The Fabulous 50s

Canadians enjoy unprecedented prosperity in the boom postwar years

The national economy is ticking along at a productive pace. Inflation lies low and credit is easy. If the stock market seems slack, the job market remains strong. In fact, Canada's health in matters of money and living standards gives reason for envy by other, bigger industrial countries.

Still, there's an undercurrent of anxiety in some quarters of the Canadian business community and in the corridors of political power. The worry stems from signals on Canada's southern horizon of a belligerence born of stress and fear. It's a prevalent mood in the US, the superneighbor and primary trading partner whose every move might well send the Canadian economy soaring, or into a tailspin.

America is at war. It is perceived as a war against a foe that not only operates in the outside world, but is likely also to be an enemy within. Each kind of opponent is felt to be ultimately intent on wrecking the American way of life itself.

Washington's response is, not surprisingly, the tried and tested American way of dealing with opponents: as in the Old West, or after Pearl Harbor, it's you hit me, I hit you twice as hard. Except now it is difficult to pinpoint precisely who and where the most active US enemies are, because the challenge begins in the minds of men and women, in their invisible beliefs.

Nevertheless, defenders are active on the home front, seeking out the foe. They sometimes treat suspects, their critics complain, without regard to such other tried and true tenets of the American way as civil rights and the rule of law.

Abroad, America is watchful for counterattack targets, perhaps for pre-emptive action. There is a strong conviction that enemy allies abide in parts of the Middle East. And there is immediate, open evidence of guilt in Korea. But to avoid seeming to be taking up arms on its own, the US seeks the cover of military action by coalition, of allies operating, if possible, with United Nations approval.

As familiar as all that may seem today, it was much the same way half a century ago, in the 1950s. It is early in the Cold War against communism. Anti-Americanism openly emanates from “the evil empire” of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the mecca of anti-capitalism, Moscow.

As well, the alleged injustice of American capitalism is the topic of conspirators in New York City's Marxist salons, in Hollywood's socialist studios, even in whispered words on Capitol Hill. Or so says Senator Joe McCarthy, the senior US witch-hunter of the time, who informs the world in February 1950, that 205 commies hold posts in the State Department (a figure he later revises to 57, still later changes to 81). In Canada, the Communist Party had been banned during the Second World War, their diminished ranks surviving as members of the Labour Progressive Party. But prominent Americans say External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson is also a pinko.

Abroad, a window of opportunity to take on the enemy overseas opens on June 25, 1950. North Korea, under Soviet occupation for three postwar years, invades South Korea, America's postwar bailiwick. The US gains UN authorization to lead 15 countries, including Canada, into what becomes a three-year war that closes in stalemate on the original North-South border.

As it happens, despite earlier Canadian nervousness about a pugnacious America, the Korean War throttles up Canada's economy to new heights. Bigger military budgets build up the aircraft, electronics and shipbuilding industries and their suppliers. Further, such industries are able to shift readily to peacetime projects, notably in electronics in the new TV and stereo age.

People in retrospect sometimes dismiss the decade with the term for a style of cigarette packaging at the time —”Flat Fifties.” But surely that's refuted by a decade when Canada's GNP doubled, the value of manufacturing nearly did, petroleum production increased fivefold, as did iron ore output, while the Canadian dollar, still a paper bill, exchanged at a premium with the US greenback.

The 1950s also brought Canadian TV, produced the polio vaccine, the first jetliners and pioneer computers. Not to mention rock 'n' roll and Elvis.

The present may have a hard time matching all that.

Excerpts from the pages of Canadian Business

Editorial: A useless venture?

Arguments for and against a closer economic relationship between Canada and the United States have been raised periodically for many years. Look magazine is the latest to raise the issue and it is not likely to be the last…. Should Canada and the United States move towards economic union? What about a customs union? Should North America become one vast free-trading area north of the Mexican border?…

A Canada which is conceived as drifting aimlessly towards nothing might well consider hitching its political star to a country which believes in its own future….

There is…the other belief…which most Canadians now hold.

They believe that a Canadian is a person separate and distinct from an American, an Englishman, a Frenchman or any other national. And being a Canadian calls for a firm conviction that there is a future for Canada as a nation; that the country has not embarked on a “useless venture.” It is through the strength of this belief in Canada that we can protect our political integrity.

