7 John Diefenbaker and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Olivia Moat


The Cuban missile crisis signifies the height of the Cold war, the moment when the world came closest to total nuclear global destruction.  In 1962, the world teetered on the brink of war. Not only was it a low-point in Soviet-American relations, but it also was a crisis in Canadian-American relations. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker is typically noted by scholars as being hesitant and indecisive during the crisis. His hesitation was, in part, due to the strained relations and lack of trust between him and John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States. A lack of communication between the two leaders and the vague outlines in the NORAD agreement that governed air defences between the two nations worsened this relationship at a crucial time. The Second World War had seen the development of the most dangerous weapon humans have ever created: nuclear power. First deployed by the United States against Japan in 1945, other world powers, such as the Soviet Union, strived to obtain the weapon as well. They rushed to possess their own nuclear warheads, both as a display power and to deter any attack against them. While Canada never sought to develop or acquire such weapons, the Cuban missile crisis brought Canada and the rest of the world close to nuclear war.

Diefenbaker had astonished many when he defeated the long-serving Liberal government and became Prime minister in 1957. His popularity declined after winning this massive majority government in 1958, as he was increasingly described as indecisive and hesitant regarding many issues, but particularly over Canada acquiring nuclear weapons and Canada’s participation in engaging in acts that might be deemed aggressive.[1] Diefenbaker’s attitude towards the use of weapons of mass destruction was cautionary and it affected relations with United States, especially with President Kennedy in the period leading up to – and during – the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis and Diefenbaker’s handling of it contributed significantly to his downfall. While Diefenbaker supported Kennedy’s decision during the crisis, he was unwilling to immediately take the action Kennedy wanted. Diefenbaker needed to consult with his cabinet and work with the United Nations to mediate the situation before taking action that Diefenbaker feared could have been deemed aggressive in the eyes of the Soviet Union.[2] The United States played a significant role in Diefenbaker’s approach to the crisis as there had developed with the United States a lack of trust between the Prime Minister and the President. This chapter explores John Diefenbaker’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis and how it contributed to his downfall as prime minister of Canada.

Who was John Diefenbaker?

John George Diefenbaker came from a hard-working family who moved from Ontario to the Northwest Territories, which later became Saskatchewan. His mother was a Scottish immigrant, and his father was German. Given his German name, he faced discrimination during the First World War. Diefenbaker’s family was by no means wealthy and moved several times in young John’s childhood years. In 1912, John Diefenbaker attended the Saskatoon Collegiate Institute where he studied law and arts. It is important to note that John Diefenbaker had a goal of becoming prime minister since the young age of ten years old. He aimed for a career in politics and admired Prime ministers such as Robert Borden in 1917.[3] During the First World War, Diefenbaker enlisted and became a lieutenant in Infantry. He set sail for England in the 196th Battalion. Deemed medically unfit in 1917, he was demobilized and denied pension sought on the grounds for disability.[4] This may have been the beginning of his commitment to ensure social justice for Canadians.

Diefenbaker: A Proponent of Canadian Social Justice

Diefenbaker was regarded by many as a promotor of social justice in Canada, and that may explain some of his opposition to nuclear weapons with their lethal, indiscriminate and widespread destructive capacity.  He was opposed to the death penalty and aimed for equality and justice for those who deserved it. This led to him creating the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, a precursor for extending voting rights for Indigenous peoples. In fact, Diefenbaker’s commitment to social justice had a long history. In 1920, when he was elected to the Wakaw Council, he quickly developed a reputation as a defender of minorities. He was a defence lawyer with a powerful and edgy voice, and identified with the dispossessed and the poor, with those who lacked wealth and power and those who did not identify with the British Canadian mainstream. During the 1930’s he was diagnosed with a Gastric illness, and was witness to the Great Depression, crop failures and unemployment. During this time, he developed his vision of a “One Canada,” through which he believed all Canadians were equal and all should prosper in Canada. He first handedly had witnessed what it was like for Canadians in the west, north and east coast to be treated differently, both within the law and from other Canadians. This created a driving force within Diefenbaker to be a fighter for social justice and give Canadians a foundation of national identity.  As Diefenbaker imagined a life full of politics from a very young age, his experience and knowledge led him to have a confident edgy voice, and a determination like no other.[5] He lived his life fighting for others and wanting to make Canada a place where all would be accepted, all were heard, and all had a voice.

