He was born on September 18, 1895, in Neustadt, Ontario, to William (Originally Diefenbacker) and Mary (Bannerman). He received a BA in 1915, an MA in Political Science and Economics in 1916, and an LL.B in 1919 from the University of Saskatchewan. Diefenbaker married Edna Brower (1901-1951) in 1929. In 1953, after Edna's death, he married his second wife, Olive Palmer (1902-1976), who had a daughter from a previous marriage. Diefenbaker had no children of his own.
Diefenbaker was known by several nicknames during his career, including "Dief the Chief", (or simply "the Chief") "J.G.D.", and "The Leader" (a monicker that continued to be applied to him even after his leaving the post of prime minister).
Diefenbaker's oratory skill, and a desire for change by the populace propelled him to victory in the 1957 election, after which he was able to form a minority government. Lester Pearson would soon take over the Liberal leadership, and on his first speech, would ask Diefenbaker to hand power back to the Liberals because of recent economic decline. Diefenbaker would, in a scathing 2.5 hour response, reveal a formerly classified Liberal file that predicted the economic malaise. The "arrogant" label that had been on the Liberals in 1957 stayed.
Diefenbaker made what some believe to have been one of the most controversial policy decisions of the last century in Canada on February 20, 1959 when his government cancelled the development and manufacture of the Avro Arrow. The Arrow was a Mach 2 supersonic jet fighter built by A.V. Roe Canada (Avro), in Malton, Ontario. After cancelling the technologically advanced interceptor project, the Canadian government purchased American-made Bomarc missiles and CF-101 Voodoo interceptors to defend Canada in the event of a Soviet nuclear bomber attack from the north.
Diefenbaker's final term of office would see the escalation of a nuclear arms question brought on by the imported Bomarc missiles and the Voodoo aircraft that had replaced the Avro Arrow. Diefenbaker would soon reject the American nuclear warheads being put in missiles. The already strained relationship would deteriroate faster, and a Cabinet split would further undermine the government. Social Credit and the CCF would withdraw their support of the government, prompting its fall over the nuclear arms question. Diefenbaker would use Congressional testimony about the Bomarc missiles to accuse Pearson of making Canada a target for a nuclear war, and would accuse American media outlets and the US government of interfering with the election.
Diefenbaker died on August 16, 1979 in Ottawa, Ontario. According to his funeral plans his body was shipped from Ottawa to Saskatoon by train for burial. Thousands of Canadians lined the tracks and more watched on television to bid farewell to "Dief" before he was buried beside the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. In his will, He had a special ceremony in place, so that the Maple Leaf flag was draped on his casket first, and then the Red Ensign that he defended so intensely in parliament was laid over it.