Canadian Peace General: Maj-Gen (ret.) Leonard V. Johnson

Two years ago Major General Leonard V. Johnson was Commandant of the National Defence College at Kingston, Ontario. With a fine library and excellent visiting speakers as resources, he began to study seriously the issues that worry peace activists. When he retired, he launched into a new avocation as a regular speaker, addressing peace groups everywhere about what Canada should undertake to curb the nuclear arms race. We wondered how he had come to take such a dramatic, courageous stand, so we phoned for an interview. He and his wife Shirley invited us to lunch in their homey country house on the Rideau Canal.

By Sheila Slaughter and Metta Spencer (interviewers)

CANDIS: How did you get involved in peace activities?

JOHNSON: I set out to find out what concerned the peace movement, and to sort these issues out in my own mind. And by the time I was finished, I felt that anyone who has any concern for the future has an obligation to be involved. And I also came to the conviction that officialdom doesn’t offer solutions in this. They can’t do anything but build more bombs. In fact, the critical thing is to get the public mobilized. Democratic, popular opinion is the only thing that will stop it.

CANDIS: There is a common assumption that maybe there’s some secret information or specialized lore that we laypeople can’t comprehend and which only somebody with your training would be able to understand.

JOHNSON: Yes, that argument comes up quite often. People will say, “Well, if you knew what I know (but what I can’t tell you because it’s classified) then you would see things the way I do. That’s a protective device that people use to enhance their own prestige and to shut off the argument. There’s nothing about this that the layman can’t understand, and nothing that some layman doesn’t know. I’ve been very impressed by the level of technical knowledge that people in the peace movement have, or have access to. It’s just as sophisticated and as good as anything that the defence establishment possesses.

CANDIS: We’ve just published interviews on nonprovocative defence with two Europeans. I understand that you’re interested in that too.

JOHNSON: Yes. The peace through strength people are adherents to the ancient Roman precept that if you would have peace. prepare for war. And to a certain extent that precept is quite valid. If you’re talking about building walls around a city or hauling big vats of oil up to the top of the ramparts and fuel and water supplies to withstand siege. the concept is quite valid. It breaks down when you have a threatening defence posture based on the more modem idea that you need to have mobility and the capability to destroy the enemy state as we did in the Second World War-not only its armed forces, but also its population. economic infrastructure and its viability as a state. It seems to me that its a good thing to have some form of purely defensive defence that is manifestly not threatening to neighbors. What sort of weapons and posture you would need is something we’re only started to consider carefully in the last four or five years.

CANDIS: Theoretically, do you think nonprovocative defence can be for Canada?

JOHNSON: Oh yes. I see nothing with that at all for Canada. We have the resources to defend this country against conventional threats and we do so now. If all nations, of course, were capable of defending their national territory, then we wouldn’t have any need for alliances. And if they were all defensively postured, there wouldn’t be the capability for war.

CANDIS: What would the United States do if Canada adopted a policy of nonprovocative defence? Scream and yell?

JOHNSON: I guess that depends on American perceptions of who the enemy is and how the enemy has to be met. There are all kinds of different ideas here and what we must do is clarify our ideas about what our forces exist to defend. Military security is protecting your own territory and your own values against the armed forces of other states. It has nothing to do with offensive warfare.

CANDIS: Okay, then, let’s assume that Canada needs to maintain a non-provocative defence. The first question you’d ask is: against whom? And from what quarter might one expect danger? If you were asked to establish Canada’s military policies and priorities and budgets, what kind of threat do you imagine Canada ought to be prepared against and with what kind of equipment?

JOHNSON: Well, the military planners in this country have long been bugged by the fact that there really is no conventional threat. It’s called “the threat of no threat” and it’s a very poor thing to base your budgetary requirements on. If we were to withdraw our armed forces from Europe and concentrate on Canada’s defence, first of all we would do it as a continental proposition in cooperation with the United States because this continent is an indivisible entity for defence purposes. This goes back to declarations that were made in 1938 by President Roosevelt, who assured Canadians that the United States would not stand idly by if Canada were attacked. He stated that the U.S. could not tolerate the domination of Canada by a foreign power. This is nothing more than reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Prime Minister King responded that we could not let our territory or coastal waters be used for attack on the United States. That’s the source of Canadian/U.S. defence cooperation in the Second World War and since. We’ve had the Permanent Joint Board on Defence since 1940 and…

CANDIS: So that well preceded NORAD?

