It‛s Perception, stupid!

This is late.  The mass media bee has already flitted on to suck superficial juice from other blooms.  But what the heck, I want to get this off my chest.  So-o-o-o —

The Canadian Government wants to share, in some locations, embassy space with Britain.  This probably makes good sense from a commercial viewpoint, which is the only one the Harper Cons have, but it ignores the fact that for many many peoples of the world the British brand carries the heavy baggage of empire.

Mr.Harper has been seeing too many Redcoats.  Of course in 1812-14 the empire‛s troops played no small part in preserving (creating?) our Canadian identity but in now sharing flagpole space with the Brits he ignores our history from 1918 to 1984 (the ascent of Mulroney) during which our legislators and diplomats struggled incessantly, and successfully, to insulate Canada not only from the control of empire but from the image of empire.

Right from the last 100 days of  World War One through 1931 (when we gained control of our foreign affairs), on through World War Two (when we insisted out forces fight as Canadians), on through the patriation of our Constitution, Canada has striven mightily to make perception match reality.  It is no small measure of success that throughout the years Canada has been voluntarily chosen as home by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and many other places whose people had felt the exploitative hand of the British Empire.  But we children-of-empire who have our family colonial roots deeply imbedded in Canada, Australia or New Zealand have to step outside our own skins and borrow other‛s eyes and memories to get an inkling of the importance of perception.

It is no secret that Canada over the years created the reality and perception of independence and was frequently given the tribute and role of “honest broker”.  The effectiveness of that role on the world scene can be well illustrated by going back more than half a century to the “Suez Crisis”.

Bear with me while we both prowl a little bit of almost forgotten history.  In this journey down memory lane let‛s ask ourselves what would have happened in 1956 if Canada had not already created the reality and perception of being free of the legacy of empire.

(I should confess that my memory is no better than yours but I happen to have stuff on file and some of it is not what we were fed at the time.*)

In July, 1956, Colonel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal to raise revenue to build the Aswan High Dam, the financing for which had just been turned down by the Americans and the World Bank. Nasser told the Americans they could “choke with rage”.  In most western countries the press portrayed Colonel Nasser as a dangerous, left leaning, tin pot dictator but he arranged to buy out all the stockholders.  He continued to let world shipping pass through the canal but did continue to exclude Israel’s ships.

It was an interesting time.  A US presidential election was beginning its final week with the odds in favour of Eisenhower’s re-election.  The Hungarian revolution was underway and the Soviet troops were withdrawing in an orderly fashion and Hungary had declared itself to be a neutral nation.

It is difficult to imagine an action that could eclipse both an apparently successful Hungarian revolution and a US presidential election but on Monday, October 29th, 1956, such an action materialized.  The Israeli army, claiming self protection, invaded Egypt in a lightning thrust toward the nationalized Suez Canal!

The day after the Israeli invasion Britain‛s PM, Eden, told Canada‛s PM, St.Laurent, that Britain had previously told Israel that she, Britain, would not “defend” Egypt, but that neither Britain nor France would permit the blocking of the Suez Canal.  Eden told St.Laurent that Britain was “proposing” to issue a cease fire ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt.

While the Canadian PM and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mike Pearson, were still digesting this unusual proposal, a phone call from New York reported that the British and French had already issued the ultimatum!

St.Laurent was extremely angry.  This was notification after the fact.  Britain had not only usurped the function of the UN but had done it without consulting the Commonwealth.

In New York the Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, issued a scathing statement about the principles of the UN Charter being “holier” than the desires of individual nations.

Later that same day in the Security Council the US moved a cease fire resolution.  It was vetoed by Britain and France!  Russia then moved a similar resolution.  It, too, was vetoed by Britain and France.

In Ottawa there was both puzzlement and dismay.  Why would Britain and France veto a UN cease fire when they themselves had already ordered one on their own?

In the meantime, Egypt had rejected the Anglo-French ultimatum and the Israeli invasion was continuing apace.

Mike Pearson held a press conference  in which he seemed to ally himself with Eisenhower who was saying the Israeli-Egyptian problem must be solved without force.  At that instant many Canadians began to accuse our government of “deserting” Britain and France.

