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Canada 1945 to Present » Cold War

 1945 to Present » Cold War

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Cold War

Although possessing many virtues, the middle power and functionalist emphasis of Canadian foreign policy did not address the problem of national security. The Canadian government took steps to reduce drastically the size of Canada’s armed forces immediately after the war. The three services were reduced to an active-service strength of 51,000: 26,000 in the army, 10,000 in the RCN, and 16,000 in the RCAF. The primary army component was the Mobile Striking Force (MSF), an airborne brigade group built around the three infantry battalions — The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), and Le Royal 22e Régiment (R22eR) — intended for the defence of the Canadian North and the Alaska Highway.

That problem became critical when a new conflict emerged shortly after the war ended. The so-called Cold War developed when the Soviet Union, a wartime ally of the Western democracies, sought to expand its sphere of interest throughout Europe and into parts of Asia. The West feared that the Soviets were bent on subverting Western societies and spreading communist ideology and power worldwide.

Eastern Europe proved to be the testing ground for Soviet expansionism. Supported by the military might of the Red Army, the USSR transformed nations of eastern Europe into satellite states. This process culminated in 1948 with the establishment of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. In the same year, Soviet forces in East Germany attempted to cut off food and other supplies from West Berlin, which, since the war, had remained under the control of the West. (Ultimately, the Berlin Blockade failed as the West airlifted supplies into the besieged city.)

Royal Canadian Air Force Buildings, Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories, 14 June 1950.
National Archives of Canada (PA-066238).

Royal Canadian Air Force Buildings, Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories, 14 June 1950.

The defence of Canada’s arctic airspace became increasingly important with the beginning of the Cold War. The RCAF helped to protect Canada and North America against the threat of Soviet long-range bombers, which could carry nuclear weapons.

The threat of communist expansionism grew in September 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device. The Soviets now possessed “the bomb” and had long-range bombers that could deliver this horrific weapon of war to the North American continent. The era of isolationism, which had been founded partly on the limits of military technology and on North America’s distance from potential enemies, was at an end. Fears grew still further when China passed into communist hands in 1949.

In 1947, Escott Reid of the Canadian External Affairs Department proposed the formation of an organization to provide collective security in western Europe and counter the Soviet threat. Secretary of State for External Affairs Louis St. Laurent and his deputy, Lester B. Pearson, supported his proposal. The American government endorsed the initiative, and subsequent discussions with other Western powers soon followed. In April 1949, Canada and the United States, along with 10 European countries, agreed to create a unified military command and jointly defend any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member that was attacked. Canada made an early commitment, tentatively planning to provide an infantry division and an air division of 11, quickly upped to 12, squadrons. Canadian involvement in the Korean War delayed the dispatch of any force but, on 4 May 1951, Minister of National Defence Brooke Claxton announced his intention to send 27 Canadian Infantry Brigade Group to Europe (27 CIBG). (1) Before moving to permanently assigned garrisons in the eastern Ruhr Valley in 1953, 27 CIBG was placed in temporary ones in the Hanover area.

The communist threat also prompted Canada and the United States to pursue even closer military relations than had been the case during the Second World War. During the 1950s, the United States successfully pressed for an integrated North American defence system against Soviet aggression. Canada and the US formed a Permanent Joint Board on Defense to coordinate training methods and standardize equipment. In 1957, the two countries established the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) to provide joint control over continental air defence. Furthermore, the Canadian government allowed the Americans to use Canadian air bases, especially in Labrador, as staging areas for potential bombing runs against the Soviets. It also permitted them to fly fighters and bombers over Canada. Lastly, the United States built and manned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations (radar installations that tracked enemy air activity) in Canada’s High Arctic.

Mushroom Cloud, Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945.
United States, National Archives and Records Administration. Available online at Images of American Political History, http://teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer%5Fpol%5Fhist/thumbnail404.htm, [22 December 1999].

Mushroom Cloud, Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945.

The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima demonstrated the immense destructive power of nuclear weaponry. The threat of an all-out atomic war increased dramatically after the Soviet Union tested a nuclear device in September 1949.

Canada had passed from the British to the American sphere of influence. Collective security and increased American-Canadian defence co-operation reflected the growing Western anxiety about the communist peril. The Korean War would soon heighten those anxieties and threaten a third world war. Canada would once more turn to its military to protect national interests.

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