Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front

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Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front will be published in Canada and the United States on February 2, 2016.

The United States and Canada had reached a crossroads and three leaders were trying to pull their countries in wildly different directions.

President John F. Kennedy pledged to pay any price to advance America’s homeland defense and strategic goals and he needed Canada to step smartly in line. Canada lay between the United States and the Soviet Union and so was a vital part of America’s security. Kennedy demanded that it house nuclear weapons and change its economic and foreign policies to support his. Frustrating Kennedy at every turn was Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, an unapologetic nationalist seeking to end the trend toward greater continental integration by bolstering Canadian autonomy and developing an independent identity. Meanwhile, Liberal leader Lester Pearson, the Nobel Prize–winning diplomat, saw value in continuing the slide toward integration.

While battling communism around the world, Kennedy never forgot his northern front. He adroitly exploited his enormous popularity among Canadians to seduce its people and pressure its government to bend to his will. He ruthlessly attacked Diefenbaker and shamelessly supported Pearson.

Newly released documents present shocking revelations about these crucial years. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Canadian ships and planes guarded America’s Atlantic coast, while Canada suffered a silent coup d’état. Kennedy pushed a nuclear weapons system on Canada while knowing full well that it was merely a decoy to draw Soviet fire. Kennedy carefully influenced and monitored the overthrow of a Canadian government and the election of another. While Canada helped Kennedy tumble into the Vietnam War he did nothing to stop American inspired violence on the Great Lakes border. Perhaps most startlingly, if not for Diefenbaker, Kennedy may have survived the assassin’s bullets in Dallas.

The movie-television rights have already been optioned for this non-fiction book that reads like an adventure novel, brimming with sparkling stories, fascinating characters, and fresh insights into this critical moment. Cold Fire will astonish readers with the intriguing ways in which the struggles of these three resolute leaders determined the course of the next half-century.

The book can be pre-ordered at Chapters: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko

or at Amazon: http://www.amazon.ca/Cold-Fire-Kennedys-Northern-Front/dp/0345808932/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1446165612&sr=1-4

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Of Flags and Fury

February brings us one thing that Prime Minister Harper wants us to know and another he wishes we’d ignore. He hopes we pay attention to Bill C-51, his new and still pending Anti-Terrorist bill. He hopes we forget that today our flag turned 50 years old. The two offer a tremendous opportunity.

Unlike with the War of 1812 or the First World War, Mr. Harper has given little money or attention to the flag’s birthday. He’s right, let’s snub the flag. The notion is not as blasphemous as it sounds. Consider that every school day, millions of American children stand and recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which is stands.” In other words, it is not the flag that deserves allegiance, but what it represents. So maybe Mr. Harper is right that commemorating the flag would trivialize our national identity by indulging in a patriotic celebration of its mere symbol.

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Patriotism, after all, is ankle-deep and transitory. It’s civic-nationalism that delineates who we are. Patriotism can dance merrily along without concern for introspection but civic-nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism or jingoist chest-thumping or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, civic nationalism rests upon a quiet, self-assured confidence among citizens in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be protected and enhanced.

Our flag is just patriotism on a pole. The day before Lester Pearson assumed office in 1963, a bomb shattered a Montreal afternoon. The horrible blast and those that followed fueled the ethnic-nationalist debate regarding the creation of an independent state for the Québécois nation. Pearson’s new flag offered tribalists and the rest of us the patriotic balm that the British flag would be removed from ours. To the parts of the prairies and north where maple trees do not grow, of course, the big red maple leaf offered yet another reminder of central Canada’s myopic vision and arrogance.

