Four Lessons for Canada from the Vietnam War

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.

Our Wallets

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.

Our Brawn

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.

Our Hearts

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.

Our Soul

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.)

Canada and Two Wars: Vietnam and Yemen

We Canadians try to be on the right side of history but too often we fail. We fail largely because morality and money are seldom on speaking terms. Consider our role in two immoral wars.

            Canada was officially neutral in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. But we were not. Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam throughout the war as part of the International Control Commission charged with observing a non-existent ceasefire. Canadian doctors and nurses ran Canadian-built hospitals in Vietnam and over 20,000 Canadians joined the American military to fight in hamlets and jungles. Over 30,000 young Americans evaded military service by coming north. They were joined by thousands of refugees who fled the post war madness. But there was more.

            Throughout the Vietnam War, Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, produced and sold to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. Over the course of the war, Canadian steel and iron exports to the U.S. rose by 54%. The majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            Canada also played a role in the chemical warfare in Vietnam. The Dow Chemical Company’s Sarnia plant manufactured napalm. It was a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene that, when dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft, burned the flesh of those it touched, destroyed fat tissues, and left victims writhing in insufferable agony.

            The Uniroyal Chemical Company produced Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. The herbicide defoliant burned the leaves from trees and robbed the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Scientists determined that Agent Orange was carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank contaminated water, or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children.

            The people of Elmira were exposed to Agent Orange for years and their fight for restitution continues. In 1966 and 1967, American Army helicopters tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Hundreds of people there and nearby suffered long term consequences but it took a generation for the Canadian government to admit what it had allowed to happen and to offer compensation.

            Canada’s profiting from the immoral war was simple to explain. Canadian Defence Production Minister Charles “Bud” Drury said in 1966 that arms sales to the United States were responsible for 13,000 to 15,000 Canadian jobs with spin-off jobs probably totalling 110,000. In 1968, Treasury Board President Edgar Benson stated, “Unemployment would rise if arms shipments to the U. S. were stopped. It is to our benefit to continue the program.” Vietnam era diplomat John Holmes observed that with respect to Vietnam, “You hang on to your principles but find a way around it.”      

            It would be nice to think that we learned from our Vietnam War experience. We have not. In 2017, we exported $1.03 billion in arms, with the United States our best customer. Second was Saudi Arabia, which had just been tagged by Amnesty International for violating human rights at home and in its dirty war in Yemen. Canada’s sales to Saudi Arabia primarily involve military vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario. The multi-year deal was signed by the Harper government then later renegotiated by the Trudeau government.

             In November 2017, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development was considering changes to laws regulating arms production and sales to foreign customers. Christyn Cianfarani, President and CEO of the Canadian Defence and Security Industries, appeared before the committee and stated that she represented 800 Canadian defence and security companies that generated $10 billion in annual revenues and employed 63,000 Canadians who earned wages 60% higher than average manufacturing wages. The committee ended up recommending no changes that would threaten Cianfarani’s impressive numbers. Human Rights Watch reported last year that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen has seen 233,000 deaths. Over 25% of those killed in air raids are women and children. More than 20 million people in Yemen are now experiencing food insecurity.

(Photo: Atlantic Magazine)

            Yet, in 2019, Canada sold $3.7 billion of military goods and technology. Saudi Arabia continued to be our second-best customer accounting for $2.9 billion or 76% of non-U.S. military export sales. According to the government’s Exports of Military Goods report, “The Government of Canada strives to ensure that…Canadian goods and technology are not used in a manner that is prejudicial to human rights, peace, security or stability.” Please.

            Brock University assistant professorSimon Black has led protests against continuing our involvement in the Yemen war through continuing our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He has said, “Most Canadians don’t realize that weapons manufactured here continue to fuel a war that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” He’s wrong. We know. We knew in the 1960s when we were profiting from the immoral war in Vietnam. And we know now.

            A voice in the wilderness is Spadina—Fort York, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan. He has said, “I believe the humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires us to suspend military shipments to the region and provide more in the areas of food and medicine.” We won’t do it.

            We won’t because the lessons taught in Vietnamese jungles are the same as those being taught again in Yemeni streets. But lessons taught are not lessons learned because, in the end, money doesn’t talk – it swears.

(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday April 10, 2021. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider picking up The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War which will be published this week in Canada and the United States by Knopf Penguin Random House.)