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Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front

by John Boyko

Reviewing John Boyko’s 2013 volume, Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, I was struck by how deftly the author explained Canada’s involvement in the U.S. conflict, and forced to admit how little I knew about the subject. Reading Boyko’s new book, I had a very similar experience: I love how he interweaves Canadian and American history, and am amazed at my ignorance concerning the level of tension between the two countries.

MarchReviews_ColdFireWhile countless books have been written about John F. Kennedy, Cold Fire examines his presidency through the specific lens of his relationship with two Canadian prime ministers – first John Diefenbaker, then Lester Pearson. As might be expected, the book starts with a biography of the three men. What is impressive is the way Boyko extends these biographies to illustrate how the politicians’ backgrounds influenced their personal philosophies. For example, after experiencing prejudice in his early years, Diefenbaker grew to believe that only a state that “promotes ethnic and racial complexity” has the potential to become a strong nation.

Boyko goes on to examine successive moments at which the interests of the U.S. and Canada came into conflict, Kennedy’s reaction, and how each prime minister responded. Diefenbaker generally said no to any of Kennedy’s requests that might have affected Canadian sovereignty, which included locating American-controlled nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. Pearson, on the other hand, often changed Canadian policy to accommodate the Americans.

It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that Kennedy preferred Pearson’s government. What is surprising is the extent of American interference in the Canadian federal elections of 1962 and 1963. The Kennedy administration went out of its way to make sure Canadians understood which candidate it supported, and actively fed classified information to anti-Diefenbaker newspapers.

Many of Boyko’s sources are newspaper articles from the period; none of this information was secret, and for this reason Boyko’s book may be revelatory only to interested readers who did not live through the events themselves. Perhaps only recent generations will find the relationship between the U.S. and Canada as described in Cold Fire shocking.

Modern readers will likely be sympathetic with Boyko’s disdain for Canadians who appeared so enamored with Kennedy that they were willing to ignore Diefenbaker’s warnings in order to bask in Camelot’s glow. “Blinded by Kennedy’s light,” Canadians gave Pearson a minority government in 1963 and rejected Diefenbaker’s nationalist passion, a quality that seems to be exactly what voters want in our federal government today.

Boyko pulls no punches in laying out his belief that by pushing back against American demands, Diefenbaker “put Canada on the right side of history.” Kennedy and Pearson, by contrast, come across as a bully and a yes-man. This perspective should spark readers to consider our past priorities and our future goals.