Lester Pearson’s diplomatic career grew into a political one that introduced unparalleled social change—and helped walk the world back from the brink of nuclear war
Four days after he turned 18 in 1915, Lester Pearson enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps.
He was sent to Greece to serve as a stretcher bearer. In 1917, he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he got his nickname, Mike, from a flight instructor who thought the name Lester wasn’t macho enough for a pilot.
But Pearson, whether called Lester or Mike, was made of sturdy stuff.
He found a way to pull the world from the brink of nuclear war, earning the Nobel Peace Prize; got impressive legislation passed while heading two minority governments; and weathered many political storms.
“All of my adult life has been spent…in an atmosphere of international conflict, of fear and insecurity,” he said in his Nobel Lecture in 1957. “I have lived since—as you have—in a period of cold war.”
Lester Bowles Pearson was born in a Methodist parsonage in Newtonbrook, Ont., in 1897, the middle child of three boys.
“God was in His heaven and Queen Victoria on her throne,” he wrote of his idyllic and athletic childhood.
That peace and security ended when his military career began. Ironically, after surviving a plane crash during training, his life as a soldier ended prematurely in 1918 when he was hit by a bus in London during a blackout.
“The war changed Pearson,” wrote biographer John English, noting it strengthened his democratic and nationalistic instincts.
Those instincts served him well when he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1928. At the time, Canada was building a professional foreign service, hiring and promoting candidates on merit, rather than political or family connections. Pearson aced the qualifying exam and was hired at a yearly salary of $3,600.
“Pearson had found his vocation,” said an article in Maclean’s in 1951.
Pearson immediately began representing Canada at international conferences. And his diplomatic skills served him well domestically, too, as he cleverly identified the source of a leak of secret documents, for which Prime Minister R.B. Bennett nominated him for the Order of the British Empire and secured him a $1,000 bonus.
Pearson was posted to London as first secretary in the Canadian High Commission in 1935. As the world lurched toward war, Pearson developed a reputation as a keen, and often prophetic, political analyst. His work taught him not to see things in black and white.
“He said ‘lots of people see two sides to every issue, but I see four or five,’” his grandson Michael Pearson told an interviewer in 2017.
“The process…was not one of trade-offs but of finding common ground.”
In 1938, Prime Minister Mackenzie King believed accepting Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia would stave off war. Pearson disagreed.
“Though I am on the side of the angels,” he said in a letter to his boss in 1939, “in Germany the opposite spirits are hard at work, and I have a feeling they’re going to do a lot of mischief before they are exorcised.”
On leave in Canada when news broke that Germany might invade Poland, Pearson requested an urgent return to London. And because ships were slow, he wanted to fly—he became the first federal civil servant to officially do so.
On the plane, Pearson noted that most of the other passengers were German and Polish reserve officers who had been called home. He also suffered the first of many bouts of airsickness, but arrived five days before Hitler sent his troops toward Warsaw. The development cemented his belief in alliances and a collective defence.
In 1942, Pearson was sent to Washington, D.C., as a diplomat. There, he helped lay groundwork for the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the same year he was named Canadian ambassador to the U.S.
Pearson’s informal manner was appreciated south of the border; his warmth and good humour charmed people from all walks of life. He came across as a person who took his job seriously, but not himself. And it didn’t hurt that he was a fan of America’s national pastime—baseball—and had played it semi-professionally in Canada before his diplomatic career.
But friendly games between the Canadian Embassy and U.S. State Department raised a worry: Would beating them jeopardize good relations?
“At the same time, national pride would permit no defeat…” noted Pearson of the dilemma. His solution? “We placed a jug of martinis and a glass at each base and agreed that whenever a player reached a base, he had to drink a martini.” Anyone staggering for home could easily be tagged out.
Such playfulness made Pearson a darling of the U.S. media and he cultivated journalists as friends. Professionally, however, he was conscious of his duty as the Canadian representative to the much larger, louder and wealthier nation. The trick, he told an aide, was to be neither subservient nor oversensitive.
