A Plot "Made in the U.S."

By Richard Sanders, coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

John F. Kennedy (TV speech regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis)

In 1962, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Livingston Merchant and his Second Secretary Charles Kisselyak, fuelled a plot among the Canadian Air Forces, Canadian journalists and others to dispose of Prime Minister Diefenbaker. Kennedy hated Dief largely for his anti-nuclear stance.  Merchant and other U.S. embassy officers with espionage backgrounds, met at Kisselyak's home in Ottawa to feed journalists with spaghetti, beer and anti-Diefenbaker/pronuclear  propaganda.  Among the many participants in these off-the-record briefings was Charles Lynch of Southam News.

      Diefenbaker later denounced these reporters as "traitors" and "foreign agents."  He lashed out against Lynch on a TV program saying, "You were given briefings as to how the Canadian government could be attacked on the subject of nuclear weapons and the failure of the Canadian government to do that which the U.S. dictated."

      Merchant and Kisselyak worked with RCAF Wing Commander Bill Lee and NORAD's number two man, Canadian Air Marshall Roy Slemon.  Air Marshall Hugh Campbell and the chair of Canada's chiefs of staff, Air Marshall Frank Miller also approved Lee's campaign. Diefenbaker's avidly pronuclear Defence Minister, Douglas Harkness, also knew of Lee's effort. 

      As head of RCAF public relations, Lee went to Washington twice a month to confer with U.S. authorities.  "It was a flat-out campaign," he later said.  "We identified key journalists, business and labour, key Tory hitters, and...Liberals.... We wanted people with influence on members of cabinet.  In the end the pressure paid off."  

      In 1962, new U.S. ambassador, William Butterworth, continued the "flat-out campaign" by holding discrete meetings at the U.S. embassy to exert influence on Canadian journalists.

      Lester Pearson was the President's choice.  Kennedy gave the go-ahead to his friend and America's leading pollster, Lou Harris, to become the Liberal's secret campaign advisor in the 1962 election.  Diefenbaker survived with a minority government. 

      The plot to bring down Canada's government came to a head in January, 1963.  On Jan.3, top U.S. Air Force General Lauris Norstad held an Ottawa press conference.  Prompted by questions from Lynch, and other reporters briefed by U.S. intelligence, Norstad criticized Canada's antinuclear stance.  On Jan. 12, Pearson announced his new policy of supporting U.S. nuclear weapons in Canada.  In protest, Pierre Trudeau called Pearson the "defrocked priest of peace" and refused to run for the Liberals.

      The coup's final blow came when the U.S. State Department issued a press release which called Diefenbaker a liar on nuclear issues (Jan. 30). This tactic was suggested by Willis Armstrong,  head of the State Department's Canada Desk in Washington.  Butterworth added his suggestions and sent his senior embassy advisor, Rufus Smith, to Washington to draft it.  "With Armstrong chairing, half a dozen officials from State, the White House and the Pentagon...shaped...the rebuke."  The draft was polished by Under Secretary of State George McGhee and approved by acting Secretary of State, George Ball, and national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy.

        The Canadian media had a heyday attacking Diefenbaker. Fights broke out in Cabinet.  Diefenbaker recalled Canada's ambassador from the U.S.  On Feb. 5, Defence Minister Harkness announced his resignation and Pearson called for a non-confidence vote.  Dief's minority government fell, or rather, it was 'knocked over.'

      Kisselyak was the U.S. embassy's contact to Pearson's election campaign.  The Liberals had the strong advantages of a friendly media and Harris' state-of-the-art, computerized polling tactics.  Diefenbaker, facing a primed hostile media, ran a stridently anti-U.S. campaign.  Pearson's victory was hailed by newspapers across North America.  Within days, the new External Affairs Minister, Paul Martin Sr., was approached by Butterworth to negotiate the acceptance of U.S. nuclear weapons.  The warheads were deployed in Canada on New Year's Eve and there was partying in Washington.


 For further reading on this, see:

 Kennedy and Diefenbaker, 1990 by Knowlton Nash,

 "Is the Sky Falling, or What?," Feb. 20, 1995. by Floyd Rudmin

 Lament for a Nation, 1982 by George Grant

 The Fight for Canada: Four centuries of Resistance to American expansionism by David Orchard, 1993, 1998

 The Chief, 1968 By Thomas Van Dusen

 Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, 1963 by Peter Newman

 This Game of Politics, 1965 By Pierre Sevigny

“George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker government by one incautious press release.”

(McGeorge Bundy, J.F.Kennedy’s National security advisor)


“My brother really hated only two men in all his presidency.  One was Sukarno [President of Indonesia] and the other was Diefenbaker.” 

Robert Kennedy

Articles by Professor Floyd Rudmin:

"Questions of U.S. Hostility Towards Canada: A Cognitive History of Blind-Eye Perception"

"U.S. Ambassador Spies: 1960 to 1980" 1995