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Why Does Canada Become Involved?

By: Brad St. Croix

Brad St. Croix

Historical Contributor

Brad St. Croix is a freelance historian and researcher. He earned his PhD in history from the University of Ottawa. His dissertation examined the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong in Canada. He has also written numerous articles for the Juno Beach Centre and the Canadian Military History Journal. He has worked on public history projects with several organizations including the RCAF Foundation, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum, the Canadian War Museum, and Project 44. He runs the OTD Military History social media accounts and YouTube channel.

Introduction

Canada’s participation in the Korean War was the first time the Canadian government engaged in international military action with the objective of defending human rights under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During this conflict, the Canadian government’s primary goal was to restore peace to the Korean peninsula, while at the same time avoiding a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. These objectives were the result of a wide variety of factors, including the responses of the U.S. government, Canada’s other allies, and the UN. The realities of Canada’s domestic situation and the state of the Canadian military also influenced the government’s decision to participate in “collective security” actions during the Korean War. 

Canadian International Relations and the Korean War

Canadian political scientist Denis Stairs called the Korean War “a cold war confrontation dressed up as a collective security police action.”[i] This excellent summary of how the world viewed the North Korean invasion also speaks to how the dynamics of the Cold War influenced the Canadian military response to Korea. Canada’s relations with its allies, particularly the United States, was the largest consideration for the Canadian government’s actions. Internally, however, the government’s foremost concern was to avoid having the fighting on the Korean peninsula trigger a war with the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the context of the Cold War (1947–1991) limited what Canada could and could not do toward the goal of avoiding a nuclear exchange. 

During the Cold War, Canada was part of the Western Bloc – also known as the Capitalist Bloc. This bloc was an informal group of countries that were allied with the United States. They opposed the Eastern Bloc, also known as the Communist Bloc, a coalition of communist countries under the influence of the Soviet Union. As a result of the United States’ leadership position in the Western Bloc, the Canadian government took many cues from the Americans. 

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, c. 1948-1957. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

While the United States was hurrying forces into the area, Canada’s contributions came piece by piece, and then only after the UN made formal requests. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his government took a gradual approach to committing combat forces, initially contributing only limited naval and air forces to the United Nations Command. These commitments were followed by lengthy deliberations in the Canadian House of Commons as to how, or if, to further deploy the Canadian Army. This response was partly by choice but mostly due to a lack of ability to do more given the state of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Canadian response was in part slower because the Canadian government wanted to show solidarity with the UN, and its mission of protecting human rights, instead of just with the United States alone. It was concerned that the wider world might view the U.S. intervention in Korea as a unilateral action, which could potentially turn the Cold War into another world war, but this time with nuclear weapons. 

Honourable Lester B. Pearson, February 29, 1952. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

In the immediate aftermath of the North Korean invasion, some in the Canadian government, including Prime Minister St. Laurent, Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, and the most influential foreign service advisors, thought the Americans would not do anything substantial about the North Korean actions. Since the Second World War, American policy toward Asia had been centred on non-direct intervention, so President Harry S. Truman surprised many when he ordered the U.S. military to intervene in the fighting on June 27, 1950.

Concern over the use of nuclear weapons is what had led to the Canadian belief that the United States would not do anything substantial. As tensions were rising with the Soviet Union after the Second World War, any confrontation between the Western and Eastern blocs, whether through direct conflict or through its allies, had the potential to quickly turn into a nuclear exchange. As Canada sat between the United States and the Soviet Union, geographically, it would inevitably be subject to the mass destruction that those weapons cause. As a result, the Canadian government wanted to avoid any possibility of such a war while still supporting its American ally.

On June 28, 1950, Secretary of State for External Affairs Pearson reported to the House of Commons on the developments in Korea and stated that Canada would confer with other members of the UN as to what Canada could do. Since the budget estimates of the Department of External Affairs would be debated the following day, discussion of the Korea crisis was deferred until then. The next day, shortly after the debate got under way, Pearson announced that the government had received a request from the UN for one or two military observers (experienced soldiers sent to collect information for their government) to serve with the UN Commission on Korea. The government agreed to this request. 

