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Growing up with the Korean War: A memoir of 1950-51

July 4, 2014

The account that follows attempts to portray the Korean War as experienced by a young boy and by his father, R. Gerald Riddell, a Canadian diplomat. It does not attempt to draw a balance sheet of Canadian foreign policy in that period. It is followed by a tribute to R.G. Riddell written in 1951.JR

By John Riddell. Recently I happened upon a recording of a speech by my father, Gerry Riddell, given in the United Nations in 1949. It was an antique one-sided vinyl pressing, 78 RPM, and it had been waiting more than half a century to be played. I cranked up my ancient gramophone, let down the needle, and adjusted the speed until my father’s tenor voice was on pitch.

Gerry was arguing for Israel’s admission to the United Nations, while chiding Israel for its misbehaviour.[1] I did not agree with his line of argument, but I recognized the tactful way he presented his points, his attempt at objectivity, and his search for common ground. His method was very much my own.

As I listened, it was as if a wall between my father and me crumbled away.

And so my mind went back sixty-four years to my memories of the last months of his life. I also went to the library and read up on the period. Here is what I learned and remembered.

An unexpected move, June-September 1950

Gerry and John on the Gatineau River, 1949

Gerry and John on the Gatineau River, 1949

At the end of June 1950, my parents put me on a bus in Ottawa for a journey to Camp Laclouwhi, north of Montreal in the Laurentians, where I was to spend a month. It was my first trip away from my family; I was eight years old.

My days were taken up with this exciting experience – cleanups, hikes, swimming, sing-songs, and strange toilet, sleeping, and eating arrangements. I was disturbed by the cruelty of many boys my age and instances of bullying. My letters home were read by the camp administration, who wrote my parents reassuringly about their quiet, sensitive and precocious little boy. Meanwhile, by word of mouth, I heard unsettling news. War had broken out in Asia, and U.S. army was rushing in to beat back a Communist attack.

When it was time for me to leave, I learned that there had been a change of plans; I would be staying for another week. There was then another extension, and yet another. Finally, in late August, my parents arrived to pick me up. We would not be returning to our home in Ottawa, they told me; we were headed to New York City, where we would now live. Gerry, who was a special assistant and speech-writer for External Affairs Minister Lester B. (Mike) Pearson, had been appointed Canada’s permanent representative (ambassador) to the United Nations.

We all piled into the car: Gerry, my mother Kay, my two-year-old sister Susan, and our brown cocker spaniel. As we drove south through New England, I busied myself learning the names of the U.S. states and their capitals; their populations in the 1940 census still stick in my mind.

Kay Riddell

Kay Riddell, 1940s

Our destination was Great Neck, NY, the high-income Long Island community whose shoreline mansions were portrayed in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. We moved into an absurdly large sprawling house, rented in great haste at an exorbitant price. It had been chosen for its proximity to the UN headquarters in Lake Success. Its furnished rooms were filled with a collection of Chinese antiques belonging to its owner, Mrs. Pearl; we consigned them to the attic. Neighbours told Kay with shocked voices that Mrs. Pearl left because she had been divorced. That just proved what everyone there already knew: the house was jinxed.

My father had spent the previous three autumns on duty at the UN, and so he was quickly fully engaged there. He was rarely home. Yet I have warm memories of him playing cards with me, teaching me to ride a bicycle, and attempting to explain the differences between American and Canadian national psychologies. Meanwhile, I listened to news reports on my radio. The war was in Korea, I learned. I heard lurid reports of the fighting, the huge number of Communists killed, and the heroic advances of U.S. troops. Consulting my atlas, I followed the shifting battle-line.

Canada and the Korean War, June-September 1950

R. Gerald Riddell

R. Gerald Riddell, 1950

Gerry Riddell left no published writings, speeches, or private papers from the Korean War period. The following record of the events and efforts that he was part of is reconstructed from published historical accounts.

On June 25, 1950, the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) launched a concerted attack against the Republic of Korea (South Korea) across their shared frontier, the 38th parallel of latitude. North Korea occupied the former Soviet occupation zone on the peninsula; South Korea the former U.S. zone. The North Korean government had carried out a sweeping land reform and nationalized industry; in South Korea, capitalists had a firm grip.