So let’s forget the flag’s patriotism and use the opportunity presented by its birthday and C-51’s potential birth to question not what’s up the pole but in our hearts. For too long we have been called taxpayers. For too long we’ve been treated only as consumers. We’ll soon just be considered voters. Let’s demonstrate that we are citizens by engaging in a national conversation. Let us post blogs, send tweets and emails, and my goodness, maybe even speak with one another. I suggest these questions to begin:

Do we respect parliament and so believe that new legislation should be introduced in the House and not at some place akin to a campaign stop? Do we believe the rule of law insists that our police and spies always obey the law? Do we believe that adequate staff, budget, and mandate must exist along with a process that reports to parliament before anyone can speak of proper oversight of our spies and police? Do we believe the rule of law implies that citizens can only be arrested when they break a law and not for what others think they’re maybe thinking? Do we believe the best way to fight those who do not share our democratic values is to suicide the democratic values we treasure? Do we believe misinformation is criminal propaganda if a citizen creates it but not if disguised as an MP mailing or TV ad? When the House debates begin, will we recall the difference between insult and argument? Do we believe a party that says it opposes the law should vote for it? Do we understand that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are not either-or propositions but that security and liberty are?

So let’s take our government’s advice and ditch celebrations of a patriotic symbol. Let’s instead engage in something deeper – active citizenship. If we use C-51 to consider whom we are and whom we wish to be, we may just end up proving ourselves worthy of our allegiance to the flag through deepening our understanding of the Dominion for which it stands.

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Who Are We and Who Do We Aspire to Be?

The bread and circuses of patriotism thrives on songs and slogans. It swaps history’s complexity for misty-eyed nostalgia. Defining, unifying, inspiring state nationalism, on the other hand, is harder. Patriotism is about celebration but nationalism is about identity. While patriotism loves songs, nationalism demands sovereignty. After all, if your identity is up for sale to the highest bidder then you have no identity at all and might as well grab a funny hat and enjoy patriotism’s parade.

Two Canadian leaders whose parties and personalities were miles apart were quite similar in asking Canadians to look beyond the balm of patriotism to the challenge of nationalism. They asked Canadians to consider who they were and who they aspired to be: John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau.

The Trudeau campaign in 1968 was reminiscent of John Diefenbaker’s in 1958. Both raised a number of concerns and ideas but quickly became less about issues than a vague vision and more about charisma than anything. In 1958, reporters did not know what to make of Diefenbaker’s evangelical appeal. Ten years later, with the Beatles craze fresh in their minds, they wrote of Trudeaumania.

Once in office Trudeau channelled many of the old Chief’s strategic goals. Trudeau was inspired to enter public life by a desire to fight Quebec’s ethnic nationalism that he saw as dangerous to the country and an insult to Quebecers. Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights had similarly sought to combat Canada’s ethnic and racial divisions by protecting the rights of all as individuals – as citizens. Trudeau took that vision a step further with the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its insertion in the constitution. Trudeau’s Canada was Diefenbaker’s “One Canada”. Both reflected a belief in a vibrant pan-Canadian identity.

Trudeua and Diefenbaker

Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker

Diefenbaker and Trudeau’s state nationalism also reflected their understanding that Canada needed to be constantly vigilant in guarding against a chipping away at the frail and fragile walls protecting its sovereignty. This involved standing up to the United States. Trudeau spoke before the Washington Press Club in 1969 and famously quipped: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No mattered how friendly and even tempered the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

It was an apt metaphor describing the asymmetrical nature of the Canadian-American relationship that Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson accepted and upon which President Kennedy had based his bullying ways. At that point and for years, after all, Canada had a tenth of the American population, its economy was about was a tenth as large and a comparison of military clout was not worth making.

Trudeau’s Foreign Investment Review Agency and the crown corporation Petro-Canada were not attempts to reduce Canadian-American trade and investment but rather to manage it while diversifying Canadian markets. They and other initiatives sought to render Canada less dependent upon the United States by increasing Canada’s economic autonomy. The old adage is that when the American economy gets a cold, Canada gets pneumonia. Diefenbaker and Trudeau both sought to strengthen Canada’s immune system. Part of that infusion of antibodies involved taking steps that Kennedy had warned Diefenbaker not to dare but he did anyway; he continued Canada’s trade with Cuba and China. Trudeau went a step further. He created even more trade links with both and even visited Castro and Mao.

