Beyond Canada’s Role in the Korean War:
Reflections of Canadian Political Moderation and Canadian-American Relations
Labeling Canada’s role in the Korean conflict as a “Forgotten War” is certainly a bewildering choice. The traditional view of collective memory implies that we remember certain wars and forget others because of a combination of impact and sentiment: we remember the wars that affected us most, or the ones that resulted in victory. This explains why World War II is etched into a generation’s memory, as a battle for freedom and democracy, and why Vimy Ridge and World War I are lightning rods for Canadian identity, as they marked the birth of modern Canada and Canadian pride. Yet Canada’s role in the Korean War has far-reaching impacts that still reverberate today, impacts which arguably rival those of larger, more known wars.
The Korean War saw Canadian soldiers in countless acts of bravery, notably at the Battle of Kapyong. Despite being outnumbered, Canadian and Australian soldiers managed to hold back an entire Chinese division, and their bravery under fire was key to later breakthroughs on the United Nations Command front and the subsequent recapture of Seoul. Korean War veterans also grapple with the aftermath of the war to this day, with many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders and/or physical injuries, along with the smarting injustice of fighting in a war unacknowledged by their country for over forty years. For veterans already facing a daunting re-integration into civilian life, their “abandonment” by the Canadian government was bitter thanks. It is undeniable that Canadian soldiers in Korea demonstrated the very best of what it means to be Canadian, and their contributions are sorely in need of recognition.
Countless essays have already been written about Canada’s military contribution in Korea, and I will not retread the same ground. This is not to diminish the role of the men and women who participated in the conflict; however, instead of focusing solely on the military aspect, Canada’s role in the Korean War can also be used as an abstract prism through which to view themes of Canadian life that still affect us: political moderation and Canadian-American relations.
Canadian politics is famously centrist; Peter Newman astutely remarked on the “dichotomy of Canadian caution and audacity” by describing the Canadian mentality as one of “progressive pragmatism.” We pride ourselves on the ability to balance social programs and the free market, and a society that is at once both productively competitive and cooperative. Our politics are slow and steady, weaving between the balance of regionalism, multiculturalism, and nationalism, sandwiched between elitism and populism. It can be argued that even our left and right wing parties fight for the centre, rather than polarize the electorate. Why is it that our political parties, and our left wing in particular, eschew the radical?
It is important to examine why Canadians are ideologically aligned so, and the Korean War plays an important and surprising role. Shortly after the breakout of the Korean War, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (one of the backbones of the Canadian left, organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike, and the writers of the anti-capitalist Regina Manifesto) in fact endorsed Canada’s decision to join the United Nations in military action against North Korea. On the surface, such a decision seems puzzling: why was the Canadian left encouraging the Canadian government to fight against North Korea and China, countries that were (at least nominally) socialist? Was this not a betrayal of leftist allies?
Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer becomes clearer. Prior to the Korean War and the Cold War atmosphere, the CCF was not afraid to embrace revolutionary ideas. The Regina Manifesto, for example, was adopted at the first CCF meeting, and clearly vowed that “no CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism” and advocated for a command economy. This virulent anti-capitalism was at home with the Canadian electorate during the Depression (reaching 37% popular support in British Columbia at one point), but the transition from a radical leftism to the softened socialism typical of Canadian politics today hinged on the atmosphere of the Korean War in Canada. At the July 1950 CCF convention in Vancouver, held only a month after the outbreak of the Korean War, changes in the party were immediately seen. The Korean War and its Cold War atmosphere caused a split within the CCF between the moderate and left wings; as a party operating in a democratic context, the CCF needed to court popular support. The prevailing attitudes of anti-communism during the heady early days of the Korean War meant that the moderates pushed for support for the Korean War, as voiced by the electorate (by this time, the moderates in CCF leadership positions also sought to move away from the “horrors” of Stalinism, allowing them to reconcile conflict against leftist governments while leading their own socialist movement).
The left-wing of the party, which included self-declared Marxists, Trotskyists, and revolutionaries, led resolutions calling for non-cooperation with and condemnation of military action in Korea. This resolution was defeated during the convention, and led to an inner power struggle within the CCF between the moderates and the left-wing. Eventually, the moderates won. The moderates in control of the party then replaced the Regina Manifesto with the Winnipeg Declaration, which exchanged calls for socialism with Keynesian economics.
The moderation of the CCF line brought the left closer to the centre, which was only possible because of the Korean War and the wider Cold War context. The strong anti-communist sentiments and the atmosphere of “Red scares” gave the moderate members of the CCF the impetus to bolster the centre-left. Otherwise, there would have been no external push strong enough to change the left so significantly. The New Democratic Party, the heir to the CCF’s legacy, reflects the same centre-left ideology. Canada did not become a nation of centrism overnight; in fact, the left was radical in as late as the 1950s, and it was through the Korean War and its social impact that we have the centrist political realignment we have today. It is also heartening to see the Korean War and its effect on the CCF as a validation of Canadian democracy: in contrast to socialist parties in other countries, the Canadian left changed and was led by the wills of voters, and not the other way around.