JOHNSON: Yes. And we’ve had cooperative arrangements before NORAD in air defence. So NORAD is not absolutely essential to air defence cooperation but it’s probably the best way to do it. This doesn’t make Canada a dependency of the U.S-we carry our weight.

CANDIS: My understanding is that Canada could probably become a nuclear weapon free zone while remaining in NATO, but I would imagine that Canada would have to withdraw from NORAD for that to be possible. I’ve talked to other people who said that’s an absurd thing to say because you might be able to get out of NATO but you couldn’t possibly get out of NORAD. If you tried, the Americans would just say “Tough. You can’t quit.”

JOHNSON: NORAD gives us information that we could only acquire at great expense if we did it ourselves— particularly information on developments in space. So I think that, on balance, membership in it remains a good thing. The question of whether we could be a nuclear weapons free zone and remain in NORAD is something else again-but I’m inclined to think that we could because NORAD does not depend on nuclear weapons for its role. And we’ve not had nuclear weapons on our interceptors since we retired the Voodoo in 1983.

CANDIS: But NORAD would be integrally related to any northern warning system and certainly to Star Wars.

JOHNSON: Well, yes. I think inevitably we would become a part of Star Wars in some way or other.

CANDIS: If the US goes ahead with Star Wars, and Canada’s obviously going to be in NORAD, what limits could it place on participation and deployment of X-ray lasers or whatever else they want to put up there?

JOHNSON: The reality is that if the Americans go ahead with Star Wars and if our territory is necessary to it, then it is going to be virtually impossible to refuse any request to base forces on our territory. We of course still maintain the position that we benefit from the U.S. strategic deterrent and that it’s this that keeps us safe from nuclear attack. And as long as we maintain that position then we have an obligation to go along with the means that are taken to maintain deterrence.

CANDIS: Do you believe that the American system protects Canada?

JOHNSON: No I don’t. It’s a very inapt metaphor to say that we’re sheltered under the nuclear umbrella, because the nuclear umbrella is the very thing that threatens us. We need to take a good look at what threatens us and at how to pursue our security. I happen to believe that the only security for Canada is through arms control and disarmament-particularly nuclear arms control and disarmament. We need to reduce these great arsenals and get back to some more reasonable interpretation of nuclear deterrence, for the time being at least, until we can do away with nuclear weapons altogether.

CANDIS: One of the things I’ve been reading lately suggests that unless curbs on weapons research and development, both in the government and the university, comes under negotiation as well, you can always think the other guy is off in the lab preparing the next big surprise.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes. Again you’re preparing for the possibility that he’s planning to do his very worst to you. I think that unquestionably there has to be more information about what goes on in the Soviet Union. They have to come to realize that their passion for secrecy is counterproductive, detrimental to their own security. Somehow they must become a more transparent society than they are.

CANDIS: I guess the limits they place on on-site inspections have at least been the Americans’ excuse for not accepting arms control options that the Soviets are open to. If the Soviets were willing to suspend their concern about secrecy and allow more openness, would it actually result in some breakthroughs?

JOHN SON: Yes, and here the trend is fairly favorable. They’ve shown signs of accepting on-site inspection. They’re moving in a favorable direction. But what I was getting at is just this: We can claim plausibly that we don’t know enough about what’s going on there to relax our concern with breakthroughs and surprises.

CANDIS: I don’t know how Soviet research and development work, but in the United States there would be enough in journals to give people a pretty good clue as to what they were capable of-not what they were doing.

JOHNSON: Yes. I doubt that much is going on over there that the Americans don’t know about. The possibility for surprise is not very great. Of course, if you’re justifying a new weapon system. you can always use these grounds-that they must be developing it too. In the States now it is claimed that it’s prudent to conduct Star Wars research because the Soviets are doing it.

