Camelot and Canada: Cana­dian-Amer­i­can Re­la­tions in the Kennedy Era

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Tim Cook, the au­thor of ten books, in­clud­ing Vimy: The Bat­tle and the Leg­end (Allen Lane, 2017).

by Asa McKercher Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 310 pages, $78

John F. Kennedy knew lit­tle about Canada be­fore be­com­ing the United States pres­i­dent in 1960, other than that his north­ern neigh­bour was a loyal ally. He as­sumed that Cana­di­ans would con­tinue to be faith­ful af­ter he came to power — and Cana­di­ans would in­deed come to adore him. The glam­orous, strik­ing, and in­spir­ing Kennedy was even ranked by Cana­di­ans in De­cem­ber 1962 as the “man they ad­mired most” in the world. That was no easy pill to swal­low for Canada’s prime min­is­ter, John Diefen­baker, who had ended the long Lib­eral dy­nasty in 1957 with his calls for change and fresh ideas, as well as by lead­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally em­body­ing a new fierce na­tion­al­ism.

While Kennedy and Diefen­baker were Cold War war­riors, they came from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions and, over time, grew to dis­like each other in­tensely. Diefen­baker bris­tled at Kennedy’s easy ways, youth, and wide ap­peal as well as his in­cli­na­tion to take Canada’s sup­port for granted. The Cana­dian prime min­is­ter felt that he, as leader of a coun­try be­com­ing more con­fi­dent and sure of its place in the world, did not have to en­gage in stren­u­ous ef­forts to get along with the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. He was wrong, and re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton de­te­ri­o­rated steadily as Canada con­tin­ued to trade with Com­mu­nist Cuba and China and re­fused to be rushed to de­cide whether to ac­cept nu­clear weapons.

Diefen­baker had many rea­sons to dis­like the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, not the least be­ing his prickly an­noy­ance over Kennedy’s mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of his name

— “Diefen­bawker.” Even more galling was Kennedy’s close re­la­tion­ship with the like­able and knowl­edge­able Lib­eral leader of the op­po­si­tion, Lester B. Pear­son. At one low point, Diefen­baker threat­ened to black­mail Kennedy over a lost doc­u­ment.

Asa McKercher dis­sects this un­rav­el­ling re­la­tion­ship in Camelot and Canada, a work of deep schol­ar­ship that draws upon newly un­cov­ered records in mul­ti­ple archives in Canada and the United States. There is much that is new here, with im­por­tant cor­rec­tives and nu­ances to the ac­cepted nar­ra­tive, even though the text oc­ca­sion­ally bogs down in of­fi­cial govern­ment brief­ings and ac­counts, and there is too of­ten a short­age of dates to sit­u­ate the reader.

Re­la­tions be­tween Diefen­baker and Kennedy were fa­tally dam­aged af­ter the mu­tual mis­han­dling of the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. Dur­ing that nearly apoc­a­lyp­tic show­down, Kennedy felt be­trayed by Diefen­baker’s slow­ness in pro­vid­ing overt sup­port, and Diefen­baker felt that Kennedy had showed him too lit­tle re­spect. The cli­max to this vit- riol came dur­ing the April 1963 Cana­dian fed­eral elec­tion, when the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion worked hard to un­der­mine Diefen­baker and to aid Pear­son, who ul­ti­mately ousted Diefen­baker from power.

While Camelot and Canada is firmly grounded in the his­tory of the Kennedy era, one can­not help but draw par­al­lels to re­cent Cana­dian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions. The his­tory of Pear­son and Diefen­baker pro­vides les­sons on how Canada’s politi­cians need to stand firm while ap­pear­ing flex­i­ble, and on how to raise con­cerns and wor­ries through es­tab­lished back chan­nels rather than the splash and scratch of me­dia and so­cial me­dia.

There has been po­lit­i­cal ten­sion and even per­sonal an­i­mos­ity be­tween in­di­vid­ual prime min­is­ters and pres­i­dents, but th­ese dis­agree­ments have been rel­a­tively few con­sid­er­ing the daily test of shar­ing the same con­ti­nent. More of­ten, there is un­der­stand­ing and even em­pa­thy in Ottawa and Wash­ing­ton for the im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship that has been built upon a long his­tory of mu­tual re­spect and shared his­tory — all of which ex­tends far deeper than any sin­gle ad­min­is­tra­tion or govern­ment.

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