent aloft solo after one hour and 40 minutes flying time. He crashed and was invalided back to Canada to mend his bones. There was a period of instructorship and then the war was over.
Mustered out, he had sense enough to go back to Victoria to complete his degree. He had a strong urge to the academic life but it was hard to settle down. Originally his intentions inclined him to the law. Six months in law school settled that. A brother was already well placed in Armour & Co. There was a place for “Mike,” too, his brother wrote. So Pearson headed for Chicago. He started in the stockyards and ended up in the sausage department (office branch) profoundly bored and more restless than ever. He thought of trying for a Rhodes scholarship but learned he had been out of college too long. But one of the newly created Massey Fellowships was open for three years’ study at Oxford. He put in for it, was accepted and headed for Oxford and an intensive study of Modern history. He was two years in Oxford, played hard and studied harder. He had been at Oxford during his soldiering days and had always wanted to go back.
Pearson really got a “work out.” In rugger he came as near as any Canadian to making the “first fifteen,” playing fullback in the Varsity trials. He got his blue playing inside home. (This came natural after his Dufferin county lacrosse.) He played ice hockey and was invited like other Canadians on the team to play for Britain in the Olympics. Patriotically he declined. On the
academic end Pearson wants it understood that he worked harder than he did on the playing field. His later academic record bears him out. For after two years of Oxford a lectureship at Toronto University in Modern history was opened for him and Pearson jumped at it. His name stayed on Oxford’s roles for the additional year required for him to acquire the necessary M.A.
The Faculty welcomed the young Modern history expert with a background in sport. It was suggested he might double in brass as a coach. First year it was assistant coach under Jack Newton, who was handling Varsity football. Next year along came Warren Stevens, the forward pass expert, and Mike was promoted to the “Orphans.” “They were more fun anyway,” he says. But in hockey he succeeded, for one year, that bright and luminous skyrocket, Connie Smythe.who, via the Varsity, the Varsity Grads, finally attained the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Professor Pearson who appears on these records as rather preoccupied with sports had no permanent ambition to rival Connie Smythe. Even then he was concerned with international affairs. He told the English and history section of the Ontario Education Association in 1928 that it did not matter whether or not Canada ratified the Locarno Treaty.
“In the event of Germany violating the pact it would not matter,” he said, in the same frank manner that he has since adopted as one of his most telling characteristics. “The only way for Canada to escape such a war would be to cut herself off from the Empire . . Undoubtedly in 1928 people would have argued the point. Events proved Pearson right.
That same summer Mike was in Ottawa doing research for the inevitable book that every right-minded professor is bound to write. His choice was the United Empire Loyalists. There was a family tie on his father’s side. There he met Dr. Skelton. Pearson’s friend, Hume Wrong, had left the U. of T. for External Affairs the year before. So perhaps the meeting was not quite by accident. Skelton looked Pearson over and told him about a coming examination for First Secretary in External Affairs. The doctor had sized up another potential diplomat. Pearson agreed to try.
First he completed his notes. They still lie on his study desk. The book on the United Empire Loyalists will await quieter days.
The telegram from Ottawa announcing that he had been successful in the examinations came on the same day that Pearson had been tested for glasses. (He didn’t need them.) But the drops were still in his eyes when he returned to his study and found the official telegram. He tried to read it but failed. He held it up to the light. Still no luck. Finally to learn the news he had to take it across to the library and beg an astonished young woman to read it to him. Pearson went in as First Secretary in the Department of External Affairs in the fall of 1928.
Whatever misgivings the ex-professor might have had about the civil service he couldn’t complain that it was dull in Ottawa. He was seldom there. In’29 he was in Washington to help out on the “I’m Alone” case. Next year it was the Hague and the conference for the Codification of International Law, and London for the disarmament conference. He was back home for the
Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa but he tripped over to Europe for the disarmament conferences of ’33 and ’34.
As a member of the select East Block “brains trust”—they didn’t call them that in Bennett’s day—he was twice secunded for special duties. Once it was Lord Stamp’s Royal Commission on Wheat Futures. Then the Price Spreads Commission. In 1932 the O.B.E. was given him for special services in connection with the former. As secretary of both these important bodies he got an amazing insight into Canadian affairs. He admits now it was invaluable. And the Prime Minister returned the compliment in respect to Pearson’s own services. Testimony to it appears in Hansard, 1935, wherein is recorded this “colloquy” between the Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, then Prime Minister, and Mr. King, then Leader of the Opposition.
