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Korea, "Canopy," and Consultation: Canadian Attempts to Influence US Nuclear Policy in the Early 1950s
On 30 November 1950, President Harry S. Truman delivered a speech affirming that the United States was considering the use of the atomic bomb in Korea. This proposition to unilaterally deploy the “ultimate weapon” concerned US allies, especially given the joint nature of the UN forces operating in Korea.2 Particularly concerned was British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who wanted to ensure that the British would be consulted on any decisions to deploy the atomic bomb in the Far East. Attlee met with Truman on 4 December to discuss Britain’s role in atomic cooperation, and after their meeting the president released a statement promising to keep the British prime minister informed, a promise which was also extended to the Canadian prime minister. Through public statements and negotiations, the Canadian government aimed to exert influence over American nuclear policy.
Truman’s speech encouraged Canadian officials to consider their position toward a first strike by the United States in Korea. While Canada had no legal right to be consulted on this decision, they decided to focus on their role as a “member of the inner circle on atomic matters” to exert their influence.3 Canada made its position known to the US State Department, distinguishing the atomic bomb from other military weapons and stating that the advantages of its use would be “outweighed by the reactions in the free world and […] the grave peril in which it would place Western Europe.”4 While they respected US authority over the bomb, they used their position as an atomic ally to voice their concerns and attempt to influence US decision-making.
Truman’s speech also caused the Canadians to be more careful in their negotiations with the United States on the establishment of a US base in Goose Bay, Newfoundland. The US proposed a “canopy” agreement, first drafted as a “Pentagon Paper,” to allow them to use part of a Royal Canadian Air Force base in Goose Bay. Newfoundland held strategic importance for the defence of North America against a Soviet attack, and the United States wanted a military base to launch a counter-offensive if needed. While the Canadian government supported a US strike launched from Canadian soil in the event of a Soviet attack on North America, it was wary of other operations that might infringe upon Canadian sovereignty and go against Canadian policy. The Canadian government used its position and concerns surrounding sovereignty to exert influence over US atomic policy, attempting to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear strike. Canada’s insistence on specific terms for the canopy agreement led the United States to abandon the proposal in favour of informal diplomatic talks held at regular intervals.
Canadian officials’ actions regarding both the potential use of the bomb in Korea and the agreement at Goose Bay illustrate concerns about the possible unilateral launch of a nuclear weapon by the United States. While the Canadians accepted that the United States would not ask Canada for permission before launching a nuclear weapon, they maintained a position of advocating for maximum consultation. Canada reinforced its role as an atomic partner, and, in the case of Goose Bay, a sovereign state, to attempt to influence American nuclear policy.
1 Visit of Prime Minister St. Laurent to HQ 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade Officers's Mess in Korea," March 1954, Photograph, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 4929227, http://collectionscanada.gc.ca (accessed May 30, 2018).
2 "Korea and the Atomic Bomb," 3 Dec. 1950, LAC, RG 25, vol. 4758, file no. 50069-C-40, part 1.
3 Memorandum for the Minister, "The Bomb," 1 Dec. 1950, LAC, RG 25, vol. 4758, file 50069-C-40, part 1.
4 "Korea and the Atomic Bomb," 3 Dec. 1950, LAC, RG 25, vol. 4758, file no. 50069-C-40, part 1.