A Diefenbaker Government

In 1957, after 22 years in opposition, the Progressive Conservatives took control with John Diefenbaker as prime minister.[6] When Canadians went to the polls that year, a Liberal victory seemed highly probable, but John Diefenbaker was the voice the Conservatives needed. Diefenbaker won a shocking victory with 38.5 percent of the popular vote and 112 seats.[7] After the election, Lester B. Pearson, the new Liberal leader, called for a vote of no confidence in the Diefenbaker government.[8] Pearson suggested that the election was used by Canadians to show the Liberals a lesson and suggested the Conservative Party step down to allow the “natural Government” to retake control.[9] This led Canadians to the polls in 1958.  Seizing the opportunity and making good use of the arrogance of the Liberal opposition Diefenbaker presented a vision for Canadians based on development of resources and of the North. Diefenbaker won a majority vote in 1958, reaching a whopping 208 out of 265 seats[10], 50 of which were from Quebec.

From the moment he gained power Diefenbaker would attempt to prove to Canadians that he was the right choice. He did not want to disappoint, but the lack of experience in his Cabinet after 22 years of being in opposition to the Liberals, proved disastrous. His government had to face a new economic downturn, the recession of 1960, and created its own troubles with the Coyne Affair as well as the fall of the Canadian dollar that lead to the mocking printing of Diefenbaker by the Liberals.[11] This was all stirring while Canada was finding its footing on the world stage, as a developing middle power and a firm believer in the mediation possible through the United Nations.[12] Some nations began to see Canada as a western ally, while others identified Canada with being a puppet of Britain and the United States. While Canada was a member of the Commonwealth and had strong political ties with the United Kingdom, Canada had become a key western ally to the United States.

Canadian defense politics and developments leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was not the beginning of the people’s lack in confidence in Prime Minister Diefenbaker. Plans directed towards the defence of the West from possible Soviet aggression had been in progress during the early 1950s. Beginning at the end of the Second World War, the Cold War continued into the early 1990s, and centered on the geopolitical ideologies demonstrated in the West and with the Soviet Union. Fearful of the Soviet Communism making its way to the West, the United States built up its defense capabilities, while the Soviets, on the other hand, were fearful of Western ideologies threatening them.[13] In the early years of the Cold War, the main threat in the west came from Soviet bombers armed with nuclear bombs.[14] To defend against these, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) equipped itself with high-performance fighter jets. These included the Canadian-built CF-100 Canuck interceptor, and later, the planned CF-105 Arrow.[15] It was during this time that Canada and the United States collaborated on several lines of defence in northern Canada, including the early warning radar stations, today known as the Distant Early Warning (D.E.W) line.[16]

The Avro Arrow project was another planned aspect of Canada’s defence infrastructure put in to play by the Liberal Government after the Second World War. The project was supposed to produce CF-105 Avro Arrow Airplanes, designed to intercept Soviet nuclear bombers heading for the United States and Canada. These aircrafts were a highly advanced aerodynamic achievement, a military investment Canadians could be proud to have. Even under the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent, officials were unsure of the viability of the production as well as its escalating cost.[17] The Liberal Government discussed scrapping the project but decided to move forward until at least after the federal election in 1967.  When he was elected, Diefenbaker inherited a project that had an increasing number of problems and was deemed a public relations nightmare. As the economy was declining and intercontinental ballistic missile rendered interceptor aircraft such as the Avro Arrow obsolete due to their inability to carry nuclear warheads, Diefenbaker decided to shut down the Avro Project. An interesting piece to note here is that while this must have been a difficult decision for Diefenbaker, it was something that could have been avoided all together if the Liberal Government had acted before the election. Since the Liberal Government failed to act on this issue, Diefenbaker was blamed for cancelling the project and destroying, in the view of many Canadians, a great technological advance invented by Canadians.

