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Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front
By John Boyko
TORONTO, Ont. /Troy Media/ – Myths need to be disavowed when they run counter to history.
For example, I don’t think John Diefenbaker was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nor does author John Boyko, who wrote Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front about how the lives and careers of Lester B. Pearson, Diefenbaker and Kennedy intertwined.
Boyko notes an unscheduled tree planting ceremony during then-U.S. president Kennedy’s 1961 trip to Ottawa. That injured Kennedy’s already fragile back and he took to wearing more elaborate supports, which kept him propped up in his car on that fateful day in Dallas and thus an easy target.
The book debunks many of the myths you’d get away with at a dinner party.
Kennedy, we have been led to believe, was suave and sophisticated, Pearson (Liberal opposition leader when Kennedy visited and later prime minister) was the same but older and more diplomatic, and Diefenbaker (prime minister during the president’s visit) a paranoid, mercurial old hatchet face.
All this is nonsense and based on a few minutes of newsreel footage, according to Boyko.
Boyko shows that it was Kennedy and his cabinet who were rude and broke diplomatic protocol. Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson show the Kennedy administration also didn’t know how their own congress worked and didn’t have a hope of passing a civil rights bill or a budget. Camelot indeed.
The classic quote from Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis was that Canada offers all aid short of help. Boyko rightly retorts that America offered consultation short of actually consulting. In fact, Canada’s troops were on alert, we’d been patrolling the ocean for Soviet subs for many years and were flying missions down the U.S. coast during the crisis.
The apex of American inappropriate words and deeds was in helping elect Pearson in 1963.
Nobel Prize-winning Pearson, who was for disarmament and whose wife was in anti-nuke groups, did a duplicitous about-face and let Americans put nuclear weapons in our Bomarc missiles and on our soil. This is why Pierre Trudeau refused to run in 1962 and called Pearson the defrocked Prince of Peace. Boyko doesn’t mention that Trudeau took until 1973 to have them removed but does note they were really a decoy to draw Soviet fire away from American targets.
Boyko tells us that Diefenbaker was our first TV-age leader. He was mobbed at campaign stops and used the term new frontier before Kennedy did. We’re told he was his own speechwriter and pretty good at it. The speaking order at the United Nations had him follow Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Dief eviscerated communism and what he called Soviet colonization of Eastern Europe.
Boyko says Kennedy should have treated him as a strong ally, as Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower did, since he was staunchly anti-communist and onside on most issues. Diefenbaker also negotiated a pretty sophisticated trade arrangement on cars before the 1965 auto pact.
Then there’s ‘the memo.’ Kennedy left his briefing memo in the prime minister’s office by mistake. It should have been returned but Dief kept it. Folklore and an erroneous detail in a story by journalist Peter Trueman had it that Kennedy had written something rude in the margin – perhaps referring to Dief as that old SOB. Boyko looked up the memo in the University of Saskatchewan archives and there’s nothing in the margins. It would be fun to find out Trueman’s source.
Boyko’s detail and fluid storytelling make some of what is now ancient history come alive. Pearson helping Winston Churchill write his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, a young Stephen Lewis (later Ontario NDP Leader) encountering Kennedy at a speech, Pearson on a U.S. bubble-gum company’s Great Men of History series of collectible cards, Diefenbaker allowing the racial category ‘Canadian’ on census forms, Dief’s strong stand on South African apartheid, and Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney in the same welcome home group for Diefenbaker.
This book pumps life into the people and times and is an object lesson for current politicians, diplomats and followers of the news. And it busts myths.
Troy Media columnist Allan Bonner has consulted to a dozen heads of government, a dozen party leaders and 100 or so cabinet ministers on five continents over 30 years. He is the author of Political Conventions the Art of Getting elected and Governing. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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