President Biden traveled to Canada for his first time as president on March 23rd for a summit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The leaders had a busy two days, announcing a deal on immigration while discussing Russia, Haiti, climate change, and semiconductors. In this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Canada and the One-Way Mirror,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the up-and-down saga of the U.S.-Canada relationship, from the Revolutionary War’s Quebec Campaign to the idiosyncratic 16-year tenure of Justin Trudeau’s father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. After President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the elder Trudeau headed to a Washington summit with the new president, Gerald Ford, amid a tenuous economic and geopolitical climate not dissimilar from 2023.
On December 4th, 1974, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau arrived in Washington. D.C. to speak with President Gerald Ford. The two leaders had never met before, and had not even talked on the phone after Ford took over for the disgraced Richard Nixon in August 1974.
Both Ford and Trudeau were primarily concerned with oil. Following the 1973 oil embargo by the top Middle Eastern oil-exporting countries, Canada had become the United States’ top foreign supplier of crude oil, with exports approaching $20 billion per year. These exports represented a twenty-fold increase from the end of World War II, and were beginning to stress the Canadians given the economic havoc wreaked by the oil shocks of the previous year. Both Canada and the United States were suffering from inflation rates above 10%.
Twelve days before the meeting, Trudeau had announced a new, more protectionist oil policy to guard Canada’s substantial but lightly dwindling supply: a quick 11% reduction in oil exports from Canada to the United States and a phased cut-off of all Canadian oil exports by 1982. Trudeau also announced a $5.20 per barrel surcharge on all the oil going to the particularly reliant Midwest.
In response to Trudeau’s protectionist moves, 17 Senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger lobbying for cutting off crucial Canadian access to U.S. oil pipelines as a countermeasure. “I don’t want to get into a trade war with Canada,” the lead letter-writer, Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Brock, told the press, “but I think this country should be more diligent in protecting itself.”
Several high-profile American newspapers suggested that Canada had the upper hand in any potential oil policy debates that came up during the Trudeau-Ford meeting. On the eve of the summit, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board painted a particularly rosy picture for Trudeau: “While Washington is immersed in doom and gloom over the shape of our economy, Ottawa’s only problem is how to minimize the impact of U.S. stagflation on the Canadian scene.”
The Canadian press, however, suggested that the two nations were on more equal footing amid the broader global oil problem. “Canada and the United States, like most of the world, are now at a uniquely perilous economic juncture,” analyzed a Toronto Globe & Mail editorial, defining the imbroglio as “a staggering crisis of monetary instability created by the massive movement of petroleum dollars through the world’s foreign exchange markets.”
Hovering around the oil tensions were the broader unanswered questions of the personal dynamic between Trudeau and Ford. Trudeau had a rancorous personal relationship with Nixon. In October 1974, prosecutors presented a particularly awkward 1973 Oval Office tape during Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s trial. In the tape, Trudeau had called Nixon while the former president was discussing the Watergate coverup with Haldeman and other aides. Nixon had mumbled, “That asshole Trudeau is something else.”
The revelation of the slur got national news coverage, but Trudeau quickly shrugged off Nixon’s obscenity. “I suppose that I can say I have been called worse things by worse people,” Trudeau told the press. “Politics is always exciting.”
Still, the North American press waited breathlessly to see how Trudeau and Ford interacted. On the eve of the meeting, Ross Munro, one of Canada’s most legendary war correspondents and foreign policy commentators, called Trudeau-Ford “the beginning of a new testing period for the always delicate relationship between Canada and the United States.”
Trudeau, known for his chic fashion sense, did not disappoint when he arrived at the White House for the meeting “sartorially splendid in flared pants, mod dress boots and a jaunty red rose,” according to Newsweek.
Ford and Trudeau met in the Oval Office for two hours, accompanied by Kissinger, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Alan MacEachen, and Trudeau’s Special Assistant for Foreign Affairs Ivan Head.
As revealed by a declassified transcript of the conversation, Trudeau and Ford opened the meeting by acknowledging the tense July 1974 parliamentary elections in Canada, which had returned Trudeau’s Liberal Party to power after a fierce challenge from the Conservative Robert Stanfield. “You also had your problems,” Trudeau pivoted in a sly Watergate invocation.
