Who killed the Canadian mil- itary? Lester B. Pearson ”” inadvertently. Canadians have been enamoured with the idea of peacekeeping ever since Secretary of State for External Affairs Pearson won the Nobel Prize in 1957 for his role in establishing the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the UN’s first large peacekeeping force, in November 1956. Created during the Suez crisis, UNEF separated the invading armies of the British, French, and Israelis from the Egyptians and tried to freeze a situ- ation in a troubled region while diplo- mats sought a lasting resolution.

What could possibly be wrong with peacekeeping? Canadians clearly like the concept; our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women do it extremely well; and the government obviously views it as the employment of choice for the Canadian Forces. But….

It’s the ”œbut” that begins to raise problems. What no one remembers any longer is that, when Pearson cob- bled the force together, few in Canada cheered. Pearson’s efforts at the United Nations in New York won scant praise from those who denounced him for selling out Canada’s two mother coun- tries. The British and the French believed they were resisting ”œa new Hitler” in Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. At home, the Liberal minister faced denunciations from some Progressive Conservatives for sid- ing with the United States against Britain, and Prime Minister Louis St- Laurent’s statement that the days of ”œthe supermen” of Europe were over only fuelled the controversy. Some analysts even suggested that Pearson’s role in New York helped John Diefenbaker’s Tories defeat the Liberals in the 1957 election. But when Pearson was awarded the Nobel Prize, the mood changed almost at once. Peacekeeping was now Canada’s very own contribution to the world.

Yet Pearson’s Nobel prize had a harmful effect on the Canadian military because it began the process whereby Canadians viewed their sol- diers as the world’s natural peacekeep- ers, well trained, well equipped, instinctively impartial, and fair. There was some truth in that description in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Canadian military was well trained and well equipped and Canadians went off to Lebanon, the Congo, West New Guinea, Yemen, the Arab-Israeli borderlands, and Cyprus. They served well in trying to prevent small con- flicts from exploding into large wars. But Canadians never really understood what their peacekeepers were doing, why they were good at their jobs, and why they were needed. And because they fell in love with peacekeeping, Canadians began to fall out of love with the true purpose of a military ”” to be ready to fight wars.

Canada had been part of NATO since April 1, 1949, a charter member of the Western alliance united against Soviet expansionism. Prime Minister St-Laurent had campaigned in Quebec to muster support for the alliance and helped to create a huge majority in the House of Commons for adhesion to the North Atlantic Treaty. From 1950 on, he had also supported the nation’s rearmament. Canada had fought two world wars overseas in the first half of the twentieth century, and Canadians understood that collective security and defence mattered. The horrors of the past strongly shaped their present.

The country’s armed forces in the mid-1950s, when St-Laurent and Pearson worked closely together, reflected this belief that the military was important and necessary. The army, some 50,000 strong, was a bal- anced force with infantry, armour, and artillery, but also with the skills in logistics, engineering, and communi- cations required for complex opera- tions abroad. Canada had a fleet, including an aircraft carrier that, in a pinch, could be used to carry the army’s heavy equipment, and it had squadrons of transport aircraft, the air- crews to fly them, and the ground crews to maintain them. In 1955 the three Canadian armed services, all well equipped and well trained, numbered 118,000 and, two years before, cost an incredible 7.8 percent of the gross domestic product of just over $20 bil- lion (compared to a pathetic 1.1 per- cent in 2003). Few other medium-sized countries acceptable to the UN’s mem- ber states and secretariat had those capabilities. Canadians, moreover, could operate in French as well as in English. That made our peacekeepers very useful in the Cold War when the Great Powers ”” the United States and the Soviet Union ”” and major powers with colonialist pasts such as Britain and France, all with large military forces, were not acceptable in UN oper- ations to the majority of members.

