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Preparing for the Warm War: Implications of a Defeat in Korea, 1950-1951

In December 1950, the prospects of a UN victory in Korea were slim. Chinese forces had entered the war in October 1950, and their successful campaigns forced the UN coalition to retreat past the 38th parallel. While UN military commanders scrambled to regain control, allied governments reassessed the political implications of a potential defeat. The Canadian government was seriously concerned. On 2 December 1950, a memo was sent out to the Secretary of State for External Affairs, the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and the Joint Planning Committee to prepare an immediate assessment of the situation and recommend possible options going forward.

One of the civil servants who responded was Escott Reid, then Deputy Under-Secretary for External Affairs. By this point, Reid was known within the government as an idealist with a commitment to collective security, having played an influential role in the signing of the UN Charter and the North Atlantic Treaty. At the same time, Reid was also known for the divisive and provocative opinions he circulated in departmental memoranda. The situation on the Korean peninsula brought out both of these sides of Reid. In December 1950, he drafted two memoranda outlining the current international situation, the major failures of the Western treatment of the Cold War thus far, and the possible consequences of another failure in Korea. Reid’s main argument was that Western response has always been too slow and “inadequate,” and that all of the Western responses to communist aggression have “proved to be either too little or to have come too late.” As a solution, Reid proposed a global strategy in order to attain a balance of power with the Communist bloc and establish peaceful coexistence.

Reid circulated this memo to officials in Ottawa as well as Canadian representatives overseas. What ensued was a fascinating back-and-forth, the subject of this briefing book, which speaks to the divergent opinions present in 1950 and 1951. Canadian-American relations, economics, and race were among the many issues at hand. Over all of these discussions hung the spectre of a Third World War, this time involving atomic weapons.  These discussions were much more than an intellectual exercise for those involved—for them, the very survival of human civilization hung in the balance.