Ford offered a comforting interpretation of the scandal and his own political future. “I will run again and I think the pendulum will swing back,” he predicted to Trudeau. “I think with some progress we can turn things around not only within the United States but in a way which will benefit the world.”
Ford and Trudeau, building up to the oil issue, then talked foreign policy. Ford had just returned from a trip to Japan, South Korea and the Soviet Union. In the USSR, Ford had worked with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev on the long-gestating SALT II arm control agreements. Trudeau peppered Ford with questions about the timeframe for the deal.
Kissinger suggested that the lengthy negotiations were wearing down Soviet objections to the reduction plans, but he argued that the U.S. still needed a scapegoat for explaining the delays. “Frankly, the longer it goes on, the more responsibly they will behave – if we can blame you,” Kissinger jokingly interjected.
Trudeau seemingly took the comment seriously: “That’s fine. We have been very firm about insisting on freedom of movement. As long as they don’t think they can just wear us down.”
Kissinger, in a bit of a dig at Trudeau’s seeming self-importance, deadpanned, “I was not being serious. Canada has not been mentioned.”
Then, the leaders finally confronted the oil issue. Trudeau was largely unapologetic: “What would an American do in our situation? On price, we are selling you oil at the same price we bring it in. There is no reason we should make a gift to the Americans.”
Trudeau argued that the U.S. could handle the cutbacks given the growth of Project Independence, a program that Nixon initiated after the start of the 1973 oil embargo designed to make the United States energy independent. The program included plans to lower interstate highway speeds to 55 MPH, to convert oil power plants to coal, to increase construction of nuclear power plants, and to devote more federal funds to public transportation systems.
Despite much initial fanfare about the project – including Nixon’s comparisons to the Manhattan Project – Ford revealed to Trudeau his lack of confidence in the plan: “Project Independence needs to be more vigorous. It won’t give us self-sufficiency by 1980.”
Trudeau was characteristically irreverent with the press as he departed the talk: “It was a great visit. They have very good coffee here.”
Notwithstanding the sometimes-difficult discussion, Ford hosted Trudeau at a black-tie “stag dinner” in the Blue Room the same night. Trudeau wore a sky-blue topcoat over his tuxedo.
The affair was decidedly flashy. The table was bedecked with six gold-dipped knights from the early 19th century. The attendees – made up of Trudeau’s delegation and several Ford cabinet members and State Department hands – ate prime rib accompanied by brie cheese and broccoli timbale.
The next morning, Trudeau had a breakfast meeting with many of the Senators who had sent the threatening oil letter to Kissinger. Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale warned Trudeau that the oil issues could lead to a real impasse: “The relationship between the U.S. and Canada could become ugly,” he told the Canadian leader.
Trudeau, however, remained steadfast in his phase-out plans in his end-of-trip news conference. “We won’t have enough [oil] for ourselves six or seven years from now, and this means some hard choices for us as well as for the Americans,” he said.
He also acknowledged the relative gulf on the issue between him and Ford: “Well, [Ford] expressed strongly, I think, the American concern about Canadian policy, but he still invited me to dinner.”
The fate of Canadian oil export would stretch on to the end of Trudeau’s prime ministership in 1984, though the much-feared phase-out never materialized. The diplomacy practiced by Ford and Trudeau, even if in a relatively embryonic state in December 1974, led to further deals over natural gas, pipelines, and mutual exploration that contributed to a lessened need for cut-offs of Canadian exports in the long-term.
If the oil issue remained vague, Trudeau was more forthright about his impressions of the new American president, comparing Ford favorably to Nixon in his 1991 Memoirs: “Gerald Ford…was much more straightforward, much more at ease with himself. He didn’t pretend to be a great geopolitician; he would turn to Kissinger for those things. But he was a very pleasant, honest man.”
Now, Trudeau’s son and a president also emerging from the shadow of a disgraced predecessor aim to pick up the many scattered pieces of the U.S.-Canada relationship. The 1974 summit’s push for mutual candor provides one vision of how the U.S.-Canada relationship can move forward in these uncertain times – and a roadmap for avoiding a further slide into trade protectionism and energy disputes.
For more on Trudeau’s relationship with the United States and the world, read the second installment of John English’s biography of the leader, the 2010 Just Watch Me The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume Two: 1968-2000.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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