Northern Exposure: The Kennedy Administration, Canadian Nationalism, and Canada- US Relations

Fifty Years Without JFK: Rethinking Global Diplomacy
Americas: Panel 2

Northern Exposure: The Kennedy Administration, Canadian Nationalism, and Canada-
US Relations
Asa McKercher (University of Cambridge)

"'My brother really hated John Diefenbaker'", Robert Kennedy told a reporter in 1967. "'In fact, you know, my brother really hated only two men in all his presidency. One was Sukarno, and the other was Diefenbaker.'" In considering John F Kennedy's legacy in foreign affairs, Canada, let alone its bombastic prime minister, John Diefenbaker, hardly springs to mind. In his thousand days as president, Kennedy confronted a range of crises in hotspots around the globe while dealing with the ramifications of rapid decolonisation, Third World nationalism, and European integration. At first blush, then, Canadian-American relations were hardly a pressing issue for the New Frontiersmen. Yet, as Bobby Kennedy's observation above indicates, President Kennedy had a visceral reaction to the Canadian premier. The Kennedy years in fact marked the most fractious period in the Canada-US relationship since the War of 1812. Diefenbaker was a populist and nationalist who possessed deep doubts about his country's close ties with the Untied States. Consequently, great strains were placed upon both his government's important alliance with Washington and his relationship with Kennedy. Thus, the 'crisis years' of the Cold War were also a period of crisis for the Canada-US dyad. Indeed, during the Cuban missile crisis, Diefenbaker withheld support for Kennedy, while the 1963 Canadian federal election -- in which Diefenbaker lost power -- was marred by widely-believed charges that the White House had staged a coup to oust the prime minister.

Half a century after the end of the Kennedy presidency, it seems appropriate to reassess his conduct of relations with Canada, a subject largely ignored by historians. Building upon research conducted through an Arthur Schlesinger Jr Fellowship at the Kennedy Library for my forthcoming book Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era and for several articles in print, my paper revisits this important period in international history and the history of the Canada-US relationship. Looking at Canadian-American dealings over Cuba, the EEC, and nuclear weapons, I argue that -- pace the views of other historians -- Kennedy dealt with Canada in a judicious manner. As my analysis shows, though, the issues that played out in Canada-US relations reflected Washington's wider problems with its allies: doubts about US leadership in the Cold War; concerns over US economic and military hegemony; and anger at a lack of consultation during periods of crisis.

Institute for the Study of the Americas
Asa McKercher (University of Cambridge)
Event date: 
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 - 12:00am
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