CANDIS: So you think research could be monitored?

JOHNSON: No, but the laws of physics are the same in the Soviet Union as in the United States. The United States knows where the frontiers are and could assess where the Russians are likely to be. They’ve always been about five years behind.

CANDIS: What about chemical warfare?

JOHN SON: We spent a day on it in Brazil, concerned mostly with verification of agreements. Verification is often used as an excuse for continuing to do something that you want to do for other reasons. If you don’t really want to have an agreement. you can always use verification to prevent agreement. But admittedly there are in chemical warfare certain difficulties-in verification of stocks, for instance. We need a lot more on-site inspection and a lot more transparency because it’s quite difficult to verify chemical warfare capability by satellite, for instance.

CANDIS: A lot of the chemical warfare preparation is pretty easy to do. Easier, they say, than making a bomb in your basement.

JOHNSON: Oh, sure. Everybody knows the formulas and every kid who has a chemistry set could make bombs and things. There’s some Javex and ammonia over there under the sink that you could mix.

CANDIS: Is that what happened to me? I mixed them once when I mopped the floor. Boy, did I get sick!

JOHNSON: Chlorine. You’re lucky you lived.

CANDIS: Really? My! But there has been some progress toward a chemical test ban, has there not?

JOHNSON: Yes, there’s a prospect of achieving one sometime at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

CANDIS: Will you tell me about the origins of Pugwash and how you got involved with it?

JOHNSON: Thirty years ago this month, the Russell-Einstein manifesto was signed by 11 eminent people, including Bertrand Russell, who was the drafter of the manifesto, and Albert Einstein. Signing it was almost the last thing Einstein did in his life. The other nine other people, including Joseph Rotblat and Linus Pauling. were among the eminent scientists of the day. They came together in London on July 9, 1955, to issue this manifesto to the world. It received a very great deal of press interest and was seen as a really significant event in the history of the times. It called attention to the dangers that the hydrogen bomb had created and proposed that scientists come together in a conference to do something about it. About two years later, the industrialist Cyrus Eaton brought twenty or so scientists to Pugwash, Nova Scotia. It’s just a fishing village where he happened to have a summer home. That’s how it started. Now Pugwash includes 2000 scientists or so in 60 or 70 countries. They come together in conference at least every year. I’ve just attended the thirty-fifth conference in Brazil. The main concern of the Pugwash movement is the prevention of nuclear war.

CANDIS: And they have sections that deal, not just with nuclear but also conventional—

JOHNSON: Oh yes. Chemical and biological and conventional as well.

CANDIS: And when you were in Brazil, you were in what section?

JOHNSON: “Conventional and Other Arms Races.” We looked at developments in conventional weapons. The concept of nonprovocative defence took up about a day of our time. We spent another day on chemical and biological weapons. My feeling is that these issues are pretty well understood now, and that talking about them can produce a good report by the Council that will get added to the dialogue. But it’s no breakthrough.

CANDIS: What stops it is-let me-that Pugwash probably isn’t taken very seriously by, say, External Affairs and DND. The difference is not that you know something they don’t, but that your mind set is different from theirs.

JOHNSON: True. If you put pressure bureaucrats you won t get any results all. Vested interests get involved. Their real purpose is to protect their own turf- to preserve their own influence, their own organization, and their own piece of the action. There’s no interest anywhere in the Department of National Defence in withdrawing our forces from Europe and putting them into home defence. Large chunks of the armed forces would not be required if we did that. They would therefore have to be converted to other roles. The real raison d‘Ítre right now for the forces is the NATO commitment.

CANDIS: Well, okay, politicians can change. But M.P. backbenchers themselves often feel powerless too. They have very little say. So where are the cracks where we can insert wedges into the system that are going to make any difference?

