Sherwood Lett and Canada’s Vietnam War

Sherwood Lett learned Vietnam’s first lesson when he stepped from the plane: the heat’s a beast. The jet-lagged, 59-year-old Canadian girded himself and shook hands with those welcoming him to Saigon. After touring the bustling city, he met his International Control Commission staff and then was briefed by officials from India, Poland, Vietnam, Britain, and the United States. He asked polite but probing questions and, as was his custom, listened more than he spoke.

            Two days later, on October, 1954, Lett landed at Hanoi’s smaller, less chaotic, but equally steamy airport and was surprised by a far grander reception. The streets along his route to the Metropole Hotel fluttered with red banners, bunting, and flags. From the back seat of a long white car, Lett smiled and waved at crowds standing three-deep, cheering, clapping, and singing. He laughed and waved off his colleague’s embarrassment when at the hotel’s reception desk, he learned that the crowds had confused him with the Russian ambassador who was due to arrive on the next plane. The incident presented Vietnam’s second lesson: nothing is as it seems.

            Lett was born in Iroquois, Ontario but, since his father was a minister and his mother a supportive spouse, he and his six siblings were always moving. His broad range of interests and insatiable curiosity were evident at Vancouver’s McGill College (later the University of British Columbia) where he played the flute in the orchestra, served on the executive of the Literary Debating Society, was the lacrosse team’s goalie, and coached the women’s hockey team. He was fun and funny, empathetic, and well liked. Lett enlisted to serve in the First World War and survived the muddy calamity of Passchendaele. Promoted to Adjutant, his gallantry and courage at the Battle of Amiens earned him a Military Cross.

            After the war, he earned a Rhodes Scholarship and completed his law degree at Oxford University. Lett passed the bar in 1922 and five years later was a partner at Vancouver’s Davis and Company. He enjoyed a wide circle of friends, memberships in prestigious clubs, and served on the University of British Columbia Board of Governors, Senate, and for six years was Chancellor.

With Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Lett returned to military service at the Canadian Infantry Division Headquarters. After several promotions he was a Brigadier and in command of a regiment at the ill-fated Dieppe Raid, where shrapnel shattered his upper left arm. After two operations, and with his arm still in a sling, he became Deputy Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa but soon returned to England to command the 4th Infantry Brigade. Five months later, Lett led the 2nd Division’s post D-Day drive into France where, in an attack at a village on the Orne River, shrapnel tore into his right leg. Lett was decorated with the prestigious Commander of the British Empire, and then, medically discharged.

Lett’s military reputation and legal skills led to a number of federal government appointments. In the summer of 1954, Lett was happily married to Evelyn, the proud father of two adult daughters, and enjoying life as the senior partner in a thriving law firm where he specialized in corporate law. He then received a message from Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson about one more challenge. Lett accepted a one-year appointment as Canada’s chief commissioner on the International Control Commission. Weeks later, he was sweltering at Saigon’s airport.

Comprised of Canada, India, and Poland, the ICC’s job was to police the shaky peace in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that, months before, had been brokered by the big powers at a convention in Geneva. Vietnam had been “temporarily” split at the 17th parallel. All French troops and equipment were to leave and communist troops and guerilla fighters – the Viet Cong – were to move to the north. Anyone who wished to move to either side the line was to be helped to go. The ICC was also to set up and supervise an election in July 1956 that would reunite Vietnam under a government.

Lett led 25 Canadian diplomats and 135 Canadian military personnel. They were scattered about in fixed and mobile positions working with their Indian and Polish counterparts. Lett quickly saw that the peace was a sham. Both the Northern and Southern governments were doing all they could to solidify their positions and weaken the other. The American CIA was running secret missions to help the South and confound the North including sabotaging Hanoi’s busses and poisoning water supplies while covertly moving weapons in as the French were moving theirs out. Lett and the ICC reported the transgressions but little was done in response.

Despite frustrations, the ICC oversaw the transfer of territory and cities from one power to the other. It intervened in many situations that saved lives. For example, thousands of Catholics who were persecuted in the North and kept from moving south, sometimes by having their children kidnapped, were helped by the ICC to move as they wished. But it was tough to referee a game when players acknowledged no rules.

Lett reported in cables home, many of which were shared with Washington, that Northern and Southern people overwhelmingly shared the goals of North Vietnam’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh: get the foreigners out, unify the country, and elect him as leader. Most Southern people despised South Vietnam’s corrupt leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. Lett argued that Ho was sure to win the election. The Americans and Diem, Lett warned, were moving to cancel it. If that happened, he said, a nationalist, civil war would begin and even if the Americans intervened the North would eventually win. Lett implored Pearson to pressure American president Eisenhower to let the election happen, regardless of the inevitable result. Canadian officials said nothing, and quietly supported the Americans. The world watched as communists insisted on a democratic election and the democratic west refused to let it happen.

Lett returned to his family and thriving Vancouver law practice. When the election was cancelled and just a few years later Vietnam fell into a tragic quagmire, Lett took no satisfaction in having been right. Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the war’s influence in Canada’s development had just begun.

(Lett’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.)