The House of Commons, 1953.
The House of Commons, 1953. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

All parties in the House agreed that Canada should do something to support South Korea, and quickly. They also agreed to support the government in whatever action it deemed necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of collective security of the UN, which had passed a resolution on June 27 recommending that UN members provide assistance to South Korea to repel the attack and restore peace. There was little more the members of Parliament could do. 

On June 30, Parliament was scheduled to end its current session and there were no plans to postpone this closure, despite the crisis going on in Korea. That same day, St. Laurent gave a speech in the House of Commons on the situation, where he stated that “any participation by Canada in carrying out the foregoing resolution – and I wish to emphasize this strongly – would not be participation in war against any state. It would be our part in collective police action under the control and authority of the United Nations for the purpose of restoring peace to an area where an aggression has occurred as determined under the charter of the United Nations by the security council, which decision has been accepted by us. It is only in such circumstances that this country would be involved in action of this kind.”[ii]

The Canadian Military Response 

St. Laurent also announced that three Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) destroyers were heading toward Korea and would be placed under UN command once they arrived in the waters off the peninsula. The prime minister closed his remarks by saying, “Meanwhile the government, within the mandate which the attitude of the house in the last two days has given it, will do its full duty, within the measure of its power and ability, as a member of the United Nations, in common with other members, to make the collective action of the United Nations effective, and to restore peace in Korea.”[iii] The Canadian government’s desire to intervene with the support of the UN was clear.

On July 12, the Canadian government informed the secretary-general of the UN, Trygve Lie, that three destroyers were now under the operational control of the commander-in-chief of the UN forces, General Douglas MacArthur. Despite the announced deployment of three destroyers, Secretary-General Lie called for even more Canadian support. On July 14, Lie again asked for more Canadian combat forces, especially ground forces, for service in Korea. Upon receiving this request, Brooke Claxton, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, met with the Canadian chiefs of the defence staff (the heads of the military branches) to get their views on the feasibility of such a request. The goal of this meeting was to give Claxton a sense of what the Canadian Armed Forces could do, ahead of the cabinet defence committee meeting on July 19 to craft a reply to the secretary-general.

Honourable Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defence, 1951. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.
Captain Frank Llewellen Houghton
Captain Frank Llewellen Houghton, Royal Canadian Navy, Senior Canadian Naval Officer, London, England, 1943. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Rear Admiral Frank Houghton, the acting chief of the naval staff, stated that three destroyers were all that the RCN could handle in addition to its other NATO commitments. Air Marshal Wilfred Curtis, chief of the air staff, offered a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) transport squadron of five aircraft, which could later be increased to 10. Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, chief of the general staff, the head of the Canadian Army, wanted to contribute an infantry brigade that operated within a British Commonwealth division but did not have enough soldiers to fill its ranks. To solve this problem, he recommended that a special force of volunteers be raised specifically for service in Korea. 

As a result of the July 19 meeting, the cabinet defence committee decided to bring the Active Force, better known as the Regular Force, of the Canadian Army up to strength as soon as possible. The previous personnel restrictions that had been put in place to keep costs down were lifted, but this did little to help: by the end of July, the number of soldiers in the Army had dropped by 350. Educational standards for recruits were subsequently lowered, and recruiting advertisements were produced in order to reverse this downward trend.

On July 21, the Canadian government announced that it was allocating an RCAF transport squadron to support the UN Command in Korea. On July 27, Secretary of State for External Affairs Pearson advised the cabinet that the U.S. government, through its embassy, had sent a note asking for a Canadian brigade group. A decision on this matter was deferred, but an announcement that the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand had offered army units to the United Nations prompted the cabinet to review what the Canadian Army could do. At this point, even the British government began asking what the Canadian government intended to do in terms of its ground forces. 

