Lester Pearson on Trial

A polemical attack on the “ardent Cold Warrior.”

There is no shortage of volunteers to hammer nails into the coffin of Liberal Canada. The results of the last federal election might have seemed enough, leaving a rump of a Liberal Party clinging onto political party status and under the leadership of a spirited but desperate former NDP premier. The current Conservative prime minister seems as interested in destroying the very possibility of a Liberal resurrection as he is in running a government. It is hard not to sense the Conservative glee at the prospect of fighting future elections with the NDP as the genuine party of opposition. Adios the party—and the Canada—of Pierre Trudeau, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson.

Yves Engler, too, picks up the hammer to crush the lingering remnants of the Liberal tradition in Canada in The Truth May Hurt: Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping. What does he have in mind? What is the surviving vestige of Liberalism that needs smashing? Apparently, it is the ghost of Lester Pearson.

Do you remember when Canadians used to pride themselves on being peacekeepers? When many Canadians cheered the decision of the Chrétien government not to go to war with the Americans in Iraq? According to Engler, many Canadians still invoke Pearson to put forward an entirely misleading idea of Canada as a peacekeeping nation.

The problem with the idea of Canada as a peacekeeping nation in the Pearsonian tradition is that, according to Engler, it is all a myth. Pearson was never the peacekeeper of national imagination. In fact, the author suggests, it could be argued that Pearson had a lot in common with the current Harper Conservatives. Harper may have “militarized foreign policy, supported Israeli crimes, undermined Latin American democracy, and weakened important international agreements,” but Pearson did all of these things as well. Moreover, “Pearson was culpable for more death and destruction … It is not that Harper is nicer,” Engler argues, “but rather the world is a little better.”

After a spirited, if linguistically strained, foreword from Noam Chomsky (“Lester Pearson was a major criminal, really extreme”), Engler lays out the purpose of the book. He wants his readers to imagine themselves as members of a truth and reconciliation commission in which Pearson is put on trial for his crimes as diplomat, external affairs minister and prime minister.

What is the case? In a series of chapters covering Pearson’s career in roughly chronological fashion, Engler gives us the anti-myth of Pearson. This is Pearson the “ardent Cold Warrior” determined to align Canadian and American interests and therefore willing to both put up with, and support, a host of atrocities and anti-democratic actions perpetrated by Canada’s American and European allies.

Engler builds his case for Pearson as war criminal by arguing that Pearson was pivotal in positioning Canada firmly on the side of the Americans in the early Cold War. He cites examples of Pearson as a diplomat pushing for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For Engler, NATO can be summarized as an institution that “contributed to Cold War hysteria.” The view that the Soviet Union was a threat to western Europe, and hence that NATO was necessary to protect Europe, was “laughable”—not misguided, or debatable, or wrong in hindsight—just laughable.

Having breezily dismissed the main reason (misguided or not) that Pearson and others were such ardent Cold Warriors, it is easy for Engler to make the case for Pearson as war criminal. Engler tells of Pearson’s support for the creation of Israel at the expense of Palestinians, the way Pearson pushed for Canadian involvement in the brutally violent and often forgotten war in Korea, Pearson’s dislike of the post-1949 communist regime in China, and Canada’s support of European allies in their ultimately failed attempts to maintain their imperial possessions in Asia and the Middle East. Pearson was far from being a democrat, Engler argues: as minister of external affairs, he actually pushed Canada to support the American-supported coup in Iran in 1953, and American military involvement in Guatemala. Canada, under Pearson’s guidance, failed to take a stand against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Pearson was “aware of” British imperial violence in Kenya “but he said little.” Awareness of the wrongdoing of Americans and others, but taking no stand against it, is a key part of the case against Pearson.

The list of international violent and anti-democratic episodes that Canada, under Pearson, either did nothing to prevent, or actually supported, is long. It includes weapons sales to Israel, enabling the French in Algeria, failing to criticize the Americans in the Dominican Republic, the Portuguese in Africa, the Dutch in Asia, the Americans in Vietnam. Engler shows us a Pearson who argued against nuclear disarmament initiatives and who spoke out against the Canadian Peace Congress, the main voice of the peace movement in the late 1940s and ’50s.

Engler’s case is convincing partly because so much of it is true. Pearson was a Cold Warrior. He was no pacifist—few who have won the Nobel Peace Prize are. And Canada under Pearson did put up with, and abet, a slew of bad behaviour from our allies in the name of keeping good relations. So far, so good. But Engler’s argument is to history what a megaphone is to music: loud, distorted and entirely lacking in sophistication.

The epithets he scatters throughout the book mimic the almost pathologically bipolar world view of the Cold War itself, but from the other side. Engler is not the first one to call someone like Pearson an imperialist. This book is not about rediscovering the truth of the Cold War past so much as it is simply resurrecting the standard communist line about the west in general.

