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The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited and the Canadian Connection…Part Two

Thankfully, the world finally breathed a sigh of relief the very next day…

Through clandestine channels, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on the condition that the US promised not to invade Cuba. As a second part of the deal--the secretive part uncovered 25 years later--the Americans had to agree to dismantle the Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, although the Russians failed to realize that the Americans were already looking at replacing the obsolete land-based Jupiters, anyway, with Polaris nuclear ballistic submarine missiles.

The two-week threat of nuclear war was over. Major Richard Heyser, the U-2 pilot who had snapped the first series of pictures, was one of the many relieved that a peaceful solution was achieved. As he said in an interview three years before his death in 2008, “I didn’t want to go down in history as the man who started World War III.” I was relieved too (along with my family, relatives and friends) because I could watch another World Series in 1963. Too bad my Mickey Mantle Yankees had to fall to the Sandy Koufax Dodgers in a 4-game sweep.

As a result of the confrontation, a much-needed Moscow-Washington Hotline was put into place. Established in 1963, it linked the Pentagon with the Kremlin. Phones, as depicted in some movies, were never used. It started out as teletype, then went to fax in 1985, and since 2008 it’s connected by email.

As a side note…

Kennedy and our Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker were far from being the best of buds. More like soft-core enemies. Diefenbaker found Kennedy young, inexperienced and arrogant. To Kennedy, Diefenbaker was a boring, old SOB. Nuclear weapons were one of the issues that cut a swath between the two leaders. Diefenbaker simply didn’t want them here. In the next federal election, his ant-nuke agenda was partly responsible for his downfall. His cancellation of the CF-105 Avro Arrow fighter aircraft in 1959 didn’t help him either because it alienated the crucial Southern Ontario voters. But that’s another story I got into in an earlier blog.

To backtrack, Kennedy and Diefenbaker got off to a rocky start when they had visited each other following Kennedy taking office in early 1960. It irked Diefenbaker that Kennedy, with his New England accent, pronounced Canada as “Canader” and his last name as “Deefinbocker.” On the other hand, Diefenbaker was a problem to the Kennedy regime. He refused to end trade with Communist China, and didn’t feel it was that important for Canada to join the OAS (Organization of American States).  At one of their two meetings, Kennedy (according to Diefenbaker) said, firmly, “When I tell Canada to do something, I expect you to do it.” Those were fighting words to the stubborn Diefenbaker.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Diefenbaker doubted the initial information put forth to him and asked for the photo evidence revealing the missile sites so that he could make his own assessment. He also recommended that independent UN inspectors be allowed into Cuba to inspect the suspected areas before any action was taken. Diefenbaker then shocked his cabinet and both sides of the House of Commons by refusing to put Canada on the DEFCON 3 readiness that Kennedy asked for only two hours before his 7 PM Monday airtime. Not expecting this reaction from his neighbor to the north, Kennedy wondered whose side Diefenbaker was really on.  It turned out that more logical minds prevailed, however.  Going over Diefenbaker’s head, our military put themselves on alert, preferring to listen to Kennedy rather than their own federal leader. When our US-purchased Bomarc missiles were finally positioned on alert, they were useless because they were not armed with the nuclear warheads they were supposed to have received, based on Diefenbaker’s assurance a year earlier.

Even before the Cuban Missile Crisis began, the Kennedy regime had put in place an all-out campaign to discredit Diefenbaker in his own country. Enter Livingston T Merchant, the US Ambassador to Canada for two terms, 1956-1958, then again from early 1961 to May 1962. With his covert CIA connections, Merchant went to systematic work launching a Diefenbaker smear campaign by influencing the “hawks” anyway he could in Canadian politics, Diefenbaker’s own party and cabinet, the media, and the armed forces.

When Merchant returned to the United States, the campaign was quickly picked up by the new Ambassador, William Butterworth, who also had CIA connections. During the 1962 Canadian federal election campaign, Butterworth made sure that Liberal opposition leader Lester B Pearson was given “election tips” from Kennedy’s own successful 1960 presidential campaign. Diefenbaker won the election, just barely, losing a large number of the seats from his record-setting majority conquest in 1958. He was now in a vulnerable minority situation.

Washington wasn’t done yet.

Ballistic Missile on parade in Moscow
Soviet R-12 Medium Range Nuclear Ballistic Missile on parade in Moscow, 1961 (United States Public Domain)

On 23 January 1963, General Lauris Norstad, recently retired from the USAF, held a press conference in Ottawa where he criticized Diefenbaker’s anti-nuclear stance. Going in for the political kill nine days later, Lester Pearson flip-flopped by informing the press and the House of Commons that he was rejecting his previous anti-nuclear position and ready to accept nuclear warheads on the Bomarcs. That same month, the US State Department in Washington issued a press release in support of Pearson’s new-found position, and at the same time criticized Diefenbaker’s stance on misleading the Canadian people. The result was Diefenbaker’s Tory Party breaking up from within.

Several members of the PM’s cabinet resigned. Pearson called for a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons and won. The Diefenbaker government fell and Pearson won the May 1963 election in a minority situation, collaborating with the NDP to help him form a government. A Tory government wasn’t heard from again until well into the late 1970s, and even then it was short-lived, as evidence by Joe Clark and his bungling.

The American campaign to oust the Diefenbaker government proved successful. It was more efficient, less risky, and less costly than trying to rid Latin America of the Castro regime or any “Banana Republic” dictator.  A senior advisor to Ambassador Butterworth proudly boasted that taking Diefenbaker’s Tories out of the picture was like, “Tossing a match into dried hay!”

Was the Cuban Missile Crisis the spark that set it off?

When I lived in Regina, I attended Miller High School from 1966 to 1970. Miller was located on the corners of Winnipeg and College Avenues. On the way to and from class, I used to take College Avenue, heading west, and I’d go by Arcola Elementary School at 2315 Abbott Rd, within easy eyesight of College Avenue. At one end of the playground was a monster of an air-raid siren that had been built by the Department of National Defense as part of our Early Warning System in case of a nuclear attack. Apparently, after the Atomic Age began, every Canadian city of more than 25,000 people received a siren or a series of them depending on the size of the city. Regina had several. You couldn’t miss the one at Arcola School. It was about 40 or 50 feet high. The countless times I drove by and saw that engineering marvel, I would think about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close we had come to all-out nuclear war.

Thank God we survived.


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