Washington Through British Eyes
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Mar 1952, p. 269-282
Description
Speaker
Buchan, Hon. Alastair, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Some quite personal impressions about American policy. The speaker's background as a Washington newspaper correspondent and a brief description of the task. A first impression: the absolute impossibility of separating foreign policy from domestic politics or of treating them in different compartments. An illustration. A brief historical explication of the American system of government. The immense strain of America's world responsibilities imposed upon those who have to operate its government, with examples. The American constitution; surprise by the fact that it works at all, and why the speaker finds that to be so. A second impression: the American map of the world is not yet completely unrolled. Looking at the situation in the Middle East and American involvement there to illustrate this point. The reluctant involvement of the United States. The speaker's suspicion that much the same situation will happen with regard to South East Asia in the next few years. The moral that there is no such thing for the U.S. as a limited commitment to the outside world. The hard pill that this will be for the American opinion to swallow, and why. The speaker's belief that we in the Commonwealth, especially in Britain, should exercise a certain humility and restraint in watching the reluctance of the U.S. to face up to the full implications and obligations of being the strongest power in the world. Reasons why. Another impression of Washington: one of the subjects on which opinion is least well informed and most puzzled is the Commonwealth. "They have observed the signs of weakness in the Commonwealth and they have failed to see its inner strengths." An illustration of this attitude revealed over the death of his late Majesty King George and the accession of Queen Elizabeth. The mistake of taking the signs of growing autonomy among the nations of the Commonwealth for evidence of a desire to break up the system itself. The American constitution ill designed for the tasks of world leadership that America is now called upon to undertake. The U.S. in the midst of a profound internal psychological revolution which will take many years to resolve itself. Threads running through American policy as expressed in Congress. The U.S. needing proof of our support as allies in the defense of freedom in the West to an extent that Great Britain when she was the leading power did not. Reasons for that need. The long hard road ahead for the Nations of the West. The Cold War with many years to run. Other difficult problems ahead. Canada's role.
Date of Original
6 Mar 1952
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Language of Item
English
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Full Text
"WASHINGTON THROUGH BRITISH EYES"
An Address by HON. ALASTAIR BUCHAN
Washington Correspondent, The Observer
Thursday, March 6th, 1952
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. D. H. Gibson.

MR. GIBSON: Our speaker will be introduced by Mr. John Bassett, General Manager of The Telegram.

MR. BASSETT: Mr. Chairman and gentlemen: Canadians have traditionally taken unto themselves the role of interpreters between the peoples of those two great countries of Great Britain and the United States.

We pride ourselves that we know the people of the United States better than do the English and that we know the people of Great Britain better than do our American neighbours. This claim of ours may be subject to discussion but there can be no argument that the newspaper man, who is going to address us today on the subject "Washington through British eyes" is eminently qualified to interpret the delicate international interplay between Canada, Britain and the United States.

It is particularly appropriate that Mr. Buchan should be speaking as a Britisher about Washington in Canada. He was born and brought up in England, educated at Eton and Oxford. But he came to Canada in his late teens and later completed his education at the University of Virginia in the United States.

The son of a distinguished Governor General, Alastair may now be one of a vanishing breed--those adopted Canadians of ours who earned their citizenship as children of our distinguished Governors General--but he has other claims to Canadianism for he is married to a former Ottawa girl and served for 6 years in the Canadian Armoured Corps during the war as did his gallant brother, John, who commanded our Hastings and Prince Edward regiment in Italy.

Alastair Buchan is a newspaper man and, therefore, I am more than ever delighted to introduce him to you. Formerly Assistant Editor of The Economist in London, in 1950, he joined the staff of The Observer and some of his articles have appeared in Toronto on the editorial pages of The Globe and Mail.

His older brother, John, has said publicly that while he inherited his father's title Alastair inherited his father's brains. Gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to present to you, a soldier, a journalist, and your speaker of today, The Honourable Alastair Buchan.

