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Military History

Honest John nuclear-armed surface-to-surface missile

DND Photo ZK-1926-2

An Honest John nuclear-armed surface-to-surface missile on its wheeled transporter in Germany.

Do We Want "Buckets of Instant Sunshine”? ~ Canada and Nuclear Weapons 1945-1984

by Matthew Trudgen

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The idea that Canada was once armed with nuclear weapons is a fact that would be a surprise to many Canadians, who think of their country as a nation best known for its tradition of peacekeeping, and for its work in the United Nations. Nuclear weapons are something that Canadians associate with superpowers like the United States, or dictators such as Kim Jong-il of North Korea. Nevertheless, from 1945 to 1984, Canada faced the issue of whether it should have nuclear weapons. In fact, in 1963, Canada decided to acquire these weapons to fulfil commitments that it had made to its allies, including the United States. However, in the late 1960s, the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau decided that it was no longer in Canada’s best interests to be a nuclear-armed nation. As a result, in July 1984, the last nuclear warheads available for use by the Canadian military were returned to the United States.

Throughout this period, Canada faced difficult choices. It was problematic, not only because of the resources that were dedicated to the program, but because many Canadian politicians, officials, and military officers had strong positions with respect to whether Canada should have nuclear weapons. As a result, these weapons became key elements in the debates over what kind of foreign policy the governments of the period wanted for the nation. For example, should Canada have strong ties with its alliance partners, or should it try to have a more independent foreign policy? Moreover, should Canada attempt to strengthen its military, or work to further the cause of nuclear disarmament? Faced with these problematic issues, each of these governments pursued policies that they thought were in the best of interests of the nation. Thus, Canada’s experience with nuclear weapons offers an excellent opportunity to learn lessons about the development of Canadian defence policy during the Cold War.

This article will argue that Canada’s policy with respect to nuclear weapons was very inconsistent, and it was largely influenced by personalities and perceptions of what kind of foreign and defence policy Canada should have. It will also demonstrate that Canada’s experience with nuclear weapons illustrates that it was only when Canadian politicians and officials asserted themselves in the policy process that difficult decisions were taken.

Canada’s First Encounter with Atomic Weapons: 1945

In 1945, Canada was in a unique position with respect to nuclear weapons. Because of its role in the Manhattan Project and a robust economy, Canada had the potential to develop its own atomic bomb. However, it chose not to do so. The decision came without any real debate within the bureaucracy and the Cabinet, but emerged in 1945, as the political scientist Jon McLin noted, as “…not so much by deliberate choice as by unconscious assumption.”1 Nevertheless, there were several reasons why Canada did not develop an atomic bomb at this time.

First, Canada had no overriding reason to develop atomic weapons. Unlike Great Britain, Canada had no desire to be a great power. Therefore, while the decision for Britain to develop an independent nuclear deterrent in the late 1940s was natural, it was equally true that Canada, a burgeoning middle power, should not wish to develop these weapons. Moreover, the Canadian government realized that it was under the protective umbrella provided by the American monopoly with respect to atomic weapons. Therefore, instead of producing an atomic bomb of its own, the government concluded that the best way to strengthen Canadian security was to continue to support the American atomic weapons program through exports of nuclear materials, such as uranium.2

During the period from 1945 to 1950, the Canadian government was also much more interested in spending money on the creation of the welfare state than on its armed forces. This attitude was reflected in a comment made by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at the end of the Second World War that it was time: “…[for] the old liberal principles of economy, reduction in taxation and anti-militarism.”3 As a result, the defence budget faced drastic cuts, and there were few resources available for a project such as an atomic bomb.4 This fact was recognized by the Canadian military and the new Minister of National Defence, Brooke Claxton, who believed that his mission was to ensure that the core capabilities of the armed forces would be maintained, so that it could expand again in the future if the need arose. Also, Dr. O.M. Solandt, who was appointed the Director General of Defence Research in 1946, argued that Canada needed to focus upon a few selective military projects, and should leave the delivery of atomic weapons to the United States.5

Finally, some Canadian leaders were troubled by the destructive power of the atomic bomb. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted that the bomb was like a ‘Frankenstein monster’ that could wreak havoc upon the world.6Lester Pearson, then Canadian Ambassador to the United States, was equally disturbed by the threat of a war with atomic weapons, and he became interested in international controls as a way to prevent a potential arms race. These perceptions did play a role in Canada not constructing an atomic bomb during this period; nevertheless, it should be noted that at no time was there ever any serious interest in stopping Canada’s support of the US nuclear weapons program.7Moreover, most of Canada’s work on arms control in the late 1940s and the 1950s was done as part of an effort to support the Western Alliance and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against the Soviet Union.

