John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Although the two leaders had a strong relationship, by 1960 US officials were becoming concerned by what they viewed as Canadian procrastination on vital issues, such as whether Canada should join the Organization of American States (OAS). Talks on these issues in June 1960 produced little in results. Diefenbaker hoped that US Vice President Richard Nixon would win the 1960 US presidential election, but when Nixon’s Democratic rival, Senator John F. Kennedy won the race, he sent Senator Kennedy a note of congratulations. Kennedy did not respond until Canadian officials asked what had become of Diefenbaker’s note, two weeks later. Diefenbaker, for whom such correspondence was very meaningful, was annoyed at the President-elect’s slowness to respond. In January 1961, Diefenbaker visited Washington to sign the Columbia River Treaty. However, with only days remaining in the Eisenhower administration, little else could be accomplished.

Bilateral antipathy: the Kennedy administration

The Kennedy administration began its dealings with Canada badly, with Kennedy mispronouncing Diefenbaker’s name in a press conference announcing the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in February 1961. A furious Diefenbaker brought up in Cabinet whether to send a note of protest at the gaffe to Washington; his colleagues were inclined to let the matter pass. When the two met in Washington on February 20, Diefenbaker was impressed by Kennedy, and invited him to visit Ottawa. President Kennedy, however, told his aides that he never wanted "to see the boring son of a bitch again". The Ottawa visit also began badly: at the welcome at the airport, Kennedy again mispronounced Diefenbaker’s name and stated that after hearing the Prime Minister’s (notoriously bad) French, he was uncertain if he should venture into the language (Kennedy’s French was equally bad). After meeting with Diefenbaker, Kennedy accidentally left behind a briefing note suggesting he "push" Diefenbaker on several issues, including the decision to accept nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, which bitterly divided the Cabinet. Diefenbaker was also annoyed by Kennedy’s speech to Parliament, in which he urged Canada to join the OAS (which Diefenbaker had already rejected), and by the President spending most of his time talking to Leader of the Opposition Pearson at the formal dinner. Both Kennedy and his wife Jackie were bored by Diefenbaker’s Churchill anecdotes at lunch, stories that Jackie Kennedy later described as "painful".

Diefenbaker was initially inclined to go along with Kennedy’s request that nuclear weapons be stationed on Canadian soil as part of NORAD. However, when an August 3, 1961, letter from Kennedy which urged this was leaked to the media, Diefenbaker was angered and withdrew his support. The Prime Minister was also influenced by a massive demonstration against nuclear weapons, which took place on Parliament Hill. Diefenbaker was handed a petition containing 142,000 names.

By 1962, the American government was becoming increasingly concerned at the lack of a commitment from Canada to take nuclear weapons. The interceptors and Bomarc missiles with which Canada was being supplied as a NORAD member were either of no use or of greatly diminished utility without nuclear devices. Canadian and American military officers launched a quiet campaign to make this known to the press, and to advocate for Canadian agreement to acquire the warheads. Diefenbaker was also upset when Pearson was invited to the White House for a dinner for Nobel Prize winners in April, and met with the President privately for 40 minutes. When the Prime Minister met with retiring American Ambassador Livingston Merchant, he angrily disclosed the paper Kennedy had left behind, and hinted that he might make use of it in the upcoming election campaign. Merchant’s report caused consternation in Washington, and the ambassador was sent back to see Diefenbaker again. This time, he found Diefenbaker calm, and the Prime Minister pledged not to use the memo, and to give Merchant advance word if he changed his mind. Canada appointed a new ambassador to Washington, Charles Ritchie, who on arrival received a cool reception from Kennedy and found that the squabble was affecting progress on a number of issues.