MR. BUCHAN: It has given me very great pleasure indeed to be asked to speak to you today. But I must confess that my qualifications are really very modest. I feel a certain sense of humility in addressing an audience which is used to hearing statesmen, and those who speak with the authority of public office or long experience. Perhaps my strongest credential is my own happiness at being back in Toronto. For me all roads lead back to Canada. The happiest years of my youth were spent in this country. My wife is a Canadian and my eldest son was born here. I had the honor to serve for six years in the Canadian Army, and I am very happy to see the faces of many of my friends of wartime days among you.

Nevertheless my sense of inadequacy persists. For although I have lived a considerable part of my life on this side of the Atlantic, both in Canada and the United States, I still think that it's somewhat rash for me to tell you what is going on in Washington. After all, you Canadians have a much greater knowledge of the American way of thinking than I have; you have felt the impact of American developments at first hand, in a way no British person however interested and sympathetic can quite feel them. Moreover, I speak with no authority whatsoever and represent no body of opinion more numerous than one.

What I would like to offer you therefore are some quite personal impressions about American policy which I hope you will accept in the wholly undogmatic--and perhaps naïve--form in which they are put forward. Certainly I know that nothing is more unwise than for an Englishman to criticize the United States to Canadians.

I am a Washington newspaper correspondent. To judge from what one reads in drugstore fiction and in the columns of Mr. Drew Pearson such people lead very exciting lives, being given secret information by presidents and ambassadors, hiding under the beds of Senators, and being perpetually consulted and informed about the news behind the news. I wish I could tell you--confidentially of course--that a journalist's life in Washington was really like that, but alas it is very much less glamorous and exciting. Being a correspondent in Washington really involves an unending effort to understand and to interpret to a wider audience the complexities, the pressures, the hestitations and the decisions of the American government--a task that is based far more on a patient study of facts which are public knowledge than on inside information.

Writing as I do for a non-American audience and one which is almost entirely in the British Commonwealth, I am naturally much more concerned with American foreign policy and American attitudes toward the outside world than with any other aspect of American life. And the first thing which strikes an outsider in Washington is the absolute impossibility of separating foreign policy from domestic politics or of treating them in different compartments.

This is of course true of all democratic countries. Foreign policy must carry the support of the electorate with it just as much as domestic policy. A striking illustration of this has been recently provided by the way in which the plans for the European Army, which advanced rapidly while it was being negotiated by the officials of the different countries, nearly collapsed--and may yet do so--when it was put to the test of the French and German parliaments. The officials had far outstripped the support of their own public opinions. The same forces are at work in the heated debate now going on in British politics as to what Mr. Churchill did or did not commit Britain to in the Far East during his recent talks with President Truman.

But at least in all forms of parliamentary government such as the Canadian, British, or European, where the Ministers are also members of the legislature, the men responsible for framing and executing policy can explain and defend their policy before their fellow legislators without throwing any strain on the machine. And since Ministers are ministers because their party commands a majority in Parliament, it is very rarely that Parliament reverses their policy decisions.

By contrast you have the American system of government which was created to run a small, weak agricultural country in the 18th century. It was developed and interpreted by Jefferson and the country gentlemen of Virginia with the specific intention of putting as many checks on the use of authority by the central government, as an extremely able body of learned men could devise. And the letter of the Constitution has never in any important respect been changed. The House of Representatives who are the tribunes of the people, and the Senators who are the ambassadors of the various states, consider their functions as, not merely to debate and approve policy, but actually to frame it as well. The President and his cabinet of Secretaries of State, Defence, Treasury and so forth, exist to execute policy. The President even though he is elected by popular vote, is still, in the minds of most Americans, much more what the title of Chief Executive suggests than he is like a Prime Minister of a Parliamentary government. The Secretaries are his appointees and their authority derives not from any electoral mandate but from his and their personal prestige with Congress and to the people Congress is, the master. Congress, that is, as a corporate body quite independent of any political line up in it. A great many of the recent quarrels between Congress and the Administration over Foreign Aid and Military policy do not result from a renewed attack of isolationism so much as a desire to reassert the authority of Congress over policymaking. And that, as far as one can see, is a political system which the American people still support; despite the enormous revolution in the power and importance of the United States that has occurred. From the days of President Wilson onwards a hundred schemes have been put forward to transform the American governmental system into something more like a parliamentary system of the British pattern. (But except with a few professors of government in the universities such ideas have never been accepted by any sizeable body of American opinion and I very much doubt if they ever will be. Canada provides the finest example of how a federal system can be combined with parliamentary and responsible government, and there is no technical reason why the American constitution should not be reorganized along Canadian lines. But I would as soon expect the head of King George III to appear on an American dime as to see that happen.)

