BOOKS

Clash of the titans

The Kennedy-Diefenbaker battle still reverberates

CARL MOLLINS December 10 1990
BOOKS

Clash of the titans

The Kennedy-Diefenbaker battle still reverberates

CARL MOLLINS December 10 1990

Clash of the titans

BOOKS

The Kennedy-Diefenbaker battle still reverberates

KENNEDY & DIEFENBAKER

By Knowlton Nash

(McClelland & Stewart, 320 pages, $28.95)

On the day in August that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney returned home from discussions on Persian Gulf policy with President George Bush, an editorial cartoon in The Globe and Mail pictured their relationship in derisive terms. It showed the seated Bush using a remote-control device to manipulate a toy-sized Mulroney—wearing wheels, an aerial and a willing smile—at the U.S. President’s feet. That graphic comment reflected one historically strong and abiding concern among many Canadians over Canada-U.S. relations. It is a concern that their leaders—and Canada— may endure indignities, or even appear to be submissive, in dealing with U.S. counterparts. As Knowlton Nash observes in Kennedy & Diefenbaker, “Coping with a hulking neighbor 10 times our size who is eating away at Canadian sovereignty is the age-old challenge for Canadian prime ministers.” In his compelling account of a classic failure to cope successfully with that challenge, Nash examines an ambitious president’s determination to have his way and a prideful prime minister’s refusal to submit—at a heavy political price.

Nash’s subtitle—Fear and Loathing Across the Undefended Border—summarizes his view on why the youthful President John Kennedy and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, 22 years his senior, did not get along. Diefenbaker, Nash writes, “basically feared Kennedy, as Kennedy loathed him.” Their feuding was inspired by mutual hatred, Nash says, their private comments on each other marked by profanities. But there were wider issues of public importance that divided the Canadian Prairie populist and the charismatic New England Democrat. Those issues centred on Diefenbaker’s bristling assertion of Canadian autonomy in the face of Kennedy’s often insensitive treatment of Canada as an adjunct of U.S. policy. “Their differences were irreconcilable,” Nash writes, “their clash inevitable.”

Nash, now CBC TV’s senior correspondent and anchor of Saturday Report, reconstructs that rude and crucial period in Canada-U.S. relations by retracing the days in the early 1960s when he covered the story live as the network’s Washington correspondent. He reinforces that chronicle with documents since made public and from

interviews with surviving associates of the two main adversaries. His lively account and cogent analysis illuminate both the petty personal slights and the pivotal events that still exert influence on Canadian policies and attitudes more than a quarter of a century later.

Diefenbaker, whose Conservatives gained power in 1957 on a Canada-first platform—and quickly concluded the previously negotiated NORAD defence pact—soon became entangled in military issues that were to become the focus of his dispute with Kennedy. The major showdown centred on Diefenbaker’s second thoughts over a plan to base U.S. nuclear missiles in Canada. His hesitation finally provoked a notorious news release from the state department, denouncing Diefenbaker’s equivocation and implicitly accusing him of lying. Canada, thundered Diefenbaker in response, “will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in making its decisions.” Kennedy, Nash relates, had been unaware of the news release and chewed out his aides—mainly because it would strengthen Diefenbaker’s political hand at home. In fact, Diefenbaker suffered electoral defeat less than 10 weeks later, a victim of what Nash describes as ham-handed but effective American efforts to unseat him. His Liberal successor, Lester Pearson, who had earlier shifted his position on the issue, had the warheads installed.

For the damage that Kennedy and Diefenbaker inflicted on transborder relations, Nash faults both men. “Who was to blame? Certainly Diefenbaker was, with his visceral, ancient fears of the grasping Americans and his obsessive detestation of the Kennedy style,” Nash writes. “And certainly Kennedy was, with his arrogance and contempt at what he considered Diefenbaker’s old-fashioned humbuggery, and his failure of patience in dealing with the nationalistic demons and domestic political motives driving the Canadian prime minister.”

Their coincident time in office spanned only 27 months, from Kennedy’s inauguration on Jan. 20,1961, until Diefenbaker’s departure on April 22,1963. But they presided over a period when a central question was how firmly Canada would become an active acolyte of U.S. foreign and military policy. Ironically, it was Diefenbaker’s very resistance to Kennedy’s pressure that, by contributing to his defeat, brought about Canada’s deeper commitment to that satellite role. Nash brackets his story with chapters that invoke the history that colored the Kennedy-Diefenbaker period and outline its comparatively tranquil aftermath.

He draws no explicit line to the present state of U.S.-Canada relations. But the events and issues that his book defines make it easy to link Pearson’s acceptance of American nuclear warheads and Mulroney’s ready commitment of Canadian forces to the U.S.-led Persian Gulf expedition 26 years later. And there is clearly a current echo of Diefenbaker’s obstinate nationalism in such commentaries as the cartoon that derides the present relationship between the President and the Prime Minister.

CARL MOLLINS