U.S.-Canadian Relations on the Rocks

Will Ottawa Go Its Own Way?

Trump and Trudeau at the G7 summit, June 2018 Leah Millis / Reuters

On April 2, 1965, Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada traveled to Philadelphia, where he gave an address urging U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to consider a limited halt in the bombing of North Vietnam. Although Pearson’s appeal was respectful and restrained, the president felt betrayed, and he let it be known when the two met at Camp David the next day. After a frosty lunch, Johnson led Pearson by the arm to a stone terrace and, for the next hour, lit into him for coming to his “backyard” and attacking him on Vietnam.

Charles Ritchie, Canada’s ambassador to the United States at the time, recorded the tirade in his diary. Johnson “strode the terrace, he sawed the air with his arms, with upraised fist he drove home the verbal hammer blows.” Pearson, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a settlement in the Sinai in 1956, sat silently through the so-called Johnson treatment. The dressing-down reached a climax when the lanky president grabbed Pearson by the lapel and hissed, “You don’t come here and piss on my rug!” 

The relationship between the two never recovered. As the war in Vietnam escalated, Pearson realized that he could do nothing to stop it. Johnson never again asked Canada, “Now, what can I do for you?” as he had when he telephoned Pearson to thank him for sending peacekeepers to Cyprus in 1964. For decades, that afternoon at Camp David marked the nadir in a century and a half of relations between Canada and the United States.

Until, that is, earlier this month, when U.S. President Donald Trump turned on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the G-7 summit in Quebec. Trump’s insults—he called Trudeau “very dishonest & weak” in a tweet—have stoked fears of a devastating trade war at a time when Canada and other U.S. allies are already reeling from the president’s breathless assault on the postwar international order that the United States itself helped

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