Pearson later wrote that the southern government was “just as dictatorial … just as totalitarian” as that in the North.[2] But the U.S. and allied governments portrayed the war as aggression instigated by the Soviet Union. On June 27, the United Nations Security Council (which the Soviet Union was boycotting at that time) condemned North Korean aggression and set in motion an armed UN response to defend the South. Washington was given command of the UN force, which consisted, initially, solely of U.S. armed forces.

The Canadian government immediately pledged support to the intervention. Pearson stated that “Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion … and will now use armed invasion and war.”[3] The UN initiative “represents collective action through the United Nations for peace,”[4] he added. In the House of Commons, a lone voice from Quebec – Jean-François Pouliot – opposed this stand – noting that the U.S. had begun armed action before getting UN approval. The rest of the Commons, however, including the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), rallied behind the government’s action.

On June 29, Canada pledged armed support. At first, only some destroyers and transport planes were sent, but on August 7, Canada assigned a brigade (roughly 5,000 troops), which was to be permanently available for UN “collective security.” Canada was the first and only country to make such a long-term commitment, which was the germ of the country’s later UN peacekeeping force. Ultimately, 16 countries contributed contingents, token or otherwise, to the UN force, but the U.S. supplied the command and more than 85 percent of the non-Korean soldiers.

Despite the U.S. response, during July and August the North Korean soldiers advanced down to the tip of the Korean peninsula, fencing South Korean and U.S. forces into a small bridgehead around Pusan (Busan). On September 15, however, the U.S. carried out an amphibious landing at Inchon (Incheon), near the capital, Seoul, and surrounded and captured most of the North Korean forces. The U.S.-led army moved north, leaving all the world’s governments to wonder whether it would cross the 38th parallel and attempt a conquest of the North.

School days in Great Neck, October-November 1950

Our house, at 58 Nassau Drive, had a large open lawn backing into unfenced woods – a paradise for boyish play. I enjoyed the short half-mile walk to Kensington School. Gerry joked with his colleagues that I quickly became best in the class at reciting the U.S. pledge of allegiance. The U.S. curriculum, it turned out, lagged a year behind that in Canada, so I was bounced up to grade four – a gratifying success. But the school, to my dismay, had an extravagant extracurricular program. I was handed a clarinet, shoved into the band, and herded onstage for a performance. “Just pretend to play,” I was told; “it adds to the effect.” Given the considerable number of diplomats’ children at the school, teachers organized a world pageant, asking me to wear “Canada’s national costume.” Humiliated, I refused to attend.

At home, listening to my radio, I was frightened by the reports of Communist victories in Korea and the Communist threat to America. If Communists took over in America we would all be slaves! I expressed my anxiety to my parents and said we had to kill all the “Commies” and win the war. They were reassuring but reserved. “Canada’s goal is not to win the war but to create conditions for peace,” said Gerry – words that I have now also found in Pearson’s memoirs.[5]

One evening Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent paid us a visit. Famous for his charm and rapport with children, “Uncle Louie” presented me with a hand-inscribed photograph. Later, Kay told me, to my dismay, that she and Gerry favoured not the governing Liberals but the opposition CCF. She was also not thrilled by my enthusiasm for Winston Churchill (Britain voted in October); she thought he was not the best leader for peacetime.

Unconvinced by my parents’ objections, I would settle down on the generous living room couch with my two-year-old sister and tell her about the dangers of communism. She listened attentively, gazing at me with admiring blue eyes, and sometimes the dog would listen too.

Canada and the war, October 1950–November 1951

The St. Laurent government quickly learned that Washington was ordering its army to drive northward the Korean frontier with China. This move conflicted with Canadian policy, which was to contain the war, not expand it. The Western powers are weak on land, Pearson stated. “The main front is Western Europe and we must resist efforts of the Soviet Union to get us committed to a theatre of secondary importance.”[6]

The U.S. commander in East Asia, Douglas MacArthur, had made threatening public statements about attacking China. As Pearson noted at the time, MacArthur was backed by “the increased influence of violently anti-Chinese Communist elements in the Republican party.”[7] A major U.S. attack on China would likely draw the Soviet Union, now nuclear armed, into the war. The Soviets could retaliate in Europe, where their army was thought capable of swiftly advancing to the Atlantic.

