Canada and the United States Create NORAD

Continental defense cooperation became increasingly integrated between Canada and the United States with the creation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, in 1958. NORAD was established during the Cold War to monitor and defend North American airspace using satellite and ground-based radar technology to warn of suspected Soviet threats. The system remains a vital component of bilateral defense.

Summary of Event

The intensification of the Cold War in the 1950’s as well as new technologies made North America increasingly vulnerable to an air-based attack from overseas. The vast reaches of oceans surrounding the continent no longer guaranteed or provided safety from an attack. New missile and aviation technology increased the possibility of a Soviet threat to North America, particularly a bomber attack. Ottawa, the Canadian capital, and Washington, D.C., the U.S. capital, agreed in the early 1950’s to establish three successive radar detection networks, each farther north than the other, to detect a possible air attack. North American Air Defense Command
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
[kw]Canada and the United States Create NORAD (May 12, 1958)
[kw]United States Create NORAD, Canada and the (May 12, 1958)
[kw]NORAD, Canada and the United States Create (May 12, 1958)
North American Air Defense Command
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
[g]North America;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[g]United States;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[g]Canada;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[c]Cold War;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[c]Space and aviation;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[c]Science and technology;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
[c]Military history;May 12, 1958: Canada and the United States Create NORAD[05830]
Diefenbaker, John G.
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;Cold War
Pearson, Lester B.
St. Laurent, Louis[Saint Laurent, Louis]
Pearkes, George

Air defense against a bomber attack also requires the ability to intercept a given threat. To handle the new threat, the Canadian government, led by Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, and the U.S. government, led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, agreed to create the North American Air Defense Command, better known as NORAD, in 1958. NORAD became a binational organization with a fully unified operational command; its name was changed to the North American Aerospace Defense Command in 1981. Its mandate was to monitor and defend North American airspace. The commander of NORAD remains appointed by, and is responsible to, both the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president. Traditionally, the NORAD commander has been an American and the deputy commander has been Canadian. NORAD’s command center is located at Peterson Air Force Base Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Its warning and control missions were exercised through the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center , located nearby.

In late 1956 and early 1957, the Liberal Party Liberal Party, Canadian government of Canada, led by Louis St. Laurent, was considering a proposal from the Americans to integrate the air defenses of Canada and the United states into a single command. The Canadian military favored the idea but a spring election distracted the Canadian government’s political considerations. In June, 1957, the Liberals were defeated by the Conservative Party, Conservative Party, Canadian which was led by Diefenbaker. The new prime minister was more of a Canadian nationalist than was his Liberal predecessor, and the Conservatives were traditionally pro-British in their political outlook. They were wary of closer economic links with the United States, and Diefenbaker was seeking to strengthen and enhance traditional links, especially trade links, with the United Kingdom.

The entrance to NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center in Colorado achieved an iconic status during the Cold War.

Both the Canadian and the U.S. militaries supported the proposed defense alliance, but concern set in among the high commands of both countries. Military officials believed that the Liberal defeat coupled with the Conservatives’ wariness of continental integration would lead to the death of the draft proposal. Nonetheless, despite differences, Diefenbaker and Eisenhower would eventually develop a warm rapport. In July, Diefenbaker expressed his support of NORAD after he had been lobbied by his minister of national defence, George Pearkes, and the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee. The United States was delighted, and Diefenbaker quickly approved the idea.

However, there had been no Canadian cabinet debate about participating in the program, and Diefenbaker personally approved the draft proposal within a matter of weeks. He soon regretted this decision because his haste led to some administrative confusion. Defence Minister Pearkes had failed to advise the Canadian Department of External Affairs Department of External Affairs, Canadian (DEA) of his desire to accept the U.S. agreement. The DEA, therefore, was largely uninformed and surprised at the speed with which Diefenbaker had accepted the proposal, thus creating administrative confusion (the DEA was the agency responsible for negotiating the agreement). His decision also created some friction with the Department of National Defence, Department of National Defence, Canadian which considered the creation of NORAD from the standpoint of strategic necessity, whereas diplomats and politicians viewed the matter through the context of political interests and issues of sovereignty.

