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NATO, Canada and Nuclear Disarmament

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

     In 2001 Erika Simpson, professor in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, published a book entitled ”NATO and the Bomb, Canadian Defenders Confront Critics”. This captivating and extremely well documented book studies Canadian government’s decisions regarding nuclear weapons during the 1945-1984 period, mostly in the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Professor Simpson has sought to understand Canada’s complex behavior by digging out official — but also at times confidential and formerly secret — information from national archives and other sources. Professor Simpson has analyzed the vast amount of available information in terms of underlying belief systems of two groups of Canadian decision-makers.

    One group, which she called ”the Defenders”, possessed a belief system comprising these elements: -1, Canada benefited considerably by committing military resources to NATO; -2,  the Soviet Union presented an opportunistic and aggressive threat; -3,  NATO’s nuclear weapons were at an adequate level for defense; and -4, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was suitable and reliable.

    The second group, called  ”the Critics”, was characterized by the following belief system: -1, closeness to US-dominated NATO could force Canada to reluctantly join military conflicts; -2, the threat presented by the Soviet Union was exaggerated and misunderstood; -3, the destruction potential of nuclear weapons was too high on both sides; -4, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was unsuitable and unreliable.

    Professor Simpson was careful in her writing not to overly favor the Critics over the Defenders. However, with the hindsight now provided by the rich military history of the 1985-2020 period, we can point out several arguments that seriously undermine the Defenders’ belief system and that on the contrary favor the Critics. For one, since the mid-1980s, theoretical studies led by Alan Robock and Brian Toon have focused on the vast amounts of smoke from burning cities and forests, and of dust projected into the atmosphere by a nuclear exchange. They have shown that a prolonged ”nuclear winter” would result in famines the world over.  This phenomenon and the health and genetic damage caused by radioactive fall-out, vividly show that maintaining hundreds, or thousands, of nuclear weapons in a state of alert, may be suicidal for a large part of humankind.

     Second, the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) published in February 2018 recognized explicitly that nuclear deterrence can fail. Support for this view is the fact that most nuclear powers have kept a nuclear first strike as an ”option”; striking first implies that the attacking side does not fear retaliation. Even a cyberattack is now deemed by some nuclear powers — including the USA — reason enough to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

   I would like now to focus on the second belief held by the Critics, namely the nature of the nuclear threat. Historically, there were combinations of events where the American and the Soviet sides of the confrontation, feared that the other side might launch a nuclear attack. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1983 Able Archer NATO exercise war scare are examples where intense fear prevailed on both sides in 1962, and on the Soviet side in 1983.

   In NPR 2018 the Pentagon has described a new Russian nuclear threat in the form of hypersonic and cruise missiles. The Pentagon then proceeded to request one trillion dollars to ”modernize” nuclear weapons and means of delivery. In his State of the Union address in February 2019, President Donald Trump confirmed that the US has pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that had been signed and acclaimed in 1987.  In addition he declared: Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t –- in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.

   Many Canadian decision-makers had pointed out the dangers inherent to a nuclear arms race. In order to explain the Canadian decisions regarding NATO, Professor Simpson has focused her attention on several prime ministers and their appointed colleagues in the crucial question of nuclear arms deployment on Canadian territory.  She devoted a substantial part of her writing to John Diefenbaker who served as Prime Minister from 1957 until 1963. Although initially in favor of nuclear weapons deployment in Canada, Diefenbaker later changed his mind and managed to let the issue of joint Canadian American control over these weapons remain unresolved, thus delaying deployment. Two persons played a key role in influencing Diefenbaker’s decision. One was Howard Green who in 1959 was appointed by Diefenbaker to Secretary of state for External Affairs; Green was passionately against nuclear weapons. Another one was Norman Robertson who was appointed Under-Secretary of state for External Affairs. Both Green and Robertson started promoting the idea of nuclear disarmament. 

   In 1964 Lester B. Pearson became the new Prime Minister. Under his tenure Canada accepted the deployment of four nuclear weapons systems on its territory. In 1968 Pierre Elliott Trudeau started his first tenure as Prime Minister, ending in 1979; his second tenure was from 1980 until 1984. By 1972 Trudeau had seen to it that three out of four nuclear weapons systems were eliminated. The last nuke system was removed in 1984.

   Trudeau’s belief system regarding nuclear weapons was in line with Diefenbaker’s. On page 85 Professor Simpson quoted Trudeau from his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1982: We arm out of fear for our security and we will disarm only if we are convinced that the threat to our security has abated …. Security, unfortunately, is an elusive concept. It is not only a matter of weaponry. It is also a matter of perception. When each side acts in ways which the other perceives to be threatening, the gulf of suspicion widens between East and West”. 

   On page 92 author Simpson quoted from Trudeau’s remarks in the House of Commons in February 1984: The experts would have us believe that the issues of nuclear war have become too complex for all but themselves. We are asked to entrust our fate to a handful of high priests of nuclear strategy. And to the scientists who have taken us from atom bombs to thermonuclear warheads, from missiles with one warhead to missiles with ten or more, from weapons that deter to weapons that threaten the existence of us all. Canadians, and people everywhere, believe their security has been diminished, not enhanced, by a generation of work spent on perfecting the theories and instruments of human annihilation.

Conclusion. The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force in 1970. Its Article VI stipulated that the five major nuclear powers would in good faith negotiate nuclear disarmament. These negotiations are not progressing much. Instead,  almost all nine nuclear powers are ”modernizing” their nuclear arsenals.  An important contribution by Professor Erika Simpson has been to look at the belief systems underlying the deployment and then the retirement of nuclear weapons on Canadian territory. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau may have shown one important aspect of the nuclear dilemma, namely, consultation on an international scale. Note Simpson’s last five lines:     ”Now that the Cold War is over, it is time to put aside old belief systems and forge new ways of thinking. Traditional thought patterns will not fall by the wayside, however, until we understand them. As H.G. Wells wrote, Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”


Michel Duguay studied physics at the Université de Montréal and at Yale University, graduating in 1966 with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He worked for 21 years at AT&T Bell Telephone Labs, then at Laval University from which he retired in January 2020. He has a keen interest in belief systems underlying major decisions made by political leaders and their social support groups.


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