Preparing for the Warm War: Implications of a Defeat in Korea, 1950–1951

By Andrew Zhao, 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.

As the Korean War appeared to be coming to a close in the autumn of 1950, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River, changing the course of the war. This new development not only jeopardized the United Nations mission, but also sent officials in the Canadian government into a panic. The Communist bloc’s apparent willingness to intervene in hot conflicts worried diplomats in the Department of External Affairs (DEA).

One diplomat in particular feared that “a third world war may be upon us in a few weeks or a few months.” This diplomat was Escott Reid, then Deputy Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs. Known within the DEA for his idealism and his impracticality, Reid penned two memos addressing the international situation and how the West should respond to the Korean crisis. His answer was simple: swift mobilization. Emphasizing that “time is of the essence,” Reid called for a drastic acceleration of military development and the meeting of various international bodies in rapid succession.

Reid circulated his pair of memos to Canadian heads of mission and other DEA officials for comment. The ensuing flurry of responses highlights not only the points of tension within the Department, but also the wide range of considerations involved: geopolitics, the role of NATO, maintaining Canadian-American relations, just to name a few.

Above all, the documents show a tremendous sense of urgency within the DEA. In one telegram from Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Pearson writes that general war seems to be inevitable and that it will be a “miracle if it is averted.” Embroiled in negotiations with the Chinese, Pearson describes the situation as “depressing, almost frightening.”

The process of selecting key documents for this briefing book was relatively straightforward. The file centered around Reid’s memos and a general sense within the DEA that new developments in Korea presented a pressing threat to international security. As a result, we selected Reid’s memos and the comments from the heads of mission, as well as memos and telegrams which highlighted the urgency within the department at the time.

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