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John Diefenbaker: Kennedy's Canadian Nemesis

11/21/2013 05:32 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Huffington Post's recent piece on U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Canadian prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson was even-handed enough -- but I still felt a need to chime in with an: "On the other hand-"

First up: I'm no expert, just a "pop culture blogger." At best, I'm writing this hoping it'll encourage people to look up the facts for themselves.

But I have a soft spot for ol' Dief the Chief -- a guy who often gets mocked and even vilified (in some cases I suspect simply because modern hipsters are embarrassed a guy who looked like him was once considered charismatic).

Anti-Diefers are an odd mix of bedfellows. Liberals mock him because he was leader of the Conservative Party. Yet he was what was often known as a Red Tory -- a moderate or even left-leaning Conservative -- and so tends to be disparaged by the right. I suspect Stephen Harper and Rob Ford Conservatives would have little room at the table for a man like John Diefenbaker (who before his political career was a -- gasp! -- defense lawyer!)

It's significant that one of the black marks against Diefenbaker's name is that he "killed" the Avro Arrow -- the jet plane project that was theoretically years ahead of its time. A sad day for Canadian innovation. At the same time: the Arrow was a war machine. Even if not used by Canada militarily, it would've been sold to other nations -- perhaps leading to images of the Avro Arrow soaring blithely over the napalmed jungles of Vietnam. Had that happened, I suspect we would be vilifying Diefenbaker for entirely different reasons today.

Diefenbaker has been derided both for kowtowing to America (supposedly the Arrow was mothballed because of American pressure) and for being anti-American. His detractors may not agree on why Diefenbaker is the bad guy, but they just know he was.

And Diefenbaker's biggest sin against history was that he didn't like John Kennedy and Kennedy didn't like him. And since Kennedy has been all but canonized in Western culture, that is the unpardonable crime. Kennedy, like Diefenbaker, is a man caught between left and right but, in his case, to his advantage. Lionized by the left as a progressive, yet in other ways admired by the right as a hawk.

Being the guy who Kennedy didn't like -- it'd be as if Ronnie Hawkins had had a public feud with Elvis.

My first exposure to the Diefenbaker/Kennedy conflict was Knowlton Nash's book, Kennedy and Diefenbaker. It was an interesting introduction because, as I recall, Nash adored Kennedy and disliked Diefenbaker. And maybe it was because of that, but I actually emerged from Nash's book with an appreciation for Diefenbaker!

Part of the reason for their animosity was, as mentioned, that Kennedy was in many respects an imperialistic hawk -- he believed communism was the ultimate evil and the U.S. was put on this earth to stand up to it. He loved nukes -- and he wanted Canada, the U.S.'s ally, to love 'em too. But Diefenbaker and some members of his cabinet were opposed to nuclear weapons on principle. Remember, the acronym for the rationale of nuclear deterrent -- Mutually Assured Destruction -- was "mad!"

Kennedy wanted Canada to nuke up. Diefenbaker didn't.

Now here's where historical interpretation becomes interesting. After all, the rightness of the whole nuclear arms race is far from a settled argument. And some historians will acknowledge that, but still pillory Diefenbaker because he was a waffler. Accept the nuclear weapons, they say, or don't. But what Diefenbaker did was dither and procrastinate and drive Kennedy nuts. At one point accepting nuclear missiles -- then refusing to allow them to be armed with nuclear warheads!

Personally, I'd argue this shows what a wily fox Dief was.

Kennedy wanted Canada to have nuclear missiles -- he was, in some respects, obsessed with the idea. So what do you do if you're dealing with one of the most powerful men in the world who won't take "no" for an answer? You stall him with a "maybe." It's not gentlemanly, but it's pragmatic. Keep him hanging with a "maybe" and perhaps he'll eventually lose interest.

It didn't ultimately work, of course. And Kennedy's interference in Canadian politics should be regarded as a deeply disturbing, low-point in Canada-U.S. relations. Yet, because it's Kennedy, because it's Diefenbaker, we tend not to see it that way. But if the leader of a foreign government is colluding with the leader of the opposition -- I'm not sure how else to describe it!

Eventually Pearson did become prime minister and one of the first things he did was import nuclear weapons into Canada!

Pearson's successor -- Pierre Trudeau -- immediately got rid of them. So much for Diefenbaker being on the wrong side of history, eh?

Pearson gave us many things: Medicare, bilingualism, a flag. He won the Nobel Peace Prize!

And Diefenbaker had his flaws. I'm sure there are a hundred policies he supported that I could take exception to.

But let's remember it was under Diefenbaker that the federal government first started looking into expanding Saskatchewan's Medicare program nationally. Diefenbaker gave us the Bill of Rights (precursor to the Charter of Rights). He led the drive to expel South Africa from the Commonwealth over its apartheid policies. He extended the vote to Status Indians. And he didn't believe nuking the world was the best way of insuring peace.

Oh, yeah -- and he believed Canada should form its own policies, independent of foreign influence.

It was that independence that meant, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Canada was able to help the U.S. by acting as an intermediary between them and Cuba. I wonder if that could happen today?

Not that the modern perception of Diefenbaker is all one-sided. The Diefenbaker cameo in the TV mini-series Prairie Giant was respectful (played by the unlikely Paul Gross -- Gross whose TV dog in Due South was named "Diefenbaker"). And in the (very funny) radio comedy Monsoon House, about a small publishing house, a sub-plot in the first season involved them publishing a bestseller about Diefenbaker.

I've long thought the Diefenbaker-Kennedy feud would make a great movie. Sadly, I expect if any Canadian filmmaker tackled the topic, they would take Kennedy's side.

Mind you, Canada's place on the world stage is so little acknowledged that even the chummier Kennedy-Pearson relationship is rarely alluded to. Despite at least two Canadian co-produced mini-series about Kennedy -- Hoover vs. The Kennedys and The Kennedys -- I'm not sure Pearson or Diefenbaker were even so much as mentioned.

I'm no historian, so go read a book on the topic. Form your own opinion.

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John F. Kennedy