After a long and complex review, Trudeau’s government published six booklets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians. They presented recommendations that Diefenbaker’s government would have championed and a rejection of nearly everything to which Pearson had dedicated his diplomatic and political career. It insisted that foreign and defence policies should narrow its focus to reflect and advance Canada’s national interests. It should not, Trudeau said in an obvious slight to Pearson, involve Canada’s acting as a “helpful fixer” to the world.

It took a few years but by 1984 Trudeau had returned all the American nuclear weapons that Diefenbaker had said he did not want but that Pearson had welcomed into Canada. As Diefenbaker had during his tenure, Trudeau advocated and supported a number of initiatives to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and to halt nuclear proliferation.

When an American oil company’s ice breaker called the Manhattan planned to move through Canada’s arctic waters, Diefenbaker rose in the House to demand Trudeau protect Canada’s sovereignty. Trudeau shared Dief’s hopes for the North’s potential and knew that potential would be dashed if Canada did not demonstrate its ownership of all its land and waters. Consequently, Trudeau managed the issue carefully and ensured that a Canadian ice breaker – the Sir John A. Macdonald, no lessescorted the American vessel. He also had Canadians put on the Manhattan’s bridge. Diefenbaker had promised to open the North by building roads to resources. Trudeau recognized that another of those roads was the North West passage.

As had happened with Diefenbaker, Trudeau’s standing up to the Americans and pushing where he could to promote and protect Canadian sovereignty was not well received by America. Echoing President Kennedy’s thoughts on Diefenbaker, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted, “It cannot be said that Nixon and Trudeau were ideally suited for each other…he tended to consider him soft on defence and in his general attitude toward the east.” In fact, in private Kennedy often called Diefenbaker a host of derogatory names and the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon calling Trudeau a ‘son of a bitch’ and an ‘asshole’. When told of the slurs, Trudeau responded that he’d been called worse things by better people.

Despite these personality problems, when in 1971 Nixon implemented a tax policy that threatened to damage all of its trading partners, Trudeau was able to sit in the Oval Office and negotiate a Canadian exemption. Once again, just as Diefenbaker had proven when there was a run on the Canadian dollar and Kennedy had helped; personal differences do not have to stand in the way of policy solutions.

Trudeau’s actions and intentions garnered criticism from the same groups of Canadians that had turned on Diefenbaker. Provincial premiers, business people and political elites who stood to lose profits, power and tax revenue objected to attempts to increase Canada’s autonomy.  A politician without enemies is a politician doing nothing and worthless.

In 1965 George Grant published an important book entitled Lament for a Nation. It lamented the end of Canadian nationalism and the surrendering of Canada’s sovereignty to the United States. He wrote that Diefenbaker represented the last gasp of Canadian nationalism. He was wrong.  Pearson gave Canada its flag and Expo ’67 but they represented merely shallow, transitory patriotism. Diefenbaker had gone further by challenging Canadians to think not as patriots but as nationalists. Three years after Grant bemoaned nationalism’s death, a new political leader took up Diefenbaker’s legacy and challenged Canadians all over again.

Like all political leaders, Diefenbaker and Trudeau sometimes lost their way and traded strategic goals for tactical victories; but both did the best they could. While addressing the myriad decisions and crises that came their way they asked Canadians to raise themselves from the muck of the everyday. Diefenbaker and Trudeau challenged Canadians to consider, if even for a moment, if Canada is a country worth fighting for.

What If It Had Rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker Forgot About the Tree?

What If It Had Rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker Forgot About the Tree?

Anniversary journalism is lazy but inevitable. We were bombarded with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination stories and more than once I turned away from the horrible film clip of a man being murdered. I thought it fascinating that through the mourning porn, few stopped to consider Kennedy’s impact on Canada – and it was enormous. More fun, I thought, would be to play the “what if” counter-factual game of historical inquiry and ponder the effects on Canada not of his life but if he had lived.

