Essay on Lyndon B. Johnson and Tolerant Allies

Submitted By mudakenga
Words: 1921
Pages: 8

Life with the Elephant
In the 1990s, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave definition to what had been an unusually incoherent U.S. foreign policy. Her view of America's role in the world--defined by the pithy, characteristically pugnacious catch phrases "assertive multilateralism" and the "indispensable nation"--was unabashedly robust and interventionist.[1] That the United States is assertive--multilateral or otherwise--was not exactly news to Canadians. As Canadians know all too well, the difference between "assertive multilateralism" and unilateralism, or a "coalition of the willing," is very small indeed. Canadians were even less shocked to hear that the United States is the "indispensable nation," although Albright's neighbors to the north have always been much more ambivalent about the implications of American indispensability than she would have guessed or cared to know. The venerable Canadian diplomat John W. Holmes once wearily described the Canadian relationship to the United States as "life with uncle."[2] The phrase was meant to be neither wholly negative nor wholly positive--"life with uncle" was inevitable and brought with it nearly as many problems as benefits. It is, in other words, simply a fact of life. For Canadians, then, the United States has always represented something of a paradox. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau memorably quipped to American reporters in 1969: "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."[3]
On the whole, however, Canadians have been grateful to share the North American continent with the United States.[4] Despite occasional difficulties, the two nations have always been, and remain--in almost every sense--one another's best friend. This was as true during the cauldron of the 1960s as it is today. Thus Trudeau's celebrated remark not only perfectly captures Canadian attitudes toward the United States in general; it is also a splendid metaphor for Canadian-American diplomatic and economic relations in the 1960s. In his excellent book, Tolerant Allies: Canada and the United States, 1963-1968, Greg Donaghy demonstrates that, during the decade, friction on specific issues, however important, could not weaken the overall health of the Canadian-American relationship. And there was certainly no shortage of friction, specifically over trade, finance, nuclear weapons, and, especially, the Vietnam War. As Donaghy states in his introduction, Canada and the United States always managed to find "ways to accommodate each other's diverging political interests without seriously impairing bilateral cooperation" (p. 4).
The dynamic of Canadian-American relations has always been heavily influenced (but not necessarily determined) by personalities at the top. But for the unusually intense animosity between Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President John F. Kennedy, for example, Canadian-American relations in the early 1960s should have been fairly smooth. Similarly, Washington and Ottawa may not have cooperated so closely in the 1980s and early 1990s had it not been for the chumminess Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shared with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. This general pattern makes Donaghy's main subject, the painfully awkward relationship between Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and President Lyndon B. Johnson, all the more remarkable.
To put it mildly, Pearson and Johnson did not get along, at all. Their wildly different personalities and backgrounds often clashed violently--sometimes literally so, as was the case in the infamous April 1965 Camp David fiasco, during which Johnson grabbed Pearson by the lapels of his coat and violently shook him after Pearson publicly criticized Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam. Donaghy relates that at the first Washington summit between the two leaders, in January 1964, "the differences dividing the two men…