One cannot but be struck by the immense strain which America's world responsibilities impose upon those who have to operate its government. In the first place consider the position of the President himself. Unlike a Prime Minister he is not the leading member of a team of men all equally responsible which we call the Cabinet. The American cabinet members are merely his advisers; he alone is accountable to the nation for every executive act that is taken. Every major and minor decision that is taken must flow across his desk from the reports of ambassadors to the squabbles of an Indian tribe. He must exercise the ceremonial functions as the head of the State, he must lead and advise his own political party; he has in his personal gift between four and five hundred official appointments. If out of ignorance or bad advice he picks a crook, he alone is held responsible. If he has the time and the capacity to evolve policies of his own, as likely as not he will find them turned down or refuted by Congress. UMT, Foreign Aid, St. Lawrence Seaway. I know of no one in our parliamentary system of governments who would take on a job at once so exhausting and so thankless.

Consider next the position of the main cabinet officers, such as the Secretary of State and Defence. Upon them the major burden of formulating and executing American policy falls. For despite the theory of the American constitution, the contemporary scene is too complex and moves too fast to enable Congress to frame policy. The Secretaries are the heads of enormous departments and carry a tremendous load of work upon their shoulders. The Department of State is now something like eight times the size it was in 1939. These men are not elected politicians backed by all the team spirit and camaraderie that a member of the House of Commons enjoys, but they can be summoned at short notice to appear before a Congressional committee to give an account of their actions, or to be asked in the most public and peremptory fashion about some project which has probably been the result of months of delicate negotiations with foreign governments. In the last five years the Secretary of State has appeared personally before Congressional committees 67 times, and his officials a total of 260. I can testify from personal experience that there are certain weeks in the year when it is quite impossible for a senior state Department official to spend an hour a day on his proper duties. Our impulsive erratic permanent officials in Ottawa and London who are shielded from the glare of parliamentary and public criticism by the protective form of a minister who is politically expendable, do not know, I sometimes feel, how lucky they are.

The foreign observer coming to Washington and aware of the rigidities of the American constitution, is surprised not so much by the defects of the system as by the fact that it works at all. For the plain fact is that with immense creaks and jerks the system does work. Within a space of less than fifteen years the United States has emerged from an isolationism only one degree less tight than that of Shintoist Japan and has assumed the responsibilities and most of the obligations of world leadership. It has managed to rally American public opinion which is deeply anti-militarist by tradition to undertake the greatest measure of rearmament ever contemplated by any nation in time of peace. A government whose originators abhorred the idea of the slightest interference with private trade or commerce has managed to liberalize the relations between labour and management, and to exercise sufficient guidance over the economic climate as to prevent the worst evils both of deflation and inflation. Europe has been bolstered up both economically and militarily, aggression has been halted in Korea without provoking a major war in the Far East, slowly but steadily the programmes for assisting the underdeveloped countries are carried on year by year and perhaps the greatest achievement of all is that President Truman, that small Missouri politician who had never thought very seriously about the world at large until the war came, has, by his stubborn honest adherence to the foreign policy, which he inherited from his great predecessor, made it impossible for the coming election to be fought on any other ground. It is a striking fact that unless the American people elect Senator Taft next autumn, every other presidential candidate, General Eisenhower, Governor Warren for the Republicans, Senator Ketauver or Governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats are all committed to the Roosevelt Truman line of Foreign Policy. I feel that we, the inheritors of an older tradition of world-wide responsibility should exercise a certain humility and willingness to suspend our criticism of American shortcomings, in face of this amazingly rapid maturity of opinion. I can think of no phenomenom to equal it in the whole of history.