The St. Laurent government responded by launching a major rearmament program and initiated a military production sharing agreement with its U.S. ally. By 1953, military spending in Britain had more than doubled; in the U.S. it was almost four times greater; in Canada, no less than seven times greater.[8]

Ottawa aimed to keep the war limited to Korea. It wished to prevent any action that might provoke China to intervene, avoid any link between the war and the troubled question of Formosa (Taiwan), and conclude a cease-fire as soon as possible. With North Korean troops driven behind the original frontier, Ottawa thought the UN intervention had achieved its goal and that it was time to negotiate.

Lester B. (Mike) Pearson

Lester B. (Mike) Pearson

Nonetheless, Pearson did not voice his misgivings about advancing into North Korea. “Who was I to put my judgment against the experts of the United States,” he later wrote. The House of Commons rang with his anti-Communist rhetoric. Only left-wing CCF MP Angus MacInnis pointed out that the Soviets had treaty rights in North Korea through its 1945 agreement with the U.S. to divide the peninsula in a trusteeship. As for the U.S.-led invasion of the North, “if we want to start a third world war, that would be the best way to start it,” MacInnis said.

According to CCF leader M.J. Coldwell, who joined Canada’s UN delegation as an observer at that time, “the opposition of the Canadian delegation [headed by Gerry] to an advance into North Korea was very strong, and Mr. Pearson was peppered with messages from Escott Reid and Norman Robertson in Ottawa [Gerry’s superiors] advising Pearson not to support an American initiative.”[9]

Canada and the war: Truman’s nuclear threat

Escott Reid

Escott Reid

On September 15, Washington authorized MacArthur to advance into the North. Pearson endorsed this move in the UN General Assembly September 27. Three days later, the Assembly adopted an ambiguous resolution, proposed by the U.S., that neither authorized nor blocked the U.S.-led invasion. Canada voted in favour, despite strong protests by Escott Reid, then Deputy Under-Secretary for External Affairs. U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel on September 30 and swiftly advanced to the Yalu River, the Chinese frontier.

Overriding instructions from U.S. President Harry Truman, MacArthur made hostile demonstrations against the Chinese frontier; his superiors declined to intervene. MacArthur brushed aside the objections of U.S. allies. Speaking to a dubious Canadian naval commander about the Chinese forces gathering on the north side of the Yalu, MacArthur repeatedly insisted, “I have them in the palm of my hand.” [10]

What then occurred was one of the great surprises and turning points of world history. After issuing several sharp warnings, which were ignored, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River in strength, defeated the U.S.-led army, and swept down the peninsula, driving the United Nations forces back to a toehold at its southern end. The long-despised Chinese “coolies” had routed the world’s preeminent imperialist power.

In the wake of this humiliating disaster, President Truman spoke November 30 to what historian Donald Creighton called “a particularly notorious specimen of that typically American institution, the presidential press conference.” After making his formal statement, Truman fielded reporters’ questions, which focused on what the U.S. would do to prevent military collapse.

Truman’s replies grow increasingly specific. We will “take whatever steps are necessary.”

Could that include the atomic bomb? “We will use “every weapon that we have,” Truman said. Use of the A-bomb was “under active consideration.”

Who would decide? The choice of weapons, Truman said, was the business of the commander in the field – that is, MacArthur.[11]

So: MacArthur had authority to launch yet another atomic bomb – the third – against an Asian people! “The incident really made us shudder,” Pearson later recalled.[12]

Family tensions, December 1950–February 1951

I continued to follow the war via radio news, my moods shifting from elation to despair as the battle-line fluctuated back and forth, northwards and then again to the south. By February, the fighting was settling into a stalemate, so the military publicists shifted their focus to the army’s prowess in killing large numbers of “Communist” soldiers. As they told it, “Operation Killer,” launched on February 22, slaughtered 7,800 “Communist” troops, at a cost of “only” 60 dead on the Allied side.

I had settled into the new school and new environment. I took clarinet lessons and could now hold my own in the band. I made schoolyard acquaintances, but none so close that I would spend time with them out of the school. At home, I was good at amusing myself with books and games, but during the night I was sometimes frightened. My bedroom was one story and about 50 metres removed from the rest of the family. Sometimes I would get out of bed, creep across the massive living room (ideal for diplomatic receptions), and slip into my parents’ welcoming bed.