Reconsideration: 1953 – 1959

Therefore, for the time being, Canada had decided that it was not in its best interest to be a nuclear power. Instead, for variety of reasons, the Canadian government decided to rely upon the protection of the American nuclear deterrent. Nonetheless, beginning in the mid-1950s, the Canadian government began to rethink its position. Ironically again, there was no real debate over whether Canada should acquire nuclear weapons. There were also no attempts to formulate a White Paper on the subject.8In fact, political scientist Andrew Richter noted that the government did not even ask basic questions, such as, “…how Canada’s security interests would be affected by the acquisition.”9

One of the most important reasons for Canada’s interest was the evolution in nuclear weapon technology that had occurred by the mid 1950s. During this period, nuclear weapons had evolved from being large, unwieldy bombs that could be carried only by long-range bombers and used against cities, to smaller weapons that could be deployed both on the battlefield and for air defence.  Furthermore, this was the period when the idea of limited nuclear war emerged, and how ‘low yield’ tactical nuclear weapons could be used to stop Soviet aggression against Western Europe and around the world. These developments did not go unnoticed by Canada’s uniformed services and the Department of National Defence (DND). For example, Solandt argued in 1954, “…[that] it becomes increasingly obvious that that should there be another total war it will be predominantly atomic. It will not be many years before no first class armed force, no matter how small, will be able to engage in battle unless it has atomic weapons.”10

In particular, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) recognized the implications of these changes. Beginning in the late 1940s, Canada had begun to build up its air defences to counter the threat of Soviet intercontinental-range nuclear bombers. In addition, the RCAF had developed close ties with the United States Air Force (USAF) while constructing a continental air defence system to help protect North America. By the end of the 1950s, supporting this commitment increasingly meant acquiring nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles and the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that were entering service in the United States.11 Moreover, the RCAF had concluded during this period that the air defence role of the Canadian Air Division in Europe would have to be changed in order for it to maintain its effectiveness. In 1956, Air Marshal C.R. Slemon, then Chief of the Air Staff, suggested that one option would be to have Canadian aircraft carry small nuclear weapons in a ‘nuclear strike’ role. This comment foreshadowed Canada’s acceptance of the NATO nuclear strike/reconnaissance role in the late 1950s.12

Honest John in the launch position

DND Photo ZK-1926-3

This Honest John has been erected into the launch position.

Consequently, the Canadian military signed an agreement with the United States that allowed, “…[for the] training of personnel in the employment of and defence against atomic weapons.”13 Furthermore, in December 1956, the issue of acquiring nuclear weapons was discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee, which was informed that it was almost certain that the Americans would supply nuclear weapon systems to Canada. By March 1957, there were increasingly detailed discussions with respect to nuclear capable anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-surface missiles for Europe, and even nuclear torpedoes and depth charges for Canada’s maritime forces.14

Another reason for the shift in the Canadian position was the adoption of nuclear weapons by NATO in the 1950s. The NATO alliance had been established out of a fear that the Soviets were planning to invade Western Europe. However, it quickly became apparent, particularly after the failure to meet the conventional force goals of the Lisbon conference of 1952, that nuclear weapons were needed to defend Western Europe.15 Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson agreed, and he argued that the only way to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was through deterrence. And, given the relative weakness of conventional arms in NATO, deterrence had to be achieved through nuclear weapons. He added: “…we must … not lag behind in the development of knowledge and skill in the field of atomic energy,” and that “atomic retaliation from the air” was vital for the security of the West.16 In December 1954, Pearson, along with the rest of the NATO Council, supported Directive MC 4817 that authorized NATO forces to use nuclear weapons.18

