"FOR SOME REASON a glaze passes over people's faces when you say Canada," Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the present Canadian ambassador to the United States, Allan Gotlieb, is said to have told The New York Times: "Maybe we should invade South Dakota or something." Maybe so, for the glaze is real, and no one doubts--indeed, there are otherwise intelligent Americans, and a good many statesmen too, who appear to be proud of the fact--that Americans are just plain stupid about Canada. This is worse than being ignorant, a condition the alert are often aware of, for stupidity is dangerous. Canadians get very angry over American neglect of Canadian affairs, and they like to claim that they know far more about the United States than we do of them, which is surely true, though not actually as insulting as Canadians like to claim, given that there are quite a few more of us than of them, and there are other countries more likely to think seriously about invading us, or something. Of course one cannot really invade South Dakota without invading North Dakota, except perhaps by a pincers movement through Montana and Minnesota first, but never mind--Sondra Gotlieb's point is well taken.

The higher form of American stupidity is to assume that Canadians are essentially Americans with snow shoes, a country much like ourselves except that a restive third of them insist on speaking French, and most of them appear to believe that their natural resources are actually theirs (though just who the "they" is, when it comes to natural resources, remains in hot dispute in Canada). Actually Canada is at least as different from the United States as Australia is, and in many ways more so. It is a monarchy, the Queen of the Commonwealth being the head of state. Canada never experienced a frontier movement such as the United States did, and unlike us it never really enjoyed an economy of abundance, despite being smack dab at the top of an incredibly rich continent, since it was too often and for too long dependent upon staples that were at the mercy of the world marketplace. Canadians never had the sense of security, nor could purchase it cheaply by virtue of their distance from potential enemies, as the United States did down to about 1939, for they considered themselves at serious risk of annexation by Americans in the 19th century, and they still fret over the idea of American cultural annexation. And there was no melting pot, or even the myth of one, since the French- speaking portion of the population elected to survive by seeing to it that their birthrate kept pace with the rate of English immigration--a policy called "the revenge of the cradles"--and later by hoping that vast numbers of New Canadians (as post-World War II immigrants were called) would assimilate to French Canada--largely a misplaced hope--and finally by legislation and demands for a rather mysterious "sovereignty association" with the rest of the Confederation. The differences do not stop there, but these are enough to suggest that Canada has experienced a history that differs from its giant neighbor in many important respects.

Lawrence Martin's book makes it abundantly clear that American presidents have not, by and large, understood these simple facts or even wished to learn them. He begins with the first Canadian prime minister, John A. Macdonald, and tells us of Macdonald's strains with Ulysses S. Grant over the fisheries. The book then progresses, or perhaps descends, through successive presidents and prime ministers. One president, Warren Harding, all but died in Canada, though he made it to San Francisco with nine days to spare. John F. Kennedy aggravated his bad back while planting a tree in Ottawa, lectured the Canadians on their hemispheric responsibilities, and almost certainly called Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (whose name he could not learn to proounce properly) a bad name. Lyndon B. Johnson once grabbed Lester Pearson by the shirt while verbally abusing him, and thought he was being cozy when he called Pearson "Lester," though Pearson actually went by the name of "Mike." Nixon said that Japan was America's largest trading partner, which offended the Canadians, who were Hertz to Japan's Avis, and a recent American ambassador to Canada has told them that they spend too much money on social welfare.

To those who follow the Canadian-American relationship, these gaffes are well known, though Martin recounts them with a fresh sense of vigor and often with amusing added detail. He is also reasonably fair, for he does not neglect to mention that Johnson's harangue of Lester Pearson arose over the Canadian prime minister's rather undiplomatic choice of American soil and an American ceremony to lecture the United States on its foreign policy with respect to the larger world, or that Macdonald, Trudeau, and all the prime ministers in between have had their own blind spots about the United States. He is sensible enough to know that if Canadians are threatened by a flow of American junk culture, it is at least as much Canada's fault, since Canadians don't have to eat Big Macs if they don't want to. He is very good on the relationship between William Lyon Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, who genuinely liked each other, and he regards their years as the best, indeed perhaps the only, truly harmonious ones in the sense that a genuine bilateral policy was worked out. Of course, King and Roosevelt had the common ground of a war to fight, which helped, while Canadian leaders were often less than enthusiastic about later Anericn foreign policies toward third parties, especially in Cuba and Vietnam. Nor does Martin try to find any villains in the story, though he clearly thinks there have been ambassadors on both sides who were less than discreet at times. This is good, lively, and informative history, pinned to the interplay of often colorful personalities, and Martin makes it clear that Canadian history is not dull.

Still, I believe his argument, and certainly much of his evidence, contradicts the real intent of his subtitle. Of course there was no bilateral bliss, but the word is a loaded one, since bliss is not to be expected between nations. There was a greater continuity of reasonable agreement, however, than Martin's tone and his lively stories suggest. Had the leader of almost any other country insulted his counterpart as Johnson did Peason, or indeed as Trudeau has on occasion American visitors, there would have been a major flap rather than the expressions of wry amusement that generally marked the news reports. American have been silly, certainly, when dealing with Canada, and often thoughtless, but they have seldom been sinister. Canadians are not invariably right on all points in dispute, and the fact that they are so often depicted as though they were by the American press does suggest that there is a special relationship. It would seem to me that the United States has been right about as often as it has been wrong when there have been disputes between the two countries for it is not at all unreasonable for Americans to worry about Canadian energy policy, or to want to drive a hard bargain over an auto pact. We are probably wrong, and the Canadians are probably right, on the issue of acid rain, but that does not mean that Canadian statements are free of propaganda and advocacy. Nor should they be, any more than Canadians ought to expect Americans to abandon their own advocacy. The relationship is difficult, and it is not getting better, but nonetheless remains one of the more stable relationships between sovereign states. What is needed in Washington is a great deal more knowledge about and attention paid to Canada by people who know what makes Canadians tick; and Ottawa could use a few more analysts who do not assume that they understand the Unites States simply by proximity.

Some interesting conclusions emerge from Martin's book, though since he does not state them, perhaps he does not think that they do. The relationship has been relatively benign. Paradoxically, a president of the United States can accomplish quite a lot in changing public opinion in another nation if he takes that nation seriously. Canadian prime ministers cannot expect to have the same impact in the United States, and they do best by choosing excellent representatives (as is now the case in Washington, New York, and at the United Nations, for example) and then to lie low. And neither nation should assume too readily that their interests are in fact mutual. Martin's book demonstrates plenty of ignorance, a good bit of stupidity, and some rudeness on the part of American leadership, but beneath this "burlesque circus" lies the posssibility that these unhappy qualities arise from actual divergences in goals of some genuine significance. Martin, a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, at times appears to imply that if human beings weren't so cussed, the two nations would have little to squabble over. Perhaps so, but the two histories are really quite different, and it remains true that while parallel tracks ought to run side by side, they actually meet only on the horizon of the mind.