Not that Canada, the old Canada, was always acceptable to every- one. The Egyptians in 1956 had balked at Canadian participation in the UN Emergency Force, even if Pearson had saved Cairo’s destruction by proposing it. The Canadians were part of NATO, along with the British and French invaders. Their flag, the now all-but-forgotten Red Ensign, had a Union Jack in the corner. Their soldiers wore British-pattern battle-dress uni- forms. Worse still, the infantry battal- ion initially chosen for UNEF service was the British-sounding Queen’s Own Rifles, not the fictitious East Kootenay Anti-Imperialist Brigade that Pearson wryly conceded later would have been more appropriate. The other available units had equally imperial names ”” the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment of Canada), and the Royal 22e Régiment.

It took extraordinary efforts to get President Nasser to agree to Canadian participation in UNEF, and Pearson told the Egyptian Ambassador to the UN: ”œWe had even been careful to exclude from the force any Canadians with noticeably English accents.” For all that extraordinary Canadian self- abnegation, the Queen’s Own Rifles, their lineage, uniforms, and flag an affront to Cairo, never made it to UNEF, as an armoured reconnaissance squadron and less-malevolently titled (but perhaps even more useful) logisti- cal units took their place.

The Canadian contingent and its vehicles arrived at Port Said aboard the carrier HMCS Magnificent, proudly flying the same White Ensign as Britain’s Royal Navy. The Egyptians, reasonably enough, threatened to sink the ship, which was itself scarcely distinguishable from a vessel of the Royal Navy, and the American officer in charge of clearing the Suez Canal had to contact Magnificent’s captain and beg him to haul down his colours. At the last possible minute, matters were smoothed over, but the whole episode was humiliating to the Royal Canadian Navy, Canada, and Pearson. The Secretary of State for External Affairs did not forget and, when he became prime minister seven years later, he set out to get Canada a distinctive Canadian flag and, more hesitantly, to support the integration and unification of the three Canadian forces as a way to minimize their too-obvious British connections.

Several factors made Canada eager to participate in the Middle East and in other peacekeeping oper- ations. As a Western power and a member of NATO, Canada had a vital national interest in holding off the Soviet threat. During the Suez Crisis, the split between Britain and France ”” the aggressors ”” and the United States was huge. Canada’s actions were directed as much to repairing the breach among allies as to restor- ing peace in the area. Indeed, the two goals were positively insepara- ble. Anything else played into Moscow’s meddling hands. In the former Belgian Congo in 1960, to cite another example, East and West were beginning to battle for a resource-rich area, one key explana- tion for the Canadian peacekeeping commitment there. In Cyprus in 1964, where Britain had bases and interests in a former colony, two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, were on the verge of war over the island they both wanted to control. Prime Minister Pearson was initially dubious about sending Canadian troops ”” ”œLet them cut each other up,” he told Paul Hellyer, his Defence Minister. ”œWe certainly won’t go in just to help the British.” A war would have had disastrous effects on NATO’s southern flank, however, and External Affairs Minister Paul Martin Sr. went to work on the telephone, calling for- eign ministers around the world. In his memoirs, he wrote: ”œThe result of my phone calls was the establish- ment of the UN force…I telephoned a rather surprised [UN Secretary General] U Thant to tell him the good news.” The prime minister too must have been surprised at Martin’s success, and Martin likely exaggerat- ed his own role, but Pearson did secure Parliament’s approval on March 13, 1964. Canada sent an infantry battalion at once, and UNFI- CYP, the United Nations Force in Cyprus, hit the ground running. This solution served Canada’s desire to be a peacekeeper, but it also saved a crit- ical part of the Western alliance, exactly as in 1956.

President Lyndon Johnson, worried about NATO’s future if the Greeks and the Turks went to war, was grate- ful. As Pearson recalled in his memoirs, LBJ ”œwas amazed and filled with admi- ration…and I think this may have changed his attitude toward Canada…”˜You’ll never know what this may have prevented.’” The president then asked, ”œNow what can I do for you?” Although Pearson replied ”œnoth- ing at the moment,” I believe that Johnson’s willingness to agree to the Auto Pact the next year, an agreement that hugely benefited Canada’s auto sector, may well have been Pearson’s reward for Cyprus.