The Question: Provision of honor-
aria for members of the public service who have rendered special services.
Mr. Bennett: “There are men in the various departments of the public service who have rendered extra services for the country. Take the case of one gentleman who will be covered by this vote, Mr. Pearson. Mr. Pearson is on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown because of the extra work he did in connection with the Price Spreads Commission. He worked many nights and well into the next day ...”
Mr. King: “In the case mentioned by the Prime Minister I agree, and I think every Honorable Member will agree, that Mr. Pearson performed services which it would have been extremely difficult to have obtained otherwise ...”
The item passed.
That same year—1935—saw his first really big break. He was named First Secretary, Office of the High Commissioner for Canada, London. His job was to keep in touch with the Foreign Office and warn Ottawa of approaching squalls, for a storm was obviously blowing up. If and when Canada, like the State Department in Washington, publishes a White Book, Canadians can judge whether Pearson correctly appraised the situation. The Canadian correspondents in London say he did. Meanwhile his dispatches covering the fateful years—’35-’41—molder in the East Block files.
But when war came Pearson did guess right. He was on a holiday with his wife and two children at a Manitoba Lake resort. It was their regular leave but Mike was restless. He sensed from the papers the European powder barrel was really going up. Against protests that his holiday was not yet finished he started moving east. In Ottawa he insisted on flying the Atlantic. The Clipper passage— Aug. 26—according to Pearson’s own notes was smooth and “England looked beautiful . . . ” The fellow passengers were “not an exciting lot.” It was a moment of calm before the storm.
Canada House work—he had now become Secretary, succeeding Lieut.Col. George P. Vanier who has gone to France as Minister—doubled with the war. The first year required much detail and negotiation as Canada marshalled her strength to help the Empire. Then came the Blitz. A cable from Mike to his wife is typical of his cheerful good nature. It was designed
to be reassuring: “Everything fine
here. Office shelter by day, Fairacres by night. Perfect combination.”
Not until long afterward did Mrs. Pearson learn that “Mike” was too tired by bedtime to go to a shelter. Instead he went to bed and slept when he could—when the big ones weren’t dropping too close by.
His English experience was stimulating and he liked the British and particularly London. Sometimes he got a little angry with them for their ignorance of Canada. On the anniversary of Wolfe’s death he told an English audience: “I sometimes think that the Canada of Wolfe’s time was better known to the inhabitants of eighteenth century England than the Dominion of today is to the England of 1939.”
The average citizen of England, Pearson observed, if he relied on the British press must think of Canada as the home of the Quintuplets and a place occasionally visited by Mr. Roosevelt.
Two years later those same British newspapers unanimously voiced regret at his departure. The Manchester Guardian said: “Today he is one of the best-known Canadians in England and has steered the administration of the war effort here with confidence and acceptance. The quickness and shrewdness of his decisions have their counterpart in the energy and strategy of his ice hockey playing . . . ”
Pearson came home in 1941 at the Prime Minister’s instance to be one of the Assistant Secretaries of State for External Affairs. Fresh from the Blitz he was shocked at the complacency at home. Rather angrily he told tho Canadian Club at Ottawa, “Of course we can lose this war. The people of London need neither our plaudits nor our pity but they do deserve our help . . . ” Canadian newspapers
perked up, applauded the sentiments of a Civil Servant who could speak out boldly.
Pearson was moved to Washington in June, 1942. It is a tougher job than Canada House in London because the administrative detail flowing through the Legation here is more complex. In London the position of Canada is at least understood at the Dominions office. Here in Washington, outside the State Department, there are difficulties in explaining that Canada is neither a colony nor a dependency of Britain. Sometimes it is necessary to impress upon Americans it is not a state of the Union. “Mike” doesn’t carry the ball alone but he often has to pick up a fumble.
The Legation is understaffed. Pearson is tied to his desk to a degree that did not hamper his work in London. If he is still not the best-known Canadian in Washington he is, as he was in London, both a one-man information bureau and the chief administrator. In Mr. McCarthy’s absence he has sat in on the Pacific war council and he has been on any number of joint CanadianAmerican meetings.
Some time ago there were rumors in Canada that Pearson had been offered the general managership of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They are still only rumors. Those who knew him in London and heard him do, anonymously, some broadcasts at the request of the BBC are certain that Pearson in his own right could soon become, if not manager of the CBC, its Number One commentator. Pearson prefers to remain a diplomat. He’s one of Canada’s very best.