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Potus Geeks Book Review: Cold Fire by John Boyko

Canada and the United States share the world's longest international border, and comprise the vast majority of the North American continent. The relationship between these two neighbors is generally believed to be a friendly one, but as author John Boyko discloses in his excellent new book Cold Fire: Kennedy's Northern Front, the 1960s were a turbulent time for Canada-US relations.



The 60s were a time of significant world tension as the Cold War heated up. Winning election to the presidency on the myth that the United States was falling behind in a missile gap with the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy took office at a time when the threat of nuclear war was at the heart of many North Americans' fears. The newly elected president stumbled out of the gate on the international affairs front, approving the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco and finding himself schooled at a meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. As the potential for a nuclear confrontation between the two great powers increased, Kennedy counted on Canadian cooperation in his nation's defense, viewing the Canadian government as a compliant subordinate, rather than as a sovereign and independent nation.

Kennedy had not counted on meeting resistance from the strong-willed and initially popular Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who possessed a passion for a strong Canadian identity, seeing his nation as an equal peer to its neighbor to the south, rather than as subservient or sycophantic. When Kennedy met twice with Diefenbaker, he failed to obtain the concessions he wanted on such controversial subjects as Canadian wheat sales to Communist China, Canadian diplomatic relations and trade with Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, increased Canadian aid to Latin America, Canadian membership in the Organization of American States, Canada's support for Britain's membership in the Common Market, greater Canadian involvement in Vietnam, and the presence of American nuclear weapons in Canada. On each of these contentious issues, the Canadian Prime Minister refused to do as Kennedy wished, for which he earned Kennedy's enduring scorn and contempt.



Boyko tells the remarkable story of how the American President covertly intervened in two subsequent Canadian elections in an effort to defeat Diefenbaker, finally succeeding narrowly in 1963. He also describes how the election of Liberal Lester B. Pearson as Diefenbaker's successor did not end the number of contentious issues between the two nations, though Kennedy was better able to pressure the new Canadian government into compliance with American demands on a number of issues, including putting an end to a proposed budget measure designed to curtail American ownership of Canadian assets and resources.

John Boyko has once again written a well-researched and enlightening history that goes beyond superficiality, and that unveils much of the hidden negotiation and conflict that was kept out of the headlines. He presents a fair picture of the main protagonists of this story, fairly analyzing their strengths and their weaknesses. This book is an excellent account of its times, the personalities involved and of the issues confronting the two nations at the time. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Canada-US relations, in the Kennedy administration, in Canadian politics in the 60s, in Cold War North America or in the political climate of the 1960s. Boyko has a gift for being able to present history as if it is occurring as current events, to distill and clearly explain complex issues and to present an enjoyable read in the process. It was a great pleasure to read this book and I recommend it highly.
Tags: book review, canada, john f. kennedy, presidential bios
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