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Major Peter John Cashin (March 8, 1890 - May 21, 1977) was a politician and soldier from Newfoundland who played a major role in Newfoundland's roles in World War One, the Canadian Civil War, World War Two and eventually the Newfoundland Crisis. Cashin was the Minister of Defence for the Free State of Newfoundland during World War Two and eventually served dually as Minister and as Chairman of the Newfoundland State Defence Force. As the war wound to a close, he broke off from the War Government of Joey Smallwood and formed the United Newfoundland Party, becoming a key figure in the Newfoundland republican movement. His UNP won an unexpected majority in the 1946 general election called by Smallwood due to defections in the Assembly of Newfoundland from both the left and the right.
Cashin was elected Prime Minister by his majority government and he immediately set out on initiating a strongly pro-republican agenda. On December 20, 1946, Cashin delivered a fateful address to the Assembly in which he attacked the Drummondville Agreement as "an infringement upon the sovereignty of the Free State" and advocated for the creation of "an independent, inviolable Republic of Newfoundland - separate from Canada, separate from Britain." Though his speech was mostly a hypothetical statement of goals, it sparked three years of political turmoil between the various factions of the Free State government as well as the Blue Canadian government which shared St. John's as its seat of government. Cashin, angered by attacks on his character and what he perceived as the demeaning of Newfoundland by Red Canada, Blue Canada and the United States, declared a plebiscite in 1949 as well as a snap election to immediately precede it. When republicans overwhelmingly won both, the Proletarian Republic of Canada invaded Newfoundland to seize it before the Americans could, citing the formation of an independent Newfoundland as a violation of the Drummondville Agreement. This triggered the 1949 Newfoundland Crisis, for which Cashin was held almost exclusively responsible by later Canadian governments-in-exile. A political pariah in the West afterwards, Cashin died in obscurity in St. Louis, Missouri in 1977.
Political Views and Legacy
Peter Cashin's political views have been much debated by Cold War historians, much as they were difficult to pin down during his lifetime. Unambigously, Cashin was anti-Drummondville, which was a common position amongst both the Newfoundland business community as well as the lower classes, but historians have debated exactly what Cashin's republican inclinations meant.
Canadian government-in-exile Cabinet Chairman and later Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chrétien remarked that Cashin "was a constitutionalist, not necessarily a hardline republican. Like many conservatives of his day, he was frustrated by the ambiguity of not only the Free State's role in post-Drummondville Canada, but of the very essence of the Free State itself." Chesley Crosbie, his contemporary republican and later anti-Communist activist in the United States, similarly commented that "Pete Cashin was unique in that unlike the old guard conservatives in Newfoundland he had the balls to ask, 'What exactly are we doing? What are we? Who are we?'" Despite his vilification in the United States and amongst Blue Canadians in the 1950s, Cashin enjoyed a renaissance after the fall of Communism in the 1990s both in Canada and abroad, helped in large part by a rehabilitory view by Chrétien.
Most historians disagree with the view of Cashin as a noble constitutionalist, however, stating that the Free State's foundational essence was of a former British Dominion severed from a now non-existent Empire. Historian John Smith said in his book Legends of the Free State that "the notion that the NRA and its political arm the UNP just wanted to clear the air on some lingering constitutional issues that hadn't been sorted out for thirty years is absurd. The Free State was declared the moment the British Empire fell in 1916, with the implication being that one day, when Communist Britain had fallen and the Empire was restored, the Free State would go back to being the Dominion of Newfoundland. This was the accepted if unstated mainstream position in St. John's until the Second World War ended." Smith goes further and states that, "the republicans, in particular unreformed nationalists such as Peter Cashin, had no intention to wait out the Communists in either Ottawa or London and had little interest in going along with the Confederationist plan to unite the old British North America under one flag at some undetermined point in the future. To their credit, Cashin and his allies in the NRA acted with a decisiveness unseen in Newfoundland for decades. To their discredit, they toppled Canada's democratic government, nearly caused the Third World War and brought about the swift and violent end of the movement they had worked so hard to lead."
Other historians concur that Cashin was a nationalist first and conciliatory constitutionalist second, noting that his infamous December 20 speech to the Newfoundland Assembly was a confrontational ideological address that nearly resulted in a walkout by the eleven Liberals and Conservatives who sat in the chamber and that he escalated his technique of goading and frustrating both the Blues and the Americans while empowering the Reds by fracturing the coalition that had kept Newfoundland and the Confederationists who had found a new home there safe for twenty years. Cashin's private letters from his three-year tenure as Prime Minister reveal his disdain for Confederationists, whom he referred to as "Canadians camping here because they couldn't defend their country" and arrogantly supposing "standing against Drummondville is the only moral stance our nation can take. The Americans, with their own history of staring down articles of oppression from abroad, are too prideful and too invested in their bases here to let us fall." Indeed, historian Smith concludes that "Cashin, despite his arguments with [American] President [Joseph] Kennedy in private and his quiet yet public endorsement of the powerful anti-American faction of the NRA, fully expected the Americans to come to his defense should the outcome of his high-stakes game not end how he hoped. In fact, it was his bizarre assumption that an ally he demeaned, insulted and ignored would lift a finger to help him that led to his escalation of the political tensions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1949 that led to his downfall and exile."
Debates have also formed what his domestic policies would have been had the Newfoundland Crisis not enveloped and the Free State been allowed to renegotiate sections of the Drummondville Agreement in its favor. He opposed the taxation of income and favored tariffs, a liberal-conservative position, and he was a military veteran who believed in the importance of a defensive-only conscripted Newfoundland Regiment, but he also was in favor of labor rights, opposed the discrimination against Catholics prominent in many rural areas of the province, supported a fully separation of church and state despite his devout Christianity, and was openly skeptical of the global tensions evolving into the nascent Cold War, in large part due to his view that Newfoundland was an essentially "British" country and he had a hard time supporting mass mobilization against Britain. Indeed, after his self-imposed exile to Mexico until 1970, he stated that he supported "Britain because they are British, not because they are Communist." However, many historians, including Smith, have argued in turn that so much of Cashin's political identity was tied to renegotiating Drummondville, or post-1949 declaring a full-scale republic as opposed to a post-British Free State.