The past really is another world. To truly try to understand someone like Lester Pearson now means trying to recover the world in which he lived. Engler is half right in pointing out the incredible naiveté of Pearson’s belief in a world order led by the British and the Americans. But in the mid 1940s, what really scared someone like Pearson was not the creation of an out-of-control American empire; it was American isolationism—it was the memory of those two first years of the Second World War in which Canada and Britain stood on the brink of collapse all because the Americans would not come onside. Pearson and others feared a world where the Americans refused to take on a role in ensuring global order. After Vietnam and after so many other instances of American global leadership gone wrong, it is easy to look back on Pearson as complicit in American imperialism. But Pearson did not live in the world of hindsight. To him, the formation of NATO was so important precisely because it got the Americans to sign on to a position of global involvement. Misguided or naive this may (or may not) have been, but to dismiss it as the work of some kind of malignant war criminal is, at best, ahistorical.

It does not help that the book is not based on any original research. Instead Engler has trawled through the works of others, mostly on the far left. When he draws on someone like John English, Pearson’s official biographer, he takes only the bits of evidence that support his views, and discounts the rest. He is particularly selective in dealing with Pearson’s role in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the reason Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize, and hence the epicentre from which emanate all the shockwaves of Pearson’s peacekeeping reputation. The crisis was caused by the bungled attempts of France and Britain to exert control over the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian leader Nasser had nationalized. The two declining imperial powers arranged with Israel to have that country attack Egypt. Then the British and French could land troops in the canal zone and pretend to be protecting it from the conflict. The scheme backfired, however, when the Americans made it clear that they would not put up with this case of imperial interference. Pearson’s role in the crisis was to try to come up with an international solution at the United Nations that would allow Britain and France to save face even as they were forced to back down. Engler quotes selectively from Pearson’s speeches, having him come across as someone who was entirely in sympathy with the European powers. What he fails to point out was that, in fact, Pearson was negotiating a deal that meant these same powers were having to back down. It is not a mistake that would have been made at the time. In mid-1950s Canada many Canadians still saw themselves as British, and viewed Pearson’s actions as a betrayal. Arguably what Engler presents as Pearson’s pro-British stance hurt the Liberals in the election the following year precisely because, despite his words of sympathy, Canada’s actions went against the mother country. Whom did Canadians elect in 1957? The much more decidedly pro-British John Diefenbaker.

And, of course, there is Noam Chomsky, whom Engler calls the “world’s leading intellectual.” It is amazing the areas of history in which Chomsky is expert. When you need someone to explain the history of British involvement in China in the 1820s, why not turn to a book written by Chomsky? When your interest is in U.S. involvement in Korea after the Second World War, luckily Chomsky is an expert there too. In the foreword, Chomsky recounts how he once drove Peter Gzowski to shout at him on air by claiming to have landed in Toronto at War Criminal Airport—meaning Pearson International. Chomsky no doubt had a point, but so too did Gzowski. Vietnam is hardly the only issue by which Pearson ought to be judged or remembered. We are, after all, talking about the prime minister who gave us universal health care and many other tenets of the modern welfare state.

Engler repeats, with no substantial evidence, the old chestnut that the American government helped to get Pearson elected to his first minority government as prime minister in 1963. The evidence consists of the very obvious fact that the Kennedy administration was not pleased with Diefenbaker and that they let this be known to the American and Canadian media. Engler also notes that Pearson hired a pollster who had previously worked for Kennedy. That, apparently, is evidence of damning complicity. Amazingly, Engler misses the most alluring bit of information—the call from Max Freedman, the Winnipeg Free Press’s man in Washington in 1963, essentially offering Kennedy’s assistance. The Americans wanted to help. For obvious reasons, Pearson did not want the help, and did not want others to know the Americans had offered to help. There might be much more to find out about this story, but that would take some detective work, and that is not what this book is about.

Engler is correct that the myth built up around Pearson is just that, a myth. This is how prime ministers (and not only prime ministers) get remembered: we use them for our own purposes. We take bits of their lives and legacy and we build a historical version of the prime minister that we can work with—a respectable ghostly figure to add historical significance to our current concerns.

However, for all his posturing about truth, Engler is not the historical pedant Arthur Lower had in mind when he used to say a historian was someone who chased after other people, crying “That’s not how it happened!” Engler is not interested in the past as it was, or even in recovering some of the complex and fundamentally foreign world of the Cold War era within which Pearson needs to be understood. He is more interested in burying the Liberal idea of Canada.

This is where those on the right and the left start to converge—not in the way it used to be said in the Cold War if you went far enough left and far enough right, to fascism and to communism, that the political spectrum somehow miraculously joined. The joining of left and right in contemporary Canada is far less theoretical and more in tune with the basic instincts of many creatures, political or otherwise. The Liberal Party is down and wounded. What used to be called the government party is not a government and not even much of a party. Now is the time. Kick the Liberals when they are down. The last thing Harper and Engler want is for this felled beast to be resurrected.