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The author served in the American embassy in Ottawa and as Canadian desk officer in the Department of State, 1947-1951. Ambassador Dale retired after thirty years in the Foreign Service in 1975.– Ed.


AT AN INFORMAL RECEPTION given by my boss, the American minister, in the spring of 1948 in Ottawa, I met the Canadian undersecretary for external affairs, Lester Pearson. To my surprise and pleasure he went out of his way to chat with that lowest form of diplomatic life, a third secretary and vice consul (my rank at the time). His affability and kindness naturally endeared him to me and I followed his career with more than professional interest

Born in 1897 the son of a prominent, well-to-do Methodist minister, if that identification is not an oxymoron, Mike, as he was always called, lived through tremendous historical changes brought on by the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the the United States, and the Cold War. On these matters his views adjusted to events, but his love of sports never varied. All three Pearson boys played excellent hockey, football, tennis, lacrosse, and, like their father, baseball. These sports became a lifelong part of what Mike Pearson was.

An eager student, encouraged by fine teachers, young Pearson developed an early interest in English constitutional history. .Among prosperous Anglo-Canadians of the pre-World War I period, attachment to the British crown formed an indispensable part of being Canadian, so Mike’s intellectual instincts at the Hamilton Collegiate Institute typified those of this period and social group.

He went on to the University of Toronto, but World War I soon beckoned to him and he joined the University Hospital unit, which had the advantage, in his view, of transferring him abroad almost immediately, in his case, in 1915. After service in Thrace, he returned to England. On the ship he demonstrated unusual initiative by bribing the ship’s barber to permit him to spend the nights in the padded comfort of a barber’s chair. In England, Pearson switched to the air force, but his career as a pilot and as a military man ceased abruptly and ingloriously when he was hit by a bus as he was hurrying back to base from unauthorized leave

After returning to University long enough to graduate, Pearson moved to Chicago to work in the selling end of a distant relative’s fertilizer business, but he found business was not attractive to him. As he wrote at the time, “I will never be satisfied in making material success my whole aim, not that I don’t like money and comfort.” So, in l921 he entered Oxford as a graduate student in history. His interests then began to veer toward international relations as he envisioned an enlightened British Empire cooperating with the League of Nations in service to humanity. He married Maryon, a serious young lady, in 1925 and began teaching British history and coaching football and hockey at the University of Toronto. Although Mike did not have the makings of a distinguished scholar, his charm, wit, and informal manner made him a favorite among the students.

Finding that teaching was not his dish either, Mike took the Civil Service exams in 1928 and became a secretary in the Canadian Foreign Service. His co-workers described him as vigorous, cheerful, always smiling, and keenly interested in his work. At last he had found his niche. When in 1930 he joined the Canadian delegation to the Naval Limitation Conference in Geneva, the local headline read,“Popular football coach goes as secretary to Canadian delegation.”

As the League of Nations proved unable to handle the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Pearson lost much of his early enthusiasm for the League. Then, Prime Minister Bennett, impressed by the young diplomat’s reputation for hard work and ability, seconded him to serve as secretary on two royal commissions dealing with price spreads and grain futures. He worked from nine in the morning till midnight seven days a week, managing to produce the final reports in excellent shape and on time. The prime minister appreciated his contribution so much that he awarded Pearson the Order of the British Empire. He discovered he had won the honor as he was playing tennis at the country club when his assistant threw it to him with the words, “Here’s your O.B.E.”

From then on, Mike was marked for increasing responsibility. He moved to London in the early 1930s as second in charge of the mission and served as Canadian representative on the League of Nations Committee of 18 to make recommendations regarding Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. He loved living in England, but, as a Canadian, he feared his country would get into war on England’s behalf when Canada’s own interests were only peripherally involved. Regarding Canada’s tie with England, Pearson remarked that it “was an affair of the heart, always dangerous, sometimes infuriating, yet at bottom inescapable.”

As the principal reporting officer at Canada House, Mike was largely responsible for the way in which the Canadian government saw events in Europe. The Munich Agreement appalled Mike and persuaded him Hitler’s next move would mean a major war. Thus, he saw war coming and he wanted Canada in it. When it came, he worked and played even harder. One day on the golf course, his caddy cautioned him to slice even more than usual. There was an unexploded bomb in the center of the fareway. A reporter wrote that Mike’s energy and cheerfulness were the mainstay of the Canadian mission during a time of greatly expanded workload and physical danger.

After enduring the Battle of Britain in London, Pearson returned to Ottawa in 1941 as undersecretary for external affairs. But the next year he moved again, this time to Washington as second in charge of the Embassy. In 1945, he became ambassador. The newly appointed ambassador enjoyed his Washington assignment, but found himself trying to counter two contradictory pressures. One was an American tendency toward unilateralism or isolationism and the other, an inclination to take Canada for granted. He pledged the Americans total Canadian cooperation in bringing about an allied victory, but without sacrifice of Canada’s identity.

