John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

On October 5, 1960, South Africa’s white voters decided to make the country a republic. At the Prime Ministers’ Conference in 1961, Verwoerd formally applied for South Africa to remain in the Commonwealth. The prime ministers were divided. Diefenbaker broke the deadlock by proposing that the conference not reject South Africa’s application, but instead state in a communique that racial equality was a principle of the Commonwealth. This was adopted, although Britain and New Zealand disagreed with Diefenbaker’s proposal. South Africa could not accept the communique, and withdrew its application to remain in the Commonwealth. According to Peter Newman, this was "Diefenbaker’s most important contribution to international politics … Diefenbaker flew home, a hero."

Policy towards the United States

"Ike" and "John": the Eisenhower years

American officials were uncomfortable with Diefenbaker’s initial election, believing they had heard undertones of anti-Americanism in the campaign. After years of the Liberals, one US State Department official noted, "We’ll be dealing with an unknown quantity." Diefenbaker’s 1958 landslide was viewed with disappointment by the US officials, who knew and liked Pearson from his years in diplomacy and who felt the Liberal Party leader would be more likely to institute pro-American policies. However, US President Dwight Eisenhower took pains to foster good relations with Diefenbaker. The two men found much in common, from Western farm backgrounds to a love of fishing, and Diefenbaker had an admiration for war leaders such as Eisenhower and Churchill. Diefenbaker wrote in his memoirs, "I might add that President Eisenhower and I were from our first meeting on an "Ike–John" basis, and that we were as close as the nearest telephone." The Eisenhower–Diefenbaker relationship was sufficiently strong that the touchy Canadian Prime Minister was prepared to overlook slights. When Eisenhower addressed Parliament in October 1958, he downplayed trade concerns that Diefenbaker had publicly expressed. Diefenbaker said nothing and took Eisenhower fishing.

Diefenbaker had approved plans to join the United States in what became known as NORAD, an integrated air defence system, in mid-1957. Despite Liberal misgivings that Diefenbaker had committed Canada to the system before consulting either the Cabinet or Parliament, Pearson and his followers voted with the government to approve NORAD in June 1958.

In 1959, the Diefenbaker government cancelled the development and manufacture of the Avro CF-105 Arrow. The Arrow was a supersonic jet interceptor built by Avro Canada in Malton, Ontario, to defend Canada in the event of a Soviet attack. The interceptor had been under development since 1953, and had suffered from many cost overruns and complications. In 1955, the RCAF stated it would only need nine squadrons of Arrows, down from 20, as originally proposed. According to C.D. Howe, the former minister responsible for postwar reconstruction, the St. Laurent government had serious misgivings about continuing the Arrow program, and planned to discuss its termination after the 1957 election. In the run-up to the 1958 election, with three Tory-held seats at risk in the Malton area, the Diefenbaker government authorized further funding. Even though the first test flights of the Arrow were successful, the US government was unwilling to commit to a purchase of aircraft from Canada. In September 1958, Diefenbaker warned that the Arrow would come under complete review in six months. The company began seeking out other projects including a US-funded "saucer" program that became the VZ-9 Avrocar, and also mounted a public relations offensive urging that the Arrow go into full production. On February 20, 1959, the Cabinet decided to cancel the Avro Arrow, following an earlier decision to permit the United States to build two Bomarc missile bases in Canada. The company immediately dismissed its 14,000 employees, blaming Diefenbaker for the firings, though it rehired 2,500 employees to fulfil existing obligations.