Christmas was a happy time, well organized by Kay; she, Gerry, sister Susan, and I gathered around a tree and opened presents, including a bone for the dog. That winter, on one great occasion, Gerry walked with me through a tempest of rain, as we bent together into the gale. But I saw less of my dad now. Gerry often slept over in Lake Success, absorbed in round-the-clock work. I heard nothing of what he was doing.

One day, I accompanied my mother and father into Manhattan. Kay took me to shop in Macy’s, and she let me guide her through the bewildering store layout. We then went to an office suite, apparently rented by the Canadian diplomatic mission. We had a long wait; Gerry was in conference. I perched on a windowsill and analyzed the then multicoloured New York taxi fleet several storeys below. After tallying the colours of about 150 taxis, I announced to all who would listen that the Yellows had won, followed by Oranges and the Reds; Greens and Blues trailed far behind.

At home, there was a sense of unease. The main family occasion was the trip to church on Sunday. After the service, sensing the tension, I would sometimes get angry for no apparent reason, and sister Susan was quick to join in. To calm the tempests, the family would then drive to a pond in nearby Port Washington, where Susan and I would feed the ducks.

On February 20, I turned nine – almost grown up, I thought.

Canada and the war, December 1950–February 1951

The British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, responded to Truman’s atomic-bomb threat by making an emergency trip to Washington, demanding that the U.S. government not use nuclear weapons without consultation, not delegate this decision to their erratic general, and seek a negotiated settlement with China. Attlee was rebuffed on all points. On his return journey, he stopped over in Ottawa and talked to Canadian leaders.

Nasrollah Entezam

Nasrollah Entezam

Pearson’s public statements then shifted to an approach clearly different from that of the U.S. leaders. The U.S. should not use atomic weapons without consultation and should join with its allies in seeking negotiations for a rapid ceasefire, he said.[13]

The next move came from a grouping of Asian nations, led by India, who called for a negotiated settlement. They proposed establishment of a three-power committee, chaired by UN General Assembly President Nasrollah Entezam of Iran, which would make recommendations on the basis for peace. Canada, Britain, and Britain’s west European allies supported the initiative; the U.S. could now count on only the votes of Latin American republics. The U.S. was shamed into supporting the Asian plan; Entezam appointed Pearson and the respected Indian diplomat Sir Benegal Narsing Rau to the three-person committee.[14] Diary entries by Pearson, appended to his memoirs, make clear that Gerry Riddell collaborated closely with him in carrying out the committee’s work, sometimes replacing Pearson at meetings.

Sir Benegal Narsing Rau

Sir Benegal Narsing Rau

The committee succeeded in bringing a Peoples Republic of China (PRC) representative to New York, a tentative step toward recognition. Negotiations foundered, however, on Chinese insistence that, as Pearson summarized their view at the time, “the American aggressors … get out of Korea and Formosa and stay out.”[15] Formosa, by law part of China, was ruled by Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist forces, whose declared aim was to reconquer China. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, stationed in the Taiwan Strait, just off the China coast, was capable of transferring a hostile Nationalist army to the mainland. The PRC’s desire for security might have been satisfied by its admission to the United Nations and pacification of the Formosa area, but Washington maintained that any concessions to the PRC would only encourage further aggression.

In January, the tripartite committee presented a plan for staged pacification of the Far East. “The choice whether to support or oppose this plan was a murderous one,” U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson later recalled.[16] Reluctantly, the U.S. voted for the plan.

Washington then thrust back with a motion in the General Assembly branding China an aggressor for having invaded Korea. Canada resisted this move, scoring some gains, but the U.S. exerted its diplomatic and economic leverage to the limit. In the end, in Pearson’s words, “we succumbed,” and on February 1 the motion was adopted, with Canada’s support. It had no practical consequences. Creighton comments that Pearson, “increasingly troubled and disillusioned,” had “wanted to halt, to retreat, to break out of line,” but “primitive loyalty” to the U.S. alliance held him back.[17]

A tragic finale, March-April 1951

On Tuesday, March 14, Kay announced that Gerry was joining us for an unexpected short vacation trip, starting the next day. She packed hurriedly, and the next morning we got in the car, headed across New York City and south through New Jersey. We followed Highway 1, with frequent stops in Howard Johnson’s, to Richmond, and then turned off for a visit in the recently restored colonial town of Williamsburg, before reaching Virginia Beach.