Another aspect which defines modern Canada is of course the “Special Relationship” with our southern neighbour. Given the huge amounts of cross-border trade (over $1.7 billion in goods and services per day), cultural influence, and political and economic ties between Canada and the United States, the U.S.-Canada relationship plays a huge role in our everyday lives. Pierre Eliot Trudeau astutely observed that, “Living next to the United States is a little like sleeping with an elephant. You always wonder if they will roll over on you.” Yet once again, like political centrism, the strength of the Canada-U.S. bond we take for granted in the present has not always been so, and the Korean War was instrumental in the development of this relationship.
For most of her history, Canada was closer to Britain than the United States. However, by the 1960s, Canada had become a firm and reliable American ally. This turning point was precipitated by the Korean War and the circumstances of the Cold War. Leading up to the Korean War, American firms invested huge amounts of money into the Canadian economy. Canada’s plethora of natural resources in oil, mining, and metal ores were crucial for American industries rapidly developing technology for the Cold War. This investment program along multiple sectors of the economy tied Canada and the United States very closely together, and joint expenditures on military technology (eg. radar) for mutual defense fused the two countries militarily as well. Canada depended on American investment since her trade deficit had grown due to the poor state of European economies post World War II, depriving Canada of export markets. American cultural imports similarly had an impact on Canadian values during this time, allowing the “Red scare” to be prominently displayed in both countries.
When the Korean War was brewing, Canada was vulnerable to American pressure; after all, the military, cultural, and economic integration made it so that it was very difficult for Canada to say no to American-led military intervention. In the end, Canada’s commitment of troops and military equipment to the American-led United Nations intervention in Korea sealed the budding relationship between Ottawa and Washington.
However, the relationship between Canada and the United States is multifaceted, and one aspect of that relationship is Canada’s unwillingness to be Americanized. As much as Canada has grown closer economically and politically to the United States, there has also been an equivalent countercurrent bent on preserving Canadian heritage. It is not a coincidence that the Massey Commission report came out in 1951, in the midst of the Korean War. In it, the Commission rang the alarm bells on the Americanization of Canadian culture, and advocated state support for the arts. Canada has been a firm ally for American policy, but has also stood up and disagreed with the American behemoth. As much as Canadian domestic opinion was for liberating Korea from communist forces, Canadians also worried about American hegemony and the waning of Canadian political independence.
Nothing demonstrates Canada’s balancing act between sovereignty and maintaining relations with our powerful neighbour than the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the United States over the Korean War. Canada joined the Korean War, but not without reservations. At the start, Prime Minister Pearson emphasized that Canada was participating under the U.N., not American forces. When United Nations forces under American General MacArthur reached the 38th parallel (thereby repulsing the North Korean invasion of South Korea), Canada expected the American-led coalition to stop. Unfortunately -- and to Pearson’s unpleasant surprise -- the Americans sought to expand further, and continued to fight against the communist forces in the North. Canada then executed a balancing act which perfectly exemplified our relations with the United States: although Canada voiced support for the Americans in public, Canadian diplomats sought to restrain American action in private. Increasing Chinese involvement prompted Pearson to hedge publicly by stating that Canada had always wanted a “confined and localized war,” and Canadian officials continued to express concerns about American leadership, especially when General MacArthur continued an invasion of China (which would have precipitated a large, possibly global conflict).
Canadian diplomats worked tirelessly in Washington and the United Nations at this time to argue for a negotiated peace as soon as possible. MacArthur was later fired, and the Korean War came in a halt in 1953 through a ceasefire agreement, without a U.N. invasion of China. Although it would be difficult to claim that the Canadian government was solely responsible for the end result, it is evident that Canada managed to differentiate herself from her ally in the midst of the Korean War.
More than 26,000 Canadians ultimately served in the Korean War, and over five hundred gave their lives. They should, and will be honoured and commemorated. It is also important, however, to not lose sight of the Korean War’s reflective qualities. Like a mirror, Canada’s role in the war can be seen as a microcosm of many Canadian qualities: the conflict in Korea played a role in moderating the Canadian left, leading to the relatively centralist political status quo we see today, and gives special insight into the two sides of the Canadian-American relations coin: one of common values, but also the preservation of Canadian identity and sovereignty. The Korean War extends beyond just the men fighting in Kapyong over sixty years ago -- it is emblematic of themes that are subtly present, but no less powerful, in our everyday lives.
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