David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.
The American president spoke of having passed ‘’so many happy hours of my life’’ in Canada. The Canadian prime minister beamed over what he called ‘’the evident goodwill on all sides.’’ There was much talk of bridges, real and metaphorical. It was a long time ago.
To be precise, it has been 80 years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined William Lyon Mackenzie King in Kingston, Ont.
The president received an honourary degree from Queen’s University. The prime minister reflected silently on how his grandfather, imprisoned in the United States, had received a Presidential pardon from Martin Van Buren after being convicted of encouraging Canadian exiles to invade Upper Canada. And then, he thought with wonder, a century later, he was riding the streets of an early Canadian capital with a later president, both of them, as he wrote in his diary, ‘’receiving the friendliest cheers of the people assembled.’’
Kingston seldom plays a large role in international diplomacy, and American-Canadian relations have seldom been so fraught as they are today, so it seems fitting that Kingston, where the pre-Confederation buildings are sometimes called the ‘’old stones,’’ is planning an anniversary salute next Saturday to the visit of the two leaders. Their joint appearance was a landmark in the history of both countries because it was the first time the United States, which itself had mounted occasional invasions of Canada, explicitly pledged to defend Canada from foreign incursions.
‘’In the current climate, there’s been a flood of rhetoric at the national level,’’ Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson told me. ‘’But at the local level, the bonds are strong and at our level we are moving at exactly the opposite direction, a mutual determination, in the spirit of the Roosevelt remarks, to make that partnership stronger.’’
Kingston’s plan for an afternoon celebration of the Roosevelt speech – a sizable delegation of U.S. officials has been invited – is a powerful antidote to a relationship that recently has experienced difficult trade negotiations, (mistaken) claims that Canadians burned down the White House, tariff threats and counterthreats, and taunts employing the words ‘’weak’’ and ‘’dishonest.’’
Things were different in 1938, and not only because it was a time when songs such as A-Tisket, A-Tasket (Ella Fitzgerald) and Begin the Beguine (Artie Shaw) would fill the airwaves on both sides of the 49th parallel. It was the summer both broadcaster Peter Jennings and former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin were born. The dedication of the 13.6-kilometre Thousand Islands Bridge connecting Ivy Lea, Ont., and Collins Landing, N.Y., came as dark clouds gathered over Europe, with the doomed Munich Agreement only six weeks away.
But in North America, Mackenzie King could speak of ‘’the art of international bridge building’’ along with the ‘’overcoming of barriers [and the] broadening of the path of progress and peace,’’ words that ring strong and free even on scratchy CBC recordings from that day. For his part, Roosevelt could speak of two nations ‘’in friendship and in entire understanding,’’ and then offer the security pledge that for eight decades – through John F. Kennedy’s disdain for John Diefenbaker, Lyndon Johnson’s remorseless pillorying of Lester pearson over the Vietnam War, and Donald J. Trump’s bitter criticism of Justin Trudeau – has been the spine of relations between the two countries.
‘’The response to the statement was spontaneous,’’ the storied American journalist Felix Belair, Jr. wrote on the front page of The New York Times. ‘’Hardly had the last word passed the President’s lips when a thunder of applause that was sustained several minutes arose from all over the stadium.’’ He noted that Mackenzie King ‘’applauded gently against the back of his wrist.’’
For the United States, the security pledge produced a northern moat against aggression to accompany the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, bodies of water that allowed America to retreat into itself at times of isolationist sentiment and to protect itself at times of international engagement. For Canada, it provided special assurances of defence of the British Columbia and Yukon coasts, regarded as especially vulnerable as the Second World War approached.
That day, Roosevelt said ‘’the bridge which we here dedicate is a tangible proof that administration by two neighbours of a job to be done in common offers no difficulty.’’ There was sustained applause when Mackenzie King described the bridge as a ‘’monument of international co-operation and goodwill.’’
Amid the seriousness of the proceedings, Roosevelt, who a year earlier had threatened the independence of the U.S. Supreme Court, offered a subtle jibe to the high court. In accepting the honourary doctor of law degree, FDR noted that American presidents are precluded from accepting any title from a foreign prince, potentate or power.
‘’Queen’s University is not a prince or a potentate, but it is a power,’’ he said. ‘’Yet I can say without constitutional reserve that the acceptance of the title which you confer on me today would raise no qualms in the august breast of our own Supreme Court.’’ Even today, with difficult relations between the two countries, there remain no misgivings about the message Mackenzie King and Roosevelt shared, for as the Prime Minister said: ‘’In politics, as in road making, it is a great thing, Mr. President, to know how to build bridges.’’