Canada and the Cuban missile crisis

By Monica Scheifele

Fifty-six years ago, the world faced the very real possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. On Oct. 14 that year an American spy plane flying over Cuba photographed the installation of a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile. For almost two weeks following that discovery, US President Kennedy and Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev with their respective teams of advisors and diplomats wrestled with a crisis that could have resulted in nuclear war.

Cuban missile crisis

Up until recently, I’d never considered Canada’s role in these historic events. I’d only ever thought about the actions of the main players Cuba, the US and the Soviet Union. In my limited understanding Canada didn’t really have a part to play in this drama. Granted we were geographically close to the action but with limited clout on the political stage in comparison to the superpowers of the US and Russia.

In October 1962 John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of a Conservative minority government with Lester Pearson and the Liberals as the Official Opposition. The Social Credits and the New Democrats filled the rest of the House of Commons.

The Canadian government was only informed of the situation a few hours before President Kennedy shared the details of the crisis on television with the American people on October 22.  The Canadian government quickly acted to ensure that Canadian airspace and Canadian air transport facilities were not being used to transport Soviet weapons to Cuba. However, when the US asked the government to put Canadian troops on alert and raise the military threat level to DEFCON 3 to match that of the US military, Diefenbaker delayed acting resulting in divisions within his own cabinet. The delay may have stemmed from Diefenbaker’s dislike of Kennedy or as an effort to avoid actions that could escalate tensions.

Pearson and the Liberals fully supported the US from the beginning and commended Kennedy for bringing the matter before the UN Security Council, but Diefenbaker still called for independent UN inspectors to go to Cuba to survey the nuclear sites and verify the facts. Generally, Diefenbaker was supportive of American action during the crisis, but he did not offer the unequivocal support that Kennedy might have expected.

Eventually the Prime Minister did put Canadian troops on alert (only after the Canadian military had already put itself on alert), supported the US proposed NATO blockade or “quarantine” as it was called, and agreed to aid the United States if an attack occurred.

The biggest source of contention, though, was likely Diefenbaker’s refusal to allow nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. This was also a position strongly supported by the New Democratic Party of the day.

On Oct. 24 there were questions in the House of Commons about whether Canada had defaulted on an obligation in respect to the NORAD treaty by refusing the request of the United States to arm Canadian Bomarc squadrons with atomic warheads. The Minister of Defence claimed there was no default of the treaty. It wasn’t until Pearson became Prime Minister in 1963 that Canadian missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.

DiefenbakerAgain, it may have been his dislike of Kennedy or a sense of nationalism and a need to stand up to the Americans that led to the decision. However, Diefenbaker’s words in an update to Parliament on Oct. 25 suggest it may have been an effort to keep the crisis from escalating.

“It has been necessary and will always remain necessary to weigh the risks both of action and inaction in such circumstances. I need not refer to the record of Canada in two world wars, in the NATO alliance and in Korea and demonstrating the fact that Canadians stand by their allies and their undertakings, and we intend in the present crisis to do the same. On the other hand, we shall not fail to do everything possible to seek solutions to these problems without war. We shall seek to avoid provocative action. Our purpose will be to do everything to reduce tension.” – Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, House of Commons, October 25, 1962.

In the end nuclear war was averted and the underground bunker (now known as the Diefenbunker) built 30 km outside of Ottawa from 1959 to 1961 and designed to withstand the force of a nuclear blast was never put to the test of protecting Canada’s leaders.

Canada’s actions or in the case of the warheads, lack of action, may not have changed the outcome of the crisis. I like to think, though, that the Canadian government’s responses did help maintain some form of equilibrium and calm. Perhaps in light of new nuclear threats from North Korea and the US pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, Canada will again find a way to act as a stabilizing force.

Want to learn more about Canada’s current policy around nuclear weapons? Check out some of these resources:

Project Ploughshares Factsheet on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

MCC Ottawa Office Notebook – Out of step with nuclear disarmament

Ploughshares Monitor Vol. 39 Issue 2 –  Statement to the 2018 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – Positions on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

– Monica Scheifele is the Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office

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