Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt

Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt

By Yves Engler
Fernwood Publishing, November 30, 2011, $15.95

In his new book, Yves Engler sets to demolish the near saintly status of Lester Bowles (“Mike”) Pearson in the public sphere, Canadian foreign policy circles and even on the social democratic left. And in the process, he takes on the much repeated slogan that “the world needs more of Canada.”

Much like Noam Chomsky who provides a forward to Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping, the author relies mostly on the excellent but largely unread scholarship plus the former PM’s own statements in Parliament and in memos to successfully establish a case.

As a diplomat in Washington, senior foreign affairs bureaucrat, foreign affairs minister and a prime minister in Liberal governments from the 1940s to the 1960s, Pearson figured prominently in the shaping of Canadian foreign policy in the post World War II period.

Engler says that Pearson also participated in the creation of international institutions such as NATO and the Bretton Woods system, both of which helped to reinforce post war U.S. dominance in the world.

“Canada was well placed to benefit from U.S. centered multilateral imperialism. A growing capitalist power, Canada was the world’s second biggest creditor nation at the end of World War II (and had one of the biggest armies),” the author writes.

Engler says that despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize following his push to establish a UN peacekeeping force in Egypt during the Suez Crisis Lester Pearson made controversial political decisions that at times bordered on the “war criminal.”

Despite Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s strong opposition, Pearson got Canada roped into participating in the murderous air and ground military campaigns led by the U.S. under the United Nations flag in the 1950-1953 Korean war. The result was millions of dead Koreans in a still misunderstood conflict today.

“In many ways the Korean War marks the beginning of the permanent war economy in the U.S.,” Engler writes.

Pearson was a bit of a double dealer. As a Christian Zionist he worked behind the scenes diplomatically to support the UN partition plan in Palestine that culminated in Israel’s founding in 1948. But as part of an anti-Semitic Liberal government in the same time period, he was unapologetic in his endorsement of a policy to keep post-World War II Jewish refugees, languishing in Europe, out of pristine Canada.

From the late 1940s until the 1960s Pearson backed all of the major U.S. moves against nationalist governments that sought to control their countries’ internal resources. The most notorious are the 1953 CIA inspired coups against democratically elected administrations in Guatemala and Iran. Neither has never really recovered from the consequences of those decisions by Washington to intervene.

Pearson was adamant and consistent in opposing every significant anti-colonial movement in the developing world from the 1940s to the 1960s whether it involved Algeria, Indochina or Africa or Indonesia.

Furthermore, he fought against UN resolutions denouncing apartheid in South Africa, accepted American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil following the U.S. inspired election defeat of Conservative PM John Diefenbaker and provided plenty of diplomatic support to the American war in Vietnam — despite the well publicized scolding received from President Lyndon Johnson after Canada’s PM urged a bombing pause over North Vietnam in April 1965.

Engler suggests that Canada made a lot of money out of the Vietnam War through the sale of raw materials like nickel, aluminum, iron ore and steel, as well as weapons to the Americans. During its failed battle to keep Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in the 50s from becoming independent states, France was also a beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in Canadian arms through NATO’s Mutual Aid Program, he adds.

He writes that Pearson was not adverse to red baiting his critics of his decisions in the CCF/NDP and the peace movement.

Meanwhile, the coming to power of Pierre Trudeau in 1968 followed by successive Quebec centric PMs, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, created a temporary interlude in Canadian foreign policy.

The high-minded rhetoric on diplomacy, disarmament and international aid under this quartet of PMs did not always match the reality on the ground but at least Canada did display a friendlier face to the world than had been the case under Pearson.

Pearson regarded Canada’s membership in NATO as sacrosanct and certainly a more significant feather in his cap than peacekeeping, writes Engler.

And so, the former PM was upset when Pierre Trudeau’s new Liberal government embarked upon an internal review of Canada’s status in the alliance. Ottawa maintained the status quo, but Canadian NATO troops were eventually withdrawn from Western Europe.

But Ottawa did manage to distance itself from the U.S. in a way that might have unimaginable under Pearson, such as maintaining good trade relations with Cuba despite Washington’s embargo of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. Later under Mulroney, Canada kept its diplomatic ties with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, despite an U.S. instigated and ideologically driven war against that progressive government in the 1980s; as well as played a diplomatic role in the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Engler says the nice face of Canada evaporated with the arrival of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in Ottawa in 2006. In fact, he argues that there a “direct historical line” between Stephen Harper’s belligerent stance in the world and how Lester Pearson aggressively staked out Canada’s role at the height of the Cold War.

“The pro-U.S. imperial vision that Pearson was laying Harper has continued,” says Engler in a recent interview.

The author has no patience with the argument promoted in the Liberal and NDP parties and by certain journalists (e.g. Linda McQuaig) and peace organizations (the Rideau Institute) that Canada has to return to the golden days of Lester Pearson.

Engler argues that Pearson was primarily interested during the Suez crisis of 1956 in mediating a conflict among NATO partners.

On one side stood the British and French which with the Israelis had invaded Egypt to forestall the nationalization of the Suez Canal by the Cairo government. Opposed to this last gasp of European colonialism was the U.S. and President Dwight Eisenhower, motivated primarily to expand American influence in the crucial oil-rich Middle East region.

In fact, Ottawa accepted the British request to freeze Egyptian assets in Canada to protest Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s move to gain more control over his nation’s key asset in the Suez Canal.

But to question Lester Pearson’s role in the world is to desecrate one of this country’s greatest icons.

“There are narrow parameters of debate in the dominant media and so much of the sectors of society, the political forces that should be critical, have not been because they push mythology because it serves their political purpose,” Engler explained to this reviewer.

In his various books, including the Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Engler has emphasized that domestic business, including mining, oil, banking, insurance and telecommunications have played a significant role in directing Canada’s response to the various crises in the world where its interests predominate.

Engler is critical of a dated “left-nationalist” perspective that places a greater stress on Washington forcing Canada to do bad things, versus looking at the culpability of various Canadian governments serving to act in concert with the country’s business elite, tied in turn to the larger U.S. corporate monolith.

Others like Steven Staples, the president of the Rideau Institute prefers to use Canada’s peacekeeping tradition, however flawed, as a political alternative and counterweight to Stephen Harper’s militarism. He steps back from looking at Canada as entirely a negative force in the world. (It may not be saleable to the Canadian public.)

Although the two men differ on this point, Staples describes Engler’s new book as a “welcome contribution,” to the foreign policy debate in Canada.Paul Weinberg

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Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer as well as author and editor, based in Hamilton, ON.