I should like to pass on to you the second point which struck me forcibly when I first came to Washington. This is that the American map of the world is not yet completely unrolled. While the spotlight of American interest in the world has broadened immeasurably in recent years and reached new areas there are still parts of the world in shadow. Let me try and illustrate that historically. Originally the men who made America were far too caught up in the business of developing their own continent to have any interest in the outside world. For the past hundred years or so one can see the United States getting inextricably involved in the affairs of other parts of the world; steadily protesting that this is only temporary or accidental. Central and South America in the nineteenth century; the Far East in the first half of this century, Europe and the Mediterranean in the past ten years. Just coming on to the American map are the Middle East and South East Asia.

The case of the Middle East illustrates my point. Three years ago you could interest almost no one in Washington in the problems of the Middle East. Except of course in the problem of Palestine for which there seemed a very simple and straightforward answer.

As recently as eighteen months ago I asked one of the most senior generals in the Pentagon what line the American government intended to take to ensure the defence of the Middle East from Russian attack. "The Middle East," he said, "We leave that part of the world to the British."

Yet today the United States is inextricably involved in the affairs of the Middle East. It has its own vital commercial interests there in the American oil companies, which depend for their existence on the goodwill and cooperation of the local governments. The strategic containment of Russia demands that a watertight system of defence be erected in that area. The United States is now vitally concerned in maintaining freedom of passage through the Suez Canal, and the network of air and cable communications which parallel it. America cannot now be indifferent to the smallest events that take place in that area. She has now joined with Britain, France and Turkey in the decision to set up a Middle East Command. Her most powerful Fleet is now permanently based in the Mediterranean. She has made a valiant effort to mediate in the dispute between Britain and Iran over the nationalization of the Anglo Iranian oil company. She has committed large sums for technical and economic assistance to the area. And yet all this has been done with great reluctance. In fact it has been done with all the more reluctance because it has meant at times supporting the colonial policies of Britain and France against the more irresponsible manifestations of Middle Eastern Nationalism, which is something that goes very much against the grain of the American tradition.

I suspect that in the next few years very much the same will happen with regard to South East Asia, to the area that lies between India and Malaya. At the moment there is very great reluctance indeed in Washington to assume any responsibility for the security of that area. The military maintain that they have not sufficient resources to back up any committments that might be made there, that it is remote and inaccessible, that no direct American interest is threatened. Certainly there would be very great reluctance on the part of the American people to go to war for Siam or Burma, countries of which they know very little and probably care less. Yet if the Chinese give signs that these countries will be the next targets for aggression it is difficult to see how the United States will be able to stand aside. A debacle in South East Asia would not only be a major diplomatic defeat for the West, it would also mean the loss of many valuable, indeed vital, raw materials which are essential to the rearmament of the West.

The moral of this I believe is that there is no such thing for the United States as a limited committment to the outside world. It is possible for her to be completely isolationist which is a disastrous policy but could probably be achieved, by withdrawing as ex-President Hoover suggests into an American Rock of Gibraltar. But it is not in my view possible for America as by far the strongest power in the West to undertake to strengthen the security of one part of the world but not another, to accept a committment in Europe but not in Asia. Just as when Britain was the dominant power in the West her committments had to be gradually extended until they included the seven seas, so I think that America will find herself unable to limit her committments for maintaining world security.

Now this is going to be a very hard pill for American opinion to swallow, since the idea of any foreign commitment is still a relatively new one, and there are many people including some who will be most vocal during the coming election campaign, who have not yet accepted the obvious facts of America's position. I can imagine no process more unpleasant for a nation which has traditionally regarded itself as self-sufficient in every sense, to discover as the years go by that in Litvinoff's words "Peace is indivisible," that to be effective the Pax Americana must be at least as extensive as was the old Pax Britannica.

Now again I think we in the Commonwealth, especially we in Britain, should exercise a certain humility and restraint in watching the reluctance of the United States to face to the full implications and obligations of being the strongest power in the world. For, if you look back over British history, you find exactly the same thing. You will remember that throughout most of the mid-nineteenth century the British parliament protested regularly against paying for the upkeep of troops in Canada and elsewhere. At an earlier date every fresh obligation which the government assumed in India brought forth howls of protest from public opinion, that it was unnecessary, could not be afforded and we would end by ruining the British people. For years the Colonial office stood out against the annexation of New Zealand, declaring that it was not a British interest to have any more committments in the Pacific. And yet bit by bit the committments grew until they became a world wide system. Britain was the strongest industrial power of her day as Rome had once been, and since that power has now passed to the United States, the task in my view falls inevitably upon American shoulders, however great a distaste the individual American may feel for their allotted place in world history.

