Could a U.S. general push us over the “brink”?

BLAIR FRASER December 21 1957

Could a U.S. general push us over the “brink”?

BLAIR FRASER December 21 1957

Could a U.S. general push us over the “brink”?




IS THERE AN ISSUE of Canadian sovereignty in the joint command of North American air defense, now operating at Colorado Springs?

I iberals seem to think there is. I heir questions in parliament imply that the Diefenbaker government has handed over control of Canada’s armed forces to an American general and abdicated its right to declare war. Some American generals give valuable help to the Grits in building up this notion, with their talk about push-button warfare on split-second notice.

Conservatives say this is all nonsense.

I hey deny that they’ve given up any Canadian sovereignty, or any more than the bare minimum required for national safety. Also, they say that what little they have given up was all arranged and approved under the Liberals. George Pearkes, as minister of national defense, has merely carried out the plans of his Liberal predecessor, Ralph Campney. Prime Minister Diefenbaker has put on record in Hansard a paraphrase of Campney correspondence, which assured Washington that there wouldn’t be any real difficulty about the joint command but that "formal approval” must wait until after the election, lest it become a "political issue.”

The Liberals did indeed come close to the step the Conservatives have taken, perhaps too close to make a fuss about it now. However, there is a difference between the situation now and

the situation of last spring. Some people in Ottawa feel that we have gone a little too far, or anyway a little too fast, in accepting joint command without a clear firm agreement on the commander's power and authority. I hese people hope the question won’t become a party ; .sue, just so the government will have less trouble and embarrassment in drawing back from the position it has taken.

Miere is no argument whatever about the worth of co-operation in war. That has been an accepted fact for twenty years.

Ever since 1938 the armed forces of the two countries have planned a joint defense of this continent. The Ogdensburg agreement, published by Mackenzie King and F. D. Roosevelt in 1940. made this co-operation formal and acknowledged. Since then it has come ever closer. In both Ottawa and Washington, continental defense has been treated as a single problem. The Royal Canadian Air Force base at St. Hubert, outside Montreal, is as close to Colorado Springs in communications as if the two bases were in the same town. This has been true for several years—the arrangements were set up when Brooke Claxton was defense minister. before Ralph Campney took over.

This means that if Canada and the United States declare war. their forces on this continent immediately begin to act as one. The same is true, of course,

if the continent is suddenly attacked. If Russian bombers were to invade us across the Arctic, there’d be no need to wait for authority to shoot them down—not only an American general but a Canadian sergeant could do it without orders from anybody.

The doubts arise not about co-operation in war, but about consultation on the brink of war.

No matter what any general may say at a press conference, no soldier has power to put the United States of America into a state of war. He would have to get authorization from his commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, who in turn derives his authority from Congress. Even to declare a state of alert, the commander of NORAD would certainly have to consult Washington.

The still-open question is, would he also have to consult Ottawa. Pearkes says yes, of course he would. Campney thought the same; when he recommended the joint command to the Liberal cabinet last February, he made it clear that the U. S. would have to recognize “the need for adequate consultation with the Canadian authorities on matters that might lead to the alerting of the air-defense system.” Both ministers, and the chiefs-of-staff who advise them, were evidently satisfied that this consultation had been clearly promised and would in fact take place.

However, there is no formal agreement to say it must. Some others in Ottawa are a little less trusting about it. They point out that Canada and other allies have had experience with “consultation” before. Sometimes it has consisted merely of a telephone call to say that an action or decision has already been taken.

You may think the point is academic—after all, if a major war breaks out between the Soviet bloc and the NATO alliance, what does it matter whether Ottawa is consulted or not?

But the question may arise over something much less clear-cut than an attack on a NATO member. Consider this hypothetical case: suppose Communist China should decide to take Formosa, either by invasion or by supporting a revolt against Chiang Kaishek, or both. Suppose the U. S. should then react by putting all its forces on a war footing, as a threatening gesture to deter the Chinese. If the American general at NORAD is told to put his command on a war footing too. what would be the position of Canadian forces in that command?

Here, obviously, is a situation where the Canadian government would want to be consulted well in advance and be a full consenting party to any action taken. There is no formal agreement to stipulate this. It’s not too late, though. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get one yet. In fact, the matter is not as urgent now as it might become in a year or two.

At present all bases on Canadian soil are purely defensive. No massive retaliation can start from here. The Dewline, Mid-Canada and Pinetrec lines are mere sentries to give warning of a Soviet attack across the Arctic, an attack which would in itself settle all arguments about what to do next.

The attack these sentries would detect and (we hope) repel would be an attack by old-fashioned, air-breathing, manned bombers. Equally old-fashioned manned fighters (including the one just now beginning to go into production) would take to the air to meet them. A sneak attack of this kind would be most unlikely—in fact, it’s considered to be impossible. There would almost certainly be some warning of it, and thus time for both governments to be fully aware of the danger.

Of course, such attacks are already obsolete. The Russians say they have missiles able to land on any target in the world, and Sputnik proves they are not boasting emptily. At the very most, they are pretending to have now what they won’t have until next month or next year.

So far, we have no defense against these weapons. Our early-warning lines would not be able to see them, any more than our manned fighters would be able to catch them. When John Foster Dulles spoke of Dewline radar stations being supported by missilelaunching bases, he was speaking of the future. No such missiles now exist.

When we do get ground-to-air missiles of a kind able to intercept a Russian ICBM, the same bases might be capable of launching a counter-ICBM of our own. Then, maybe Canada could become the starting point of an attack.

In that event, obviously, there would be far more urgent reason than there is now to ensure that any joint action is really joint, that Canada is a consenting partner, not a mere kite-tail,