In the fall of 1957, the opposition Liberals, led by the former secretary of state for external affairs Lester B. Pearson, began to critique the Canadian government’s decision and the lack of information being given to the public about what participating in NORAD meant for Canadian sovereignty. These criticisms were shared by Diefenbaker. He also hoped to ensure Ottawa’s political control of major military decisions. In October, Diefenbaker visited Washington, D.C., to meet with a sympathetic Eisenhower. The president agreed that the NORAD command must consult both governments before or during action that might lead to the use of NORAD-controlled forces. This defused a good deal of political and nationalist anxiety that could have developed in any parliamentary debate in Canada. During the following months, the details were finalized: air defense plans were to be jointly approved; the NORAD command would be responsible to both the Canadian and U.S. chiefs of staff and both governments.

Even though the Liberal Party, the major opposition party in Parliament, approved of NORAD, it continued to critique how hastily the Conservatives had agreed to it. Still, in the February, 1958, national election, the Conservatives handily defeated their opponents, winning a majority in Parliament. The NORAD issue had not factored into the campaign. In early May, the Conservative cabinet reviewed the final draft of the NORAD agreement, and on May 12, intergovernmental notes were exchanged, signifying bilateral approval. Whether Diefenbaker fully recognized the ramifications of his quick decision is uncertain. The government had agreed to the integrated air defense command of North America.


The initial handling of the NORAD question reflected the newly elected Canadian government’s inexperience in handling foreign and defense policy matters. Still, once both parties signed the agreement, NORAD virtually united the two air forces for the committed goal of continental defense and added another layer of defense cooperation that extended back to the creation of a joint board on defense during World War II.

Canadian nationalists considered NORAD to be one more sign that Canada was moving into the American orbit. However, Canada’s agreement to participate in NORAD made strategic sense. Along with the binational command structure, the agreement gave Canada an equal role and influence in the air defense of the continent at a time when its own military resources and spending were only a fraction of that of the United States. Despite some early fears by Canadians, NORAD remains the centerpiece of the Canada-U.S. defense partnership, and it continues to provide surveillance, early warning, and air defense. North American Air Defense Command
Cold War;mutual defense agreements

Further Reading

  • Hilliker, John, and Donald Barry. Canada’s Department of External Affairs. Volume 2 in Coming of Age, 1946-1968. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. The second volume of the official history of the Department of External Affairs. A well-researched summary of the role and attitudes of this influential department, and its policy makers, in the creation of NORAD.
  • Holman, D. F. NORAD in the Next Millennium. Toronto, Ont.: Irwin, 2000. A brief study of the future of NORAD and U.S. and Canadian air and aerospace defense requirements in the twenty-first century and beyond.
  • Jockel, Joseph T. No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States, and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987. A pioneering study of postwar Canadian-U.S. air defense relations, with good material on the creation of NORAD.
  • Reid, T. R. “Military to Idle NORAD Compound: Operations Will Move to Nearby Base, but Cold War Bunker to Stand Ready.” The Washington Post, July 29, 2006, p. A-2. A brief news report of the integration of the Cheyenne facility into the NORAD command center at Petersen Air Force Base.
  • Robinson, Basil. Diefenbaker’s World: A Populist in Foreign Affairs. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Robinson was one of Diefenbaker’s principal foreign policy advisers from 1957 to 1962. This memoir offers the perspective of an official who was “present at the creation” of Ottawa’s decision to participate in and negotiate NORAD.
  • Smith, Denis. Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker. Toronto, Ont.: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995. A leading biography of Diefenbaker. Smith’s study provides useful content on Diefenbaker’s role in the creation of NORAD.
  • U.S. Department of the Air Force. NORAD into the Twenty-First Century. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1997. A 7-page pamphlet provided by the U.S. Air Force outlining NORAD’s future role in North American air and aerospace defense.
  • Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War: From the H-Bomb to SDI. New York: Berkley Books, 2005. A contemporary study of Cold War superweapons and how they have influenced U.S. and Soviet geopolitics and diplomacy.

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