After the war, King enticed Pearson back to Canada and he became under-secretary of state for external affairs in 1946. At the time, it was feared a third world war could rise from the ashes of the second.
Although Pearson was committed to the United Nations, he recognized its limitations, chiefly the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who had opposing views on democracy and human rights, and the organization’s inability to enforce its decisions.
He believed a bigger stick was needed as a countervailing force to the expansion-minded Soviet Union. NATO was founded in August 1949 by Canada, the United States, Britain and nine western European nations.
Some believe NATO was a Canadian idea, noting Pearson had been thinking about a western alliance since 1946.
Pearson was the force behind what’s known as NATO’s Canadian article, the second clause in the treaty that calls for closer economic collaboration among its members.
“This treaty is not a pact for war,” said Pearson, “but a pledge for peace and progress.”
Communism spreads, Pearson said, because it first suppresses institutions that stand against it, from political parties, trade unions and churches, down to sporting clubs.
NATO is “a declaration to the world that this kind of conquest from within will not in the future take place amongst us,” he said.
“He saw NATO as an opportunity: to advance common interests at the economic and social level [among nations] with similar values, all democracies committed to human rights,” said his grandson, Michael.
Given that ability to unite, it’s hardly surprising that Pearson was persuaded to enter politics in 1948.
The late 1940s were a tense time internationally. The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. Mao Zedong’s communists triumphed in the civil war in China. Tensions were growing between North and South Korea.
Life was likewise strained in Canada, as the postwar economy slowed, putting a pinch on the unemployed and elderly. Many Canadians couldn’t afford medical treatment. And discontent among the French in Quebec was growing.
“Pearson felt he had no choice. ‘A civil servant can only go so far in determining policy,’” said a 1951 Maclean’s article. “‘When the essential decisions are made, you’re not even in the room.’”
After winning a byelection and taking over as minister of external affairs in 1948, however, he was in the room.
Pearson was an unusual politician, so casual in private, “it falls just short of being undignified,” wrote Robert Fulford in a 1963 Maclean’s article.
Though a charmer in person, Pearson’s charisma did not come across well on television and radio. He spoke with a lisp, looked stiff and uncomfortable and his gestures were wooden.
And Pearson knew it. He said he hoped to be “measured by the record, not by a recording.”
“He does not like or understand big crowds,” wrote Fulford, “and has no feeling for political speeches.”
“I don’t like the circus part of politics,” admitted Pearson. “It makes me blush.”
In person, however, he radiated warmth and good humour. He attracted a range of followers across the political spectrum, from anti-nuclear activists to NATO supporters.
“In Ottawa, a city of obsessive talkers, Pearson is a good listener,” wrote Fulford, noting the trait lulled people into believing he agreed with them.
“Intellectuals tend to believe he’s an intellectual, though his favourite reading is the sports page. Diplomats believe he’s a diplomat, not a politician…. For many people Pearson is a kind of mirror for their own ideals and anxieties,” continued Fulford.
He disappointed people “because he refuses to take firmly one side of an issue which has many sides, and because he will not put policy at the service of politics.”
Pearson maintained an even keel, which his staff credited to his stamina and good temper.
“No matter what the flap may be, we always know the minister…won’t blow up,” said a staffer in a 1951 Maclean’s article. Author Blair Fraser attributed Pearson’s demeanour to his ability to take 20-minute catnaps, waking up “fresh enough for another long siege of work.”
And there was plenty of work.
In 1955, Pearson became the first foreign minister from a NATO-member nation to visit the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. He had a “memorable but disturbing experience,” said an article in Policy Options, when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev insisted Pearson match him in drinking 18 shots of vodka. The interaction confirmed for Pearson “that the finger upon the nuclear button was unsteady.”
Then the Suez Crisis put Pearson in the international spotlight.