In a radio address to the Canadian public on August 7, 1950, St. Laurent noted that since the end of the Second World War and the demobilization of the Canadian military, there had been no attempt to maintain “a fully trained expeditionary force available for immediate action outside Canada.”[iv] Simply put, the Canadian Army was not ready for a war beyond its borders other than its established presence in Europe. New measures were therefore introduced to solve this problem. During the same radio speech, the prime minister announced the decision to recruit the Canadian Army Special Force (CASF), a force of units specifically raised for service in Korea. It was to be “specially trained and equipped to be available for use in carrying out Canada’s obligations under the United Nations charter or the North Atlantic pact.”[v]

One of the reasons the CASF was needed was the nature of Canadian military spending in the immediate post–Second World War era. Most of the funds, and troop training, had been spent on home defence and preparation for a larger war centred on Europe, because of the possibility of war breaking out with the Soviet Union. Also, Canadian military leaders feared that the invasion of South Korea might have been ordered by the Soviet Union to have the military units of the Western Bloc sent to an area of lesser importance to distract them from an attack elsewhere, such as central Europe. On June 30, 1950, the day of St. Laurent’s speech in Parliament, the strength of the Active Force was 20,369 all ranks. This was hardly enough to send units to Korea, defend Canada, and maintain NATO requirements in Europe. As there were not enough regular soldiers to fill all these roles, a new set of units needed to be raised, hence the creation of the CASF. 

The first army combat unit to be deployed to Korea as part of the CASF, which later became more commonly known as the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, was the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. These soldiers trained in Canada and Washington State before shipping out in November 1950. After additional preparations in Korea, the first Canadian soldiers reached the front lines in February 1951. 

Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, c. 1943-1965. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

Canadian Public Opinion and Pressure from the Press in Canada

The Canadian domestic situation was another critical factor that affected how the government responded to the situation in Korea. Overall, the Canadian public wanted the Canadian military to contribute to the UN mission. The government’s first fear was that there would be an adverse reaction in Quebec, but it turned out that many in the province supported the UN mission in Korea. There was even some displeasure in French-language newspapers about how limited the deployment of the RCN and RCAF to Korea was.

Even opposition newspapers in English Canada supported the mission in Korea, insisting that the government should do more and faster. According to them, the deployment of aircraft and naval vessels was simply not enough, and editorials voicing displeasure with the so-called lack of action became commonplace. The July 12 announcement of the three Canadian destroyers being placed under the UN Command did little to placate the press and led to continued calls by newspaper editors for Canada to do more. By the end of July, both Conservative and Liberal newspapers called for the dispatch of ground troops to Korea. Many positive editorials followed the announcement of the CASF, although some Conservative newspapers still wanted Canada to do more. 

Conclusion 

The conflict in Korea left the Canadian government with little choice about how to respond. Factors such as domestic public opinion and relations with allies pushed it inevitably toward supporting the UN combat mission. The choice of how many troops, ships, and aircraft, however, remained with the Canadian government. The process of deploying Canada’s military forces to Korea was initially carried out cautiously, but the reality of the situation in both Canada and Korea forced an expansion of the Canadian military’s response. Canadian public opinion played a role in these increases, as did American and British pressure. The Canadian government was overtaken by the events in Korea, forcing it to make decisions that it wished to avoid.

Additional Resources

Belshaw, John Douglas. “The Cold War,” in Canadian History: Post-Confederation (BCcampus, 2016).

Fairlie Wood, Herbert. Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada(Department of National Defence, 1966).

Quaiattini, Andrea. “Hot Off the Presses in the Cold War: Canadian Newspaper Editorial Coverage of the Korean War, 1950-1951,” PhD thesis (University of Ottawa, 2010). 

Stairs, Denis. “Canada and the Korean War: Fifty Years On,” in Canadian Military History 9, 3 (2000).


[i] Denis Stairs, “Canada and the Korean War: Fifty Years On,” in Canadian Military History 9, 3 (2000, 51).

[ii] Louis Stephen St-Laurent, External Affairs Situation in Korea (Hansard, June 30, 1950). 

[iii] Louis Stephen St-Laurent, External Affairs Situation in Korea

[iv] Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada(Department of National Defence, 1966, 18).

[v] Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada (27).