Gerry did all the driving. He said little; his thoughts seemed elsewhere.

In the raw March weather, we had the seaside guest house pretty much to ourselves. It was decidedly too cold to swim, but I played in the sand, making sandcastles and watching them dissolve into the advancing tide.

The next morning, March 17, Gerry went out after breakfast to get the New York Times. He did not return. Some time later, the guest house proprietor told us that my father had been found dead, apparently of a heart attack. He was only 42 and had no known illnesses.

Kay was devastated. I volunteered to explain the situation to Susan, and I told her in simple words what had happened. Then I pulled out a pack of cards and, thinking to steady my mother, got her to play a few hands of rummy with me.

The External Affairs Department set the wheels in motion to bring us back at once directly to Ottawa. I was soon on my first airplane ride, flying north from Washington, with Susan beside me and Kay in the seat ahead. Once in Ottawa, I was deposited with my old school chum Arthur Walton on Holmwood Avenue. Kay did not want me at the funeral, so the next day I went with Arthur to his class at Mutchmor school. I thus missed my chance to meet members of Gerry’s team at External Affairs. (The service was led by Rev. Frank Fidler, father of my lifelong friend, Richard Fidler.)

After the funeral, Kay turned down an offer from Pearson of a job in the parliamentary library. She headed instead to Toronto, renting a small flat in Bennington Heights, the neighbourhood described in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Gerry’s life insurance provided enough to buy a house, but his pension was very small.

The job Kay obtained, with a charitable agency assisting overseas students at the University of Toronto, carried no salary – just permission to keep any donations she could collect. I quizzed her on the money situation, which I found alarming. Yet Kay made a success of her new vocation and was soon earning a living wage. We moved to the Toronto side of Governor’s Bridge. I turned my back on the New York experience and settled into a new life and new challenges at Whitney Public School.

Canada and the war, February–April 1951

On February 9, Pearson sent an unusual set of detailed instructions for Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Hume Wrong. “Aspects of recent United States policy have seemed to us erratic and confused,” Pearson wrote. But the U.S. was reluctant to enter into negotiations for a ceasefire. He asked Wrong to request a high-level discussion with the U.S. state department, not to make suggestions but “to draw them out.”[18]

The State Department set up a meeting, not with its head, Acheson, but with Dean Rusk, Acheson’s assistant for Far Eastern affairs and a key architect of U.S. policy in Korea. During the first half-year of the Korean War, Gerry had often talked with Rusk, finding him obdurate and inflexible.[19] (During the 1960s, Rusk, as Secretary of State, became notorious as the evil genius of the U.S. war in Vietnam.)

Hume Wrong found Rusk’s statements so remarkable that, after writing up his report, he hand-delivered it to Pearson in Ottawa. Pearson, with diplomatic understatement, later called Rusk’s remarks “rather startling.” Reliable sources had informed the U.S., Rusk had said, that an anti-Soviet faction within the Chinese government was close to seizing power and breaking relations with Russia. U.S. policy aimed at bringing about that outcome. Opening negotiations in Korea was wrong because it would strengthen the Chinese “hard-liners,” Rusk had declared. The desired overturn in China could be hastened by continuing “the present pattern of fighting in Korea … with hugely disproportionate Chinese losses.”[20]

If Rusk was to be believed, the U.S. government and MacArthur, while disagreeing on tactics, shared the same war aim: overthrow of the revolutionary Chinese government – a goal contrary to the stated aims of the United Nations intervention in Korea. Pearson responded to this revelation with veiled and gentle public expressions of concern regarding U.S. policy.

It was at this point in the story that Gerry died.

In April the conflict over U.S. policy in Korea reached a dramatic climax. MacArthur made a series of bellicose public statements that indicated he was trying to seize control of U.S. foreign policy in the Far East. He had support from a wing of the Republican Party. The U.S. government concluded it could no longer tolerate such insubordination, and, on April 11, relieved MacArthur of his command. After some grandstanding, he went into retirement.