Canada continued to support these policies under John Diefenbaker. In December 1957, the new prime minister attended the NATO Council meeting when Directive MC 14/2 was approved. It called for use of tactical nuclear weapons to stop the Soviet advance as far forward as possible in an effort to prevent too much NATO territory from being lost to the Soviets.19 Furthermore, the meeting approved Directive MC 48/2, which authorized NATO to plan for the use of nuclear weapons from the onset of a conflict. Consequently, by supporting these directives, Canada had become part of a de facto nuclear alliance. Indeed, Andrew Richter has speculated, many Canadian policymakers in the 1950s believed that NATO, by deciding to accept nuclear weapons, had made the decision for Canada.20 This belief was strengthened when, later in 1957, NATO recommended to Canada that its forces in Europe should be armed with nuclear weapons.21

The final reason for the change was that the Department of External Affairs did not actively oppose the acquisition of nuclear weapons in this period. This decision was due to the fact that the department believed these weapons encouraged stability in the world by deterring Soviet aggression. Therefore, until 1959, none of the Secretaries of State for External Affairs, including Pearson and Sydney Smith, opposed the idea that Canada should be armed with nuclear weapons.22

Thus, the decision to acquire nuclear weapons appeared inevitable. In late 1958, the Cabinet authorized the armed forces to begin negotiations with the United States, and in February 1959, Prime Minister Diefenbaker made a speech that appeared to indicate that Canada would soon obtain nuclear weapons. This was the address in which he announced both the cancellation of the Avro Arrow interceptor aircraft, and the purchase of the Boeing IM-99B Bomarc anti-bomber guided missile for air defence. He argued: “…[that] the full potential of these defensive weapons is achieved only when they are armed with nuclear weapons,” and he closed the speech with a remark that challenged the members of the government, “…[to] recognize the gravity of the decisions that we are called upon to make.”23 The Minister of National Defence, George Pearkes, VC, added in the House of Commons in July 1959 that the Canadian government had begun negotiations to acquire nuclear warheads from the United States.24

PM John Diefenbaker and MND George Pearkes VC

DND photo 395-IMG0086

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (centre right) and Minister of National Defence George Pearkes VC at the Royal Military College of Canada, 1959.

Furthermore, in May 1959, when the Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, General Lauris Norstad, recommended that Canada should support the alliance’s strike/reconnaissance mission, the government accepted the assignment and purchased the CF-104 Starfighter for the role. As this mission involved nuclear weapons, it was another indication to Canada’s allies that it was ready to acquire these weapons, even if the government publicly did not state so at that time.25 Finally, by 1961, Canada had purchased an extensive armoury of weapons that used nuclear warheads that not only included the Bomarc and the Starfighter, but also the Honest John surface-to-surface missile, and the CF-101 Voodoo fighter/interceptor.26

A Renewed Debate and Then Acceptance: 1959 – 1968

Thus, for a number of reasons, primarily due to its defence ties to the United States and to NATO, by the late 1950s Canada had committed to being armed with nuclear weapons. However, just when Canada was prepared to obtain the warheads from the United States, the consensus on their acquisition began to break down. The reason was that the new Secretary of State for External Affairs, Howard Green, and his under-secretary, Norman Robertson, began to raise objections to this policy direction. Green was horrified by the prospect of nuclear war, and, from the moment he took over External Affairs, he began a crusade for global nuclear disarmament. He had no faith that deterrence would prevent a conflict between the superpowers, and asserted to the Cabinet: “…[that] a nuclear war would be quite unlike any wars previously known, it would destroy civilization.”27 Robertson also believed that the policy of deterrence “was a sad comment on our generation to envisage the possibility of global suicide.”28

Under Green’s and Robertson’s leadership, External Affairs developed its case against acquiring nuclear weapons. Their most important argument related to the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in preserving stability between East and West. Whereas, in the 1950s, External Affairs had argued that they were a source of stability, by the early 1960s it stressed that these weapons caused instability because of the “virtual certainty of their use.” The department argued that, for the sake of the world, Canada needed to take a principled stand against nuclear weapons, despite the commitments that it had made to its allies. Therefore, Canada would set a good example for the rest of the world to follow, and would improve the prospects for nuclear disarmament.29

