Canada and the Cold War

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.” Canada aligned with the West, as its government structure, politics, society and popular perspectives matched those in the US, Britain, and other 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.


Gouzenko, Igor
Igor Gouzenko on television, 1966. Over half of the convictions under the Official Secrets Act were a result of Gouzenko's defection (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-129625).

Beginnings

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 on 5 March 1946 that an “iron curtain” had descended across the European continent.

Gouzenko Affair

In February 1946, the Canadian government revealed that it had given political asylum to Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk stationed at the Soviet Union’s Ottawa embassy. Just weeks after the end of the Second World War, Gouzenko left the embassy with documents that proved his country had been spying on its wartime allies: Canada, Britain and the United States. According to the documents, the Soviet embassy was home to several spies connected to agents in Montreal, the United States and the United Kingdom who had been providing Moscow with classified information.

DID YOU KNOW?
In 1947, American financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch coined the phrase Cold War to describe the relationship between the US and Soviet Union. “Let us not be deceived,” he said, “we are today in the midst of a Cold War. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success.”

These revelations caused a potentially dangerous international crisis. Canadians targeted by Soviet espionage worked in sensitive positions and were privy to diplomatic, scientific and military secrets, including highly classified information concerning research on radar, code-breaking and the atomic bomb. Gouzenko’s exposure of a Soviet spy network in the West is considered by several historians and critics to mark the beginning of the Cold War era and to have set the stage for the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

The Gouzenko affair, as it was known, led to widespread investigations in Canada, the US and Great Britain. In Canada, investigations led to the arrests of 39 suspects of whom 18 were convicted. Some of the most high-profile Canadians who were convicted included Fred Rose, who was a member of Parliament, Sam Carr of the labor-Progressive Party (see Communist Party of Canada), and Canadian Army Captain Gordon Lunan.

Cold War Deep Freeze

The period 1947 to 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 (1950–53) in which Canadian forces fought with the United Nations against communist North Korean and Chinese forces supported by the Soviets.


NATO

In the late 1940s, Ottawa and other Western capitals watched with concern as the Soviet Union created a buffer zone in eastern Europe — the “iron curtain” — between itself and West Germany by imposing its will on East Germany, Poland and other nations along the Soviet border. The USSR pursued a policy of aggressive military expansion at home and subversion abroad, and there was real fear that France, Italy or other nations might become communist and eventually ally themselves with the Soviets.

In response, Western allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. At the core of the treaty was a security provision, which state that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” NATO was Canada’s first peacetime military alliance. Signed on 4 April 1949, it included 11 other nations: the United States, Iceland, Britain, France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal and Italy ( see North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

Korean War

NATO existed as largely a paper alliance until the Korean War, the first major conflict of the Cold War. It led the NATO states — many of them fighting in Korea under the banner of the United Nations — to build up their military forces generally. For Canada, this had major consequences: a huge increase in the defence budget and eventually, the return of troops to Europe. By the mid-1950s about 10,000 Canadian troops were stationed in France and West Germany.

Patrol in Korea
Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry returning from patrol in Korea, 1951.
(courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-128073)

More than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea, during both the combat phase and as peacekeepers afterward. The last Canadian soldiers left Korea in 1957. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 Canadians and wounding more than 1,200.

Arctic Sovereignty

Amid fears of Soviet aggression, the United States heightened its military capabilities in the Arctic, posing a potential threat to Canadian claims to the North (see Canadian Arctic Sovereignty). The Department of Resources and Development, which oversaw Inuit affairs at the time, decided to populate Ellesmere and Cornwallis islands with Inuit, even though the areas were devoid of human population.

DID YOU KNOW?
The current iteration of the Canadian Rangers was established in 1947, when Cold War tensions brought unprecedented attention to the Canadian North. In the decades that followed, the Rangers developed as a sub-component of the Canadian Army Reserve.

In 1953 and 1955, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acting as representatives of the Department of Resources and Development, moved approximately 92 Inuit from Inukjuak, formerly called Port Harrison, in Northern Quebec, and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), in what is now Nunavut, to settle two locations on the High Arctic islands (see Inuit High Arctic Relocations). 

