ON SUEZ: what it proves now about the cool mind of Lester Pearson


ON SUEZ: what it proves now about the cool mind of Lester Pearson


ON SUEZ: what it proves now about the cool mind of Lester Pearson



SEVEN YEARS AGO, in a speech to the Canadian Club in Halifax, Lester B. Pearson was trying to explain one of the central functions of Canadian foreign policy — the promotion of accord between London and Washington. This accord requires, he said, a fuller understanding by each country of the other’s viewpoint, and a fuller understanding of their profound mutual need. “It means, perhaps, if not less reliance on Magna Carta and Shakespeare and our common heritage, at least far more reliance on the cold, hard facts of self-interest and mutual security. The United States and the United Kingdom need each other. . . . And Canada needs them both.”


Pearson was speaking just five months after the Suez crisis, in which he played a vital part, and so it was natural that the London-Washington relationship, so badly interrupted bySuez, was at the front of his mind. But that passage from a 1957 speech is also typically Pearsonian in its hard-headed modesty and its implied rejection of purely rhetorical diplomacy. The passage seems to say that talk about Shakespeare and our common heritage may be all right for Graduation Day but alliances must rest on an understanding of the facts.

The Four Faces of Peace, in which that excerpt appears, is a collection of Pearson speeches and articles put together by Sherleigh G. Pierson, a member of the UN secretariat. It includes his Nobel Peace Prize address, excerpts from his earlier books, one of his newspaper columns, and some of his contributions to international affairs journals. It is not a strikingly interesting book — his speeches do not greatly improve when presented in bulk — but it is instructive and valuable to anyone who cares to know about foreign affairs in general and Canada’s international activity in particular. For it shows the developing ideas of a man who has had to grapple, all his life, with the usually unpleasant and frequently intractable issues of world politics.

The Pearson viewpoint is summed up in one passage from a 1961 speech:

“Today, more than at other times, greatness requires the quality of steadiness and balance; a refusal to be stampeded or bullied into the uncritical acceptance of the most strident appeal, the biggest headline, the loudest noise.”

Pearson's speeches are political philosophy at ground level, geopolitics observed at the moment when the resolution must be prepared, the vote obtained, the peace force outfitted.

It is this persistent attitude of the prime minister which sometimes makes him hard to understand, and which prevents simple-minded people (among others, of course) from finding him inspiring. He has no program, no ideology, no grand philosophy; he has nothing but

the cold, hard facts and a cultivated ability to

arrange them carefully and deal with them conscientiously. On the lecture platform he could never compete with someone like Dulles or Nehru, and this whole book of his speeches contains not one striking phrase. Moreover, he has turned a lifetime’s experience in the frustrating business of diplomacy into a habit of settling for modest goals. Sometimes, in this book, he begins a sentence with a grandsounding phrase and then, as if catching himself — as if a thousand memories of acrimonious committee meetings had come flooding back all at once — he draws back abruptly from the brink of rhetoric.

In 1958 he said on television: “I cherish for my country a leadership in this international effort (economic assistance to the poor countries) not merely to bring about a better world, but perhaps even to save the world we have.”

Most politicians, having begun a sentence that way, would end it with a ringing declaration about the bright new w-orld of the future, etc. Pearson, a pragmatist rather than an idealist. has learned to settle for less — and, what’s more, to admit frankly that he’s walling to settle for less. He has learned to live with the fact that in the 1960s a man who can do no more than keep the world from ending will achieve something worthwhile.

John Foster Dulles, unlike Pearson, was a kind of idealist. In Dulles Over Suez, one of the latest volumes on that crisis, Herman Finer of the University of Chicago condemns Dulles for his blindness throughout the crisis, and praises Lester Pearson for his flexibility and modesty. Finer believes that Dulles, by turning

his back on the British and the French, made a bad situation much worse: he committed the ultimate diplomatic sin of failing to understand both his friends and his enemies. Dulles, frightened by the Soviet Lhtion’s threat to intervene if the British and French did not withdraw, betrayed his friends.

Discussing the climactic weekend of November 3-4. 1956, Finer says, “Almost out of the blue, a new and creative element entered the melee. ... At this point, the constructive intervention of Lester Pearson played a decisive role in bringing hostilities to a close. He proposed a course of action that would support the British and French morally and juridically while enabling them, above all Britain, above all Eden, to cease fire. His plan was that a United Nations Peace Force should be established to stand between Israel and Egypt and to secure freedom of transit as soon as possible through the Canal . . . Pearson adopted ... a wiser and more prudent and steadier and more far-sighted policy than that pursued by Dulles, Eisenhower and Lodge ...”


Finer's meticulously researched book amounts to a portrait of egotism in action. “Dulles,” he says, “was not prepared to relax his personal righteousness and hauteur.” His policies were colored by an evangelical sense of goodness, and therefore anybody (in this case the British and French) who failed to follow' them was evil, and must not only be criticized but also humiliated. The possibility that this humiliation w'ould destroy the western alliance, or even help to bring world war closer, seems hardly to have occurred to Dulles.

And yet the Suez crisis did not have the fatal or even the grievous consequences so many commentators predicted for it at the time.

It did not destroy the western alliance: a few months later the new prime minister of England was carefully putting it all together again.

It did not noticeably increase Soviet strength in the Middle East. And, most surprising of all, it did not destroy the Commonwealth.

James Eayrs of the University of Toronto

has collected a great many speeches and documents of the Suez crisis, and provided enlightening commentaries for them, in his The Commonwealth and Suez.: A Documentary Survey. Suez was, of course, the prickliest issue in the Commonwealth’s recent history: it set the older nations (New Zealand and Australia along with Britain) against the newer (India, Pakistan, Ceylon) in a furious debate over the revival of colonialism. In the new nations, opposition leaders, and journalists began demanding withdrawal from the Commonwealth. But in the end no country withdrew', and only five years later nearly all members were united in the expulsion of South Africa. Today they work together on a more or less amiable basis. The reason, Eayrs suggests, and his documents show, is that the Commonwealth works, in its own limited way, for the new countries who belong to it; and the fact that Ceylon, for instance, decided to stay in, even after the Suez crisis, should at least be considered by those Canadians who like to suggest that the Commonwealth is little more than a joke.

The Commonwealth and Suez implies that the Commonwealth, far from being just a shadow of imperial glory or art alumni association for British colonies, is a practical, useful organization, and an illustration of the approach to international affairs set forth in Lester Pearson's speeches and articles. In one speech, given on the BBC in 1953, he said, “Whatever the reasons may be, we in the Commonwealth respect one another, sit down easily together to talk over common problems, and get a great number of important things done in an informal but effective w'ay.” Eleven years later that statement still stands, not only as a description of the Commonwealth but as statement of the prime minister’s own philosophy.

EST” THE FOUR FACES OF PEACE, by Lester Pearson, selected and edited by Sherleigh Pierson, McClelland and Stewart, 267 pages, $6.

ESüP DULLES OVER SUEZ, by Herman Finer, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 538 pages, $7.50.

Edlf3 THE COMMONWEALTH AND SUEZ: A DOCUMENTARY SURVEY, selected, edited and with commentaries by James Eayrs, Oxford University Press, 483 pages, $11.50.