The next day, Britain and France themselves began military action in Egypt but they weren’t attacking the Israelis, they were bombing Egyptian airfields and military targets.

Back in Ottawa, Pearson and St.Laurent were asking themselves, Why only Egyptian targets?  Did Britain and France really believe that Egypt was the aggressor?  (There was, and is, a theory that the whole thing was initially a conspiracy between France and Israel.) The puzzlement and concerns of Canada were reflected in a wire that PM St.Laurent sent that day to Britain‛s PM.  It said, in part:

Without more info and info different from that which we now have, about the action of Israel, we cannot come to the conclusion that the penetration of its troops into Egypt was justified…Apart from the danger of a war which might spread, there… is the effect of the decisions taken on the UN…There is also the danger of a serious division within the commonwealth…and the deplorable divergence of viewpoint and policy between the UK and the USA…The procedure followed is something that will cause as much satisfaction to the Soviet Union and its supporters as it does distress to all who believe in Anglo-American co-operation and friendship. *

Here, in Day 3, the Canadian Prime Minister was already voicing fear concerning four major rifts — within the UN, within the commonwealth, between the United States and its two major allies, and within NATO.

National positions of commonwealth countries were already being made public through the news media.  India denounced the Anglo-French intervention as a “flagrant” violation of the UN charter.  Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) said there was no justification for the intervention or for the Israeli invasion.  Pakistan saw Israel as an aggressor.  New Zealand, however, approved of the Anglo-French action and Australia had already supported Britain in the Security Council. The Canadian fears of a Commonwealth split were altogether too real!

And a split with the US was so real that communication was becoming chaotic.  The presidential election was reaching its climax and to compound the confusion the US  decided to forbid its UN reps to speak to the French and British reps!  The latter turned more and more to Canada to provide some kind of liaison with the US. (Ironically, the popular opinion in Canada, echoed in the Canadian press, seemed to be that Pearson was abandoning Canada’s traditional role of bridge builder and was simply an errand boy doing whatever the US wanted.)  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Here, in the words of Geoffrey Murray, at the time one of Pearson’s UN aides, is what was going on, not only behind closed doors, but in the basement:

It wasn’t known at the time because the missions were not supposed to have offices in the UN building — it was inviolate UN territory, not mission territory– but the British and the French and the Americans and probably the Russians although I never saw it, had little rooms away down in the basement of the secretariat building ….  The [Br. & US] doors were adjacent [depicting a corner].  The French were off somewhere else. And both doors would be closed during the Suez thing and somebody, me, Bert [MacKay], would have to go from one to other to find out something and then come back and say it, or pass something over….  And in the corridors it was the same. It was fantastic in that sense.  Talk about middle man, honest broker, you name it, it was the post office and everything wrapped up in one.

Keep this scenario in mind as the story unfolds. The world was being held together by a kind of bizarre underground diplomacy with Canada as the glue.  Again, here’s Geoffrey Murray:

There were lots of people not talking to the British, but we were. The Australians were, of course, and the New Zealanders and the Israelis and the French, but not many others [including, apparently, the US] would have anything to do with them.

Up above ground, in the Middle East, Iraq was mobilizing her armed forces, presumably to go to the aid of Egypt.

John Foster Dulles, acting for the United States, prepared to present a resolution calling for an all party cease fire and withdrawal to armistice lines.  He and Pearson had a hasty informal meeting.  Pearson was alarmed because there was no mechanism in the US resolution to encourage the parties to comply.  It needed a mechanism, such as a police force, to give some hope of a cease fire being supervised and of leading to a solution.

Dulles indicated he’d support Pearson if the latter could figure out a speedy way to do something but that in the meantime the US cease fire resolution would go forward unaltered.

Late that night, when the vote was taken on the US resolution, Canada abstained!  The Asians were shocked. The entire white commonwealth now appeared to be lining up with the “aggressors”.