Even Washington in wartime had its lighter moments. One day the State Department received a formal communication from the Canadian ambassador stating “I have been requested by their Excellencies, the various Canadian officials now serving in the penal settlement of Washington, to throw at the State Department a challenge to a test of strength or skill on what, I believe, is known as a baseball diamond.” The game ended as a rather hazy draw with a huge score.

Pearson came to appreciate the openness and flexibility of American officials in spite of doubts about that nation’s isolationist tendencies. He also worked extremely hard to make the UN as strong as possible in order to enmesh the two superpowers in a network of international institutions. He was especially instrumental in establishing the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. He still worked twelve hours a day to promote these and other international institutions, influencing the post-war international environment more than almost any other statesman. By the 1950s Mike Pearson was the best known Canadian, both inside and outside his native land. The U.S. Government proposed him to be the first secretary general of the United Nations, but the Soviets, thinking him an American puppet, vetoed the proposal.

Meanwhile his suspicions of Soviet aims increased as he asked himself, “Is it possible for the Western democracies to work out a tolerable relationship with a state organized on a police basis, governed by ruthless despots, inhabited by millions of fighting men and with a dynamic communist ideology?” These concerns nudged Mike towards America; he declared, “Canada must move closer to the United States, the bulwark against Communist domination, to protect itself.”

In view of Pearson’s pronouncements, it seems strange that in l95l Elizabeth Bentley identified Pearson as a Soviet contact in her testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. She accused him of moving in left-wing circles and of attending functions at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, a sin of which many diplomats were guilty during and after the war. The FBI worked up a file on him which was substantial in size if not in content. Since Mike Pearson was a gregarious person who enjoyed discourse with all kinds of people, he almost certainly talked with leftwingers, among other people, but the Subcommittee failed to prove anything against him and the publicity created by the charges gradually subsided.

When Louis St. Laurent replaced McKenzie King as prime minister, he arranged for Mike to become his minister for external affairs This move necessitated winning a seat in Parliament. St. Laurent found him a safe one, Algoma Fast, and he easily won in the election of 1948. As minister, he pursued with characteristic vigor his aims to make the United Nations an effective organization and to consolidate the Atlantic nations into an alliance. He was a principal actor in writing the North Atlantic Treaty, especially Article 11, which provided for non-military functions of the new organization. Pearson described the signing ceremony in 1949, before NATO had much strength, as follows:

There we signed the North Atlantic Treaty on that pleasant spring day in Washington while the band of the U.S. Marines played soft music, including two selections from Porgy and Bess, “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

PEARSON WORKED CLOSELY with Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state, whom he already knew well. In congratulating Acheson on his appointment, Pearson remarked that if he botched the job, Canada would “give him a job as consul at one of the American bases which are now sullying our fair country.” Thus he clothed in humor his nagging worry over preserving Canadian sovereignty when faced with the well-meaning giant to the South — the relationship called by Canadian that of the elephant and the flea.

Pearson supported the United States during the Korean War. Canada sent 20,000 troops to join the UN force there. He considered the war a test of collective security which the UN must meet successfully.

In 1952, Pearson became president of the United Nations General Assembly; he declined an offer to become secretary general of NATO, a more time-consuming proposition. Meanwhile, he was honing his skills as a grass-roots politician. He became an accomplished performer on the church-basement, chicken-supper circuit, where his gregarious charm and endless stories put him in great demand as a Liberal Party campaigner.

Yet, foreign affairs occupied the bulk of his attention. In 1956, Secretary of State Dulles sponsored a high-level committee, known as “the wise men,” to explore non-military functions for NATO (Pearson commented at the time that “some are born wise, some achieve wisdom, and some have wisdom thrust upon them”). Mike served along with foreign ministers Martini of Italy and Lange of Norway. Although the committee tried its best to come up with practicable recommendations, nothing came of its efforts. The 1956 Suez War, in which Israel, Britain, and France conspired to take over the Suez Canal from Nasser, proved to be Pearson’s major diplomatic test. He insisted that the United Nations handle the crisis, and, by dint of extremely hard work, obtained passage of a resolution setting up an international force along the border between Israel and Egypt even before British and French forces landed at Alexandria. Egypt accepted the force on its side of the border; the force served to keep the peace in that area until 1967. Late one night shortly after the crisis, Mike’s phone rang. When he answered, a reporter told him he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Suez War; Mike’s response was simply the exclamation “Gosh!” The citation referred to Pearson’s “never tiring determination and his exceptional ability to put forward constructive ideas for the solution of the Suez problem.”

