We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.
President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.
Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.
Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”
Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.
The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”
Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.
In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.
Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”
Strike Three: The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.
Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.
The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”
Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.
Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.
I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.