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Bomarc Missile and the Nuclear Weapons Controversy: 1958-1963

In 1958, the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, acting in accordance with a clause in the North American Air Defence Agreement (NORAD) of 1957, deployed 56 American-made Bomarc missiles in Ontario and Quebec. Initially, the government did not divulge to the Canadian public that the missiles were to be fitted with nuclear weapons. This fact became known in 1960, however, causing a controversy over whether nuclear weapons were to be deployed on Canadian soil. Although initially supporting the deployment of nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles, by 1960, Diefenbaker's government wavered on the installation of such weapons. Indeed, nuclear weapons were not available on the Bomarc missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Canadian government responded in a similar manner to a NATO request that 1 Canadian Air Division be given a nuclear strike role in Europe. Canada initially accepted the assignment and purchased CF-104 fighters specially adapted to carry nuclear munitions. Ultimately, however, the government did not carry through on its commitment. In 1962, when the planes were deployed to France and Germany, the government refused to accept the nuclear bombs they were designed to carry.

In 1963, the Diefenbaker government was forced to call an election because of a cabinet revolt over the issue. In that election, the Liberals, led by Lester B. Pearson, defeated Diefenbaker's Conservatives. The success of the Liberals was due, at least in part, to their campaign promise that Canada would live up to its NORAD and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments. Pearson's government went on to accept Bomarc missile armed with nuclear weapons.

The nuclear weapons controversy had very serious implications for North American defence. Initially, the United States had planned to deploy a line of Bomarc air defence missile sites along the Canadian border, a location that was extremely problematic from a Canadian perspective. Missiles launched from these sites would have downed incoming Soviet bombers over southern Ontario and Quebec. Canada therefore convinced the United States to relocate the missile sites to northern Ontario and Quebec, positions from which incoming aircraft would be downed before they got to Canada's industrial heartland. Further complicating matters was the fact that these missiles would essentially be useless unless they were armed with nuclear warheads. Missiles intercepting bombers carrying nuclear weapons had to be capable of incinerating both the aircraft and its payload, tasks that required a nuclear capacity. Canada's indecision over the installation of nuclear warheads in the Bomarc missiles thus left the United States open to penetration by Soviet bombers. Moreover, the Canadian government continued to waver even after the United States had agreed to give over control of two of the missile sites to the Royal Canadian Air Force and reposition them in Canada.

Ironically, even as Canada was embroiled in the Bomarc controversy, the integration of nuclear weapons into its military was becoming more and more of a given. For example, Canada had replaced its CF-100 interceptors with the U.S.-made CF-101 Voodoo interceptor. This aircraft was intended to intercept Soviet bombers and was armed with the Genie air-to-air missile, a weapon that also required a nuclear warhead.

Even the army was embroiled in the nuclear weapons fiasco. In late 1961, Canada, acting on a commitment made to NATO, deployed the 1st Surface-to-Surface Missile Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery to Germany. The missile battery had a critical role, willingly accepted by the government, in the defensive fire plan of 1 British Corps. This role required nuclear warheads, yet, throughout both the period of a threatened Soviet blockade of Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the battery had no formalized arrangement for nuclear munitions.

Despite the absence of a formal agreement, however, U.S. and Canadian military authorities had made informal arrangements to provide Canada with nuclear warheads. In the event of an attack, Canada would be armed and ready. Indeed, airmen who worked within the air defence system insist that nuclear weapons remained in Canada long after the government had publicly declared that they were no longer present on Canadian soil.

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