Accepting the reality of military stalemate and the need for negotiations, the U.S. government now shifted course. Peace talks began in July and went on for two years; a ceasefire took effect in July 1953.

A new life in Toronto, 1951–58

Kay made a success of her work with overseas university students, an assignment that evolved through many stages to her directorship of the University of Toronto’s International Students Centre (today’s Centre for International Experience) and beyond. (See Kay Riddell Rouillard, 1906-2006.) Our home became a meeting point for overseas students, a miniature people’s “United Nations”. Students from Germany, and Eastern Europe brought unconventional perspectives on the Second World War; students from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean brought the inspiration of colonial liberation.

My information on world affairs continued to come from the radio, but now it came from Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, which offered a richer blend of ideas than the U.S. networks. A CBC series on the nature of the universe converted me to atheism.[21] I was shocked and outraged by Max Ferguson’s satirical take on RCMP anti-Communist security “screening.” I applauded joyfully CBC radio’s celebrated send-up of McCarthyism, The Investigator.

Men courted Kay, but she turned them all down, remarrying only decades later, when in her eighties. In the years following Gerry’s death, she was lonely, and she talked to me of our time in New York.

Gerry was the great love of Kay’s life. Always, even as she neared 100, she kept fresh flowers by his picture. But in his dedication to duty, he neglected her, she said, and after the move to New York this separateness grew into a crisis. His diplomatic work at the UN absorbed him completely, Kay told me a few years later, but he was blocked by U.S. obstinacy and his work led nowhere.

The glowing personal eulogy to Gerry by the noted Canadian journalist I. Norman Smith, appended to this article, should be read from Kay’s viewpoint: it shows why she became estranged.

By March 1951, she had had enough, she said. She confronted Gerry: he must choose between her and his job. She proposed that he begin a transition out of the Canadian foreign service and return to a university teaching job. Otherwise, she and the children would leave him, she said. Gerry immediately organized the hasty, unplanned vacation to give him and Kay a chance to talk and reconsider. Meanwhile, the Korea crisis was at its peak. For Gerry, the anxiety and stress must have been unbearable.

Thinking over her story and the entire experience, I concluded that I must take a different road from my father. I would not seek to realize my ideals through government service, and I would give more space to matters of the heart.

I soon grew to be critical of Pearson and Canadian foreign policy. During the next few years, I saw Pearson twice. In 1957, he was on the podium at the Liberal Party rally in Toronto where I organized an anti-Liberal protest (See “Canada’s Pipeline Wars of the 1950s”). The next year, I took part in a CBC TV public affairs program where selected high-schoolers had a chance to interview public figures. On one occasion, Pearson – no longer in government but now a Nobel prize laureate – was the guest. I blasted Canada’s warlike and pro-colonial foreign policy and challenged him to lead Canada out of NATO. It created a stir. I joined the CCF that year and became a socialist, a commitment that lasted.

In later years, although myself a historian by avocation, I never looked into Gerry’s record at the United Nations and did not seek out his close collaborators to learn about him. Now his friends are all gone.

Having now finally reviewed histories of that period. I must now conclude that Gerry’s work on the Korean question at the United Nations, although conflicting with my own concepts and goals, was not in vain. He was part of a worldwide effort of governments and peoples to turn aside an attempt to overturn the Chinese revolution by war, an act that could have led to a global conflagration.

The timing of Kay’s March 1951 ultimatum was an unfortunate result of miscommunication. It came at a moment when all hung in the balance in Korea. A month later, the crisis had passed, and the outcome for Gerry could well have been different. Gerry’s death that March was accidental – collateral damage of the Korean war.

If he had lived, he would not taken my path, but he and I would surely have found common ground.


[1]. In September 1948, United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by the militant Zionist group, who considered him to be pro-Arab. Among the those who planned the attack was the later Israeli prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Israeli authorities made arrests but laid no charges.

[2]. John A Munro and Alex I. Inglis, Mike: The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, vol. 2, p. 188. For an alternative account of the Korean War’s character, see Martin Hart-Landsberg’s Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy, New York: MR Press, 1998.

