As we recall from school, lessons can be taught but not always learned. Such was the case with Canada’s involvement in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Canada was taught four lessons.
The Canadian government claimed neutrality in the war, but we were not. We sold an average of $370 million a year in war material to the United States for use in Vietnam – over $2 billion annually in today’s money. We manufactured and sold ammunition, guidance systems, armoured vehicles, napalm, agent orange, and more. Over 130,000 Canadians complained about the war while watching it on television each night but then went back to jobs the next morning that were linked to supporting it. We learned that we were quite willing to swap principle for profit.
Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam nine years before the Americans came in great numbers and they remained there two years after that iconic helicopter pushed down the ladder and lifted off from the American embassy roof in Saigon. We were traffic cops trying to get sworn enemies to play nice. We were the stereotypical Canadians trying to punch above our weight and persuade those killing each other to see the immorality of their actions and be more like us. We were right and both sides were wrong but it didn’t matter. We learned that we were big enough to be independent but small enough to be ignored.
Canada welcomed about 30,000 young Americans who opted to run rather than fight and over 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families who saved their lives by suffering the indignity and danger of boats and camps to escape. Polls at the time indicated that the majority of us did not want either. But we changed. When we dusted off the principles and procedures we had invented for the Vietnam War to welcome Syrian War refugees in 2015, the majority of us supported the effort. We also finally acknowledged and helped those 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Americans to fight in Vietnam. It took a long while but we learned that despite race, religion, nationality and other ways we artificially divide ourselves that we are all, in the final analysis, human.
Along with assassinations and race riots, the Vietnam War came into Canadian living rooms every night with the evening news. It was ugly. At the same time, stories about us were being offered by a new generation of Canadian authors and songwriters – we didn’t want no war machines and ghetto scenes or tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Universities created more Canadian-based courses taught by Canadians. The growing patriotism was deeper than just celebrating Expo ’67. Pro-Canadianism became about more than anti-Americanism. It was as journalist Peter C. Newman observed: the Vietnamization of the United States brought about the Canadianization of Canada. We learned to be not British, not American, but finally, and proudly, Canadian.
Treaties are signed and memorials are built but wars never truly end. Canada is still being shaped and tested by the lessons offered by the Vietnam War.
(If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my eighth book The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. It’s available at bookstores across Canada, Amazon, or at the Chapters link below.)