After all, Kennedy’s living past November 1963 could have happened if one of two things had changed. First, if it had rained in Dallas that day then his limousine would have had its roof in place and Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever) may not have found his target. Second, on a 1961 visit to Ottawa Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had insisted on Kennedy planting a ceremonial tree at the Governor General’s residence.  While shovelling dirt he had seriously reinjured his already weak back and so was fitted for a stiff brace. He was wearing it that day in Dallas and after the first shot it had kept him erect and a sitting duck for the second and deadly shot.

So what if it had rained in Dallas or Diefenbaker had forgotten about the tree?

JFK and Dief

                 President Kennedy and Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Ottawa

JFK was a careless philanderer. He consorted with prostitutes, movie stars, and even a mobster’s girlfriend. He was once asked what he wanted for his birthday and he pointed to a young Hollywood starlet in a magazine. Guess who was with him a few days later?

In August, 1963, the F.B.I. told Attorney General Robert Kennedy that his brother was having an affair with East German communist spy Ellen Rometsch. This was different. This was serious. She was quickly deported on an Air Force plane. Days before Kennedy left for Dallas, the Senate Rules Committee was preparing to subpoena Rometsch in its investigation of Bobby Baker who was suspected of having shady financial dealings with Senators and of arranging many of the president’s dalliances.

The sex-spy scandal could have shattered Kennedy’s presidency. There would have been significant ramifications for the increasingly left-leaning Canada if the uproar and possible impeachment had led to the election of the Republican’s 1964 presidential candidate, the extreme right-wing Barry Goldwater.

But what if Kennedy was re-elected? He and Diefenbaker hated each other. The president knew and liked Liberal leader Lester Pearson and so his government helped defeat Diefenbaker in the April, 1963 election. Kennedy then ordered a resumption of positive Canadian-American interaction. The vastly improved personal relations between leaders could have earned major dividends for Canada.

Pearson had campaigned on a promise to surrender to Kennedy’s pressure and house American nuclear missiles in Canada. In the subsequent months, though, Kennedy worked to end nuclear proliferation and signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He was sending signals to the Soviet Union with hopes to create what would later be called détente. It is likely that Pearson would have reacted to the changing Cold War policies and tenor and revisited his long-held views on disarmament and used his relationship with Kennedy to get the weapons of mass destruction back out of Canada.

Kennedy invited Pearson to his home and asked for advice on Vietnam. When told he should get out, Kennedy laughed and said that any fool knew that but the question was how. After the 1964 election, Kennedy would probably have withdrawn the American military ‘advisors’ he had dispatched and there would have been no Americanized Vietnam war.

Without the Vietnam War, tensions caused by Canada’s opposition to it would not have existed. Eighty Canadians who went to the U.S. to serve would not have died. Tens of thousands of American draft dodgers would not have crossed the border. Without Vietnam, African Americans and Canadian women and youth fighting for change would not have had the link that helped unite and strengthen their movements. The young, for instance, would probably have initiated their cultural rebellion but without much of its anti-war inspired, revolutionary anger. Vancouver’s Gastown, Toronto’s Yorkville and conversations at dinner tables across the country would have been different.

After eight years of Kennedy’s growing liberal consensus, and without the war tearing America’s social fabric, the ‘silent majority’ that helped elect Richard Nixon may not have evolved. No Nixon would have meant no anti-American wave caused by Nixon’s 10% tax on Canadian trade and by his Vietnam policies. No anti-American wave could have tempered the uptick in Canadian patriotism – our negative nationalism.  No Nixon would have meant no Watergate so we might not still be suffering its sad legacy of wrathful, prying journalism and popular political cynicism.

John F. Kennedy was America’s first celebrity president. He taught all future leaders – Trudeau, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau again – the efficacy of image and television. He was a flawed man but a transformational leader with a positive vision and the courage and intellect to pursue it. Had he lived and dodged scandal, Canada would have been different then and different now.