In 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, the major conduit for commerce between the Mediterranean and Red seas. Britain, France and Israel retaliated with an attack on Egypt. Canada did not support the strike.
Global relations rapidly divided into two camps, each led by countries with nuclear arms: the U.S. supporting European interests and the Soviet Union supporting Egypt.
Pearson used the United Nations as an instrument to calm the situation. He proposed creating a UN emergency force to police a ceasefire and ease the withdrawal of the invading forces. The success of the move popularized peacekeeping.
In 1957, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the Nobel Committee lauded Pearson for “his personal qualities…and wise action…necessary to prevent unrest from spreading and developing into a worldwide conflagration.”
As the Cold War continued to heat up, the Americans became offensively defensive about the spread of communism. Canada’s first whiff of the Cold War came in 1945 when Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, detailed the operations of Soviet espionage against its wartime allies. Eleven Canadians were eventually convicted of spying in connection with the case.
Subsequently, suspicion grew to paranoia in the U.S.
Pearson, naturally, advocated a more moderate reaction: remove traitors from positions of trust, he said, “but in doing so, I hope we may never succumb to the black madness of the witch hunt.”
The federal government began purging the civil service of everyone it believed could be susceptible to being blackmailed into betraying Canada. It created a security panel to root out the untrustworthy.
The RCMP did security checks on civil servants and trade unionists, scientists and university professors, even elected government members, including Pearson himself.
It marked the beginning of the so-called gay purge. LGBTQ civil servants, members of the Canadian military and RCMP were spied on, interrogated and demoted, fired or forced to resign.
E.H. (Egerton Herbert) Norman, a Canadian diplomat who had been interned briefly by the Japanese during the Second World War, was accused by the U.S. of being a communist and possibly a Soviet agent. He had joined a communist society during his university days.
The RCMP investigated and cleared Norman; Pearson stood behind him as U.S. allegations continued. Norman became Canada’s ambassador to Egypt, arriving on the eve of the Suez Crisis.
Some Americans believed he was urging the Egyptian president to become pro-Soviet. A U.S. congressional subcommittee accused Norman of being a communist mole and continually hectored him.
In April 1957, Norman died after he jumped from the roof of an apartment building in Cairo, his suicide notes asserting his innocence (which was confirmed by a federal investigation in 1990).
This experience may well have contributed to Pearson’s reaction as prime minister when John Watkins, Canada’s ambassador to the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, was accused of espionage.
Watkins was gay and was the victim of a Soviet blackmail scheme. During the 1960s, the RCMP amassed a file of more than 1,000 pages on him, journalist Dean Beeby reported in The Globe and Mail.
Watkins died of a heart attack during an RCMP interrogation in 1964.
It was believed there had been minimal political oversight in the investigation, but that was far from the truth, wrote Beeby.
A top-secret memo outlined risks: Watkins might defect, die by suicide, be kidnapped or assassinated.
Pearson agreed to questioning him and, after Watkins died, directed that the justice minister should not be told about the circumstances of Watkins’ death. “The prime minister wanted the lid on very tight,” continued Beeby.
“Mr. Pearson has a well-earned legacy…. Less understood are the compromises and dubious decisions he made during the messy business of governing.”
The Liberals lost the 1957 election to John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party. Louis St. Laurent resigned as Liberal leader and Pearson took on the job in January 1958. He called on Diefenbaker to resign.
Instead, Diefenbaker called an election for March and won a decisive victory. Though tempted to throw in the towel, Pearson was encouraged to stay on as Liberal leader, which he did, both then and again after the Conservatives formed a minority government in 1962.
Diefenbaker’s popularity, however, had been slipping since 1958 when he signed an agreement to base 56 American anti-ballistic Bomarc missiles in Canada. In 1959, he cancelled the Avro Arrow project, believing missiles were the future of defence. Plus, the project was too expensive. Then in 1960 it was revealed the Bomarc missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads.
It was a political powder keg. One side said nuclear weapons met the country’s defence obligations, the other argued nuclear weapons should never be allowed in Canada.