[3]. Donald Creighton, The Forked Road: Canada 1939–1957, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

[4]. F.H. Soward and Edgar McInnis, Canada and the United Nations, New York: Manhattan Publishing, 1956, p. 125.

[5]. Munro and Inglis, p. 179,

[6]. Ibid., p. 164.

[7]. Ibid., p. 179; Denis Stairs, The Diplomacy of Constraint: Canada: the Korean War, and the United States, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974, pp. 196–99.

[8]. John W. Warnock, Partner to Behemoth: The Military Policy of a Satellite Canada, Toronto: New Press, 1970, p. 64.

[9]. Stairs, pp. 116, 121. Reid was then Deputy Under-Secretary of External Affairs; Robertson, a veteran of the diplomatic corps, was Clerk of the Privy Council.

[10]. Stairs, p. 124, 134–35.

[11]. Creighton, p. 210.

[12]. Munro and Inglis, p. 165,

[13]. Canada’s claim for a say in the use of the atomic bomb was not new and was rooted in the wartime three-way partnership with the U.S. and UK in developing atomic energy and nuclear weapons. Britain and Canada had aided the U.S. in building the bomb in return for a promise of partnership in postwar use of nuclear weapons and technology, which did not materialize.

[14]. My summary of these events follows mostly Creighton’s account, published in 1976 and incorporating insights in Pearson’s memoirs. Creighton was a friend of Gerry Riddell and also knew Pearson from their common background in the University of Toronto history department. See also the much fuller account by Stairs.

[15]. Munro and Inglis, p. 283.

[16]. Creighton, p. 216.

[17]. Creighton, 217. For a less generous appraisal of Pearson’s outlook, see Yves Engler, Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping – The Truth May Hurt, Vancouver: RED Publishing, 2012. Engler’s overall analysis makes valid points. Unfortunately, however, he does not take up Pearson’s conduct during the Korean War crisis of 1950-51.

[18]. Munro and Inglis, pp. 171–79.

[19]. Discussion with Kay Riddell, c. 1958.

[20]. Munro and Inglis, p. 176.

[21]. An astronomers’ series of talks on the nature of the universe ended with the bland statement, “There is no place for God in this universe.” The CBC was publicly slammed for airing views that could destroy the religious beliefs of young people.

Postscript: R. G. ‘Gerry’ Riddell (1908-1951) – A Personal Memoir

By I. Norman Smith, Ottawa Journal, March 1951.

The long haranguing speech to the Security Council ended with a “no.” The chairman took the only course open and called for adjournment. Delegates filtered out into the halls, disconsolate, disillusioned and plain mad.

It seemed the end; further arguing was assuredly hopeless; all compromise was spent. Cynicism called for drinks.

One man – a young man with a stocky frame but a modest, diffident face – was not running out with the tide. He was edging his way the other direction and collecting by a wink or a whisper or a friendly wave of a pencil three or four delegates or delegates’ advisers.

“Look,” he’d say – for Gerry Riddell for all his Oxford remained a Prairie Canadian with a Canadian’s accent and figure of speech – “Look,” he’d say, “this thing’s tough all right but…”

And a new approach would be begun, the “no” man would be talked to in simple pleading terms; a hotel room or the oyster bar in the Grand Central in New York or a little side-street Paris restaurant with checked tablecloths would become a rendezvous for four or five earnest people to struggle though the impasse.

*   *   *

It was so many times: in the emotion-filled negotiations to partition Palestine and establish Israel; in the metallic gun-metal tension over the Berlin blockade; in the racial bitterness of the Kashmir war whose fighting, at any rate, was stopped by UN’s truce; in the looming great war clouds behind Korea.

Gerry Riddell would never give in. More, it would never occur to him to give in. Not that he was a misty idealist who thought UN could be salvation. On the contrary, he was one of the hard heads who knew UN’s weaknesses best and therefore was best at avoiding them.

But he worked with his whole being for peace. To give up working or trying was unthinkable. And always he worked quietly, avoiding personal publicity. Long days, long weeks, long years he put into the Department of External Affairs and our foreign policy.

