433. Letter From the Ambassador to Canada (Merchant) to Acting Secretary of State Ball0

Dear George: I am sending this letter to you by the hand of Rolfe Kingsley of the Embassy staff in the belief that you will want to discuss its contents with the President at the earliest possible opportunity.

Its subject is my talk with Prime Minister Diefenbaker late yesterday afternoon in which he gave vent to a most disturbed and disturbing attitude with respect to the President’s forty minute conversation with Mike Pearson during the latter’s visit to Washington to attend the White House Dinner for the Nobel Prize winners of this hemisphere.1 Realizing that the Prime Minister would be in Ottawa only for a brief interlude in his campaign, I had asked for a fifteen minute appointment to pay my farewell call on him. The time was set for four yesterday afternoon at his official residence. In confirming the appointment, Basil Robinson, his confidential assistant, forewarned me that Mr. Diefenbaker was in an extremely agitated frame of mind over the political capital which Pearson had made out of his talk with the President earlier in the week.

My call on Mr. Diefenbaker lasted nearly two hours, and not fifteen minutes. After saying nice things about my two tours of duty as Ambassador, he launched into what can be only described as a tirade. I describe our conversation below in summary and not seriatim, since I interrupted him a number of times and the exchanges, while personally friendly, became heated.

The gist of what the Prime Minister said was this. He could only interpret the President’s devoting so much time to a personal talk with Pearson, which the latter had described to the press as covering a wide range of subjects including disarmament, NATO, and the Common Market, as an intervention by the President in the Canadian election. He was satisfied that, if not Pearson himself, then his campaign lieutenants would present this to the Canadian electorate as the President turning for advice on international affairs to a single Canadian who was the Leader of the Opposition and running for Prime Minister against the present government. The Prime Minister asserted that the night before in a speech in Toronto Walter Gordon (running on the Liberal ticket and generally regarded as likely to be Minister of Finance in a Liberal Cabinet) had stated in effect that the Liberals were more competent than the [Page 1173]Conservatives to manage Canada because the President had turned to Mr. Pearson a few days before for advice on the international situation.

The Prime Minister said that he fully expected this line to be increasingly used throughout the country by the Liberals in their campaign. He said that during the afternoon he had had phone calls to this effect from supporters from the Maritimes to British Columbia. The Prime Minister then went on to say that Canada-United States relations would now be the dominant issue in the campaign. He said the campaigning would be more bitter than it was in 1911 and he referred to Champ Clark’s statement during the course of that campaign which it took the Canadians until 1917 to recover from. (According to my recollection, Champ Clark who was the Speaker of The House of Representatives, said publicly something along the line that it was inevitable that the United States should annex Canada. The basic issue of the campaign was the question of a reciprocal trade agreement with the United States and the outcome of the campaign was won and lost on the slogan of the Conservatives, “No truck or trade with the Yankees.”)

Mr. Diefenbaker then said that he was shocked by your recent speech or statement2 to the effect that the United States wanted to get rid of Commonwealth preferences and that, hence, he concluded that we thought we could achieve this by supporting Pearson who was prepared to accept without argument Britain’s unconditional entrance into the European Common Market.

The Prime Minister then said that he had no choice except to meet head-on the expected Liberal line that Pearson was better able to manage Canadian relations with the United States. He thought he would probably be forced into this by the middle of or end of next week. He said he was opening the Conservative campaign in London, Ontario, this evening and he would not then raise this issue himself. In countering the Liberal line, he said he would publicly produce a document which he has had locked up in his private safe since a few days after the President’s visit to Ottawa last May. This document he says is the original of a memorandum on White House stationery, addressed to the President from Walt Rostow and initialled by the latter, which is headed “Objectives of the President’s Visit to Ottawa.” The Prime Minister says that the memorandum starts:

  • “1. The Canadians must be pushed into joining the OAS.
  • 2. The Canadians must be pushed into something else ...
  • 3. The Canadians must be pushed in another direction . . .”3

[Page 1174]

The Prime Minister said that the document came into his possession a few days after the President left, through External Affairs, under circumstances with which he was not familiar, but his understanding was that it had been given by someone to External Affairs. The Prime Minister said that this authoritative statement of the intention of the United States to “push” Canada would be used by him to demonstrate that he, himself, was the only leader capable of preventing United States domination of Canada.

The Prime Minister said that he was talking to me privately and on a basis of personal trust and frankness which had characterized our personal relationship and which did not even exist, as far as he was concerned, in his relations with the British. He said, however, he had told Macmillan most of this story, and that he had also once been warned by a prominent Conservative Party member in Britain that the United States would support Pearson in Canadian politics because through the latter’s attitude toward the Common Market the United States could secure the commercial benefits of the wiping out of Commonwealth preferences.

During the course of his tirade the Prime Minister also made a glancing reference to Stew Udall’s alleged intervention into Canadian domestic affairs in connection with the Columbia River Treaty.4 He also said that he was causing an investigation to be made to ascertain whether some Liberal supporter of Pearson in the Canadian Foreign Service now attached to the Canadian Embassy in Washington had taken the initative of arranging for Pearson’s private interview with the President. He concluded by saying that the incident would “blow our relations sky high.”

As you can imagine, I was not silent throughout this extraordinary disquisition. I should note that the Prime Minister was physically tired from a return early that morning from an exhausting and frustrating whistle-stop campaign in Newfoundland, and uneasy over his self-confessed inability to put together a speech for his keynote address at London tonight, which he said, must set the tone for his entire campaign. He was excited to a degree disturbing in a leader of an important country, and closer to hysteria than I have seen him, except on one other possible occasion. Nevertheless, he interjected from time to time expressions of confidence on the outcome of the election and was willing to hear me out on my interjections and my closing summation. His wife, Olive, however, I felt was hovering over him when I arrived and obviously doing the same when I chatted with the two of them for ten minutes [Page 1175]before departure. The conversation I described above, however, was conducted with no one else in attendance.