Faced with this challenge, the Department of National Defence scrambled to formulate its own case for acquiring nuclear weapons. DND contended that Canada needed to fulfil its international commitments, since Canada had supported NATO directives that “…presume a Canadian policy to acquire nuclear weapons, and the absence of a decision to implement such a policy is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.” The department later stated that the “…neglect of our NATO and NORAD commitments in this context almost amount to Canadian unilateral disarmament.”30 The Canadian strategist R.J. Sutherland wrote the definitive statement of DND’s position in 1963. First, he argued that if Canada did not acquire nuclear weapons, it would be breaking commitments that it had made to its allies, and would thus lose influence with them. He also questioned the point of Canada renouncing nuclear weapons while remaining in an alliance that would continue to be nuclear armed, because nuclear weapons were considered the cornerstone for the defence of Western Europe. He added that all this direction from Canada would achieve would be to complicate planning for the alliance, and he concluded by asking: “Can we combine full membership in a nuclear alliance with a policy of extreme nuclear squeamishness?”31

Caught in the middle of this debate was Prime Minister Diefenbaker. At first, in the late 1950s, he was in favour of Canada being armed with nuclear weapons, and he was supportive of Canada fulfilling the commitments it had made to its allies. However, over time, his position began to shift. One reason was the influence that Green had upon Diefenbaker’s thinking, since Green was a long-time supporter of Diefenbaker, and he used his regular weekend meetings with the prime minister to impress upon him the dangers of nuclear war. Diefenbaker also increasingly embodied the anti-American feelings that had risen up in Canada during the early 1960s. In particular, his strong resentment of President John F. Kennedy had contributed to these beliefs. Consequently, as the Kennedy administration was pressuring Canada to accept the weapons, these perceptions encouraged Diefenbaker to reconsider his options.32 Furthermore, the issue of who would control the weapons based in Canada troubled him. He was convinced of the need to ensure that the Americans would not fire the weapons without the consent of the Canadian government in order to prevent rash decisions with respect to their employment.33 These feelings were reinforced by his perception of the lack of consultation with Canada by the Kennedy Administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.34/p>

Thus, Diefenbaker increasingly looked for ways out of his predicament. One possible direction that appealed to him was that Canada would not make a final decision while disarmament talks at the United Nations continued. Moreover, he looked for a compromise that would allow him to meet Canada’s commitments to its allies, without actually having to accept the weapons on Canadian soil. One example was an External Affairs proposal that the warheads would be kept in the United States and would only be transported to Canada during a crisis.35 The Department of National Defence warned Diefenbaker that such plans were not practical; nonetheless, the PM would not be swayed. He also refused to make a final decision, even when some of the weapons systems – notably the Bomarc – were fitted with only ballast for warheads thereby making them useless. However, while Diefenbaker struggled to make up his mind, his indecision began to frustrate the Kennedy Administration.

Boeing IM99B Bomarc

DND photo 895-IMG0056

A Boeing IM99B Bomarc nuclear-armed anti-bomber surface-to-air missile.

This rift was not over the military value of the nuclear air defence weapons that the Canadians had acquired, since these weapons were no longer considered very important in American defence planning, due to the onset of the age of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The issue for the Americans was that the Canadian government was failing to meet the commitments that it had made to help protect the American nuclear deterrent. The administration’s frustration was compounded by Green’s rhetoric with respect to disarmament, by Kennedy’s dislike of Diefenbaker, and, most importantly, by Diefenbaker’s refusal to place Canadian forces on alert for a 48-hour period during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. As a result, by December 1962, negotiations on this issue between the American and Canadian governments had reached a deadlock.36

Diefenbaker did not just have to worry about the Kennedy administration, because he had other problems. For example, in early 1963, General Norstad, the former Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, stated at a press conference in Ottawa that Canada was not living up to its NATO commitments, since it had not yet armed its forces with nuclear weapons.37 Moreover, it was at this moment that Lester Pearson made his dramatic entry onto the scene. He had previously echoed the position of the Liberal Policy Conference of 1961 that Canada would not accept nuclear weapons for its NORAD forces, and would only accept these weapons for its NATO contingent if they were under NATO control. However, despite this public stance, he had privately begun to reconsider his options. For example, in 1962, the Liberal Defence critic, Paul Hellyer, wrote a memorandum to Pearson after his visit to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Hellyer argued that Canada needed to accept the weapons or it would lose influence in NATO and face the reduction or termination of defence-sharing agreements with the United States. Nonetheless, Pearson was torn between Canada’s responsibilities to collective defence and the obligation to help stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.38

Air Staff Air Marshal Hugh Campbell, USAF General Curtis LeMay, and Prime Milister John DiefenbakerDND photo 852-IMG0042

RCAF Chief of the Air Staff Air Marshal Hugh Campbell, USAF General Curtis LeMay, and Prime Milister John Diefenbaker in conference.

