THE DAY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES STRUCK FEAR AND TREMBLING INTO THE HEART OF OUR PM
The little guy was Mike Pearson, the big guy was Lyndon Johnson and the author was there
In April, 1965, the late Prime Minister Lester Pearson went to Temple University in Philadelphia to receive its World Peace Award. Canadian-American relations were in a state of flux, chiefly because of the war in Vietnam. On the one hand, Pearson’s Liberal government was coming under increasing fire for supporting the U.S. stand in southeast Asia. Colin Cameron of the NDP accused the cabinet of adopting a “lickspittle” attitude, and Dave McIntosh of Canadian Press wrote that “not since the Berlin Crisis of 1961 has a Canadian government backed up the U.S. to such an extent.” There was evidence to support McIntosh’s claim. Early in February, the Americans had begun systematic bombing of selected targets in North Vietnam (up until then, there had been only retaliatory cross-border raids) and Canada appeared to accept the need for these strikes. When the International Control Commission, of which Canada was a member, issued a majority report critical of the bombing, Canada released a minority report which seemed to adopt the American theory on the causes of the war as its own. It said in part that “the so-called South-Vietnam liberation front, of which the Viet Cong are in effect the armed forces, is a creature of the ruling party in North Vietnam,” and laid most of the blame for the continuing conflict on Communist shoulders.
But behind this apparent acceptance of the righteousness of the American cause there was a developing uneasiness, not only in the mind of the Canadian public but inside the Liberal party and the Pearson cabinet. Both Pearson and his External Affairs Minister, Paul Martin, hinted in speeches early in 1965 that the U.S. position on Vietnam — which was to refuse negotiations except on pre-agreed terms — might profitably be modified, and appeared to accept statements from the United Nations Secretary General, U Thant, that unconditional talks could be tried.
That was the situation when Pearson rose at Temple University to speak about peace and Vietnam. After a polite bow in the direction of U.S. goodwill — he described the Americans’ motives as “honorable; neither mean nor imperialistic” — the Canadian Prime Minister suggested that, just the same, the bombing raids might only serve to harden the resolution of the North Vietnamese to continue the war. “At the right time,” he said, the U.S. might suspend the raids unilaterally; that in turn might bring the Communists closer to the bargaining table, or, if it did not, it would show the world that the Americans were sincere in their quest for peace, while their opponents seemingly were not.
It was a mild speech, buttressed with a declaration of Canada’s appreciation of the U.S. position — “The government and great majority of the people of my country have supported wholeheartedly U.S. peace-keeping and peacemaking policies in Vietnam. We wish to be able to continue that support.” But it was not the kind of speech the Americans wanted to hear, not from an ally (although in the minds of many of the Johnson administration staff, we were only a fainthearted ally), not at a time when the U.S. government was coming under ever more raucous criticism for its conduct of the war, and not in its own backyard. (The White
House had been sent a copy of the speech, but too late for there to be any protest against its delivery.)
The next day, April 3, 1965, Pearson had been invited to lunch with President Lyndon Johnson at the President’s Camp David retreat. Accompanying him was Charles Ritchie, then Canadian ambassador to Washington, and a longtime friend of Pearson’s. Ritchie was one of Canada’s most experienced diplomats; he had behind him 31 years’ experience and a string of important postings, including those of ambassador to West Germany and ambassador to the UN. At that luncheon meeting, Johnson gave Pearson a bitter dressing down. Ritchie, who was later to become High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and is now retired, was the only Canadian witness. In this account, he presents a fascinating insight into
a confrontation that revealed much, not only about the two protagonists but about an episode in the relationship between our two countries.
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This account is Charles Ritchie’s personal view and not in any way official. It is how Ambassador Ritchie saw and recorded the personalities and events. “The difference between the Canadian and United States governments over the bombing of North Vietnam was a serious one,” he recalls, “but it should be viewed in the context of wider United States-Canada relations. There was much cooperation between Canada and the United States in many spheres during those years. There were ups and downs in the relationship — but the friendship was always dominant.”