Let me offer you another impression of Washington. One of the subjects on which opinion is least well informed and most puzzled is the Commonwealth. They have witnessed the obvious decline in Britain's strength as a result of two world wars and recurring postwar economic crises, they have seen the old imperial tie with India and Burma broken, the British mandate in Palestine terminated, the growth of colonies like Nigeria and the Gold Coast in to self-governing communities, and the adoption of independent lines of economic and foreign policy by Canada and Australia and South Africa. And they have tended to assume that the day of the Commonwealth is past. They have observed the signs of weakness in the Commonwealth and they have failed to see its inner strengths.

A good illustration of this attitude was revealed by the death of his late Majesty King George and the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Not only was there demonstrable evidence of real grief throughout the whole length and breadth of the Commonwealth, but the actual mechanism by which the Queen was proclaimed showed up the nature of the Commonwealth link. Canada was the first nation to proclaim the Queen. South Africa whose government is supposed to be on the verge of Republicanism issued the proclamation without the slightest whisper of disagreement. The Indian government immediately adjourned parliament as a mark of sorrow and later proclaimed the Queen not as Queen of India but as head of the Commonwealth. People recalled that the system, call it Commonwealth or Empire over which the sovereignty of the Queen is acknowledged covers one quarter of the world's surface and contains nearly six hundred millions people, or four times the population of the United States. This is I think very puzzling to many Americans who have been used for many years past to think of the Commonwealth as in a slow and genteel process of disintegration. The mistake has always been to take the signs of growing autonomy among the nations of the Commonwealth for evidence of a desire to break up the system itself. With the deep rooted and strong distaste for colonialism which is in every American, the Commonwealth is too oft envisaged as a series of small nations struggling to free themselves from the domination of Britain, as if that battle had not been fought and won nearly a century ago. On the day when it was announced that Mr. Massey had been appointed to succeed Lord Alexander as Governor General I turned on my radio and heard a Washington commentator who is usually well informed solemnly state that this appointment "marked a significant step towards Home Rule for Canada." You must be much more keenly aware than I am how frequently and how persistently Canada's connection with the Commonwealth is misinterpreted by most Americans.

What I have been saying may sound to you very obvious. The American constitution is ill designed for the tasks of world leadership that America is now called upon to undertake. That the Americans delude themselves if they think that they will be able to restrict their commitments to specified segments of the world, and that they have an inadequate understanding of the true nature of the Commonwealth, and especially of Canada's place in it. But they do lead me to a conclusion which I am inclined to think is not sufficiently appreciated, but which has impressed me most forcibly during my time in Washington.

That is quite simply that the United States is in the midst of a profound internal psychological revolution which will take many years to resolve itself. The people of the United States or their leaders did not become the leading power in the free world by a process of ambition, calculation and force. In the most literal sense they have had greatness thrust upon them. They are under none of the pressures which have motivated the actions of other great powers. They do not have to protect their borders from attack. She is not dependent on overseas trade as both Britain and Canada are and has no economic impetus to become a world leader. Most of her inhabitants or their ancestors came to her shores because they wished to escape from the web of international power politics. In fact if you were to examine the innermost heart of the average American you would find that the nearest that he ever wished to come to world leadership would be to have his favorite team win the World Series . . . the Communist picture of a power hungry America plotting for war is the grotesquest image ever projected on the screen of propaganda. Every step that is taken by the United States in fulfillment of its position of world leadership, its support for the United Nations, the war in Korea, the stationing of troops in Europe, its support for Nato are as it were intellectual decisions, they are not dictated by instinct.

