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Canada and the Second Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962

Canada has long held an unusual position within NATO. At once strategically important due to its close proximity to the Arctic but also geographically isolated from Europe, historians and foreign policy experts continue to debate Canada’s role in NATO. Because Canada has neither the global reach of the United States nor the local considerations of European nations, some argue that Canada is uniquely positioned to be a mediating force within the North Atlantic Council.

Berlin was in many ways the powder keg of the Cold War and it seemed, during multiple crises after 1945, that the United States and the Soviet Union might go to war over their respective rights in the city. During the Second Berlin Crisis (1958–1962) the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, demanded that the United States, along with the British and French, pull all forces from the city, which they refused to do. At the same time, Khrushchev was offering to sign a peace treaty with the German Democratic Republic and hand over responsibility for the border.

During the Second Berlin Crisis, the Western allies created contingency plans for the possibility of full-scale war. The contingency plans were made by two separate commands: the Tripartite (American-British-French) LIVE OAK and NATO itself, which later developed its own Berlin-contingency plans (BERCONs).

In 1959, the Americans, British, and French established the Tripartite Ambassadorial Group in order to streamline the contingency-planning process and keep it contained amongst themselves. They also established an individual command called LIVE OAK that was separate from NATO. President John F. Kennedy’s administration wanted close coordination of planning between LIVE OAK and NATO. In September of 1961, General Lauris Norstad (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) briefed the North Atlantic Council on LIVE OAK and began an effort to develop NATO contingency plans that would build on LIVE OAK. What resulted was a months-long debate on the merits of the new NATO plans, with Canada’s ambassador Jules Léger expressing specific and significant concern about the inclusion of the demonstrative use of nuclear weapons. He worried that the inclusion of nuclear weapons in any military plans would increase the likelihood of a full-scale nuclear exchange.

In 1962, the North Atlantic Council considered NATO’s own contingency plans.  While LIVE OAK plans were primarily defensive in nature, NATO’s BERCON was intended to “provide a demonstration of intent to go further.” Once again, the Canadian delegation, now led by Ambassador George Ignatieff, were the primary dissenters. The major issues continued to be political authority and nuclear weapons. Ignatieff stalled the planning for many months, but this had virtually no effect on the final plans. The Canadians were not viewed as a mediating force, but rather an “obstacle” to the Council, disrupting what was otherwise a consensus. Further, although they initially planned to make a reservation to the inclusion of nuclear weapons in the plans and thus take a controversial stance, Prime Minister Diefenbaker edited Ignatieff’s instructions at the last minute to include only an approval of the BERCON plans.

The compiled files offer an overview of this process from the Canadian perspective and allow us to examine and question Canada’s role within NATO. Did the Canadian delegation have an effect on American or NATO decision-making? Why might Canada feel more comfortable prolonging NATO decision-making than the European members?