For most of the Cold War, peace- keeping brought public huzzahs for the Canadian Forces but few military bene- fits. The generals, air marshals, and admirals saw UN service as a distrac- tion from their main task of preparing to defeat Soviet tank armies on the cen- tral German plain, defending North America from nuclear-armed long- range Russian bombers, and fighting Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. Though peacekeeping never employed more than a few thousand men and was not a high military priority, it used up scarce military resources of bilingual army signallers or pilots of small aircraft, for example, and interfered with the training of the army, navy, and air force for war ”” or so the generals said. Moreover, to many senior officers, peace- keeping fostered a naïve attitude among both their men and the Canadian public alike: that, by simply donning a blue beret, Canadian soldiers could bring peace where only war or civil war had prevailed.

Another Canadian, an Army Service Corps captain serving in UNEF and based in Gaza and Port Said, wrote to me that ”œthe Canadian appears to be the world’s most provin- cial animal” when compared to Swedes, Danes, or Indians, with ”œclosed minds, complete ignorance [and no] desire to learn or accept another’s point of view…” Yet this same officer, after observing that ”œboredom is a place much like Port Said,” added hopefully that, at UNEF’s Gaza headquarters, ”œit’s quite a sight on Sunday nights to see saris, turbans, business suits, fezes, etc. A very good feeling. The brotherhood of man is a possibility.” In 1967, however, Egypt and Israel went to war again, and the Egyptians expelled the Canadian peacekeeping troops just before fight- ing began. The brotherhood of man? Or a political failure to seize the oppor- tunity provided by a peacekeeping freeze to settle a crisis?

The hard realities of crisis resolution never penetrated the mind of the Canadian public, yet the idealism of self- less service in the cause of peace made Canadians proud of their lead role in peacekeeping. Their politicians also enjoyed the accolades received at the UN Headquarters in New York, the clout and prestige Canada thought it won with the international bureaucracy and in foreign offices in return for its soldiers. Liberal and Tory governments alike rushed to volunteer the Canadian military for every peacekeeping operation, and for a time Canada and Canadians proudly boasted that their nation had been a par- ticipant in every UN mission ”” and even in non-UN missions, especially the International Control Commissions in the former French Indochina after 1954. Foreign ministers began to hope that, if they called in their markers in the world capitals and at UN headquarters in New York, they too might create a peacekeep- ing force and help freeze a crisis. If they could then get the prime minister to agree to send Canadian troops, a Nobel Peace Prize might come their way too. After all, it had worked for Lester Pearson, hadn’t it? Didn’t the prize help him become Liberal leader and, later, Prime Minister? Not even the casualties of UN service ”” 116 Canadian service- men have been killed on United Nations and other peacekeeping and peace enforcement duties since the first, Brigadier H.H. Angle, on the India- Pakistan border in 1950 ”” put a damper on the idea.

In the decade after Pearson’s Nobel Prize, as the Cold War continued and as the United States got itself embroiled in the morass of the Vietnam War, the Canadian public began to believe that peacekeeping was its métier. We were the world’s master peacekeepers, the indispensable United Nations’ players. The Americans, always bumptious and too aggressive, fought wars, but Canadians, nature’s neutral middlemen, kept the peace. This idea became a mantra, a powerful one that successive governments never challenged. War was foreign to Canadian thinking, but peace- keeping was the natural role for us to play. With the attentive public, peacekeeping was do- goodism writ large. It was also a military role that differentiated us from the Americans, a huge boost for Canadian national- ism. And if some worried that Canadians weren’t pulling their mili- tary weight in the Cold War, there was one easy answer: the nation’s peace- keeping did not require huge armies, large fleets, and vast air forces. Only blue berets and a few blue helmets were needed to do good and make a contribution.

In truth, the Cold War meant that the Americans and the Russians could exercise a form of control over their friends and client states. Neither want- ed ethnic groups to begin to slaughter each other and provoke intervention. ”œBehave yourself and do what Moscow or Washington tell you,” or so the mes- sage seemed to be. Peacekeeping mis- sions were relatively few, and most required only a small number of troops.