JOHNSON: I wouldn’t call it “inserting wedges into the system.” What you’re doing is transforming it from the bottom, through working on public opinion so that conventional wisdom changes. There’s nothing so hopeless as an idea whose time has not come. (We laugh.) But once that time comes, there’s nothing so powerful! Once the public reaches a certain level of awareness, people suddenly say, ‘Oh yes, of course, this is what we should be doing.”

CANDIS: But the inertia in public consciousness comes from people’s sense that it’s hopeless because the structure is so hard to change.

JOHNSON: Well, yes, there’s a certain futility to it, but that’s mostly an excuse. People need to realize that they can make a difference. On average, every four years we have an election in this country, and if we could ge to a point where no Member of Parliament could get elected unless he had the right views on arms control and disarmament, the candidates would be very concerned about it, wouldn’t they?

CANDIS: Sure. And you think that the bureaucrats would go along?

JOHNSON: Of course they would if their jobs depended on it. And they’re not

totally inert either. I was talking about vested interests, but there are always bureaucrats who are looking for change as well-some of the younger people coming along at the bottom.

CANDIS: Including other people in the military? Are there others whose views are congenial to your own?

JOHNSON: Oh yes.


JOHNSON: Not at the top. They are the guardians of the vested interests. But lower-people who don’t have so much at stake.

CANDIS: You really stuck your neck out with your statement that Canada and NA TO could get along very well without each other. Tell us more about that.

JOHNSON: Actually, Canada’s place in NATO was not one of my great concerns. I’m much more concerned about the possibility of nuclear war than I was about our relations with NATO. But I was saying that we should take a look at our involvement in NATO during of the foreign policy review. We shouldn’t simply start with the assumption that NATO is the cornerstone of our security policy. The public has the right every once in a while to have a good airing of this thing to satisfy themselves where our interests really lie. And in so doing I was pointing out that the Canadian forces in Europe are not directly protecting our own territory, they’re not directly providing military security to Canada. And moreover, they are making an insignificant contribution to the security of Western Europe. Canada would not be less safe without troops in Europe and Europe would not be in danger without the Canadian forces over there. So we can go along with what we do now, or we can bring our forces out of Western Europe and still remain in NATO. Contributing to the defence of Western Europe is not a condition of our membership. It’s something that we did back in the 1950s as a temporary measure, while Europe recovered from the war and got stronger. In 1955, Germany joined the alliance and they provide 300,000 people or so to NATO. Our contribution has just become relatively and absolutely so small that on military grounds it’s not, in my opinion, worth keeping there at all. On political grounds I guess the best argument for keeping forces there is that it’s hard to change.

CANDIS: Another argument that’s made for staying in NA TO is that we have more impact as a member in terms of influencing other members.

JOHNSON: That’s right. And if that is the case, then that’s a channel that we should be using just as hard as we can.

CANDIS: So you want to stand this thing on its head and say that the first priority would be to use any leverage that you get toward disarmament.

JOHNSON: Yes, toward nuclear arms control and disarmament to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

CANDIS: I visited NATO and asked a top official to name one time when Canada had not gone along with the United States. He didn’t try. He just said that Canada and the US are similar culturally and think alike; it’s only natural for them always to vote alike!

JOHNSON: Well, that’s what bothered me about it and why I want the discussion to go on. We should be exploring the limits of our sovereignty all the time. We should always know where our room to maneuver is and should be going for it. Particularly now, we need to have our thoughts in order because we can’t take it for granted that the United States and Europe are always going to agree.

CANDIS: Well, you’re raising another question now. If the US. does pursue Star Wars, will the Europeans see it as detrimental to their security? And will this break up NATO?

JOHNSON: It’s going to impose tensions. If the Europeans come to a different position than the U.S. administration then inevitably there’ll be tension. And where does Canada stand on that? Are we European or are we American?

CANDIS: You’re working hard at the grassroots level to change public opinion. But isn’t political opinion inhibited by economic considerations? I don’t want to say “capitalism “because I think

it happens in the Soviet situation as well. People are so worried about losing their jobs or their power and security.

