Canada, NATO, and Global Strategy: 1952–1953

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.

Faced with a deteriorating economy and over-extended military obligations, the British Government released a paper outlining its new ‘Global Strategy’ in 1952. This document suggested that the new atomic capabilities developed by the United States could replace some existing ground forces in Europe. This was deemed an appropriate tradeoff by the British, as they believed that the threat of hot war from the Soviets had diminished. They also noticed that many allied states had spread their commitments throughout various regional bodies and personal military pursuits. For the British, it became necessary for the Western allies to develop a unified global strategy to form a stronger defence against the Soviet Union.

The Americans, however, had reservations. They believed that Britain’s new plan was “dictated more by the UK [sic] slim pocket-book than real strategic consideration.” The United States did not support the reduction of ground troops in Europe, believing that any reduction in forces or military expenditures had the potential to give the Soviets the upper hand. The American position was fundamentally shaped by the belief that the Soviet threat had not reduced, and that hot war was still a serious possibility. These opposing views shaped discussions surrounding the formation of an allied global strategy in 1952 and 1953.

Canada acted somewhat as an intermediary between the two states, wanting to “[reconcile the] UK and US views.” However, the Canadian position was generally in line with the American assessment. Canada supported a global military strategy but was concerned that participation in global planning and implementation would overextend its resources and commitments. Canada also worried that an extension of NATO’s involvement outside of the North Atlantic region would indicate “aggressive intentions” and may actually increase the risk of conflict. Based on these concerns, as well as Canada’s limited global interests, the Canadian government resolved not to push for membership in any global planning body. The documents in our briefing book show that Canada seriously considered the implications of a global strategy on domestic policies while also maintaining an awareness of the limitations of Canadian participation in any proposed global planning body.

We began reading a Department of External Affairs file (50115-P-40) entitled “NATO and Global Strategy” assuming – not unreasonably – that the contents matched the file name. We quickly realized that over two thirds of the 600-page file were dedicated almost exclusively to a speech delivered by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the “New Look,” the Eisenhower administration’s new national security policy. This led our team in two different directions, and we started on a new file in hopes of gaining more information on Canada and global strategy. This led us to a Privy Council file (I-60-1) “International Situation—Global Strategy” which was much more fruitful. These documents, beginning in July 1952, helped contextualize the DEA file which contained documents from October 1952 onwards and also outlined the origins of the global strategy conversations.

We then chose the most informative documents from the PCO file and the DEA file to compile this briefing book. Selecting the documents is the most difficult part of the process, and led our group to develop the catchphrase “it’s interesting, but is it relevant?” One of my personal favourite documents was a memorandum for Defence Liaison (1) Division from the Far Eastern Division which stated that “a NATO-ANZUS association would appear in Asia to be an enlarged white man’s club.” We frequently came across documents like this that were entertaining or surprising, but not the most pertinent to illustrate the narrative of the files. The documents we selected for the briefing book were those that were the most necessary for the reader to understand the context of the files and trace the predominant narrative that they present.

Our hope is that these briefing books will allow students and academics to utilize declassified but otherwise inaccessible Canadian historical documents for education and research. The role of Canada in the Cold War is often underappreciated and under-examined. Allowing scholars and students to have access to these primary documents will expand the potential for analyzing Canada’s involvement in the Cold War. This briefing book, in particular, demonstrates the balance that Canada had to strike between aiding its foreign allies and protecting its domestic interests and resources. It also highlights Canada’s approach to diplomacy with allied powers and fellow NATO members. Given the previously confidential nature of these documents, our hope is that readers of this briefing book will find the contents to be both interesting and relevant.

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