Even with the Avro project terminated, Diefenbaker still believed that a defence system was necessary and turned to intercontinental missiles to protect North America from possible Soviet aggression. After the 1957 election Diefenbaker committed Canada to the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD), a continental air-defence alliance headed by an American Air Force general but one that the US and Canada co-operated on.[18] By then, it was clear that the use of nuclear technology was not going away, and with rising Soviet-Western tension, Canada and the United States worked together to assure North American continental Protection. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was a pact made in 1957, at the height of the Cold War.[19] It officially went into effect and placed the air forces of Canada and the United States under joint command in 1958.[20]

As part of the defence strategy, Canada had acquired Bomarc Missiles to contribute to the intercontinental defense strategy of both nations.[21] In total, 56 Bomarc Missiles were purchased and sent to Canada; however, issues soon began when Diefenbaker took a step back and refused to equip the missiles with the nuclear war heads that the United States insisted were needed to make them fully functional and effective. That decision was among the first that made President Kennedy, who have been elected in 1960, frustrated with Diefenbaker and his frustrations only grew.  Diefenbaker had become increasingly hesitant to place nuclear weapons on Canadian soil or have Canada become a nuclear power. He believed many Canadians were opposed to such weapons but for other Canadians – and for the United States – it gave them reason to doubt Diefenbaker’s judgment.

Canada, and the Relationship with the United States

It is widely known that the relationship between Diefenbaker and President Kennedy was never a friendly nor even a tolerant one.  The developments within NORAD and Diefenbaker’s decision on nuclear warheads caused a deep wedge between the two leaders. Both leaders deeply mistrusted one another, and both pursued what they felt was their countries greatest national interest. Entering Parliament, Diefenbaker describes in his memoirs how his government “inherited a degraded Parliament as a direct consequence of Liberal Policies.”[22] He describes the trade imbalance with the United States that Canada had developed in the post-1945 period as shocking, noting that by 1957, the United Stated accounted for 60 percent of Canada’s exports and 73 percent of its imports.[23]  Diefenbaker aimed to change this, and reduce the dependence of Canada’s trade on the United State and diversify trade with different trading partners.  He was worried heavily about the threat to Canada’s sovereignty with its dependence on the American market. Moreover, to many, Canada looked to be a puppet of the United States and with so much American investment in Canada, it would be hard for one to reject this notion. Diefenbaker was determined to see that Canada’s sovereignty as a nation was not compromised.  In an effort to reduce U.S investments in Canada, Diefenbaker applied special taxes on interest, dividends and profits to non-residents. Such policies furthered his reputation for being Anti-American.[24]

“I am not anti-American but pro- Canadian,”[25] Diefenbaker insisted. He noted that if Canada failed to diversify its trade, Canada would no longer belong to Canadians, a very real fear for Canadian citizens.[26] Diefenbaker had a strong desire to limit American economic influence on Canada and he hoped the lessening of American influence would change how some of the world perceived Canada. While Canada is a close ally and friend of the United States, its first duty is to take care of its own citizens and continue to make sure their global relations are in order. Making drastic cuts to American businesses in Canada could have long-term lasting negative effects, and Diefenbaker took this into consideration when Kennedy urged him to become a part of the Organization of American States (O.A.S.).[27] Diefenbaker politely declined, acknowledging that joining the O.A.S. would cause more issues than it would solve for Canada.

