Academic journal article The Historian

Diefenbaker's World: One Canada and the History of Canadian-American Relations, 1961-63

Academic journal article The Historian

Diefenbaker's World: One Canada and the History of Canadian-American Relations, 1961-63

Article excerpt

THE PUBLISHING OF former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney (b.1939)'s memoirs in 2007 reopened old wounds for a number of those mentioned in the book, prompting prominent historian John English to note sagely of another Progressive Conservative premier: "'I'm afraid that no one takes Mr. Diefenbaker's memoirs ... as a serious document because it's so overwhelmed with bitterness.'" (1) A fiery populist, John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), Canada's head of government from 1957 to 1963, rose to power on a growing tide of nationalism--tinged with anti-Americanism--that was coming to prominence in Canada thanks to unease among Canadians over both US economic penetration of their country and American Cold-War rhetoric. Loved and reviled in equal measure during his raucous time in office, Diefenbaker used his memoirs, as memoirists are wont to do, to try to set the record straight and settle old scores. Issued in three volumes between 1975 and 1977, these memoirs, titled One Canada, provoked stinging responses. (2) A reviewer of the second volume judged it akin to the "Soviet Encyclopaedia [for, m]any of the facts are correct but the selection leads to different conclusions than those we remember reaching at the time." (3) Douglas Harkness (1903-99), whose resignation as Canadian defence minister in 1963 helped precipitate the political crisis that brought down Diefenbaker's government, was roundly criticised in the third volume, leading him to respond that the former premier's "'story is a combination of omissions, misrepresentations and fanciful inventions."' (4) Of the whole series, historian William Kilbourn noted on the occasion of Diefenbaker's death in 1979 that the books were a "'preposterous mixture of truisms and untruths."' (5)

It is a wonder, then, that, pace these judgments, many scholars, perhaps only seeking out colorful anecdotes, have used One Canada largely without being critical towards these works, forgetting, it seems, that memoirs must be treated with care. When it came to writing One Canada, John Diefenbaker definitely had axes to grind and a reputation to burnish, notably when it came to his handling of Canada-US relations from 1961 to 1963. One need not be a Liberal Party stalwart like English, or a spurned political opponent like Harkness, to see that that there are ample reasons to doubt the veracity of much of the content of Diefenbaker's works. "'My trouble,'" the former prime minister remarked to reporters whilst in the midst of finishing the third volume in 1976, "'is I never kept a diary. But the power of instantaneous recall is something that's not unhelpful."' (6) If that statement alone does not give one pause, then it is worth noting that John Munro, the ghostwriter of One Canada, pointed out that there is "much of value in the Diefenbaker memoirs, but that one had to proceed with caution when using them." (7) Underlining the need for caution, the following is an examination of how a number of incidents in Canadian-American relations during the latter years of Diefenbaker's premiership were treated in the former prime minister's memoirs and what the evidence available in archives in Canada and the United States tells us about what actually unfolded. Re-examining these cases shows that the historical record does not bear out the former prime minister's recollections of his dealings with the US government and President John F. Kennedy. Some historians, however, have been negligent in not treating One Canada with more scepticism and care.

Canadian historians are not fools, of course. Many, if not most, recognize that Diefenbaker was an erratic and even paranoid man, a recognition that is evident by the largely negative place that he occupies in the historiography. Indeed, the prime minister has been described as a "renegade in power," a "rogue Tory," and "a bit megalomaniacal, so paranoid, and almost certainly a bit mad." (8) Diefenbaker's character is important in understanding his political career and his subsequent reflections about it. …

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