A meal to Gerry Riddell was only a chance to have a further talk with someone, an evening the time to catch up on documents, a weekend a spell away from the phone to write a memorandum on the African colonies or some notes for the Minister on the background of the Japanese Peace Treaty overtures.

Holidays somehow got postponed or sandwiched, despite his chiefs’ orders to get away. The irony to his friends that death came to Gerry “while holidaying in Virginia”! He had slipped down from New York with his wife and children just the day before and planned to stay three days. It was no diplomat on posh holiday on the sunny sands but a working Canadian civil servant getting briefest respite from the treadmill – and as a matter of fact death struck him in the few moments of that break when he was getting the daily newspapers. This man would never lose touch.

*   *   *

Just now we are reading public tributes by men like Trygve Lie and L.B. Pearson, and rightly so. After all, at 42 he was Canada’s permanent delegate to the United Nations. But his friends will remember better the things said of Gerry Riddell when he was alive.

Things said by young men and women who worked for him and found him always ready to share their personal or office problems no matter how busy he was; things said by M.J. Coldwell and Gordon Graydon who counted him friend and adviser though he was “government” and they were “opposition”; things said by the shrewdest UN newspapermen – men like Tom Hamilton of the New York Times and Walter O’Hearn of the Montreal Star – who figured Gerry Riddell knew UN as did almost no other and who knew that from him they’d always get an honest answer and a conscientious effort to help.

And things said by L.B. Pearson, not merely now for the public prints but before and always and behind Gerry’s back. Before he was top delegate to UN he was for several years Special Assistant to the Minister and before that head of the UN division. Mr. Pearson used to tell us that many of the best lines in his speeches had been written by Gerry, that the original idea that broke this or that UN impasse had been Gerry’s.

“Ask Gerry.” “Get Gerry to do it.” How often these words around the East Block or the UN corridors! This weekend Mr. Pearson said to me quietly, without knowing I might quote him: “I have never known a man whose advice was so consistently sensible, whose suggestions of how to go ahead were so likely to be practical and possible; he had an all-round mind, and when we think of the character he put with it…”

*   *   *

Well, I suppose I mustn’t go on and on, affectionately biased as I am. But this is a civil service city, this Ottawa, and Ottawa people should be proud of Gerry Riddell. He was of our best.

Always he thought in terms of people and human beings rather than policies and platitudes. He’d say, “I know, he made a very exasperating speech, but just the same, how would you feel if somebody in Manitoba wanted to take …” Always he’d be able to bring an issue to terms of Canada, to know that the loose term “they” meant men with wives and children who also liked to eat and sleep and have work. Gerry Riddell was a Canadian, but his vision, understanding and sympathy knew no horizon. His father was and is a minister of the church – no doubt that accounts for some of Gerry’s “humanity”. And his wife and children meant a very great deal. And yet… it is Gerry who is dead and it was Gerry who served us until he died.

It was a case of “killed on active service.” This is a noble note, but at such cost!

There are other civil servants working at something of Gerry Riddell’s pace. Not many, but a few. And several Cabinet Ministers. It is the pace of great devotion. But let us – and them – be warned. Such men can ill be spared, by country no less than friends.

  1. Fascinating to read your history, John. I’m confident that your father would be proud of you: you’re made of the same fine stuff.
    I can’t help but wonder if Pearson recognized his attacker on the CBC program you mentioned. I hope so!

  2. Lisa Makarchuk permalink

    Hello John: Just as with Suzanne’s story of her childhood, I read your essay with a great interest firstly for walking your reader thru the steps that led to the Korean war which I well remember and the Canadian and US governments’ machinations and, secondly, because I enjoy learning about the lives of people, especially those with whom I am acquainted. So many have such incredible stories to tell and I am glad you have told yours. Now it can become a part of Canada’s history . Kudos to you for writing and sharing it; I found it not only instructive but also so poignant! Thank you, Lisa Date: Fri, 4 Jul 2014 17:01:50 +0000 To:

  3. Lisa, thank you for your generous comment. However, my account was written from the vantage point of my father at that time, who was working for a Cold War government. I did not try to portray the true story of the origins of the Korean War — although there’s a footnote referencing the main book on the subject. And I did not mention the brave actions of Canadian who opposed Canada’s involvement in the war, including, I believe, a great many from your family and community. That’s another story!

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