The points I made were that, first, it was entirely understandable that Mike Pearson should attend a White House dinner given by the President and Mrs. Kennedy for all the living Nobel Prize winners of North and South America. (The Prime Minister agreed on this and said that he regarded it as understandable when he learned of the invitation.) I said, moreover, that I could not see any basis for criticizing the President in taking advantage of the visit to Washington of a prominent Canadian public figure to discuss with him international affairs. It was childish to assume that this constituted any effort or intent to intervene in Canadian domestic politics. Moreover, I said that I could give him my personal word that there was no favoritism on the part of the President or the Administration for the Liberal party in Canada as against the present Government. I said the President’s respect for him was great, and our relations were good. There were, as would always be the case, problems between us.

Secondly, I urged him in strongest terms to discard any thought of revealing publicly the document which he said he had in his possession. I said that I had never seen or heard of it and that it was not conceivable to me that if such a memorandum were genuine, it could have been transmitted officially or unofficially to anyone in the Canadian Government. If it was what the Prime Minister described it to be, then it reflected the advice to the President of a member of his personal staff who at the time had no Constitutional or administrative responsibility for advising the President on foreign affairs. I said that if it were genuine and as described, the Prime Minister, might criticize the phraseology or the use of the word “push” (which word the Prime Minister had repeatedly and bitterly underlined in his discourse) but that there must be many informal, confidential recommendations to him from his personal advisors for his dealings with other Governments which used phraseology which would be objectionable to a foreign government. The document, therefore, I said, had no official status and was not intended for Canadian eyes. Moreover, I said that were he to reveal it publicly there would be a serious backlash, if not in Canada, then certainly in the United States. People would ask how the Prime Minister had come into possession of such a privileged internal document addressed to the President of the United States, and why it had not been immediately returned, without comment or publicity.

Finally, I said that the Prime Minister bore a heavy responsibility as an ally of the United States and as a member of the Free World coalition. Domestic elections could be divisive in any country. I thought he should give sober historic thought before he responded as he said he intended [Page 1176]to the capitalization by his political rival on an incident which was innocent and certainly not intended as intervention.

I then went back at the Prime Minister on Fulton’s attack on Udall’s press statement some months ago, which the Prime Minister had cited as an earlier intervention in Canadian politics. I told him that it was the United States and not Canada which had the right to be infuriated in this matter and I set him straight on the facts. On this point the Prime Minister quickly backed down and repudiated Fulton’s actions at the time.

There was, as you will understand, give and take and repetition in the protracted argument. At its conclusion I felt I had made an impression on the Prime Minister, but I left with no sense of assurance that I had dissuaded him from his originally stated intent to use the Rostow memorandum in the campaign. I have seen the Prime Minister on several earlier occasions heated and excited only to find that two or three days later the storm had passed. On this occasion, however, his only assurance as I left, was that he would not raise this issue tonight, and in fact, he said half jokingly (after learning that I was not leaving until next week) that he would not bring it up until I had left Canada, since, he said, it would be up to another American Ambassador to pick up the pieces and he didn’t want to spoil my last few days in Ottawa.

As is apparent, we have a problem. I think the chances are three or four to one that, having blown his top to me, the Prime Minister will not do as he has threatened, but will, in fact, act responsibly. It is necessary, however, that we take out any available insurance against the worst.

Given Canadian sensibilities and apprehensions of American influence, it is in our interest neither to intervene in Canadian domestic elections nor to give the appearance of doing so. Were we to intervene and be successful, our candidate would be labeled as a running dog of the United States and inhibited from acting along lines agreeable to us. Were we to intervene unsuccessfully, the winner would hate us. Pearson has successfully given the impression of being so knowledgeable that the United States has sought his advice. This the Prime Minister believes has built up his rival’s prestige and, hence, electoral appeal. The problem is not now to show overt support for Diefenbaker, but to redress the balance to give the impression of United States Government neutrality in the election.

What is required, it seems to me, is for the President promptly to arrange to see Diefenbaker within the next few weeks on some matter which could be publicly stated and which would seem both plausible and natural. If some place other than Washington were the location for the meeting it would contribute to this appearance. Possibly the President’s schedule for travel in the next two or three weeks would permit him to state publicly that he had invited Mr. Diefenbaker to meet him for a few hours at a time and place not disrupting to the Prime Minister’s [Page 1177]own engagements. Informality would be a useful stage prop. As for subject matter, I would suggest disarmament or as another alternative North American problems arising from possible British entrance into the Common Market. I think before, any publicity from the White House, either a phone call or a letter from the President to Mr. Diefenbaker making the suggestion would be the best procedure. Thereafter, if a meeting were successfully arranged, it could be announced together with a general statement of its purpose. If a meeting could not be arranged, I think by agreement with the Prime Minister the fact could become public that the President had taken the initiative in seeking one.

Needless to say I am distressed to bring this problem to your and the President’s attention. Its implications are so serious, however, as, in my judgment, to require the President’s consideration and prompt effort to forestall what could be a very damaging development in relations between Canada and the United States.


  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.42/5–562. Secret.
  2. For Pearson’s account of the conversation with Kennedy on April 29, see Mike, The Memoirs of The Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, vol. 3 (Toronto, 1975), pp. 63–64.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. For the full text of this memorandum, May 16, 1961, and Diefenbaker’s brief account of the meeting with Merchant, see One Canada, The Years of Achievement, 1957–1962), p. 183.
  5. Presumably a reference to the statement described in The New York Times, December 1, 1961, p. 19.