Ultimately, Pearson decided to accept the weapons. After due deliberation, he had been convinced by Hellyer that the Liberal Party would benefit politically if it changed its position on the issue.39 Furthermore, he realized that Canada would have to fulfil its nuclear weapon commitments if its influence with its allies was to be maintained. Indeed, Pearson was particularly focused upon the need to repair Canada’s relations with the United States. Therefore, on 12 January 1963, without consulting his caucus, he issued a statement in which he asserted, “…[that] as a Canadian I am ashamed if we accept commitments and then refuse to discharge them.”40 He added that Canada would, however, negotiate with its allies in due course to end its nuclear role. Diefenbaker responded to Pearson with a highly convoluted address in the House of Commons on 25 January 1963 that referred to a communiqué produced after his meeting with Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Nassau in December 1962.41 However, on 30 January, Diefenbaker’s position was directly contradicted by a press release by the US State Department that severely damaged his credibility. Diefenbaker’s position was further undermined when then Minister of National Defence, Douglas Harkness, resigned in protest of Diefenbaker’s indecision. The result was that the government lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons on 5 February 1963. During the election that followed, Diefenbaker openly opposed Canada’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but, despite his best efforts, Pearson emerged with a minority government.42

After the election, Pearson ventured down to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to meet with John F. Kennedy. Pearson’s decision to accept the weapons had already made a difference, as Kennedy had sent a message “…[that] the early establishment of close relations between your administration and ours is a matter of43 At the meeting, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, Charles Ritchie, noted that the atmosphere “…was tinged with euphoria. The atmosphere was that of clearing skies after a storm – the clouds of suspicion covering Canada-U.S. Relations had parted, the sunshine of friendship shone.”44 Historian John English stated in his biography of Pearson that at the meeting “…there were jokes; but there was also much business … Officials began to talk again, confident of their superiors’ support, and several agreements began to take form dealing with the Colombia River, automobile trade and production.”45 Following the meeting, on 20 May 1963, the House of Commons narrowly voted to approve the acquisition of nuclear warheads.46 With this move, Pearson had achieved his primary goal of getting the nuclear weapons issue off the table, and, with this issue settled, Canada and the United States could move on to other matters, such as the creation of the Auto Pact in 1965.47

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau inspects cadetsDND photo 1031-IMG0017

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau inspects cadets at the 25th anniversary of the Collège Militaire Royal du Canada in 1977.

Trudeau and the End of the Nuclear Role: 1968 - 1984

In the wake of Pearson’s decision, it seemed that the nuclear issue had been settled for many years. For example, the 1964 Defence White Paper commissioned under the new Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer, stated that because NATO was armed with nuclear weapons, Canada had to “…share in that responsibility [as] a necessary commitment of Canada’s membership” in the alliance. The White Paper added that nuclear weapons were a necessary component of the air defence forces under the control of NORAD.48 However, the nuclear issue had not been permanently settled by Pearson’s decision. One factor was that public support for Canada having nuclear weapons had dropped from 54.4 percent in November 1962 to 34.4 percent by June 1966.49Within Pearson’s Cabinet there were also opponents of Canada’s nuclear commitment, including Pierre Trudeau and the former Minister of Finance, Walter Gordon. However, it was not until the election of Trudeau as prime minister in 1968 that Canadian policy on nuclear weapons was seriously reconsidered. Trudeau had not only opposed Canada’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1963, but he believed that Canada’s entire foreign policy needed to be re-examined. During his campaign for the Liberal Party leadership, he stated that Canadian foreign policy “…[was based on] pre-war premises or immediate post-war premises … [and that a] complete reassessment is needed.”50 Therefore, as soon as he became prime minister, he ordered full reviews of both defence policy and foreign policy, including Canada’s possession of nuclear weapons.51

Trudeau would later claim that he was trying to conduct an honest reassessment of Canadian foreign policy. As he asserted in a interview in January 1969: “Look, go back to first questions – we don’t want to know first if aircraft A is better than aircraft B, we want to know if we should have aircraft, and if neutrality isn’t better than entanglement in a defence alliance and so on.”52 Nevertheless, despite this claim, Trudeau came into office with his own set of preconceived notions with respect to Canadian foreign and defence policy, and those were not favourable to Canada having nuclear weapons.

