Canada and the Second Berlin Crisis

By Alexandra Southgate, 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.

During the Second Berlin Crisis, the Western allies created contingency plans for the possibility of full-scale war. These contingency plans were made by two separate commands: the Tripartite (American-British-French) LIVE OAK and NATO itself, which later developed its own Berlin-contingency plans (BERCONs).

President John F. Kennedy’s administration encouraged close coordination between LIVE OAK and NATO. In September of 1961, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Lauris Norstad, briefed the North Atlantic Council on LIVE OAK and began an effort to develop NATO contingency plans that would build on LIVE OAK. What resulted was a months-long debate regarding the merits of the new NATO plans. Canada’s ambassador Jules Léger expressed specific and significant concerns about the inclusion of the demonstrative use of nuclear weapons in these plans. He worried that the inclusion of nuclear weapons in any military plans would increase the likelihood of a full-scale nuclear exchange between East and West.

This briefing book provides an overview of this consultative process from the Canadian perspective and allows us to consider Canada’s role within the North Atlantic Council. In the case of the Second Berlin Crisis, did the Canadian delegation serve as a mediating force or merely an obstacle to the solidarity of the Council?

Although I had worked with primary sources in previous classes, nothing could have prepared me for the unique challenges of working through such a large file. Split into three parts and comprising of approximately 800 pages of documents, the Berlin Contingency Planning file was difficult to wrap my head around and made it challenging to piece together the narrative thread. It was extremely rewarding to get a glimpse of the historical process and take on the responsibility of writing a historical account of my own.

In my experience, it can be incredibly difficult for undergraduate students to access information about Canada during the Cold War. Most of the material we have is American and British, and I hope that Canada Declassified will provide a useful resource to students looking to learn more about Canadian history.

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