BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 23 April 1897
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 27 December 1972
A BIG MAN FROM A SMALL COUNTRY”-THAT WAS how an American newspaper characterized Mike Pearson when he was Canada’s foreign minister. It was true: Pearson’s intelligence, charm, diplomatic skill, and persistence made him a star on the interna¬ tional stage and, as he rose, so did his sometimes reluctant middle-power nation.
The son of a clergyman, Pearson was bright and athletic. He played baseball and hockey with great skill, he studied occasionally, and he made his way to the University of Toronto just as the Great War erupted.
Quick to enlist, Pearson served first with a hospital unit in the Balkans and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where a combination of a nervous breakdown and a bus accident in the blackout ended his military career.After demobiliza¬ tion, he completed his degree at Toronto and made his way to Oxford.
His most notable success was playing hockey—in Europe he was called “Herr Zigzag” for his weaving skating style, an apt metaphor for his life. Returning home, he joined the history faculty at his alma mater, married a student, coached sports, wrote the examinations for External Affairs, ranked high, and joined the department in 1928. He had found his career.
Pearson discovered that he had to work hard in Ottawa, that his opinions on events and personalities were sound, and that his service was recognized. He realized too that he was ambitious. At the Canadian High Commission in London he watched the democracies quail before Hitler and Mussolini, and he became a good Canadian neutralist, for a time washing his hands of Europe’s quarrels.
But by the time war broke out, he had swung around, seeing clearly that the Nazis had to be stopped.The war gave him his opportunity to shine. Although Norman Robertson, not Pearson, became undersecretary when O.D.
Skelton died in 1941, Pearson played a critical role in policy-making in Ottawa until, in 1942, he went to Washington as the number two in the legation; there Pearson ran the mission as he had the high commission in London.
In 1945, after helping to create a host of international agencies and boards, he became ambassador to the United States and, in 1946, undersecretary of state for external affairs. Working with Louis St Laurent, the very able foreign minister, and a superb collection of bureaucrats, he laid the groundwork for Canada’s emergence as the leader of the middle powers and the creation of the North Atlantic alliance.
In 1948 he joined the Cabinet as foreign minister.Rich and powerful in a world still devastated by war, Pearson’s Canada not only had clout but used it. There was financial and material aid to Europe, there were troops for the Korean War and NATO, there were tough negotiations with Washington in an era, Pearson said, when the time of auto¬ matic good relations had ended.
And when Britain, France, and Israel colluded in an attack on Egypt in 1956, Pearson rose to greatness. Working the corridors and telephones at the United Nations in New York, Pearson saved the British and French bacon by cobbling together a peacekeeping force—the first such UN operation—that supervised the Anglo-French withdrawal and froze Israeli-Egyptian hostility for a time.
It was a diplomatic coup of huge proportions, it won Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize, and it helped the Fiberals lose the elec¬ tion of 1957. Many Canadian voters still looked to Fondon as the fount of all international wisdom and resented Pearson’s heroics, which they completely misinterpreted as anti-British.
The defeat nonetheless provided Pearson with an oppor¬ tunity. His Nobel Prize gave him the Fiberal leadership in 1958, but his party was slaughtered by John Diefenbaker in the election that year. Not until 1963 did Pearson, tougher and more aware of the requirements of domestic politics, take power at the head of a minority government that pledged “Sixty Days of Decision.”
His government was neither decisive nor pretty in its operations. There were continual crises and scandals, Diefenbaker offered an unprincipled but tenacious opposi¬ tion, and Pearson’s seemingly diplomatic desire for compro¬ mise on every contentious issue left his ministers constantly disappointed—or dangling precariously out on a limb.
Yet the government’s record was unquestionably as impressive as that produced by prime ministers who governed longer with safe majorities. There was a distinctive Canadian flag at last; the completion of the welfare state, with the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare; improved but still difficult relations with the United States, then plunging into the morass of Vietnam; and the first serious efforts to make Canada a bilingual nation.
Pearson’s government also unified the armed forces and continued to play a critical leadership role in peace¬ keeping, not least in Cyprus.The record was impressive. Weaving and bobbing, stumbling and lurching, Herr Zigzag somehow had carried it off.
Still, the definitive statement on Pearson as prime minister came from cartoonist Duncan Macpherson, who drew Pearson as a baseball player fumbling the ball two or three times before scrambling to catch it just before it hit the ground. “The Old Smoothie,” Macpherson’s half-admiring but devastating caption, said it all.