History Wednesday: Dissing the Chief

With the Fourth of July less than 24 hours away, I suppose I should devote this week’s History Wednesday to something American. However Canada Day was on Monday, and SB has a loyal following in the Great White North.


Much appreciated, eh? Beauty.

So what’s a blogger to do? Can I write about both American and Canadian history at the same time?

Ha! Of course I can.

In 1961, Canada was led by a certain John George Diefenbaker. Widely known as “Dief the Chief,” Diefenbaker was a cantankerous Saskatchewan country lawyer who rose from obscurity to became one of the most significant Canadian figures of the mid-20th Century. Under his leadership, in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives defeated their arch-rivals, the Liberal Party of Canada, for the first time in over 25 years. Although recognized as an extremely intelligent and fearsome politician by supporters and detractors alike, Dief was also a bit stodgy and rough around the edges. As an example, he bitterly opposed adopting Canada’s now-familiar red and white maple leaf flag.


Strongly preferring this one. It has a Union Jack, you know.

Despite this, Diefenbaker maintained a remarkably cordial relationship with his contemporary south of the border, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike left office in January 1961. His departure foreshadowed a much different relationship.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in many ways the polar opposite of Diefenbaker. While Dief came from a humble background, JFK was born into one of the world’s most powerful families. While JFK was young, handsome and polished, the sixtysomething Dief was anything but.


Let’s just say Marilyn Monroe never sang “Happy Birthday” to the Chief.
Image credit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

Shortly after taking office, Kennedy irritated the Canadian prime minister by publicly calling him “Diefenbawker.” Diefenbaker journeyed to Washington soon after. In the interest of their Cold War alliance he and Kennedy dismissed the gaffe and smoothed things over with a nice Canadian Club or three.

Nah, just kidding. After the meeting Kennedy said he didn’t want to “see that boring son of a bitch again.”

Despite both men playing nice in public, it just got worse from there. Diefenbaker rubbed Kennedy the wrong way, and by all accounts the feeling was mutual. When a Kennedy staffer accidentally left a confidential memo critical of the Canadian government in Ottawa, Dief – who once referred to the American president as a “boastful son of a bitch” – chose to keep it to use against JFK later.


Well, at least they agreed on their choice of insults.
Image credit: Gopal Aggarwal

Meanwhile Kennedy was known to exploit Dief’s shortcomings when given a chance. Given the country’s bilingual nature, Canadian national leaders are expected to be reasonably fluent in both English and French. Diefenbaker’s French was notoriously awful. So much so that Kennedy’s rudimentary French was actually better, a fact he flaunted at least one occasion.

These ostensible allies couldn’t get along even during the extremely serious Cuban Missile Crisis. Diefenbaker complained about not being adequately briefed on the situation, while Kennedy was furious with Diefenbaker’s hesitance to put Canadian forces on alert.


The guy in the middle is not carrying a shiv … maybe.
Image credit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

Despite having to deal with people such as Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, no less than Robert F. Kennedy said JFK truly hated two people as president: Diefenbaker and Indonesian President Sukarno.


Even though he spoke French better than Diefenbaker as well.

Ultimately the feud came down to Diefenbaker refusing to base US nuclear weapons in Canada, needless to say to Kennedy’s great frustration. The rhetoric between Ottawa and Washington got so bad that at one point Diefenbaker temporarily recalled his ambassador. During the 1962 Canadian elections – which Diefenbaker just barely won – Kennedy openly supported Liberal opposition leader Lester Pearson by providing him with the services of his pollster. He did so again when Diefenbaker’s government lost a no-confidence vote the following year. That time, Pearson won.

Pearson was prime minister for only a few months when fellow Harvard alumnus Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. As for Dief the Chief, although he never became prime minister again he served in the Canadian House of Commons until his death in 1979. Towards the end of his life there was even a song recorded about him.


Of course, JFK got an entire damn album.

One thought on “History Wednesday: Dissing the Chief

  1. HMMNN….Most Anglophiles in The U.S. HIGHLY Prefer the Red Flag of state that contained the Union Jack of all British Soverign Nations With the National CANADIAN Crest on the Right hand Side ! Considered by the Many as the MORE NOBLE of the 2 choices..ahhhh one can Clearly remember when she was boldly flown on Parliament Hill in Ottawa ! “Oh Canada ! ” TRUE NORTH !!

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