Canadians loved the idea, though NATO began to pick up the hard chal- weapons in their kitbags than the President Nasser’s expulsion of our troops from Egypt in 1967 put a damper on public enthusiasm for some time. So did the Trudeau govern- ment’s rejection of a ”œhelpful fixer” role for Canada at the beginning of the 1970s. Still, UN demands for peace- keepers continued to be made on Ottawa, as few other nations had the combination of military skills and resources that Canada did. By tacit agreement, neither the Russians nor the Americans sent their soldiers on UN missions. The British and the French had colonial pasts that often made them unwelcome in Africa and Asia, where most UN missions were needed. Canada became the indispen- sable nation ”” or so we thought.

What changed peacekeeping was the end of the Cold War in a few short years from 1989 to 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union lifted Moscow’s dead hand from Eastern Europe, unleashing nationalisms galore. The African and Asian states that had been areas of contention between East and West now felt free to pursue their own agendas. Instead of peace, a new world disorder erupted as ethnic tribes ”” Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi, and dozens more ”” sought their revenge for historical slights. Peacekeeping initially seemed to boom, with the United Nations dispatching tens of thousands of troops and a score of forces around the globe in the early 1990s. But a UN shoulder flash and a white-painted Jeep no longer seemed enough to maintain peace, as people fought to kill their tribe’s ancient enemies. There was a genoci- dal war in the former Yugoslavia, and UN forces there, including Canadians, fought large-scale battles, often unavailing, to try to stop the mas- sacres. The United Nations buckled under the strain, its organization and finances insufficient to handle the task, and informal coalitions and lenges. Peacekeeping had turned into a combination of peace enforcement and peacemaking, and it soon became just another synonym for war.

What made the situation worse for everyone was the utter incompetence of the United Nations in running peacekeeping missions. The UN was an organization of nations with conflicting interests; it also had an inefficient bureaucracy (highly paid and tax-free though it was) both at its headquarters in New York and around the world. Simply put, the UN’s Security Council, General Assembly, and myriad committees did not work. The United States thought it ought to run the organization, the Russians sulked, and the British and especially the French played their age-old games of cynical and self-interested diploma- cy. The Arab states hated the Israelis. Developing countries schemed how best to squeeze conscience money from the rich states. The United Nations couldn’t run an ice-cream stand, let alone operate peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions around the world.

Canadian military planners had to learn to work around UN’s dys- functional supply system and, for example, the organization’s ceilings on equipment when the situation on the ground in Bosnia exposed Canadian troops to danger. The UN issued orders to bring only light weapons and to restrict the number of armoured vehicles, but Canadian gen- erals sensibly decided that more robust means of self-defence were necessary. The Canadians came to the former Yugoslavia with more United Nations had decreed. To cite another even more horrific example, the UN’s ”œold boys’ club” of incompe- tent officials, along with its inability to reinforce its tiny peacekeeping force in Rwanda, left the Canadian force commander, Major-General Roméo Dallaire, unable to prevent a monstrous genocide. Canadian Major-General Maurice Baril, the mil- itary adviser to both the UN’s Secretary General and the UN’s peace- keeping head, then Kofi Annan, tried his best to help his friend Dallaire, but to no avail. The United Nations had proven to be a weak reed, espe- cially when it confronted the peace and security issues it was created to address. If the Security Council’s veto- wielding members didn’t care about an issue, nothing would happen. In Rwanda, the French and Americans didn’t, and hundreds of thousands died as a result.

Canada was not alone in recogniz- ing that other organizations had to take over key peace support and peace enforcement operations. When the UN failed abysmally in the former Yugoslavia, NATO stepped in; when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic tried to crush the Kosovo Albanians, NATO fought and won a totally justifi- able and necessary ”œhumanitarian war” to stop a genocide in the making. In Afghanistan, after coalition military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime, an International Security Assistance Force took the field, a de facto NATO operation, although one authorized by the United Nations. It was clear that peace enforcement, the toughest kind of peacekeeping per- mitted under Article VII of the UN Charter, worked best outside the UN, with a coalition of nations operating under a Security Council green light. UN peacekeeping soon became limited to the low end of the violence scale, to freezing a situation and to giving the parties to a conflict a breathing space. The United Nations couldn’t ”” and shouldn’t ”” do everything.