Inuit Relocations
Kyak family from Pond Inlet, Nunavut on board the C.G.S. C.D. Howe at Grise Fiord. Back row, left to right: Moses Kyak, Lazarus Kyak, Mary (née Panigusiq) Cousins, Letia carrying Elizabeth in the amauti, and Leah. Front row, left to right: David, Carmen, Timothy, and Lily.
(courtesy Health Canada / Library and Archives Canada / e002216381)

Domestic Concerns

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.

Cold War LGBTQ Purge

Between the 1950s and 1990s, the Canadian government responded to national security concerns generated by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union by spying on, exposing and removing suspected LGBTQ individuals from the federal public service and the Canadian Armed Forces. They were cast as social and political subversives and seen as targets for blackmail by communist regimes seeking classified government information. These characterizations were justified by arguments that people who engaged in same-sex relations suffered from a “character weakness” and had something to hide because their sexuality was not only considered a taboo but, under certain circumstances, was illegal in Canada. As a result, the RCMP investigated large numbers of people, many of whom were fired, demoted or forced to resign — even if they had no access to security information. These measures were kept out of public view to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps (see Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service).

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.

DID YOU KNOW?
By the 1950s, there was a growing concern that Soviet bombers would attack North America from the Canadian Arctic. In fact, NATO intelligence suggested that such an attack could occur as early as 1954. In response, in 1953–54, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) commissioned Avro to design and build the Arrow: an all-weather nuclear interceptor meant to fly higher and faster than any aircraft in its class (see Avro Arrow). 

A crowd of people gathered on tarmac around the Avro Arrow at its unveiling in 1957.

Unveiling of the Avro Arrow in 1957 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-210520)


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.

NORAD

On 1 August 1957, the Canadian and American governments announced they would integrate their air-defence forces under a joint command called the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). At this stage in the Cold War, both Canada and the US feared long-range Soviet attack. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the United States Air Force (USAF) would work together to ensure continental protection.

DID YOU KNOW?
The “Diefenbunker” is an underground bunker designed to withstand the force of a nuclear blast. It was built between 1959 and 1961 in Carp, Ontario, during a peak in  Cold War tensions, and named after then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. It is now the location of Canada’s Cold War Museum (see Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum).

SAGE "Blue Room" in NORAD underground complex at Canadian Forces Base North Bay, Ontario, 8 December 1972.
(courtesy J. Mercier/Library and Archives Canada/e010858630)

Bomarc Missile Crisis

In late 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government announced an agreement with the US to deploy American “Bomarc” antiaircraft missiles in Canada. This controversial defence decision was one of many flowing from the 1957 NORAD agreement.

Some argued that the missiles would be an effective replacement for the Avro Arrow, which the Diefenbaker government scrapped in early 1959. The missiles would theoretically intercept any Soviet attacks on North America before they reached the industrial heartland of Canada (see Civil Defence).

Bomarc Missile
The decision of the Conservative government in 1958 to cancel the Avro Arrow and deploy two squadrons of the American Bomarc missile caused a crisis in Canadian defence policy.
(courtesy Canadian Aviation Museum)

However, the government did not make it clear that the missiles would be fitted with nuclear warheads. When this came to light in 1960, a dispute erupted as to whether Canada should adopt nuclear weapons. In the end, the the Liberal government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson decided to accept the nuclear warheads in 1963 (see Bomarc Missile Crisis).

Cuban Missile Crisis

On 15 October 1962, an American spy plane discovered that Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba — considered a threat to the United States and Canada. Although Canadian forces were placed on heightened alert during the crisis that followed, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s hesitant response aggravated US President John F. Kennedy, and fuelled already difficult relations between Canada and the US in the 1960s. While the crisis brought the world to the edge of nuclear war, it ended on 28 October, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the Soviet missiles in return for Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba (see Cuban Missile Crisis).

Fall of the Soviet Union

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.


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