And throughout American policy for the past few years, especially as expressed in Congress, has run the same thread. We will take action once and for all to alleviate the current evil. Europe must be rebuilt economically, therefore the Marshall plan. Communist aggression in Korea, therefore the draft and rearmament. Definite action to solve a definite situation. Very much in keeping with the downright energetic American temperament. The Marshall Plan solves one set of European economic difficulties but its completion finds a host of new ones rising up. You halt aggression in Korea and it threatens to break out elsewhere. The fact is that the problems are endless and none of them are capable of a clean cut solution. There is always some one ready with a nostrum, a patent medicine: Let the Europeans rot, bomb the daylights out of China, abandon the problem to the United Nations, but in their hearts everyone except the bigots know that these are merely dodging the issue . . . In my view men like Senator Taft or ex-President Hoover with their easy blueprints for limiting America's participation in world affairs are expressing a very powerful current of American nostalgia for the gay and pleasant past that is so clearly not going to be repeated for Americans. Their real mistake is in trying to lead America back to her past rather than forward to her future. The profound and unpleasant revolution of which I have spoken comes with the realization that once you have entered the gray area of world affairs, no problems can be solved quickly and some can never be solved completely.

It seems to me therefore that the United States needs proof of our support as allies in the defense of freedom in the West to an extent that Great Britain when she was the leading power did not. For the United States will only be enabled to go though with the psychological revolution which confront her if she feels that she is part of a community of nations which all support and to which all contribute according to their strength. And in this process Canada has one of the most important, parts to play. For Canada is a North American nation which can speak to America with the trust which comes from a common tradition and shared habits. She is a member of the Commonwealth which, as I tried to outline earlier, is an organization regarded with increasing respect and confidence by American opinion. And finally she is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization which is by far the most satisfactory formula that has yet been found for an international alliance which takes account of the differing strengths and traditions of the member nations.

The Nations of the West have a long hard road ahead of them. The Cold War in my view at least has many years yet to run, and there are other equally difficult problems ahead, the economic health of Britain and Europe, the raising of the standards of the backward peoples. We in Canada and in Britain are faced with the problem of the western alliance under American leadership into something that will endure and be strong. And to us falls the difficult task of being both loyal allies and friendly critics of the United States, understanding the peculiar difficulties which the United States faces but being ready to raise our voices when American policy or American opinion relapses in to irresponsibility. I would leave you the thought that it is Canada's role not only to do this on her own behalf but to give a lead to the other Atlantic nations in forging the right kind of relationship between the United States and her allies.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Dr. C. C. Goldring.

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Washington Through British Eyes


Some quite personal impressions about American policy. The speaker's background as a Washington newspaper correspondent and a brief description of the task. A first impression: the absolute impossibility of separating foreign policy from domestic politics or of treating them in different compartments. An illustration. A brief historical explication of the American system of government. The immense strain of America's world responsibilities imposed upon those who have to operate its government, with examples. The American constitution; surprise by the fact that it works at all, and why the speaker finds that to be so. A second impression: the American map of the world is not yet completely unrolled. Looking at the situation in the Middle East and American involvement there to illustrate this point. The reluctant involvement of the United States. The speaker's suspicion that much the same situation will happen with regard to South East Asia in the next few years. The moral that there is no such thing for the U.S. as a limited commitment to the outside world. The hard pill that this will be for the American opinion to swallow, and why. The speaker's belief that we in the Commonwealth, especially in Britain, should exercise a certain humility and restraint in watching the reluctance of the U.S. to face up to the full implications and obligations of being the strongest power in the world. Reasons why. Another impression of Washington: one of the subjects on which opinion is least well informed and most puzzled is the Commonwealth. "They have observed the signs of weakness in the Commonwealth and they have failed to see its inner strengths." An illustration of this attitude revealed over the death of his late Majesty King George and the accession of Queen Elizabeth. The mistake of taking the signs of growing autonomy among the nations of the Commonwealth for evidence of a desire to break up the system itself. The American constitution ill designed for the tasks of world leadership that America is now called upon to undertake. The U.S. in the midst of a profound internal psychological revolution which will take many years to resolve itself. Threads running through American policy as expressed in Congress. The U.S. needing proof of our support as allies in the defense of freedom in the West to an extent that Great Britain when she was the leading power did not. Reasons for that need. The long hard road ahead for the Nations of the West. The Cold War with many years to run. Other difficult problems ahead. Canada's role.