Lyndon Baines Johnson in his solemn hour lumbers to the podium to face his fellow Americans. The portentous utterances are lowered slowly into the waiting world. An impressively firm yet benevolent statesman enunciates the purposes and aspirations of the nation. The undertaker’s tailoring encases a hulking, powerful body, something formidable by nature but dressed up and sleeked down. The President is not to be mocked. His displacement — as they say of ocean liners — is very great. He is a man of Faith, a man of ideals and of sagacity and above all a man of power. No greater power has been in history than in this incarnation. He is our nuclear shield, leader of the West, dispenser of aid, sender of satellites, spender of billions, arbiter of differences, hurler of thunderbolts. For 20 years the Americans have defended, aided, exploited and lectured half the world. The President of the United States of America! Foreign ministers and potentates gather at his gates. “How did you get on with the President?” That is the question and woe betide the one who fails to pass the test. If the Jovian countenance fell into sullen furrows then no more loans — no more 'armies. The chill spreads rapidly through the furthest confines of the administration. Lips tighten all down the line to the humblest desk officer in the State Department. What it is to be in the Presidential Doghouse! I have been there once or twice — or my country has. They are still civil in the government offices — civil but chilly — but give them a drink or two after dinner and it all comes out with rough frankness. Your government has erred and strayed from the way and the sheep dogs are at your heels barking you back into line. Disagreeable it is at times — even offensive. Your prime minister may be harshly censured, but a word of criticism of the President of the United States of America and the heavens would fall with a weight appalling to contemplate. “An insult to the President” — what a spine-chilling thought!
Even when the sun of favor is shining there are outer limits for a foreigner to exchanges of thought with the Washington Higher Management. For one thing the President never listens — or at any rate never listens to foreigners. He talks them down inexhaustibly. The phrase “consultations with allies” is apt to mean in United States’ terms briefing allies, lecturing allies, sometimes pressuring allies or sounding out allies to see if they are sound. The idea of learning anything from allies seems strange to official Washington thinking. The word comes from Washington and is homemade.
When LBJ first came to power — in those few months when he counted none but well-wishers in Washington — that good friend of Canada, Scotty Resten of the New York Times, expounded to me the pleasing notion that as the new President was inexperienced in international affairs and as Mike Pearson was an international figure there could be a fruitful and friendly working relationship between them. The President would turn to Mike for advice as a neighbor, one he could trust in a homely dialogue across the fence. It did not work out like that — perhaps it could never have been expected to do so. When Mike Pearson came on his first official visit to Washington there was little stirring of interest in the White House — the President had much to occupy him — the visit seemed treated as of marginal importance. The Prime Minister’s opening speech under the portico of the White House consisted largely in a heartfelt tribute to J. F. Kennedy — natural — inevitable so soon after the assassination but not particularly heartwarming to the President. The President responded by a reference to our “undefended border.” At dinner at the Embassy the President seemed just not bored. The Canadian government’s gift of an RCMP English-type saddle brought a mumble that it “had no pommel” — one saw it relegated to the White House attic. Yet the Prime Minister was not easily discouraged. He was determined to break through the ice and melt it with his charm and humor. He succeeded — or appeared to succeed. Before the visit to Washington was over he had had a long, private talk with the President which put the two of them on a footing of frankness — the President was genial and gossipy.
There followed an invitation to the Pearsons to go to the Presidential ranch for the weekend. What effect — if any — this further intimacy had on the President is unknown. The ranch life seemed a sort of burlesque circus, the hookers of bourbon at all hours, the helicoptering to visit neighbors, the incessant telephoning, the showing off, the incoherence and inconsequence of the arrangements — all disconcerted Mike. What disconcerted him even more was the impossibility of having any continuous discussion with the President, any exploration of political questions. The President was free with some fairly scabrous gossip about his fellow senators. He would unexpectedly throw across to the Prime Minister a secret telegram or report which he was reading — thus making a demonstration of the easy, trustful way he felt about him, but there was none of that exchange of views on international or bilateral matters which had characterized the Prime Minister’s meeting with Kennedy at Hyannisport in 1963.
All the same the visit had been a success in political and personal terms. LBJ appeared to take to Mike and that in terms of Canada-United States relations was much gained. Every time the President saw me at an official reception he would send the warmest greetings to the Prime Minister whom he described to me on one occasion as the head of government he “felt closest to.”
Then came the thunderclap. The Prime Minister’s speech at Temple University in Philadelphia on April 2, 1965, advocating a pause in the bombing in Vietnam, and the President’s reaction to it are part of political history and this is not a historical record. The President’s reception of the speech was sulphurous and the relationship between the two men never fully recovered. No doubt LBJ believed that an attempt had been made by one he thought to be a friend “to dictate United States policy in his own backyard.” When the Prime Minister arrived in Philadelphia he found a telegram from the President inviting him to lunch at Camp David. The telegram had been despatched before the President had read the text of the speech. I accompanied the Prime Minister to Camp David — an occasion unfortunately unforgettable. Presidential aides Mac Bundy and Jack Valenti met us at the little airfield — no President. They were like schoolboys escorting the victim to the headmaster’s study for a sharp wigging or possibly “six of the best.” With strange innocence the Prime Minister and I were not prepared for what was to come. We anticipated that the speech would not be popular — indeed the Prime Minister’s expressed reason for not consulting the President in advance of making it had been that LBJ might put pressure on him to excise the reference to a pause in the bombing.