While John. F. Kennedy was never Diefenbaker’s close friend, there was a diplomatic incident that pushed the two to a point of no return in terms of their relationship. Prime Minister Diefenbaker discovered a memorandum left behind by the U. S ambassador during his visit to Diefenbaker’s office. The famous “Rostow Memo” indicated a number of key issues that the United States wanted to “push “Canada and the prime Minister on.[28] Diefenbaker was not pleased. One could say the memo gave Diefenbaker the justification to be fearful of the United States and to be worried about their true intentions. While Kennedy by no means wanted to be close with Diefenbaker, Diefenbaker now had a clear reason to be suspicious towards Kennedy and felt the memo was a clear sign that the United States believed they could dominate Canada. Diefenbaker realized he had to be careful about what the United States expected of Canada, and step carefully to avoid Canada becoming an American puppet state. The United States believed that with agreements such as NORAD, Canada and its military would come to their aid whenever the United States deemed it necessary, wanting no questions to be asked.[29] Due to the lack of trust caused by the Rostow memorandum, Diefenbaker believed Kennedy would not be completely truthful on any issues.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a major event of the Cold war. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing to be the dominant power, metaphorically speaking the two have been attempting to be the bigger fish in the pond, or rather the tough person on the playground. While the United States were first to develop the nuclear warhead, the Soviets were close behind. In a letter written by USSR President Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy, Khrushchev outlined his reasoning behind the placement of Soviet nuclear war heads in Cuba:

You want to make your country safe. This is understandable, but Cuba, too, wants the same thing. All countries want to make themselves safe. But how are we, the Soviet Union and our government, to assess your actions which are expressed in the fact that you have surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases, surrounded our allies with military bases, literally disposed military bases around our country, and stationed your rocket armaments there? This is not a secret. American officials are demonstratively saying this. Your rockets are situated in Britain and Italy and aimed against us. Your rockets are situated in Turkey. You are worried by Cuba. You say that it worries you because it is 90 miles by sea from the American coast. However, Turkey is next to us. …. I therefore make this proposal. We agree to remove from Cuba those means which you regard as offensive means. We agree to carry this out and declare this pledge in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States on its part, considering the uneasiness and anxiety of the Soviet state, will remove its analogous means from Turkey. Let us reach agreement as to the span of time needed for you and us to achieve this. After this, persons enjoying the confidence of the U.N. Security Council might check on-the-spot fulfillment of the pledges assumed.[30]

In this letter, we can gauge the thought process behind the Soviet action that resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is a justification as a means of providing a defence from the United States. With Khrushchev mentioning the United States’ placing of nuclear warheads in close proximity to the Soviet Union, we can easily sense Khrushchev felt threatened by the United States. The world had descended into a fight between Democracy and Communism. Both the United States and the Soviet Union felt threatened and no provocation from the other could go unchallenged.

A month prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy expressed growing concern with Russian build up of military power. Kennedy had stated that there was no immediate evidence of a significant offensive capability, however if this were to change the United States would do “whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.”[31] While Diefenbaker believed the United States was overreacting to Cuba’s potential threat, the United States expected Canadians to cooperate in containing Cuba due to their location in the western hemisphere.[32] This American assumption was based on the previously situated NORAD agreement, as well as the understanding that Canada was an essential part of the western hemisphere and thus would want to protect its allies. Despite the desires of the United States, “Whatever or wherever you lead, we follow”, was no policy for Canada[33].

While American planning was in progress prior to October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis is deemed to have begun on the 16th day of that month.[34] An American U2 Military Aircraft was instructed to fly over Cuba in efforts to identity what the Soviet Union was doing there.[35]  The images it returned threatened the tenuous peace between east and west, Soviet nuclear missiles were now in Cuba. With photographic evidence of the installation of missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy took several days to develop a response.[36] The pressure was on, and the United States planned to do whatever necessary to protect its country and citizens.   Ironically, while Diefenbaker was expected to react quickly to the intelligence from President Kennedy, the American President did not begin consulting with world leaders until several days after the crisis began. Kennedy and his advisors spent a week discussing what to do.[37] Kennedy mounted an immediate naval blockade of Cuba, and he labeled it a “quarantine,” since in international legal terms a naval blockade was an act of war that required a formal declaration of war.[38]

