- - Tuesday, April 5, 2016




By John Boyko

Alfred A. Knopf Canada, $30, 384 pages

Canada and the United States have historically been great friends, allies and trading partners. Relations between the two countries have faced occasional bumps in the road, and witnessed some short-lived layers of ice. By and large, they’ve built a successful strategic alliance — and maintained their own independent points of view.

John Boyko, an author, historian and administrator at Canada’s Lakefield College School, examines this unique relationship in “Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front.”

The book focuses on the interactions between one American president (John F. Kennedy) and two Canadian prime ministers (John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson). It was a period of time when the Soviet Union was a political menace, the space race was in full flight, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was just around the corner. “With the Cold War entering a new and dangerous phase and people afraid for their lives,” Mr. Boyko writes, “the intelligent, ambitious, and determined Kennedy, Diefenbaker, and Pearson would each fight for his vision of what was best for his country and the world.”

Mr. Kennedy always had a profound interest in Canada, long before it became his northern front.

He participated in a 1957 debate, “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” at the University of Toronto’s Hart House in 1957. The student debaters, led by Stephen Lewis (who would become Ontario New Democratic Party leader and Canada’s United Nations ambassador), were rather spirited while Mr. Kennedy “read in a flat tone and seldom looked up.” The Massachusetts senator won by a slim 204-194 margin. When asked why he had defended a position similar to the Republican administration, “Kennedy startled Lewis by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts and that if he were from a predominantly Republican state such as Maine, he would probably be a Republican.”

It’s not terribly surprising. Mr. Boyko believes, with good reason, that Mr. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” “was testament to both tenets of Burke’s conservative philosophy.” Moreover, the author senses “[l]ike Burke — in fact, like Diefenbaker and Pearson — Kennedy was always uncomfortable with and suspicious of narrow ideological identifications.”

Mr. Diefenbaker, a left-leaning populist Tory, and Mr. Pearson, a centrist liberal who “became the most famous Canadian in the world” at the United Nations, were different political leaders for Mr. Kennedy to work with.

Mr. Kennedy found Mr. Diefenbaker to be “insincere and untrustworthy” at their first meeting. He was concerned about his nationalism, less-than-upbeat feelings about America. and, as he told his brother Robert, felt the prime minister was a “boring son of a bitch.” Mr. Pearson had impressed him years ago with his statesmanship, support for the Western model, criticism of the “silent subservience of Soviet allies,” and belief that the Cold War was “a competition of alliances.”

There are some intriguing historical moments that involved all three men.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. Pearson spoke — and agreed — with the former’s position that “Canada was maintaining its current military alert level.” Mr. Kennedy, who hadn’t paid much attention to Mr. Diefenbaker, was furious when the prime minister wouldn’t budge. This led to a ferocious argument between the two men.

Regardless, the Canadian aircraft “spotted, tracked, and reported” several sightings of Soviet submarines, which “shocked the Americans.” The alert level finally shifted, and Mr. Pearson backed his political rival’s “refusal to simply rubber-stamp Kennedy’s requests without proper due process and an assessment of Canadian national interests.” While Mr. Kennedy’s advisers had previously called Mr. Diefenbaker a “dithering old man” and Canadian foreign policy “neurotic,” they had a new label for his brand of nationalism: “dangerous.”

There may have been an unfortunate, accidental link to Mr. Kennedy’s November, 1963 assassination, too.

The U.S. president had “all but ignored” Mr. Diefenbaker during his official 1961 Canadian visit, while he and Mr. Pearson “hit it off like old friends.” Alas, the planting of a ceremonial tree with Mr. Diefenbaker caused much discomfort for Mr. Kennedy’s “tender back.” According to Mr. Boyko, “the reinjured back had been a source of constant agony” and he was “fitted with a new, larger, stiffer back brace” which extended from his arms to hips. While the brace was a great aid to him for the Dallas motorcade, it also “held him bolt upright in the limousine’s back seat — he could not slump down.” There was no way to avoid the second bullet.

“More than a half century later, we still live with the consequences” of Mr. Kennedy’s, Mr. Diefenbaker’s and Mr. Pearson’s ideas, policies and strategies. To put it another way, the cold fire of Canadian-American relations is still blazing hot.

• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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