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Camp David could be a cosy mountain retreat — a large rough stone fireplace and the kind of pictures that go with it — but it was not cosy that day. LBJ received us with a civility that only gradually began to seem a trifle cool. I noticed with mild surprise that, contrary to his custom, he only drank one Bloody Mary before lunch. I made so bold as to have two. At luncheon the general conversation was made impossible because the President talked almost continuously on the table telephone. Part of the time he was receiving reports on bombing operations in Vietnam, at other times he seemed to be tidying up any telephone calls remaining at the bottom of his list — some fairly trivial ones that could have waited. Mike was left to make conversation with Lady Bird, Mac Bundy and myself. He talked of the day’s flight over the battlefield of Gettysburg, of his long interest in the battle and in the civil war in general. Lady Bird was receptive — he made a joke and she distinctly smiled. Mac and I at intervals made a remark.
Lunch was over and there had been no mention of the speech. Over coffee the Prime Minister took the leap. “What,” he enquired, “did you think of my speech?” The President paused before replying. It was the pause when darkest clouds lower pregnant with the coming storm. “Awful,” he said and taking Mike by the arm he led him onto the terrace.
What followed I witnessed mainly in pantomime, although from time to time the President’s voice reached us in expletive adjuration. He strode the terrace, he sawed the air with his arms, with upraised fist he drove home the verbal hammer blows. He talked and talked — phrases reached Mac and me as we stood fascinated watching from the dining room which gave onto the terrace through the open French windows — expostulating, upbraiding, reasoning, persuading. From time to time Mike attempted a sentence — only to have it swept away on the tide. Finally Mac suggested that he and I should take a walk through the wooded hills and leave our two masters together.
Our conversation was a reproduction in minor key of what we had just been witnessing. Mac, with the gentleness of a deft surgeon, went for the crucial spots. Perhaps, he suggested, he had not got his message across to me in our last conversation when he had reminded me of the undesirability of public prodding of the President. (I had in fact conveyed this message to Ottawa.) Why had the Prime Minister chosen the United States as the place for such a speech? Why had there been no prior consultation with the President? Did I realize that the Prime Minister’s plea for a pause in the bombing coming at this time might inhibit the very aim he had in mind? The tone was friendly but the scalpel was sharp. I countered by saying that the substance of the speech was a Canadian policy statement and in our view a wise one. The Prime Minister was speaking as a Nobel Prize lecturer at an academic occasion — he must deal with issues affecting the peace of the world. The thought of interfering in United States policy was far from his mind. Finally, losing patience with unanswerable questions about the choice of place and occasion I . added that I could assure him that the United States would never have a better or more understanding friend than the present Prime Minister.
By this time we had wound our way back again to the house. In the dining room we found Jack Valenti. The three of us looked out again at the terrace — the two figures were still there and the drama seemed to be approaching a climax of physical violence. Mike, only half seated, half leaning on the terrace balustrade, was now completely silent. The President strode up to him and seized him by the lapel of his coat — at the same time raising his other arm to the heavens. I looked at Mac in consternation but he was smiling. “It will be all right now,” he said, “once the President has got it off his chest.” Shortly thereafter LBJ and the Prime Minister reentered the house and we took our departure. The President this time accompanied the Prime Minister to the airport and parted with him with geniality.
That night when I got back to Washington I rang up the Prime Minister, who had returned to Ottawa. I was emotional. I said to him that I had never been prouder of him than now. Indeed he was both right and courageous in what he said and the President would have done well to listen.
Some weeks later I was lunching with the indomitable Dean Acheson (former Secretary of State) who attacked Mike and referred critically to his speech. Once again I explained the background and defended the substance. “Oh,” said Dean, “you will see that bouncy man come back here and do it again.”
The next year when the Prime Minister received the Atlantic Pioneer Award of Federal Union Inc., at Springfield, Illinois, he made a speech dealing with issues involving the relationship between the United States and its NATO allies. The speech was thought in Washington to imply some measure of criticism of U.S. attitudes. Again rumbles reached us from the White House. Ambassador-at-large Averell Harriman was sent to Ottawa to seek clarification. At the White House Walt Rostow, who had succeeded Bundy, spoke of the Prime Minister’s “egregious” speech and of the President’s displeasure and “Why,” he asked, “did he come into the President’s own backyard to make such a speech?”
I heard myself replying much as I had to Mac Bundy on the earlier occasion a year before. But I thought I might guess the answer. Perhaps the Prime Minister had neither forgiven nor forgotten his encounter with the President on the terrace at Camp David. As Dean Acheson remarked, he was “a bouncy man” and he had bounced right back. ■