The United Nations always pre- tended that all national armies were equal in their capabilities, so New York frequently took the troops that were on offer at any given moment, whether they were properly trained or equipped for the mission. What else could it do? Some national contingents proved absolutely incapable of operating well; others collapsed the moment they were fired on. Some devoted themselves to operating on the black market; others preyed on local civilians; and some, their troopers riddled with AIDS, spread disease everywhere they went. That the demoralized, dysfunctional, incompetent UN forces were able to perform at all in a few operations was a near-miracle.

Compounding matters, the United Nations pays countries US$1,000 per soldier per month to provide troops for peace support operations. This income likely explains why Bangladesh, for example, in May 2003 had 2,625 soldiers on UN duties; Senegal, 523; and Nigeria, 2,548. Unlike these countries, which use their troops to bolster their hard currency holdings, the Canadian Forces, which in May 2003 had 219 soldiers on UN duty, allowed its soldiers to keep the UN’s monthly shilling. Because the military’s pay was so low for so long, many soldiers eagerly sought UN serv- ice as a way of supplementing their income. In effect, Canadian soldiers were selling themselves for UN dollars.

Above all, there is the pernicious ”œfeel good” effect of peacekeeping. For fifty-six years, ever since 1948, the United Nations has had military observers in Kashmir. Despite the organization’s best efforts, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over that disputed region and now, as both countries possess nuclear arms, they are as close to war as they have been in the last two decades. For thirty years Canadians served in Cyprus, patrolling the Green Line separating Greek and Turkish Cypriots, yet not until the Mulroney government announced it was pulling its troops out of the UN Force in Cyprus did the parties really begin to talk, though to no avail. Some Canadians served in Cyprus for six, seven, or eight 6- month tours of duty, and a few were reputed to have second families living in Nicosia. The Canadian Airborne Regiment fought a major battle against invading Turkish troops in 1974 and sustained ”” and inflicted ”” casualties in this fight with a NATO ally at the Nicosia airport.

Despite all these difficulties, the Canadian people love peacekeep- ing. When UN peacekeepers were awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, many Canadians truly believed the award was intended above all for their soldiers. Perhaps it is not surprising that the only national military monument erected in the nation’s capital since the Second World War, its figures standing on a concrete island in front of the glass walls of the National Gallery of Canada, commemorates not those who fought in Korea or those hundreds of thou- sands who served in NATO and helped win the Cold War, but those Canadian servicemen and women who served in peacekeeping operations. ”œReconcilia- tion,” the monument demands. Peace- keeping and peacekeepers deserve to be honoured, but it is even more striking what Canada’s governments chose not to recognize.

Much like peacekeeping, the United Nations has been and continues to remain popular with Canadians. With their instinctive pref- erence for multilateralist organizations that give Ottawa a place to shelter itself away from the relent- less pressure of the bilateral Canada–US relationship, we rely on the UN in spite of all the evi- dence of its complete ineffectiveness to the contrary. The UN doesn’t work, the critics say. Well, it should, Canadians respond. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and there is no sign at all that the UN can be fixed. Canadians cannot pin their hopes for a better world on a flawed, crippled world body.

Canadians tend to blush, stammer, and scrape their feet in the dirt in embarrassment when they talk about subjects like democracy and freedom, but those ideals have been and remain very important. This nation has never gone to war for aggressive reasons ”” we are one of the few countries anywhere that can say that ”” but only to defend our own soil or to fight with our friends and stand up for concepts like democ- racy, freedom, and justice. It is our his- toric willingness to take up arms for just causes, far more than our interest in and support for peacekeeping (impor- tant as that concept is), that has helped to make Canada the country it is.

