John Clearwater, author of Canadian Nuclear Weapons

March 4, 1998

On 31 December 1963, nuclear warheads from the United States began to arrive in Canada, per an order signed by US President Lyndon Johnson the previous day. Interestingly, these weapons actually had to clear Canada customs, in a sense, with inspectors present at delivery, although this was somewhat less than the full accounting that the department had initially requested. US nuclear weapons would remain in Canada until June 1984.

It was only after the weapons were already installed that any thought was given to procedures for consultation regarding their potential use. Although a meeting was scheduled between U.S. President Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Pearson weeks after the missiles’ arrival, it was determined that the time before the meeting was insufficient to work out the details for an agreement on command and control of the weapons which the two heads of state could sign. While the bureaucracies began work on a framework agreement, nothing formal was signed until almost two years later—by which time hundreds of weapons were installed and operational.

Perhaps a reason for this laxness lay in the widely held belief that these weapons would never be used. Due to continued negative public opinion, the Canadian leadership promised the removal of the weapons at the same time as they promised to acquire them. And some arrangements were already in place. Under the MB1 Agreement, the United States could fly its weapons north as far as 50 degrees latitude (the border is at 49 degrees). Further, within the original and subsequent MB-1 agreements there existed some rather vague provisions for consultations, arranged between 1957 and 1959. Instituting higher alert levels, for instance, required telephone consultation. While other arrangements were discussed, however, none were instituted, leaving the United States with no real requirement to consult with Canada regarding nuclear weapons use in Canada. And what regulations existed could be confusing. As of 1962, the Commander-in-Chief, Continental Air Defense (CINCONAD) had prior authorization from the US President for use of nuclear weapons over the continental United States and adjacent waters, while the Commander-in-Chief, North American Air Defense Command (CINCNORAD) did not—particularly odd considering that CINCNORAD AND CINCONAD were the same person. All that existed was a general understanding that consultation was the right thing to do, and that the permission of the Prime Minister would be required for use of nuclear weapons.

While there were no political arrangements, the Canadian military began to work out procedures on its own. A draft Canadian document from April 1964 provided authorization for CINCNORAD to use weapons

per a formal letter giving prior authorization. This letter, from the Prime Minister, gave the senior Canadian officer (DCINCNORAD) the authority to authorize CINCNORAD to use the weapons in the case of a sudden emergency. An emergency was defined as, for example, a surprise attack on targets in North America, following positive identification of substantial numbers of bombers, several atomic weapons bursts, or reliable evidence that ICBMs had been launched.

Thus, while in the United States this was a political issue, in Canada it had become the purview of the military and the Minister of National Defence who issued internal instructions to CINCNORAD which were unknown to the Canadian government until the Minister informed them on the subject. The interim instructions gave full authorization to CINCNORAD/DCINCNORAD in an emergency as defined by CINCNORAD.

An agreement on consultation was finally signed in 1965, and the relationship became more stable. A Canadian requirement for the agreement had been that Prime Minister Pearson and President Johnson work out consultation procedures. Key to this was the issue of timely authorization, given the short time-frame that might be involved. Rapid and reliable telephone facilities were built, and a hotline established.

These preparatory measures were dependent on warning time, however. If there was a gradual build-up in tensions, it was assumed that there would be time for such consultations. In case there was not, however, a signed note from the Prime Minister to the White House existed giving prior authorization. This note authorized weapons use without a prior call between DCINCNORAD and the Prime Minister. With the Prime Minister’s signature of this note, Canada had signed away any real right to be consulted in an emergency. It had been pressured into doing so by the US, which had expressed concerns about being able to launch in a short time frame, if necessary.

Now, what this situation meant was that when an authorization was received, there was no way of knowing if it referred to the previously signed note or to an actual consultation with the Prime Minister. Canada had already signed on to NATO rules for nuclear use, which permitted such use in Europe without prior consultation. With this pre-authorization, Canada had given up the right to input on nuclear use in North America, as well, despite the fact that weapons were stationed on their soil.

Dr. John M. Clearwater is a military-strategic analyst. He completed his doctorate at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, where he worked in the field of strategic nuclear arms control. His book, Canadian Nuclear Weapons, was published in February 1998 by Dundwin Press, Toronto.

Rapporteur: Olya Oliker

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