The issue reignited in October 1962 when Diefenbaker hesitated in immediately backing the U.S. in its standoff with the Soviets over building missile-launch sites in Cuba. The Soviets backed down, but the Cuban Missile Crisis caused political fallout in Canada.
Diefenbaker’s defence minister resigned over the situation. Nuclear weaponry became a key issue in the 1963 election. Pearson supported nuclear warheads for Bomarc missiles and for providing nuclear weapons to Canadian troops in Europe.
Meanwhile, many voters wanted Canada to be more socially progressive. And many Quebecers wanted the province to separate from Canada, with the bombings of mailboxes in Montreal showing some were willing to support that perspective violently.
In 1960, the Liberal Party had invited 200 economic and social leaders to propose innovative reforms. Many of those ideas were adopted at a policy convention in 1961, easing the way to a Liberal minority government in 1963 and again in 1965.
To achieve his legislative agenda, Prime Minister Pearson relied on the support of the New Democratic Party, led by Tommy Douglas, former premier of Saskatchewan, which had implemented provincial medicare in 1962.
“The process…was not one of trade-offs but of finding common ground,” wrote former Pearson advisor Tom Kent in a 2009 article. That was well within Pearson’s wheelhouse.
Tax-sharing agreements and opting-out provisions with provinces plowed the furrow for rooting expensive social programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and medicare.
Consequently, “the public pensions that had first been greeted with a storm of protest came into being with hardly a dissent,” wrote Kent.
But dissent was threatening the fabric of the country.
“My passionate interest when I was in government…was in the national unity of our country,” Pearson said in his memoirs.
Pearson spoke only English, but he didn’t need a second language to understand the separatist discourse in Quebec. He recruited prominent Quebecers, including future prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to help shape federal policy.
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism paved the way for the Official Languages Act in 1969 and, subsequently, multiculturalism policy.
Pearson wanted Canadians to feel like citizens, not British subjects, with their own national symbols, beginning with a national flag to replace the Canadian Red Ensign, the country’s de facto flag, which included a British Union Jack and the shield of Canada on a red background.
The motion for a new flag went before Parliament in June 1964. The Great Flag Debate has been called the ugliest dispute in Canadian Parliamentary history, and it raged on until December, when closure was invoked. But it was approved by a vote of 163 to 78.
The Maple Leaf was first raised on the Peace Tower on Feb. 15, 1965.
“Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism, but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel,” said Pearson.
“Pearson was making Canada more Canadian,” Andrew Cohen wrote in Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.
But at the time, Pearson was criticized as a leader.
“My passionate interest when I was in government…was in the national unity of our country.”
Pearson’s years as prime minister “vibrated with action and creativity…and state activism on a breathless scale; yet scandal, bitter partisanship and a chaotic air of crisis management undermined accomplishments and threatened to sweep them from memory,” wrote Norman Hillmer in the introduction to Pearson: The Unlikely Gladiator.
“Pearson frequently fails to show the kind of sternness that a leader should have,” wrote journalist Fulford, noting Pearson could never offend anyone. He “will never be either a radical social reformer or an emotional spellbinder.”
Yet in just five years, Pearson’s government transformed Canada, establishing its social security net.
His government ordered a royal commission on the status of women, introduced loans for students and equalized access to welfare. It established the 40-hour work week, two weeks’ vacation time and a new minimum wage.
A points-based, race-free immigration system was instituted; liberalized laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality were introduced; regulatory agencies were established for communications and transportation; funds were created for rural development; and the stage was set for the unification of the armed forces.
“In no other five years was so much done to improve the circumstances of life for Canadians with average and lower incomes,” said Pearson aide Kent.
Pearson enjoyed the exuberance of Canada’s centennial celebrations, then announced his retirement in December 1967.
“You can call me Mike now,” he said to journalists at a news conference.
Mike Pearson died of cancer in December 1972.