If Canadians believe in Canada and in themselves as Canadians, economic action will not of itself destroy the nation. Such a political conviction may, in fact, permit us to explore economic fields into which a less confident people would not venture.

—Vol. 23, No. 7, July 1950

Ottawa dateline

The feeling has been growing here that we will see a change in the conduct of American foreign policy. Many…Canadian experts on US affairs believe there is no chance of the Americans withdrawing into their North American shell…. They admit, however, that another kind of isolation will be apparent in US moves…. This, they say, will be the “isolation of leadership”…. The US will, where possible, continue to work for a policy which will be supported by Britain and France and other democratic countries, but where unanimity proves impossible, the US will move unilaterally and hope that the support which it cannot obtain by persuasion will be forthcoming under vigorous leadership.

—Vol. 24, No. 2, February 1951

Voluntary assignment

Certainly the year now closing has provided further evidence that the privileges and responsibilities of the individual are being assigned to the State. And in Canada at least it can be noted that such assignments are voluntary….

And if, as many persons believe, the cold war and inflation are with us for a decade or longer it is more than probable that Canadians will come to regard government intervention and control as part of the regular pattern of life….

A universal old-age pension of $40 per month at age 70 has become a part of our social security program…. Also on the books is a health and sickness program….

Indifference is the great danger…. And a responsible, democratic people must be ready to offer alternatives whenever the careless, the indifferent or the outright lazy want to push some new job over to government.

—Vol. 24, No. 12, December 1951

Can we handle more peace?

[After the close of the Korean War in July 1953] the new leaders of Russia [Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin] began to use gentler words….

Immediate reaction to this in North America was somewhat alarming. There was talk of sudden and drastic cuts in the defense programs…a sharp shake-out in the stock markets and widespread fear of a recession or collapse….

These vital questions were discussed and answered at the joint meeting of the…Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States held recently in Montreal….

[Senior executives of both chambers] offered a flat “No” to the idea that peace in Korea would bring on economic collapse or recession.

—Vol. 26, No. 8, August 1953

Ottawa dateline

Before Red China sent its troops into Korea to fight the United Nations forces, Canada was on the point of recognizing the Communist government of China. Such action would have led logically to the expulsion of the Chinese Nationalist government in Formosa [Taiwan] from the United Nations and the admission of the Communist government to the world organization. Britain and India had already recognized the Red regime. The United States had set its face firmly against recognition….

It is argued that the Chinese people are not so much interested in the spread of communism as in obtaining better economic conditions….

Canada is likely to be on the side of flexibility and moderation in dealing with all Asian questions.

—Vol. 26, No. 9, September 1953

(Canada finally established diplomatic relations with China in 1971. The US followed in 1979.)

Westcoast's Frank McMahon

The biggest project ever undertaken entirely by private enterprise in British Columbia is Westcoast Transmission Company's $153-million pipeline which will carry natural gas 700 miles from the Peace River area to Vancouver and the US border.

Responsible for this plan is the company's president, Francis M.P. McMahon, 54, whose achievements include backing horses and Broadway hits, as well as supplying industrial and domestic fuel for BC.

Use of natural gas, McMahon says, is sure to grow rapidly here in the same way it has done in the United States.

—Vol. 29, No. 10, October 1956

The Hungarians

Soviet troops and tanks crushed a burgeoning independence movement in Hungary in late October-early November, 1956.

Canada's program for rehabilitating Hungary's freedom fighters stands up well. By the end of January some 10,000 Hungarian refugees had been brought to Canada, another 2,000 are expected this month. In addition the Canadian government has arranged with the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom to take another 10,000 during January, February and March. This means Canada will have relieved Austria of some 25,000 Hungarian refugees by April.

—Vol. 30, No. 2, February 1957

At last! Camel saddles!

Want a camel saddle? Egypt will sell you some. In size and comfort, these relics of an earlier civilization are said to be exactly right for watching television. They have sold well on the American market for this purpose and will probably do just as well in Canada.

“After all, over half of Canada's families have television sets,” says Emile Tasso, representative of the Delta Trading Co., Cairo. “And…a camel saddle does give a distinctive touch to the average living room.”

—Vol. 30, No. 3, March 1957