Canadian Editorial Opinion and the 1963 Nuclear Weapon Acquisition Debate (1)

Article excerpt

Introduction and Historical Context

Canadians are currently engaged in a heated debate over the nature of their country's external policies, particularly related to continental defense arrangements with the United States. However, concer over such issues is not new. Past, present, and likely future debates over Canada's possible participation in American missile defense projects, for example, well illustrate the problem Canada faces when evolving strategic environments produce changes in American national security doctrine. At various stages throughout the history of Canada-U.S. relations, American security requirements have forced Ottawa to re-evaluate its military/security role in the world, in the process sparking national debates involving participants from the political elite to the average citizen. The debates engendered through policy revision have become even more fraught because Canadian concerns over national sovereignty are also raised. Anti-American sentiment, which invariably accompanies the sovereignty issue, makes the challenge before policy-makers daunting indeed. In such cases, Canadian officials seek to formulate policy that satisfies Washington, that is not perceived as destabilizing by other members of the international community, and also that assuages domestic anxiety about the unavoidable relationship with the U.S. During the Cold War, these challenges resulted in a contest between two often incompatible motives among Canadian policy-makers: to integrate militarily with the United States in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and to formulate foreign and defense policies which decreased global tension and promoted rapprochement between East and West. This paper focuses on one such instance--the acquisition of American nuclear warheads by Canadian forces in the early 1960s and the accompanying debate that polarized Canadian society.

In Canada, as elsewhere in the Western Alliance, the fear of nuclear war fluctuated as international relations shifted between periods of confrontation and compromise. During periods of tension, national debates over nuclear weapons, the arms race, and arms control and disarmament negotiations intensified; debate was most fervent when questions arose about Canada's contribution to the Western Alliance's nuclear deterrent. When the U.S. requested that Canada's armed forces assume nuclear roles in the late 1950s, for instance, a passionate and divisive debate ensued, becoming by early 1963 one of the most contentious foreign and defense policy discussions in the nation's history. Between January and March 1963, the question of whether Canada would acquire nuclear weapons for its armed forces as part of its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) dominated political debate and discourse.

Historians and political scientists have demonstrated how this issue polarized various groups in Canadian society from the political elite to the average voter. (2) This polarization produced serious consequences. Some scholars have concluded that the divisive public debate over nuclear weapons played a significant role in the Diefenbaker government's indecision and ultimate failure to develop a clear nuclear policy. (3) Scholars have not, however, analyzed the national print media, the principal arena in which the nuclear debate was fought. What analysis exists is minimal, focusing on a few national publications. Worse, the conclusions are misleading, arguing that the print media indeed supported a nuclear role. (4) In fact, editorial opinion was much more complex. An examination of twelve major Canadian newspapers highlights a sharply divided debate, with some publications in favor of a Canadian contribution to the Western nuclear deterrent and others adamantly opposed. (5)

At the same time, while the existing scholarship acknowledges that a national debate occurred over nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, the arguments used to support each side have not been closely examined. …


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