Review of Pearson’s Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67

Pearson's Peacekeeper's Book CoverPearson’s Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67

by Michael K. Carroll

Review by Liam A. Faulkner

In 1956, Britain and France shocked the world by launching a surprise invasion of Egypt. Ostensibly aimed at curtailing the recent outbreak of conflict along the Israeli border, the military action was in reality a cover for the Anglo-French occupation of the Suez Canal and threatened to destabilize the precarious status quo of the Cold War international community.

For Canada, the Suez Crisis presented a particularly worrying state of affairs as it jeopardized the relationship between its two most important allies. On one side of the Atlantic, Washington was enraged by what it viewed as reckless British aggression, whilst on the other side, London felt betrayed by the lack of support it received from the United States. Ottawa found itself stuck somewhere in the middle.

It is against this background that Michael Carroll’s Pearson’s Peacekeepers (UBC Press 2009, paperback $29.95) is set, as the author attempts to record and assess Canada’s role in the creation, deployment and operation of the United Nations Emergency Force; the hurriedly mounted peacekeeping operation designed to respond to the Suez Crisis.

The brainchild of statesman Lester Pearson, the UNEF was unofficially dubbed the ‘Canadian resolution’ with Canada providing much of its logistical and administrative support, as well as frontline troops and equipment. Although the notion of using military forces to keep the peace was hardly revolutionary in 1956, the multinational composition of the Emergency Force, along with its UN mandate, made it a unique endeavour at the time and it has served as a blueprint for all UN peacekeeping operations since.

Opening with a foreword by the distinguished historian Robert Bothwell, Pearson’s Peacekeepers is a welcome addition to the study of Canada’s military and diplomatic Cold War past, as well as the wider role and effect of peacekeeping operations. Beginning with a clear explanation of the origins and development of the Suez Crisis, Carroll sketches the gradual rise of the ‘middle power’ as a diplomatic force within the UN whilst avoiding any romanticized notion of a ‘golden age of Canadian diplomacy’.

From early, tense committee meetings in New York, to backroom political wrangling on both sides of the Atlantic, the story of the UNEF’s hasty journey from controversial proposal to boots in the Sinai is clearly and skilfully told. Drawing on a wide range of sources and combining details large and small, Carroll’s sweeping, global narrative is at times highly personal. It is impossible not to be tickled by reports of the bickering that went on between countries over who would foot the UNEF’s bill, for example. Or the story of the Canadian doctor stationed at the makeshift hospital in Rafah, who handed out Smarties to hypochondriac locals who would queue up to see him week after week, swearing by the miracle drug’s restorative properties.

Pearson’s Peacekeepers also contains fifteen pages of photographs detailing the everyday life of soldiers serving with the Emergency Force, including shots of troops on patrol and improvised Christmas celebrations complete with Santa Claus riding a camel across the desert.

Initially envisaged as a short term solution, the UNEF spent eleven years in the Sinai, during which the region enjoyed, at best, a strained peace. But the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel, just weeks after the force withdrew in 1967 calls into question the ultimate worth of the peacekeeping effort.

When, in 1957, Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the creation of the Emergency Force, many Canadians saw this ‘victory’ as a matter of national pride. Yet speaking just one year later, Pearson stated his prophetic belief that the UNEF was only “partially successful”, as it failed to address the issues between Israel and her Arab neighbours “which brought about the crisis in the first place”. Indeed, the question of whether peacekeeping operations can ever be truly successful is one which dominates Pearson’s Peacekeepers, ensuring that it is a work about the present as much as the past.

Just as the initial success of the UNEF gave Canada a rightful sense of importance and pride, it also helped establish a reputation as an international broker of peace; a role the nation has embraced with great enthusiasm, committing personnel to almost every UN peacekeeping operation since. In the modern world, where the term ‘peacekeeping’ is employed liberally, even when forces are being sent into regions in which there is no peace to keep, the study of the historical foundations upon which Canada’s national self-image of ‘peacekeeper’ is based, is of more than just academic importance.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the Emergency Force, Carroll quotes both political leaders and military commanders complaining that the UNEF was given too little power, often too late, to make any lasting difference in the Middle East. It is a sad fact that echoes of these sentiments can still be found in many reports from present day forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would seem to suggest that the lessons of the UNEF have still not been learnt.

Pearson’s Peacekeepers is an accessible and thorough account of a crucial Cold War milestone, and an invaluable resource for students of modern history and international relations. The UNEF’s uncertain legacy reminds us that the absence of war is not necessarily peace, but it does create the conditions in which peace can be fostered. In concluding Pearson’s Peacekeepers, Carroll calls for international organizations to be given more power to use the temporary lull in fighting that peacekeeping forces create to promote understanding and dialogue between warning peoples, that one day perhaps, the peace may keep itself.

Liam A. Faulkner lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland, the site of the secretive, backdoor ‘Conversations’ between the USA and the USSR during the height of the Cold War. He has degrees in history from the University of Reading and the University of Edinburgh.

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