Consultations and Canopies: Canadian Reactions to Truman’s Atomic Warning, 1950-1951

By Daria Mancino, 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 30 November 1950, President Harry S. Truman delivered a speech affirming that the United States was considering the use of the atomic bomb in Korea. This proposition to unilaterally deploy the “ultimate weapon” alarmed US allies, especially given the joint nature of the United Nations forces operating in Korea. While Truman assured the British and Canadian Prime Ministers that they would be “informed of developments which might bring about a change in the situation,” Canada realized the limits on the US ability (and willingness) to consult.

While Canada had no legal right to be consulted on the US use of the bomb in Korea, they decided to focus on their role as a “member of the inner circle on atomic matters” to exert their influence. Canada made its position known to the US State Department, distinguishing the atomic bomb from other military weapons and stating that the advantages of its use would be “outweighed by the reactions in the free world and… the grave peril in which it would place Western Europe.” While they respected US authority over the bomb, they used their position as an atomic ally to voice their concerns and attempt to influence US decision-making.

Truman’s speech also caused the Canadians to be more careful in their negotiations with the United States on the establishment of a “canopy” agreement, which would allow US use of part of a Royal Canadian Air Force base in Goose Bay, Labrador, to launch a counter-offensive against a potential Soviet attack. While the Canadian government supported a US strike launched from Canadian soil in the event of a Soviet attack on North America, it was wary of other operations that would infringe upon Canadian sovereignty and go against Canada’s existing nuclear policy. The Canadian government insisted on specific terms for the canopy agreement. Ultimately, this led the United States to abandon the “canopy” proposal in favour of informal diplomatic talks held at regular intervals.

The Canadian officials’ actions regarding both the potential use of the bomb in Korea and the agreement at Goose Bay show that they were concerned by the unilateral launch of a nuclear weapon by the US. While the Canadians accepted that the US would not ask Canada for permission before launching a nuclear weapon, they maintained a position of advocating for maximum consultation. Canada reinforced its role as an atomic partner, and, in the case of Goose Bay, a sovereign state, to attempt to influence US nuclear policy.

We collected documents from a Department of External Affairs file entitled “Consultation Between Government Re: Possible Use of the Atomic Bomb” containing materials from December 1950 to May 1951. We noticed two main narratives within the file. One concerned the Canadian government’s opinion on the use of the atomic bomb in Korea. We compiled drafts, memorandums, and letters in which Canadian officials voiced their opposition to use of the bomb. The second narrative in the file concerned the Goose Bay lease. The documents we selected for this portion of the briefing book mostly contained drafts and correspondences to negotiate the terms of the potential agreement, and traced the development of both the Canadian and American positions towards the draft agreement. The multiple narratives that existed in this file highlighted that Truman’s speech had implications for both Canada’s broad position on the use of nuclear weapons, as well as more direct effects on Canada-US relations. It also shows that while Canada publicly opposed the use of atomic weapons, it was privately negotiating with the United States to potentially launch such weapons from Canadian soil.

This briefing book will contribute to scholarship on Canadian involvement during the early Cold War. It is of particular interest because it illustrates a previously untold story about the Canadian government’s attempt to decrease the likelihood of nuclear war through its relations with the United States. This briefing book could be particularly useful in studying nuclear deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in military strategy post WWII.

One thought on “Consultations and Canopies: Canadian Reactions to Truman’s Atomic Warning, 1950-1951

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of September 23, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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