“No Annihilation without Consultation”: Canada and the New Look, 1954

By Darcy Taylor, University of Toronto |

This blog post accompanies the release of a digital briefing book, created in May 2018 by a team of University of Toronto undergraduate students participating in the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-in-Residence research program. Part of an ongoing series, Canada Declassified‘s digital briefing books include key documents from recently declassified government files released by Library and Archives Canada via the Access to Information Act. This project was supported, in part, by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, “Canada in the Atomic Age: Unlocking the Nuclear Vault,” 430-2018-00291.

On January 12, 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” policy, an updated Cold War military strategy based on a more cost-effective shift from conventional weapons and forces to increased reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Analyzing recently declassified documents from the first half of 1954, our team found that the Canadian government spent significant time analyzing the New Look. By reading speeches, following press conferences, and speaking with US officials, senior Canadian diplomats attempted to interpret Washington’s shift toward massive retaliation. Throughout this period, the historical record reveals numerous Canadian concerns about the Eisenhower administration’s new policy. These include the potential for US withdrawal of ground troops from Europe, a lack of consultation with allies regarding nuclear defence, and the need for increased Canadian contributions to continental defence. While officials ultimately concluded that the New Look didn’t constitute a drastic change in US policy, Dulles’ speech led to numerous Canadian reports on the subject, a major speech from Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson on the importance of consultation with allies, and debate within the House of Commons.

The documents from this brief period in 1954 ultimately highlight Canada’s need to interpret US defence policy in order to appropriately coordinate strategy during the early Cold War. They also reveal the degree to which Washington left Canada in the dark regarding New Look policy. Even the country’s highest-ranking diplomat, Pearson, was not completely sure of US intentions, ultimately relying on public speeches and articles in order to evaluate the implications of US policy on Canada.

The process of selecting key documents from this file was relatively straightforward. There was an abundance of memorandums, letters, and reports during the six months in question (January–June 1954), which provided us with a clear historical narrative. Furthermore, there were numerous high-level discussions on the issue, which helped paint a clearer picture of the Canadian government’s thinking. We selected documents that demonstrated the significance that Ottawa attached to this issue, including a memorandum to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent days after Dulles’s speech, and the circular document attaching a copy of the speech to all Canadian posts abroad. We also chose documents that represented the differing views of the New Look within the Canadian government. The March 18 message from the Canadian Ambassador in Washington, where he argues that there has not been any major change in US policy, serves as an example in this regard.

This briefing book will be a useful resource for those interested in the early Cold War, Canadian foreign policy, and nuclear weapons policy. Making these documents public will allow historians and citizens alike to better understand the Canadian government’s thinking following an important strategic shift in US Cold War policy. As the current Trudeau government struggles to deal with an isolationist American administration, these documents remind Canadians that our relationship with the United States has always been complicated. Perhaps Pearson was right when he compared the relationship to that of a husband and wife: “sometimes it is difficult to live with her, at all times it is impossible to live without her.”

One thought on ““No Annihilation without Consultation”: Canada and the New Look, 1954

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 19, 26, and September 2, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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