The Limits of Constraint: Canadian-American Relations and the Korean War, 1950-51

By Prince, Robert S. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Constraint: Canadian-American Relations and the Korean War, 1950-51


Prince, Robert S., Journal of Canadian Studies


Based on new research from documents in the National Archives of Canada and in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, this paper re - examines some of the key issues of Canadian - American diplomacy during the first seven months of the Korean War. Canadian foreign policy - makers faced several difficult decisions during that period. As Denis Stairs has observed, Canada wanted to restrict American actions in Korea; yet at the same time, Canada was itself constrained by the need to preserve unity among the Western allies, by the desire to safeguard Canadian influence in Washington for more vital issues, and by the shared Cold War assumptions which dominated both Canadian and American perceptions of events in Korea.

Cet article, base sur une documentation puisee dans les Archives Nationales du Canada et dans la serie Foreign Relations in the United States, examine de nouveau quelques - unes des questions cruciales de la politique canadienne - americaine durant les sept premiers mois de la guerre en Coree. Les responsables de la politique etrangere du Canada devaient faire face pendant cette periode a plusieurs decisions difficiles. Comme le fit remarquer Denis Stairs, le Canada voulait borner l'engagement americain en Coree mais en me@me temps le Canada fut contraint par le besoin de preserver l'unite des allies occidentaux, par le desir de sauvegarder l'influence canadienne a Washington dans des domaines d'importance plus cruciale, et par les positions partagees pendant la guerre froide qui influencerent fortement les perceptions canadienne et americaine des evenements en Coree.

It may seem carping and idle to concentrate on flaws in U.S. foreign policy when that of the U.S.S.R. can be damned practically in toto. But it is precisely the character of Soviet foreign policy that puts a premium on the soundness and wisdom of U.S. policy when the perils for the world in the struggle are considered.(f.1)

If you consider that the United States is proposing to do something unwise and dangerous, and not in the interests of world peace and world prosperity, how far do you go in standing Up to them and opposing them in public? You have to make this assessment, day after day, as you have to ask yourself: "Is the cost of opposition truly in the national interest of Canada?"(f.2)

Although the Korean War was fought under the banner of the United Nations, the ostensibly overwhelming predominance of American decision - makers has led most standard American history texts to treat the conflict as a purely American one. Even if one rejects this oversimplified American view, the central importance of US forces in nearly all aspects of the UN Korean effort is undeniable. For this reason, arty examination of why Canada entered the Korean War and the role our diplomats and foreign policy - makers intended Canada to play during the first seven months of the conflict cannot be isolated from the larger realm of Canadian - American relations. "Canada's relations with the United States are important enough at any time," wrote Blair Fraser in the fall of 1950, "but never in history have they been so important as now."(f.3) Despite Fraser's hyperbole, it was clear that Canada could not afford to look at the Far East without also looking south of the border.

The only book wholly devoted to the place of the Korean War in Canadian foreign policy contends that the most fundamental preoccupation of Canadian diplomacy during that period was to constrain or moderate American decisions concerning Korea, so that the conflict would not divert too much effort away from Europe, or degenerate into a full - scale world war.(f.4) The following brief essay is not intended to challenge directly or refute the central assumptions of this "constraint" thesis; instead, it seeks to limit or qualify the applicability of constraint as a theme of Canadian policy during the early war period. To be sure, Canada wanted to restrain the United States; at times, Canadian diplomats believed that they had to carp at the flaws in US policy in order to preserve world peace. …

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