JOHNSON: It’s a question of what constitutes success. Someone has said that if you have five percent of the people in the country embrace an idea, that idea is well established. And if 15 or 20 percent support it actively, it is unstoppable. It’s less than a simple majority. There is always going to be in the society a great mass of people in the middle who are absolutely inert. At one end you’re going to have some people whose vision is distorted by self interest and custom and so on. At the other end you’re going to have some activists and others who are concerned and who want to change the status quo. But you don’t have to convert all the masses in the middle before you do that. What you need to have enough visibility and good arguments, enough reasons and credibility that these can get established in the elected people who respond to the voice of the people.

CANDIS: You’re adding credibility, you know. Your medals and your history come along too when you go to give talks. You contribute in that way, quite apart from the logic of what you have to say.

JOHNSON: Oh yes. That’s a part of it too. It’s sort of a symbolic thing.

CANDIS: You’ve been doing this for about a year now. Has anything changed in your own thinking as a result of it?

JOHNSON: I’ve learned a lot from people in the peace movement, and I’ve gained hope from them.

CANDIS: I understand you testified in Paula Rochman’s trial A year or so ago, when someone in the audience asked you about civil disobedience, it seemed to me that you weren’t ready for that question. It seemed pretty far out to you. Am I right in concluding that you’ve become acquainted more with people doing that kind of thing?

JOHNSON: Oh yes, I have. I haven’t finished thinking about it by any means, but the time comes when you really have a moral obligation to stand up and be counted, when you need to stand in front of the train. Probably the best deterrent to the invasion of Nicaragua is the prospect of meeting a whole lot of Americans down there waving flags.

CANDIS: You know, there are. In Nicaragua last summer when we were there there were more than 3000. Reagan would love to close it off but he’s afraid to, I think. Besides the Americans there were others-Canadians, Italians, Dutch… They’re just traipsing around, going wherever they want. It’s not like Vietnam, which only one out of 50,000 had visited.

But I want to turn to a more general question. When we started The Peace Calendar we decided to stick to the nuclear war issue and publish nothing about nuclear energy or feminism or Central America, for example. But several months ago Noam Chomsky gave a lecture in Toronto. He made a point that stayed with me. Americans, he said, need to intervene in Third World countries to protect their economic interests and they need some assurance that the Soviets won’t interfere when they do so. Nuclear weapons are for that purpose, they make a direct confrontation with the Soviets unthinkable and this gives Americans freedom to act. I hadn’t ever heard anybody say that before.

JOHNSON: I read that too. And there’s a book by Robert Malcolmson, a historian at Queens, called Nuclear Fallacies: How We Have Been Misguided Since Hiroshima. He supports the view that it was deliberate American policy to use their monopoly on atomic weapons as a threat in pursuit of their global interests.

CANDIS: All the big wars of this century have been wars of empire. That’s what it’s about.

JOHNSON: Yes. Malcolmson maintains that, despite the warnings of the scientists that the secret was no secret, the Americans expected to keep an atomic monopoly for at least ten to fifteen years, and that they expected to stay ahead permanently in science and technology. This confidence prevailed until 1957 when Sputnik started the race into space and the intercontinental ballistic missile. In that perspective, the Star Wars can be seen as an attempt to regain that superiority and to break the stalemate of mutual vulnerability that the Americans have found so intolerable since the 1960s.

CANDIS: You don’t think that they’re seriously planning a first strike?

JOHNSON: No, they’re not seriously planning a first strike. But the logic of the weapons themselves is carrying us in that direction. The United States has a singular inability to break away from that syndrome. That came out in the election debates when Mondale and Reagan were talking defence and foreign policy. They took the posture of two Western gunslingers talking about who could shoot first and fastest and straightest. They believe, apparently, that you can’t get elected down there unless you demonstrate anti-communist zeal.

CANDIS: Yes. It sure didn’t give the voters much to choose between.

JOHNSON: No, it didn’t. What needs to be done down there is to revitalize the electorate, and especially the left wing.

CANDIS: And that’s what needs to be done here too-revitalize the electorate.

Peace Magazine September 1985

Peace Magazine September 1985, page 17. Some rights reserved.

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