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John Boyko’s book explores the contentious relationship between John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
John Boyko’s book explores the contentious relationship between John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Review: John Boyko’s Cold Fire chronicles JFK’s sometimes-rocky relationship with Canada Add to ...

  • Title Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front
  • Author John Boyko
  • Genre history
  • Publisher Knopf Canada
  • Pages 373
  • Price $35

When, in 1960, prime minister John Diefenbaker visited the White House, president Dwight Eisenhower announced that “every member of this company feels a very definite sense of honour and distinction in the privilege of having with us tonight the prime minister of the great republic of Canada.” Diefenbaker loved the war hero and laughed off Eisenhower’s ignorant remark, even when it was repeated.

That anecdote and many like it do not find their way into John Boyko’s new book, but they undermine the book’s flimsy positions. Cold Fire argues that Eisenhower was a far wiser statesman than his war-crazed celebrity successor, John F. Kennedy, and that Diefenbaker was a principled, coherent Canadian patriot who stood up to the bullying JFK. It is unpersuasive on all counts, and succeeds mostly in demonstrating how nationalist myths produce poor history.

Boyko is a historian at Lakefield College and the author of five previous works on Canadian history. His new book attempts a major rehabilitation of Diefenbaker, who lived at 24 Sussex Dr. from 1957 to 1963 and remained Opposition leader until 1967. Among the best election campaigners in Canadian political history, “the Chief” was, as even Boyko concedes in a passage buried toward the end of the book, emotionally volatile to the point of unstable. Although he had a number of achievements, such as writing the Canadian Bill of Rights, most scholars have agreed with Diefenbaker’s associate defence minister, Pierre Sévigny (many members of his own cabinet considered the prime minister mad), who said, “In the end, the job was too big for him. It was a nation run by an immensely colourful man, but an immensely erratic man.”

Cold Fire argues, rather, that the country was too small for him, that “Diefenbaker wanted more for Canada, and he fought Canada and Canadians who wanted less.” And that Canadians tragically opted instead for less. “They were less interested in the prowess of their prime minister to promote their sovereignty than the power of the president to protect their security,” Boyko concludes.

Of course, a great leader can offer his country both, or at least balance the two needs. But Diefenbaker was not a great leader.

Boyko’s claim that Dief was devoted to Canada’s independence is wrong-headed for two reasons.

First, he was not averse to being led by another country – he simply wanted that country to be Britain instead of the United States. He arranged for the Queen to preside over a cabinet meeting in 1959 and insisted that she be accompanied on her visit to Canada by a minister at all times, since she was, he said, “Queen of Canada.”

He objected to Britain both abandoning the imperial preferential-trading system and joining the precursor to the European Union, lest the Commonwealth become meaningless. He was so pushy on the subject that British prime minister Harold Macmillan began avoiding him, confiding in his diary that Diefenbaker was “difficult” and “a very crooked man.” During the flag debate of the 1960s, Boyko’s hero opposed the Maple Leaf, believing that it ignored the country’s British heritage.

Cold Fire feebly defends Diefenbaker against charges of anti-Americanism, omitting statements of his such as, “Well, having a royal family means we’re not American. And isn’t that enough?” As far back as 1926, he had said, “I want to make Canada all Canadian and all British.”

The second way Cold Fire overstates Diefenbaker’s integrity is in ignoring his acquiescence to many American requests – as long as they were made by Eisenhower and not Kennedy. JFK made a speech to Parliament calling for Canada to join the Organization of American States after being rebuffed on the request from the prime minister. Boyko says Kennedy “crossed the line” and was “breaking diplomatic protocol and the dictates of common courtesy.”

But in 1958, Eisenhower had also spoken to Parliament, remarks that Boyko ignores. And, as Knowlton Nash put it in his wonderful 1990 book Kennedy & Diefenbaker, “It was a much more muscular speech than John Kennedy would give three years later, but instead of being engaged, as he was with JFK, Diefenbaker simply smiled benignly and took good old Ike fishing.”

On virtually every issue that Kennedy pushed Canada on – from the OAS to accepting nuclear weapons on its territory to trade issues – he was following in Eisenhower’s footprints. But Diefenbaker told his cabinet, “I just don’t trust the Kennedys. His father was anti-British.”

JFK’s glamour and handsomeness – which Boyko simplifies to be the primary reason for his popularity, overlooking the wit, erudition and toughness that made him an icon – were threatening to the perpetually insecure Diefenbaker. Even before JFK took office, Diefenbaker’s aide noted that his boss “has formed an irrational prejudice against Kennedy.” The prime minister referred to JFK as “that boy” and “that pup” and mimicked his New England accent repeatedly, insults that somehow aren’t mentioned in Cold Fire. Meanwhile, every perceived slight directed at Diefenbaker by the Kennedy clan is treated as evidence for their disdain for Canada.

And so, having got the big things wrong, it is no surprise that Boyko’s book gets many little things wrong.

He ascribes the Domino Theory – which held that if one country fell to communism, neighbouring countries would follow – to Harry Truman when it was actually both coined and implemented by Eisenhower. He mentions that Lester Pearson won the Nobel Prize for his role in inventing United Nations peacekeeping during the Suez Crisis while neglecting to mention that Diefenbaker had criticized Pearson for selling out Britain during the conflict. He writes that “three years before a telegenic Kennedy taught Americans about television’s political power,” an aide “trained Diefenbaker to exploit it.” But television first became an electoral force in U.S. presidential politics not in 1960 but during the 1952 election campaign, when it was first ably exploited by – you guessed it – Dwight Eisenhower. He even claims that before Eisenhower warned America of the military-industry complex, Diefenbaker had foreseen the problem by dealing with Canadian generals. But Diefenbaker’s problems with his military were no greater than Abraham Lincoln’s, who repeatedly had to overrule his commanders nearly a century earlier.

These are just a few of the errors that flow through Cold Fire, which attempts to be provocative by declaring that the United States wanted missiles in Canada as a decoy for the Soviet Union, that JFK wouldn’t have been assassinated if he hadn’t dug a tree at Diefenbaker’s insistence and that JFK sent an undercover pollster to advise Pearson during the 1963 election campaign. These arguments range from unfalsifiable to flat-out wrong.

One doctor who examined JFK indeed surmised that he might have survived had he not been wearing a back brace that kept him upright for a second gunshot while driving through Dallas. But Kennedy wore a brace and was in agonizing back pain literally decades before he grabbed a shovel for the prime minister. Boyko traces the specific brace Kennedy was using the day he was killed to his time with Diefenbaker, but he offers no evidence for that connection. It is an unfortunately typical jump beyond where the evidence leads him.

When making one of his more unsustainable claims, Boyko admits that “there is only circumstantial evidence” in support of it. But, of course, no responsible historian makes arguments on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Then again, if Boyko followed that rule, Cold Fire wouldn’t exist at all.

Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, is a Canadian writer living in New York.

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