Prior to the United Stated Government informing Diefenbaker, two Canadian intelligence officials were informally invited to sit in on a meeting of their American colleagues. These agents immediately reported to Ottawa about the missiles in Cuba.[39]  In a meeting with the United States ambassador, Diefenbaker was presented with a letter that Kennedy intended to use to address Americans in a live broadcast. Diefenbaker had several questions about the letter as well, questioning the President’s haste in moving to impose a blockade, which was technically an act of war. Diefenbaker was disappointed that Kennedy did not consult the United Nations for approval before taking such an aggressive action.

The speech that Kennedy gave took Diefenbaker by surprise, as it was not at all what he had previously been informed.  As the U.S. Military went on to defense condition (DEFCON 3) on 22 October, U.S officials requested that Canada match the level of readiness.[40] A major issue during this crisis was the lack of communication between leaders, while Kennedy had’ promised to keep Canada informed, stating “I will do all I can to keep you fully informed”[41] most communication went through military personnel In Canada that meant going first to the Minister of Foreign affairs, Howard Green, who then consulted Prime Minister Diefenbaker.

A24 Sussex – Prime Minister Diefenbaker, President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, and Mrs. Diefenbaker, May 17th, 1961- Library and Archives Canada

Diefenbaker believed that all major decisions should go through him and the Cabinet. He did not feel that decisions, especially in such critical situations as this one was, should be left up to the military. Many Canadian citizens were deeply concerned with the potential use of nuclear technology and were opposed to them being placed on Canadian soil.[42]. Moreover, the use of nuclear technology was typically against Canadian beliefs and values and not aligned with the goals of the United Nations. Being a middle power and having a reputation as a mediator, Canada might be able to play a role that might defuse the situations and avoid Canada going to Defcon 3 as per request by the United States.

Diefenbaker had several reasons for procrastinating on this important decision. Not only was he asked to set alert to Defcon 3 with no initial warning directly after President Kennedy’s speech, but also Diefenbaker did also not want to go against Canadian values and place Canadian citizens into a situation they did not ask to be in. While he was in support of the United States doing what was necessary to deal with Soviet aggression, he expected due diligence by the United States and to have them engage in dialogue with the Soviets through the United Nations and certainly consult with him before issuing instructions to the Canadian military. Diefenbaker and the Canadian Government were concerned with the appearance of Canada to other nations if it simply did what the US instructed it to do. If Canada were to go on Defcon 3, Canada could appear defensive, aggressive land even as a puppet of the United States. One thing Diefenbaker wanted to make sure of as prime minister was that Canada was able to stand on its own and act independently, not only as an independent secure member of the Commonwealth and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but as well as independent from the United States.

Diefenbaker had refused to place the military on alert and deliberated for several days over raising Canadian forces to DEFCON 3.[43] The issue here was whether to comply with the Unites States’ request. The vague outlines of the NORAD agreements had given the United States the ability to inform the prime minister of the plans, and this would count as a consultation. Diefenbaker and Canada’s Foreign Minister, Secretary of State for External Affairs, Howard Green, were wary of falling too quickly into line with American demands. They were also concerned that placing Canada’s military on alert might provoke the Soviet Union.[44] Regardless of this, it did not stop Green from going behind the Prime Minister’s back and informing the military to place their awareness level to DECFON 3. Two days later, as the United States had increases their DEFCON level from level 3 to DEFCON 2, a level representing imminent war. Diefenbaker did tell his defense minister to go ahead to DEFCON 3, but Harkness later acknowledged, “I never told him that I had already done so”.[45]  Lasting for 13 days, the Cuban Missile crisis ended after a standoff on 28 October with the help of United Nations diplomats. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the Soviet missiles, in return for Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba[46].


