American president Johnson and Canadian prime minister Pearson lied. Their schedules did not, as they said, coincidentally have them at same New York hotel and they did not discuss issues concerning the Great Lakes. Johnson wanted something only Canada could deliver. Pearson offered a respected career diplomat, Blair Seaborn, to get it done. Lies had started the Vietnam War. And now another lie might end it.
A month later, in June 1964, 40-year-old Seaborn was sitting uncomfortably hot in the back of a hulking, black, Russian-made car. The car cruised to a halt in front of Hanoi’s former French governor’s palace. Seaborn was shown to a huge ballroom, rich with Vietnamese art and antique furnishings. Within minutes, he was shaking hands with Pham Van Dong, the silver haired and handsome North Vietnamese prime minister.
President Johnson had become convinced that the Vietnam War could not be won. He needed a way out before South Vietnam’s swirling chaos necessitated his sending American troops in. But he had no way to speak to North Vietnam’s leaders. He needed an emissary. He needed the Canadians.
Speaking in French, Seaborn explained to Pham that the Americans were determined that the border that split Vietnam in two must be permanent along with the governments of North and South Vietnam. To this end, the United States had no desire to attack North Vietnam or overthrow its government. Nor, however, would it allow the Viet Cong-led insurgency to continue or permit the fall of South Vietnam’s government. The solution would be like Korea, with a permanent communist North and non-communist South.
Seaborn then presented a carrot and stick. If North Vietnam’s president Ho Chi Minh ended his support for the Viet Cong and pledged not to destabilize South Vietnam’s government, then the United States would leave. It would provide economic aid for North Vietnam. Seaborn added that Canada would augment American economic assistance. But, he warned, Johnson would defend his ally, if necessary, through a full-scale war that would be visited upon North Vietnamese cities. If such an escalation should occur, he said, there would be tremendous devastation and a colossal loss of life.
With a soft but firm tone, Pham replied that a just solution involved four points: an immediate cessation of hostilities, a withdrawal of American personnel and military equipment; the people of the South being allowed to determine their own future with the Viet Cong a part of the negotiations; and Vietnam’s reunification.
But there was more. Presenting a way for the United States to save face, Pham said that reunification need not happen immediately upon American withdrawal. Further, the new Vietnam would stay out of the Cold War by becoming like India; non-aligned and neutral. Pham conceded that none of this would be easy for the United States to accept but that his government would be patient. He advocated an all-party “round-table” negotiation to settle matters in a peaceful fashion.
Pham then met Seaborn’s threat with one of his own. Leaning forward for emphasis, he said, “It’s impossible, quite impossible – excuse me for saying this – for you Westerners to understand the force of the people’s will to resist, and to continue. The struggle of our people exceeds the imagination. It has astonished us too.” In other words, if Johnson wanted war, bring it on. He’ll lose.
Seaborn composed three long and detailed cables to Ottawa that were forwarded to the American State Department. He wrote, somewhat ominously, that North Vietnamese (DRVN) leaders, “are completely convinced that military action at any level is not, repeat not, going to bring success for the US and government forces in South Vietnam.” Ho Chi Minh and his goals of kicking the foreigners out and reuniting the country are tremendously popular in both the north and south. On the other hand, Seaborn explained, that there is little support among South Vietnam’s people for the corrupt South Vietnamese government. If American troops came, he insisted, they would quickly sink into a quagmire of a nationalist civil war that could last for years and cost millions of dollars and millions of lives with, he emphasized, little hope for success.
Seaborn proposed a solution. Get out. Get out now. Take the deal that Pham had offered, declare peace with honour, and let the Vietnamese people determine their fate.
Johnson was briefed on the Canadian’s secret mission and report. Seaborn and his advice were dismissed. In March 1965, 3,500 American marines landed in South Vietnam. They were soon fighting the kind of war Seaborn had foreseen with enemies everywhere and friends nowhere.
Seaborn remained in Vietnam for a year as the leader of Canada’s increasingly impotent International Control Commission. He secretly met with Pham and other North Vietnam leaders five more times and wrote five more reports to Ottawa and Washington. Each was more dire in its assessment and blunter in its recommendations. American generals, politicians, and diplomats such as Henry Kissinger met with Seaborn when in Saigon to seek his counsel. He told them all the same thing. But for them and the White House, Seaborn’s advice contradicted the narrative they were weaving for the American people and so was ignored.
Nearly a decade later. With millions of Vietnamese people and over 58,000 young Americans dead, and with America torn asunder by anti-war protests, President Nixon agreed to end the war. He called it peace with honour. The deal he signed was essentially Seaborn’s deal. The Vietnam War need not have happened. If only the Americans had listened to the Canadian.
(Seaborn’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)