Trudeau’s position was further influenced by advice he received from one of his foreign policy advisors, Ivan Head, a former diplomat and law professor who had first met Trudeau in discussions over constitutional matters. Head was particularly scornful of the ‘conventional’ or ‘establishment’ thinking he felt existed within the Departments of External Affairs and National Defence, and he considered himself an iconoclast on subjects such as NATO. He also believed that the stockpiling of armaments had never led to peace.53 However, Robert Ford, a Canadian diplomat, later noted that Head was overly pro-Soviet for his time, and that he had sought to downplay the Soviet threat.54 Therefore, when the Canadian Special Task Force on Europe (STAFEUR)55> and the defence policy review failed, in Trudeau's mind, to provide sufficient grounds to reconsider Canadian policy, the prime minister turned to Head for a critical response. Head’s report called for the elimination of nuclear weapons from Canada’s forces in Europe. In particular, he stressed that Canada’s force of CF-104 Starfighters was destabilizing to the strategic balance between East and West because these aircraft were a soft target vulnerable to Soviet attack, and they were only credible to the Soviets as a first strike system. As a result, it was the duty of the Canadian government to withdraw its aircraft from this role. While this report officially was disavowed by Trudeau, under pressure from the Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, and the Minister of National Defence, Leo Cadieux, it reflected the thinking of Trudeau and many of his ministers.56

PM Trudeau and CDS General DextraseDND photo 674-IMG0038

Chief of the Defence Staff General Jacques Dextrase (left) and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in a relaxed setting.

The stage was set for the Cabinet meeting of 29-30 April 1969, where it quickly became apparent to the ministers who believed in a more traditional policy, such as Sharp and Cadieux, that the status quo in Canadian foreign and defence policy was under attack. Trudeau set the tone for the meeting by arguing that the security of Western Europe should be the responsibility of the Europeans, and that Canada should focus upon defending the American deterrent and Canadian internal security. He added that Canada should ensure the defence of Canadian territory before considering other international commitments. Bolstered by this meeting, and Head’s briefing paper, Trudeau was successful in creating conditions under which Canadian policy would be vigorously debated and questioned. As Paul Hellyer later noted, Head’s policy paper was really “advice” from Trudeau for the Cabinet, and that Trudeau was leading the discussion so that the Cabinet would reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to him. This meant that Canada’s conventional contribution to NATO was seriously questioned, and that the nuclear commitment was a ‘non-starter.’57

The result of this process was the announcement that along with a unilateral reduction of its conventional forces from Europe, Canada would now have a non-nuclear role in the alliance. The Honest John nuclear artillery weapons systems were retired, and the Starfighters were withdrawn from the nuclear strike/reconnaissance role and placed in a conventional ground attack role in 1972.58 While Trudeau and his supporters were pleased with this outcome, Canada’s European NATO allies were disquieted, since they relied upon Canadian nuclear weapons to help counter a Soviet attack. For example, in 1969, Canada’s Starfighters had made up 20 percent of the nuclear capable aircraft available to the alliance.59 As a result of this action, many Canadian diplomats and politicians have argued that Canada had done long-term damage to its influence in the alliance, and in Europe generally. For instance, Ross Campbell, a Canadian NATO official argued “…[that] the throwing away of the nuclear responsibility, unilaterally, not in concert with our allies has severely undermined our voice in NATO.”60 Mitchell Sharp also noted that the decision had weakened Canada’s influence with its European allies, and was still being felt even during Trudeau’s peace initiative of the 1980s.61 Moreover, it should be noted that Canada’s decision to withdraw its nuclear weapons from NATO did little, if anything, to change the nuclear balance between East and West. NATO continued to rely upon nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because Europeans believed that these weapons represented the best and most cost-effective way to accomplish such deterrence. Thus, despite Canada’s decision, tactical nuclear weapons delivery systems such as the Starfighter would remain in Europe, albeit for Canada in a conventional attack role.