The Cuban missile crisis was one of the closest moments in history when humanity came closest to total nuclear annihilation. John G. Diefenbaker wanted the best for all Canadians and the world. Many have argued that Diefenbaker hesitated in a time of great need and uncertainty, but perhaps one can also argue that his careful consideration was warranted. Given his relationship with United States President John F. Kennedy, his distrust of American motives given the Rostow Memorandum, Diefenbaker was justified in his hesitation and exploring other avenues were available to deal with the Soviet threat, decidedly through the United Nations. In his delay to respond to the incident as the Americans expected, Diefenbaker searched for several options that would benefit all parties. He did not want to send the Canadian military into another war if it were something that may have been prevented. Nor did he want Canada to look like a ‘puppet’ of the United States or be bullied by the Americans into using force. If he had not stood his ground, believing in what he felt was right for his citizens and his country, and then the result very well may have ended differently. We know that his delay or hesitation is what made citizens distrust his judgment in Cabinet and as Canada’s prime minister, but the Right Honorable John G. Diefenbaker proved that through his life in politics he stayed true to his values.

  1. Denis Smith, “DIEFENBAKER, JOHN GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 20, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003
  2. Asa McKercher, A "Half-hearted Response'?:Canada and The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2011, 342
  5. For this part of Diefenbaker’s life, see Denis Smith, Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1977).
  10. Robert Wardhaugh and Alan MacEachern, Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation (Toronto: Nelson Publishing. 2017), 405.
  13. Wardhaugh and MacEachern. Destinies: 440-44.
  14. Alex Herd, 2006. The Candian Encyclopedia: Canada and The Cold War.
  15. Herd, The Candian Encyclopedia: Canada and The Cold War.
  16. Herd, The Candian Encyclopedia: Canada and The Cold War.
  18. Wardhaugh and MacEachern, Destinies, 441.
  19. J.L. Granatstein,  The Candian Encyclopedia: NORAD. 2006.
  20. Granatstein, NORAD.
  21. Taylor C Noakes,  The Canadian Encyclopedia:Canada and Nuclear weapons. 2021.
  22. John G. Diefenbaker, One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker. Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1975), 67.
  23. Diefenbaker, One Canada, 71
  24. Wardhaugh and Alan MacEachern, Destinies, 440.
  25. Arthur. Milnes, n.d. "Remembering the Chief Average Canadians felt empowered by Diefenbaker." Toronto Star.
  26. Diefenbaker, One Canada, 73.
  27. Diefenbaker, One Canada, 171.
  29. Jocelyn Maynard Ghent. "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis." JSTOR, 1979, 161.
  30. Khrushchev, 1962, "Message from Khrushchev to Kennedy." 1962, Oct 27.
  31. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," 162.
  32. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," 161.
  33. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," 181.
  34. Diefenbaker Canada Centre: Canada’s Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis n.d.
  35. Mathew Gurney, Leaders in Conflict: Diefenbaker, Kennedy, and Canada's Response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2009, 70.
  36. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," 162.
  37. Denis Stairs, 2006. The Canadian Encyclopedia: Canada and The Cuban Missile Crisis.
  38. Stairs, The Canadian Encyclopedia: Canad and The Cuban Missile Crisis.
  39. Gurney, Leaders in Conflict, 77.
  40. Asa McKercher,. A "Half-hearted Response'? Canada and The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2011, 342.
  41. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," 163.
  42. Diefenbaker Canada Centre: The Nuclear Question in Canada n.d.
  43. Diefenbaker Canada Centre: Canadas Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis n.d.
  44. Stairs, The Canadian Encyclopedia: Canada and The Cuban Missile Crisis.
  45. Ghent, "Canada, The United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,"  177.
  46. Stairs, The Canadian Encyclopedia: Canad and The Cuban Missile Crisis.


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Canada and the Challenges of Leadership Copyright © 2023 by Kelsey Lonie; Corey Safinuk; and Jonathon Zimmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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