The abstention was a Canadian ploy because the rules of the game permitted abstainers to speak immediately on their reasons for abstention.  At 3 a.m., speaking to a full house and gallery, Pearson criticized the US resolution for being too little too late and he flew a balloon for a UN police force, saying Canada would be willing to participate.  Dulles responded at once, encouraging such a proposal.

At the same time, the war escalated.  British and French troops landed on Egyptian soil.  Soon, the USA and Canada had each drafted a police force resolution.  They discussed both versions between themselves and agreed to use the American version which was shorter, but agreed that Canada would propose it.  Again, here’s Geoffrey Murray:

We went down to this little room, the American one, trooped on in with Pearson… As we walked in the British were watching us through their door.  Cabot [Cabot Lodge.  Dulles was ill.] and his crowd were there and we talked about this thing.  He produced the draft with blue printing on it that they’d got sorted out in Washington.  We then had to go and inform the British what it looked like. *

Late that night the Assembly gave the Secretary General 48 hours to submit a plan for the establishment of a UN police force.

The late night relief was followed in the morning by explosive tidings.  Russian tanks were overrunning Hungary in a brutal use of heavy armour against a civilian population.  Russia had decided, correctly, that the UN had its hands full with Suez.

That same evening the Assembly appointed Canada’s Maj. General “Tommy” Burns to head up the UN Suez force but Canada was still hoping for a political solution, a position with which the USA agreed.

While Canada was ensuring that subterranean diplomacy could continue, the war continued to escalate.  Paratroopers descended through the Egyptian skies as an Anglo-French airborne assault was launched against Port Said.  Russia  threatened  to use rockets against British and French cities unless the two countries pulled out of Egypt. Eisenhower told the Russians that any use of rockets against Britain or France would bring massive retaliation from the United States.  The NATO supreme commander issued a concrete warning to Russia. The Swiss Federal Council said, “the shadow of a third world war hovers over mankind.” The US quietly (presumably via the Canadian basement grape vine) let Britain know that the States would not automatically come to the help of Britain and France if Russian “volunteers” went to Egypt.

And so on  and so forth. But enough of all this detail.  We know it all turned out quite successfully. I really just want to make the point that without Canada being perceived as an independent honest broker away back in 1956 the proverbial ordure would have been well and truly into the fan  If the Canadian flag had been nailed beside the British doorway in that out of the way UN basement, or a tiny Union Jack had been pinned to Canadian diplomatic lapels in the corridors, history would have been tragically different.

Mr.  Harper apparently now wants to nail our flag up beside Britain’s in some equally out of the way places and has already verbally unfurled it beside Israel’s — while, I admit, currently shying away from drawing red lines against the perceived pyromaniac Iran .  But he has also cut off diplomatic conversations with said Iran. Let’s hope some broom closets are open in the Iranian basement.

Mr. Harper is said to be a student of history, but I wonder.

Perception is important.  At one point the UN peace force almost came unstuck because Egypt‛s Nasser refused to accept Canada’s “British” regiment — The Queen’s Own Rifles.  Nasser had a point.  The British Queen’s Own was already on Egyptian soil!  Later on Pearson said he longed for The East Kootenay Revolutionary Rifles, but in the meantime both Pakistan and India encouraged Egypt to trust Canada.  Today Harper is trying to re-insert the name Royal into the Canadian Forces.

Perceived loyalty only to Britain would have aligned Canada helplessly on one side.  Loyalty to the western alliance would have aligned her on the “white” side. But she was also loyal to her Asian commonwealth partners, and they in turn remained loyal to her. It was by refusing to abandon any of her loyalties and by following the gleam of the concept of a truly international peace force that the Canadian diplomats managed to be key players in defusing the Suez Crisis and establishing the United Nations “peace keeping” force.


* In 1987 an aborted TV drama project left a variety of material in my personal files, including  cabinet documents released at the time by the Privy Council and an extensive (unpublished) interview I had with Geoffrey Murray who had been one of Pearson’s right hand men at the UN  during the crisis.


About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
This entry was posted in Article, Opinion, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to It‛s Perception, stupid!

  1. David Valentine says:

    I have been having the same reaction to Harper’s unbelievable return to colonialism.

    Dave Valentine

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