CF-104 StarfighterDND photo

A CF-104 Starfighter heading off to work, this one in the photo-reconnaissance role.

After Trudeau’s government had switched to a non-nuclear role in NATO, it still faced the question of what to do with Canada’s two home-based nuclear weapons, the Bomarc SAM and the Genie air-to-air missile, which armed the interceptor forces. In 1972, it was decided to scrap the Bomarc because of doubts with respect to its effectiveness and as part of the effort to reduce defence costs.62 However, Canada kept its other nuclear system, the Genie, until 1984, because the 1971 Defence White Paper noted “…[that] there is at present no alternative to equipping the CF-101s with nuclear weapons … Only with such weapons would they have a reasonable prospect of destroying attacking bombers.”63 In fact, it was only after the replacement of the CF-101s with CF-18 Hornets in 1984 that Canada finally returned its last nuclear warheads to the United States.


From the mid 1940s to the early 1980s, successive Canadian governments dealt with the issue of whether Canada should have nuclear weapons, and the results were anything but consistent. This held true because these policies were dependent upon the perceptions of Canada’s role in the world as held by different personalities within these governments, and as these personalities and governments changed, so did the policies. Nevertheless, the question must still be asked as to what the Canadian Forces can draw from this experience. This author believes that the ultimate lesson is that, in a fluid and changing world, most Canadian governments will be reluctant to take hard positions on Canadian defence issues. Instead, they will generally choose to let policy drift until a given situation clarifies itself. The only exceptions have been incidences, such as with Pearson in 1963 and Trudeau in 1969, when individual Canadian personalities asserted themselves, given that they held particularly strong positions on the issues at hand. However, as it has been advanced in this article, even those periods of assertiveness were followed by periods of drift. Thus, if the past holds any lessons, it is likely that in the future, the Canadian Forces will face a complicated policy environment littered with questions that have no clear or easy answers.

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Matthew Trudgen is a PhD student in history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His thesis examines the interplay of different conceptions of the Canadian national interest, and the Canadian-American relationship in the development of the North American air defence system from 1949 to 1956.