The cornerstone of Pearson’s foreign policy had become the American alliance, although he did not agree that China constituted the threat that the United States claimed. However, the Conservative Party led by John Diefenbaker won the 1957 election, depriving Mike of an active role in world affairs for six years. Former Prime Minister St. Laurent retired as Liberal Party leader and in so doing paved the way for Mike, now sixty, to succeed him. He accepted the leadership apparently from a deep sense of responsibility, as well as old-fashioned ambition. A prominent Canadian commentator, John Byrd, wrote at the time, “Mike Pearson’s best claim to leadership is not his undoubted popularity, his common touch. It is that indefinable thing called size. Mike is a big man, big enough to be leader.”

He won the Party vote for leader in 1958 and immediately set about assembling the men and ideas he thought would be necessary to recapture power. He picked Walter Gordon, Tom Kent, and Mary McDonald as principal assistants. The Liberal platform they produced included what was then revolutionary elements, such as a national pension plan, universal medical insurance, urban renewal, regional development, and a national flag to replace the Red Ensign. The election of 1963 brought Mike and his associates to power in spite of bitter controversy over announced intention to permit U.S. nuclear weapons to be based on Canadian soil.

Soon after the election President Kennedy invited Pearson to visit him at Hyannisport. The two leaders got along famously and a series of bilateral agreements were soon spawned on subjects such as automobile production, joint defense, and joint utilization of the Columbia River.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, Mike’s cabinet colleagues saw to it that the Liberal’s social program was enacted. He supervised passage of the legislation, leaving the details to his colleagues better versed in domestic politics. However, the nature of the Canadian constitution required extensive negotiations with the provinces to bring the new legislation into effect. Here Mike’s considerable negotiating skill was invaluable, especially in dealing with the French Canadian government of Quebec.

The immediate justification for the debate over the flag was Nasser’s refusal to allow Canadian troops to participate in the international force along his border with Israel because of the British insignia. Pearson set about selecting a purely Canadian flag. The issue raised intense emotions among those who valued the British tie, but finally the maple leaf motif won out.

An important motive underlying Pearson’s choice of a purely Canadian flag, the social legislation, and a Royal Commission on bilingualism and biculturalism was to meet the desires of French Canadians and counter the growing nationalism of Quebec Province. ln spite of his efforts, the Quebec provincial government signed an international agreement with France on educational and cultural matters without reference to the central government in Ottawa.

Pearson’s second term as prime minister, beginning in 1965, was not as productive as his first. He got bogged down in relations with Quebec and with France itself. When De Gaulle demanded removal of Canadian NATO troops from French soil, Pearson asked pointedly whether he was also expected to move the bodies of the 100,000 Canadians who died fighting for France during World Wars I and II. Diplomacy and domestic politics required Pearson to invite De Gaulle to visit Canada and the resulting trip was a thorough disaster from the former’s point of view. The Quebec provincial government set about making plans directly with the French Government, but Pearson considered visits of foreign heads of state to be a responsibility of the government in Ottawa. Bickering, bad feelings, and duplication resulted. De Gaulle went first to Quebec city and then like some royal progression he moved slowly towards Montreal, where a half million people thronged the streets to witness the great moment of his arrival. Then De Gaulle spoke the fateful words “Vive Montréal, vive Le Québec, le Québec libre.” Mike was shocked and called an emergency cabinet meeting. Afterwards he made a public statement that Canadians were already free and didn’t need to be liberated. Instead of meeting with Mike as planned, De Gaulle, having done his mischief, promptly returned to France.

In a tremendous effort to hold Canada together, Mike made numerous concessions to Quebec, but the more he made, the more the Lesage government in Quebec demanded. On the other side, Diefenbaker, Mike’s bitter Conservative Party opponent, castigated him for appeasement. It was a no-win situation for Pearson.

To the South, Mike’s cordial relationship with Kennedy did not continue when Lyndon Johnson took over as President. Pearson thought him crude personally and he thoroughly distrusted his Vietnam policy. Although he warned his fellow Canadians against pulling the big bird’s tail feathers, he took the huge risk himself of calling for a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam in a speech given in the United States. The President was furious and personally berated Pearson as if he were a naughty school boy. From that time on, Johnson cut the Canadians out of the circuit on all matters pertaining to Vietnam and much else. Relations between the two men never recovered.

By this time, Mike was growing weary of public life and announced his intention to retire in December 1967. He arranged for Pierre Trudeau to succeed him and then left. He began to write furiously, as though there were no tomorrow. In fact, there wasn’t. A cancer developed behind his eyeball. But he never lost his sense of humor and remarked that the people were right who said they never knew what was going on in his head. He died on December 29, 1970, at the Pearson’s vacation spot in Florida.

At his funeral service in Ottawa, the minister concluded his remarks with these words, which include a reference to a Chinese poem Mike had enjoyed:

And thus Mike Pearson makes his way into the distance. The dawning of a new day in which he believed is still not with us, but he is playing his flute as he goes and we hear the sad and joyful music of humanity and follow. 

The author served in the American embassy in Ottawa and as Canadian desk officer in the Department of State, 1947-1951. Ambassador Dale retired after thirty years in the Foreign Service in 1975.- Ed.

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