The Cold War refers to the period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, during which the world was largely divided into two ideological camps — the United States-led capitalist “West” and the Soviet-dominated communist “East.” The former included Canada, as its government structure, politics, society, and popular perspectives aligned with those in the US, Britain, and other free democratic countries. The global US-Soviet struggle took many different forms and touched many areas, but never became “hot” through direct military confrontation between the two main antagonists.
The Cold War was rooted in the collapse of the American-British-Soviet alliance that defeated the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War. Already divided ideologically and deeply suspicious of the other side’s world plans, American and British diplomatic relations with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union severely cooled after the war, over several items. In particular, the Soviets placed and kept local communist parties in power as puppet governments in once-independent countries across Eastern Europe, without due democratic process. This situation led former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill to state in 1946 that an “iron curtain” had descended across the European continent.
That same year, the Canadian government revealed that it had given political asylum to Igor Gouzenko, who, in September 1945, as a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, had stolen documents showing Soviet spies at work in American, British, and Canadian government and scientific departments. This event brought home the new world reality to Canadians. The following year, in 1947, American financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch aptly observed in a speech that, "we are today in the midst of a cold war."
The Deep Freeze
The period 1947-1953 became the Cold War’s “deep freeze,” as East-West negotiations on the future of Europe broke down and stopped. The international climate worsened with several high-profile events. Canadians were involved in some of them, including the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a western security pact designed to defend Western Europe against Soviet invasion, and in which Canada was a member; and the Korean War (1950-1953) in which Canadian forces fought with the United Nations against communist North Korean and Chinese forces supported by the Soviets.
As the Gouzenko affair showed, the Cold War was felt as much at home as abroad. There were communist “witch hunts” in Canadian government and society as in the US, perhaps more subdued, but with real consequences. Communists were identified and purged from trade unions while Canadian diplomats with allegedly questionable loyalties were put under suspicion. Tragically, diplomat Herbert Norman committed suicide in 1957 after almost a decade of various accusations and investigations by American intelligence agencies into his supposed communist associations, which remain shrouded in mystery and are still debated by scholars today.
Canada and the Cold War
Serious East-West diplomatic discussions resumed after the death of Stalin in 1953, but international tensions remained high for the next several decades. On a global scale, Canada contributed armed forces to peacekeeping operations throughout the world, including in areas divided between communist and anti-communist factions. Canadian political and military leaders, who at times critiqued American actions against communism in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, still prepared for possible war against the Soviets in Europe. The Canadian NATO commitment on the continent included an army brigade group in West Germany and air force fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. For both Canada’s government and its people, the fear of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union remained ever-present throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Canadians were active at various levels in trying to avoid such a calamity.
The Cold War began winding down in the late 1980s amid uncompromising anti-Soviet policies by the US, coupled with new efforts at openness by the Soviet leadership, and a surge of freedom movements inside the European communist states. This culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1990 (which had separated West and East Germany since 1961) and the fall of the Soviet Union the following year.