From Cold War to Present Day


Korea and the Commitment Overseas

Initially, in 1949-50, Canada saw its participation in Treaty activities as economically driven, such as through the Marshall Plan. The Korean War accelerated developments, however. Was Korea merely a diversionary attack, it was wondered, with the real thing to come in Western Europe? The establishment of NATO was top priority. General Dwight Eisenhower agreed to leave his gilded retreat to assume supreme command of NATO troops. Even before being installed in this position in the fall of 1950, Eisenhower asked Canada to provide him with troops, and Canada agreed.

Coming so soon after 1945, the Korean affair had a powerful psychological impact. As Brooke Claxton remarked on 18 July 1951 on CBC radio: "The successes in Korea, far from lessening the need for power, have shown that we must never disarm again in the presence of a fully armed potential enemy. This is why we have to continue this combined effort to prevent aggression by building our forces and maintaining them in constant readiness." He went on to say that Korea had underscored our shortcomings and that there were lessons to be learned from the human and financial losses: "The burden of maintaining our armed forces is a heavy one and will continue to be heavy for some years to come. The fact that the current conflict may end in Korea should strengthen our resolve to be strong enough to prevent aggression elsewhere."

In 1951 the government added a new infantry brigade group, the 27th, to be largely recruited from militia units, as the 25th had been for Korea, and to serve in Europe under NATO. For the moment this formation was to be part of the Special Service as distinct from the Regular Force and militia. This brigade group would have its headquarters, field artillery, armoured squadrons (from the Regular Force), sappers, signalmen, and other support units in three infantry battalions. This was in addition to the Mobile Striking Force (a Regular Force infantry brigade group) and the two militia divisions serving in Canada, as well as the 25th Infantry Brigade Group in Korea.

Canada's longest peacetime troop deployment began with the arrival of the vessel Fairsen in Rotterdam on 21 November 1951, carrying the first elements of the 27th Brigade Group. By 1993, when Canada was preparing to end this European presence, more than 100,000 Canadian personnel had served under NATO.

The army was not alone under NATO command. There would be nine fighter squadrons, rising to 11 and then 12 for a full air division in 1953. In the 1950s the RCAF would also train numerous pilots from other NATO countries. The Royal Canadian Navy would participate in the protection of trade lanes between North America and Europe: For years, one of its ships (in rotation) has been a member of NATO's permanent Atlantic fleet made up of units provided by a number of allies.

At the outset Canada believed that its troops could be repatriated once Europe recovered, and in fact their numbers would drop substantially in the early 1970s. However, Canada would maintain a military presence in Europe until the Soviet threat began to wane in 1991. It has never been possible to quantify with any accuracy the economic benefits of this presence, but it is not at all obvious - contrary to what many commentators have argued - that the economic benefits alone would justify the expense.