  1. Jon McLin, Canada’s Changing Defense Policy, 1957-1963 The Problems of a Middle Power in Alliance (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1967), p. 125.
  2. Brian Buckley, Canada’s Early Nuclear Policy Fate, Chance, and Character (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), p. 131; Joseph Levitt, Pearson and Canada’s Role in Nuclear Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations, 1945-1957 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), p. 76; James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada Growing Up Allied (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), p. 234.
  3. Quoted in Joseph Jockel, No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States and the Origins of North American Air Defence (Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press, 1987), p. 14.
  4. Buckley, p. 136.
  5. Ibid., pp. 65-67. In the late 1940s, the RCAF gave up the strategic bombing role in order to concentrate its resources in air defence and reconnaissance. Andrew Richter, Avoiding Armageddon: Canadian Military Strategy and Nuclear Weapons, 1950-63 (Toronto: UBC Press, 2002), pp. 16-17.
  6. Richter, pps. 36, 53, 139.
  7. Ibid., pps. 47, 53-54; James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada Volume II: Peacemaking and Deterrence (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 278.
  8. There was not to be a Canadian Defence White Paper until 1964. The only policy statements that were released were “…simple pronouncements of the status quo.” Canada’s National Defence Volume 1 Defence Policy. Douglas Bland (ed.) (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), p. XI.
  9. Richter, p. 150.
  10. Quoted in Buckley, pp. 112-113.
  11. Melvin Conant, The Long Polar Watch: Canada and the Defence of North America (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1962), p. 96; David Cox, Canada and NORAD 1958-1978: A Cautionary Retrospective (Toronto: The Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, 1985), p. 42
  12. Richter, p. 84.
  13. Buckley, p. 128.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Richter, pp. 82-84.
  16. Pearson quoted in Levitt, 68.
  17. MC 48 was titled “‘The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength in the Next Few Years.’” Richter, p. 80. MC stands for Military Committee. Erika Simpson, NATO and the Bomb: Canadian Defenders Confront Critics (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), p. 26.
  18. Eayrs, pp. 264-265; Levitt, pp. 69-70. Pearson from time to time questioned this approach, and, in particular, its application by the Americans through a strategy of “Massive Retaliation.” However, he recognized that there was no real alternative if a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was to be prevented.
  19. Simpson, p. 102; McLin, p. 134. MC 14/2 was titled “The Overall Strategic Concept for the Defence of the NATO Area.” Richter, pp. 80-81.
  20. Simpson, pp. 102-103; Denis Smith, Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker (Toronto: McFarlane Walter & Ross, 1995), p. 302. MC 48/2 was titled “Minimum Force Requirements for 1958-1963.” Richter, pp. 81-82.
  21. Simpson, p. 134; McLin, p. 213.
  22. Richter, p. 99.
  23. Diefenbaker cited in McLin, p. 135.
  24. Conant, p. 103.
  25. Simpson, pp. 105-107; Richter, p. 87.
  26. Simpson, pp. 105-110.
  27. Quoted in Simpson, pps. 175, 179.
  28. Quoted in Norman Hillmer and Jack Granatstein, Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World to the 1990s (Toronto: Copp Clark Longman Ltd, 1994), pp. 247-248.
  29. Richter, pp. 99-100, pp. 103-104.
  30. Quoted in Ibid., pps. 89, 91.
  31. Quoted in Ibid., pp. 94-95.
  32. Simpson, pp. 115-118.
  33. Ibid., p. 161. Ironically, the American ‘two key control method’ would have done this, since a Canadian officer would have to turn a key along with his American counterpart in order for the weapon to be fired. McLin, pp. 141-142.
  34. Simpson, p. 140.
  35. Ibid., p. 169.
  36. Richter, p. 101.
  37. McLin, p. 159.
  38. John Clearwater, Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada’s Nuclear Arsenal (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1998), p. 29; John English, The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson Volume II: 1949-1972 (Toronto: Random House, 1992), p. 249.
  39. Simpson, p. 19.
  40. Quoted in Ibid., p. 50.
  41. Diefenbaker concluded from the communiqué that Canada’s nuclear role in Europe was placed in doubt by discussions over a new NATO Multinational Nuclear Force. Hillmer and Granatstein, pp. 261-262; Richter, pps. 101, 186-187.
  42. It stated that the Nassau Conference did not call into question Canada’s NATO or NORAD commitments. It added that the Canadians had not proposed anything that would improve the defence of North America. Simpson, pp. 123-124; Hillmer and Granatstein, p. 262.
  43. Quoted in Hillmer and Granatstein, p. 266.
  44. Charles Ritchie, Storm Signals: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1962-1971 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1983).
  45. English, p. 270.
  46. Hillmer and Granatstein, p. 266.
  47. Greg Donaghy, Tolerant Allies: Canada and the United States (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), pps. 11-113, 177.
  48. White Paper on Defence  (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1964), p. 13.
  49. Donaghy, p. 114.
  50. Quoted in Ibid., p. 121.
  51. John G.H. Halstead, “Canada and European Security, 1950-1990,” in Fifty Years of Canada-United States Defense Cooperation: The Road From Ogdensburg, Joel J. Sokolsky and Joseph T. Jockel (eds.) (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1993), p. 132.
  52. Quoted in Granatstein and Bothwell, p. 12.
  53. Simpson, p. 216.
  54. Granatstein and Bothwell, p. 20.
  55. STAFEUR was headed by the Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Robert Ford, and Paul Tremblay, the Canadian Ambassador to Belgium. The report argued that Canada should remain a member of NATO and continue to have forces stationed in Europe. Granatstein and Bothwell, pp. 14-19; Hillmer and Granatstein, p. 287.
  56. Granatstein and Bothwell, pp. 86-87.
  57. Ibid., pp. 23-24.
  58. This was done as soon as it could be agreed upon with Canada’s NATO partners. It should be noted that Canadian commanders could still call upon fire support in the form of nuclear weapons, as long as those weapons were fired by other NATO allies. Granatstein and Bothwell, pps. 29, 93.
  59. Roy Rempel, Counterweights: The Failure of Canada’s German and European Policy, 1955-1995 (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), p. 130.
  60. Ibid., p. 138; Simpson, p. 188.
  61. Rempel, p. 55.
  62. The American Bomarc batteries were also decommissioned during this period. Clearwater, p. 58.
  63. Defence in the 1970s. (Ottawa: Information Canada, 1971), p. 30.

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