Pearson knew that fact well. He had served overseas in an army medical unit and as a pilot trainee in the Great War, worked as a diplomat in London and Washington in the Second World War, and been External Affairs minister during the Korean War. He appreciated the role that the UN could play, but he was also one of the founders of NATO, and he was never a believer in peace- keeping above all other means of state- craft. Peacekeeping was a tool, a device to freeze a crisis while statesmen sought a political solution to resolve it. Pearson soon realized that the United Nations could not broker a peace in the Middle East, nor could it prevent future wars among Israel, Egypt, and the other Arab states. Suez in 1956 was a Canadian and Pearsonian triumph, something that could scarcely be replicated so long as the Cold War went on. Other peace- keeping operations followed it in the Congo, Cyprus, and other trouble spots, but the record of successful reso- lution of crises by the UN was slim to non-existent. Shrewd, clever, and a life-long student of international affairs, Pearson knew what he had achieved, realized it meant little, ultimate- ly, unless it translated into a durable peace, and understood that the interposition of a UN force between belligerents was not the universal panacea.

Pearson also understood that it was important to have Parliament approve the commitment of forces to United Nations operations. He insisted on taking the Cyprus commitment to Members of Parliament and, though the troops were already in the air, he was willing to recall them if the House voted no. That punctiliousness has slipped away, and Parliament is no longer asked as a matter of course to approve overseas commitments. I think it should be, and it would be useful if the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, generally a knowl- edgeable committee, had to recommend in favour of a commitment before the question went to all MPs.

Pearson’s 1956 triumph was misin- terpreted by his fellow citizens, as they fell in love with the United Nations and peacekeeping and continue today to raise their blue-helmeted soldiers to the levels of icons and myth ”” Canada as the universally beloved, tolerant, and idealistic peacekeeping exemplar to the world. Being Canadians, however, they understand nothing of how dangerous and difficult peacekeeping and peace- making have become in the last decade. Nor do they seem to realize that Canada in 2003 has just over two hundred sol- diers on UN duties. Given their chronic lack of interest in the military, they do not know that the present Canadian Forces, with well under 55,000 trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women, are incapable of doing more for the UN because they are so thinly stretched and ill-equipped. Yet being Canadian, they accept the contradicto- ry idea that the Canadian Forces remain the world’s ideal peacekeepers, indis- pensable to the United Nations.

Canadians do not realize that the major reason the Canadian Forces have proven themselves capable of peace- keeping is that the nation trains its men and women for war. ”œThere is no such thing as a Canadian ”˜peacekeep- er,’” according to military historian Dr. Sean Maloney. ”œThere are Canadian soldiers. Peacekeeping covers a small band in the spectrum of conflict. Canadian national security demands that we have an armed force capable of fighting.” It is a truism that a war- trained soldier can fight and also do peacekeeping. A peacekeeping-trained soldier, however, cannot fight in a war””at least, not without dying quick- ly. The country’s best-known soldier, Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, argues similarly against making the Canadian Forces into peacekeepers alone. ”œThere will come a day when the government turns to the military and says: ”˜Okay, we need you to fight and kill people,’” but then, he warns, ”œthe military will raise its hand and say: ”˜Sorry, we don’t do that any more.’”

Pearson’s success in resolving the Suez Crisis created the myth that Canada was the impartial, indispensa- ble, and universally loved nation. It wasn’t true in 1956 and it’s not true now, but Canadians and their govern- ments fell prey to this idea. The result was super-simplistic rea- soning that failed to assess the realities of the world, substitut- ing peacekeeping for rational thought. And peacekeeping came to have a devastating effect on the Canadian military. ”œSoft power,” Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy called it, but a flaccid military was more like it.

Pearson did no wrong ”” indeed, he did his job as External Affairs minister so well in 1956 that he deserved every one of the plaudits he received. There is a law of unintended conse- quences, nonetheless, and a compliant public and the eager politicians they elect have run the mili- tary into the ground, all the while prat- tling about peacekeeping as the most important role for the Canadian Forces. It wasn’t Mike Pearson who helped kill the Canadian military; rather, the idea of peacekeeping that his Nobel Peace Prize made into Canada’s national mission is the culprit.


J.L. Granatstein is one of Canada’s most prolific historians, specializing in military affairs and Canada-US rela- tions. Who Killed the Canadian Military? is his 61st book and is excerpted by permission of Harper Flamingo Canada.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License