“Gems from NATO:” the Canadian War on Jargon in the North Atlantic Alliance’s Formative Years

Sam Eberlee, University of Toronto |

The benefits of NATO membership have never been more apparent. But being a part of the North Atlantic alliance has always come with certain unique challenges, not least of which has been reaching consensus among members. NATO has always seemed on the verge of internal collapse. Hidden in Library and Archives Canada’s Brooke Claxton fonds is evidence of deep, visceral differences of opinion at the highest levels of NATO during its formative years. Vocabulary was the key ingredient in a controversy which implicated Canada’s governor general, top soldier and ministers of defence and foreign affairs. This is the story of how a “dreadful piece of English” started a conflict – Canadian officialdom’s brief – and ultimately failed – war on NATO’s jargon.[1]

It all started in Lisbon at a 1952 session of the North Atlantic Council. A reference to “The Hard Core of the Third Slice of Infrastructure” was the offending bit of verbiage.[2] Council Chairman and Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs (SSEA) Lester B. Pearson felt compelled to seek clarification, since the phrase was a key component of a conference paper dealing with nearly £2.5 billion in collective defence expenditures.  Fortunately, the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR)—American four-star General Alfred Guenther—was on hand to expand on the meaning and logic of the turn of phrase. Guenther’s wordy explanation only further muddied these waters. But he did mention in passing that the matters at hand were the financing of airfields, signals infrastructure and war headquarters.[3]

This confusion made a lasting impression on Canadian Minister of National Defence Brooke Claxton. Claxton was overseeing a three-year, $5 billion rearmament program that transformed defence into the most important item on Ottawa’s agenda, at least in terms of dollars spent. He felt that another area where Canada could make a real contribution to the North Atlantic alliance was in the field of semantics. Claxton vigorously protested a NATO resolution that referred to the “politico-economic capabilities of member countries” on the grounds that words like “political” and “economic” were proper English. His objections were supported by the U.K. government and one or two other members.[4] Claxton and Canadian Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff General Charles Foulkes suspected that many of the least acceptable NATO phrases were really “Americanisms which have crept into the NATO jargon.”[5]

Claxton returned to the topic of NATO jargon in some depth with Governor General Vincent Massey at a 1954 event at Mount Vernon.[6] This was more than just idle chatter at a social function. Massey subsequently directed official Canadian resistance to NATO’s corruption of the English language. General Foulkes was tasked with preparing a detailed list of “NATOisms” for the “delectation” of the Governor General.[7] To Foulkes’s credit, the resulting memo offered a reasonably cogent definition of the phrase “Hard Core of the Third Slice of Infrastructure.” The “Third Slice of Infrastructure” had, in fact, been a 1951-2 defence spending package rejected by NATO member states that “considered the programme beyond their economic means.” SACEUR subsequently eliminated “less essential portions,” leaving only the items that the North Atlantic Council could agree to finance: the “hard core.”[8]

Foulkes also provided explanatory paragraphs on key NATO operational terms like “earlierize, folderize and expertize.” Claxton duly passed these and other examples along to Massey, who thanked his friend profusely for sharing such “gems from N.A.T.O.” Unfortunately, Massey could not take his concerns public because of the “secret” designations of NATO documents littered with jargon.[9]

By 1954, all the energy, attention and official stationery expended on NATO jargon produced a stalemate of sorts. Claxton was confident that Canadian interventions had prevented any further deterioration of the language used in NATO communications. But this fell far short of the “good dose of ‘re-paperizing’ and ‘re-jargonizing’” that was really needed to make the North Atlantic alliance more effective.[10] Instead, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) opted to compile a glossary of terms commonly used in NATO circles.[11]

Stephen Kotkin aptly coined the term “speaking Bolshevik” to describe the intricacies of Soviet political language. The resulting need to achieve fluency in Bolshevik complicates the task of researchers working in former Warsaw Pact state archives. Evidently west of the Iron Curtain, speaking NATO was no more straightforward. The North Atlantic alliance practiced the inverse of George Orwell’s rule of “never us[ing]…jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” NATOisms routinely confounded even the highest public officeholders of member states like Canada.

Claxton put it best when he remarked that in “their desire for reasonably good usage of language,” he and Massey “must be behaving rather like old fogies, but that doesn’t make us wrong.”[12] The Canadians’ war on NATO jargon and the corresponding paper trail at Library and Archives Canada illustrate the lighter side of archival research. But Claxton and Massey’s grievances will surely strike a chord with international historians well-versed in the challenges of deciphering documents authored by bureaucrats or military personnel.  

Author Bio: Sam Eberlee is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying the post-1945 history of Canadian foreign relations.

Cover image: “Hon. Brooke Claxton.” Credit: Alexandra Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-052487. Restrictions on use: Nil. Source: https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=FonAndCol&IdNumber=3214062


[1] Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defence to Chairman, Chiefs of Staff (CCOS) General Charles Foulkes, Ottawa, 7 May 1954, Brooke Claxton fonds, MMG32-B5, Vol. 61, “NATO Jargon” file, D/C IS1563-1, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

[2] Foulkes, CCOS to Minister of National Defence, Ottawa, 1 June 1954, Brooke Claxton fonds, MMG32-B5, Vol. 61, “NATO Jargon” file, LAC.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Claxton, Minister of National Defence to the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, Governor-General of Canada, Ottawa, 3 June 1954 & Foulkes, “NATOisms,” CCOS to Minister of National Defence, Ottawa, 27 May 1954, Brooke Claxton fonds, MG32-B5, Vol. 61, “NATO Jargon” file, LAC.

[5] Foulkes to Claxton, “NATOisms,” 27 May 1954.

[6] Claxton to Massey, 3 June 1954.

[7] Claxton to Foulkes, 7 May 1954.

[8] Foulkes to Claxton, “NATOisms,” 27 May 1954.

[9] Claxton to Massey, 3 June 1954 & Governor General to Minister of National Defence, Ottawa, 9 June 1954, MG32-B5, Vol. 61, “NATO Jargon” file, LAC.

[10] Claxton to Massey, 3 June 1954.

[11] Foulkes to Claxton, “NATOisms,” 27 May 1954.

[12] Claxton to Massey, 3 June 1954.

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