John Boyko is the author of several books including Cold Fire: Kennedy's Northern Front.
In a funny Facebook posting, a young woman expressed hope that some day a man would look at her as Justin Trudeau looks at Barack Obama. Mr. Trudeau's recent Washington trip was the perfect marriage of charismatic leaders and ideological soulmates who sincerely enjoy each other's company. Who could resist smiling at their smiles? But, as always, history warns us to be wary and to see the future through the rear-view mirror.
In 1963, as now, Canadian-U.S. relations were thawing after a long and nasty winter. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President John Kennedy hated each other, just as former prime minister Stephen Harper and President Obama didn't care for one another. The Conservative prime ministers fought the Democratic presidents on policies, priorities and world views. For Mr. Kennedy, the final straw was Mr. Diefenbaker's refusal to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. For Mr. Obama, it was Mr. Harper's refusal to accept the realities of climate change and his insistence on U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
In both cases, personality differences at the top frayed the bilateral relationship at every level. But had the leaders got along famously, there still would have been clashes.
Only three weeks after the 1963 election that made Liberal Lester Pearson the prime minister, President Kennedy welcomed him to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. The two men had known, respected and liked each other for years. Now, they discussed baseball (just as Messrs. Trudeau and Obama talked hockey). They smiled, joked and posed for photographers, and later enjoyed informal drinks by the fire and strolls along the Atlantic shore. As with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Pearson came home with a list of sticky issues suddenly solved. Mr. Trudeau would tackle climate change and Mr. Pearson would take the nukes.
As now, the media loved it. The Washington Post reported, "The general effect of the meeting at Hyannis Port between the Canadian prime minister and the USA president has been that of a good scrubbing and a cool shower after a muddy brawl."
A month later, still basking in the reflected glow of the popular president, Mr. Pearson released his first budget. To increase Canadian ownership of companies operating in Canada, it created a 30-per-cent takeover tax on each share purchased by a foreign buyer, a 5-per-cent increase on the withholding tax on dividends paid to foreigners by companies with less than 25-per-cent Canadian ownership, and tax benefits to companies with more than 25-per-cent Canadian ownership.
Mr. Kennedy mobilized his administration. Assistant secretary of state Griffith Johnson called the Canadian embassy to report that Mr. Kennedy was angry about the anti-American taxes and about not having been consulted. The State Department's Willis Armstrong told Canadian embassy officials that Mr. Kennedy's main objection was that the budget was "economically nationalist." The State Department's Bill Anderson told Canada's ambassador, Charles Ritchie, "What Canadians need in financial questions is a psychoanalyst's couch." The U.S. ambassador to Canada, Walton Butterworth, was instructed to fight the budget because its blatant economic nationalism could inspire developing countries to take similar anti-American actions. Mr. Pearson later observed, "I do not think I have ever known in my years in Ottawa anything quite so violent and so bitterly hostile to a particular clause in any budget."
The quick and aggressive reaction from Mr. Kennedy, coupled with threats from domestic and world bond markets, led Mr. Pearson to withdraw every aspect of the budget that would have bolstered Canadian ownership of the Canadian economy.
The president's friendship with Mr. Pearson hadn't mattered. The budget fight showed that Mr. Kennedy would do as he had done with Mr. Diefenbaker, as any president is duty-sworn to do: pursue what is best for the United States, regardless of what is best for Canada.
While enjoying the success of his Washington trip, Mr. Trudeau should recall Mr. Pearson's lesson. Friendship and simpatico between the leaders can help in the complex and nuanced Canadian-U.S. relationship but, in the end, countries don't have friends, just interests. And interests trump smiles every time.