Lester Bowles Pearson

Lester Bowles Pearson (1897-1972) was a distinguished Canadian diplomat and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Later he became leader of the Liberal party and prime minister of Canada.

Lester Bowles Pearson was born in Toronto, Ontario, on April 23, 1897. His education at the University of Toronto was interrupted by World War I, during which he served overseas in Egypt, Greece, and Great Britain. Pearson afterward returned to the university, graduating in 1919. He then went to Oxford, receiving a second bachelor's degree and a master's degree. From 1924 to 1928 he taught history at the University of Toronto. In 1929 he left academia to enter the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa.

Pearson's diplomatic career kept him in Ottawa until 1935, when he was sent to London as first secretary to the Canadian High Commission, a post he held until 1941. He returned to Ottawa as assistant undersecretary of state for external affairs, and in 1942 went to Washington as the Canadian representative. In 1945 he was the senior adviser to the Canadian delegation at the San Francisco Conference. The next year he became the senior civil servant in the Department of External Affairs.

In Active Politics

Pearson's career changed direction in 1948, when he entered active politics as a member of the Liberal party and as secretary of state for external affairs. He was successful in winning election to Parliament, a feat that he was to repeat in every general election he contested. As Canada's foreign minister, Pearson had a brilliant career. He was a founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the author of NATO's so-called Canadian article (Article 2), calling for economic and social cooperation between the treaty signatories. In 1951-1952 he was chairman of the North Atlantic Council, and in 1952 he was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly for a 1-year term.

The culmination of Pearson's career came during the Suez crisis of October-November 1956. There had been no word of the impending Anglo-French assault, but with news of the attack Pearson flew to the United Nations at New York. There, hysteria was in the air, and it seemed inevitable that Britain and France would be roundly condemned for their sins. Pearson was angry, too, but realized that it would be dangerous for the Western position generally if Canada's allies suffered from a blanket condemnation.

As a result, Pearson ventured a calming suggestion: "We need action … not only to end the fighting but to make the peace. … I therefore would have liked to see a provision … authorizing the Secretary-General to begin to make arrangements for a United Nations force large enough to keep these borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out." Canada, he added, would be glad to contribute to such a force.

Pearson's inspired suggestion was seized upon as a way out of the difficult situation. Within 24 hours, a force was organized on paper, and the immediate crisis was on the way to resolution. For his efforts in helping to create the UN Emergency Force, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

Prime Minister

Largely on the strength of his international reputation, Pearson was chosen to become the leader of the Liberal party in 1958. The party was in opposition, disorganized and demoralized, a situation that was to become worse in the short run. In the election of 1958 Pearson led the Liberals to a crushing defeat, and the party was reduced to 48 of 265 seats in the Commons. Reorganization began soon, and by 1962 the Liberals were on their way back. In the election of that year the party won 98 seats, and after John Diefenbaker's government was defeated in the House of Commons in 1963, Pearson led the Liberals to a narrow victory in that year's general election.

Pearson's government was almost immediately in trouble, a condition that persisted for the next five years. The first budget was almost completely withdrawn after fierce attacks; there were serious scandals involving ministers and people in the Prime Minister's office; and the province of Quebec was increasingly restive in confederation. Above all was the extraordinary bitterness between Pearson and the leader of the opposition, Diefenbaker—a bitterness that dominated the political scene and almost discredited Parliament.

But Pearson's administration was not unmarked with success. The Prime Minister listened sympathetically to Quebec and developed a formula of "cooperative federalism" to deal with its demands. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was also created. The government strengthened social welfare legislation and introduced socialized medicine. A distinctive Canadian flag was designed and approved. And relations with the United States, although sometimes difficult with Lyndon Johnson, continued to remain close.

In 1965 Pearson called an election in an effort to improve his government's minority position in the House of Commons. But the electorate was apparently unimpressed with the Pearson record and returned yet another minority government. After two more years in office, Pearson announced his decision to retire in late 1967. He stepped down as prime minister in April 1968. His retirement was not to be leisurely, however, for he was quickly drafted to head the World Bank Commission on International Aid and Development. In this capacity he traveled 75,000 miles and visited 76 world leaders. Pearson also joined the faculty of Carleton University in Ottawa to lecture on international affairs. He soon accepted an appointment as chancellor of the university.

Pearson suffered from cancer of the liver and died at his home near Ottawa on December 27, 1972. He was remembered in the New York Times as being "boyish, diffident, disarming, a statesman, and an unhappy warrior in politics."

Further Reading on Lester Bowles Pearson

There are no scholarly studies of Pearson. The best sources are John Robinson Beal, Pearson of Canada (1964), and Peter Newman, The Distemper of Our Times: Canadian Politics in Transition, 1963-1968 (1968). Also useful is Terence Robertson, Crisis: The Inside Story of the Suez Conspiracy (1965). Biographical information and a study of Pearson's policies as prime minister can be found in two works by Peter Stursberg, Lester Pearson and the American Dilemma (1980) and Lester Pearson and the Dream of Unity (1978). Pearson's obituary appears in the New York Times (December 28, 1972).