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Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

Lester Pearson


“Therefore, it may well be said that the Suez Crisis was a victory for the United Nations and for the man who contributed more than anyone else to save the world at that time. That man was Lester Pearson.”

Gunnar Jahn
Chairman of the Nobel Committee (1941-1966)


Lester Pearson held the world together in 1956. In July of that year, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the British and French-owned Suez Canal. Eager to re-take this vital connection to imperial possessions in Asia, Britain and France enticed Israel to invade Egypt as a pretext for a Franco-British occupation of the Canal Zone. The colonial overtones of the invasion threatened British-American relations and alienated several members of the Commonwealth – jeopardizing Canada’s most important alliances of the early Cold War. At an emergency session of the United Nations, Pearson played a central role in passing a resolution for a UN-led peacekeeping force to monitor the cease-fire. Pearson’s resolution resolved the crisis, mended relations between the Western powers, and enacted the first UN peacekeeping mission.

Lester Pearson addresses one of the committees at the United Nations Conference in SanFrancisco. United Nations/Library and Archives Canada/C-018532.

Pearson’s success in defusing the Suez Crisis reflected the experience he gained over his long career as a diplomat. He was appointed Ambassador to Washington, D.C. in 1945 and attended the San Francisco Conference, which laid the foundation for the UN. Having witnessed two world wars, an economic depression, and the decline of the League of Nations, Pearson remained hopeful that the UN would become an effective instrument for global mediation. Pearson lead successive Canadian delegations to become a fixture at the UN General Assembly and was elected president of the 7th session of the General Assembly in 1952.

Born in Newtonbrook, Ontario in 1897, Pearson served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. After twenty years as a diplomat, Prime Minister MacKenzie King appointed Pearson Secretary of State for External Affairs in 1948. After his transition to politics, he won the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1958 and was elected Prime Minister in 1963 and 1965. Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his role in mediating the Suez Crisis.

Further Reading:

Hillmer, Norman ed. Pearson: The Unlikely Gladiator. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999.

McKercher, Asa and Gallen R. Perras eds. Mike’s World: Lester Pearson and Canadian External Affairs. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016.

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