Canada, Chemical Weapons, and the Vietnam War

The Dow Chemical Company was founded by Herbert Dow, who was born in Belleville, Ontario. The Michigan-based company opened a plant in Sarnia, Ontario during the Second World War. In the 1960s, it manufactured napalm, a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene. When dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft over vast areas of Vietnam, it burned the flesh of those it touched and destroyed fat tissues. It left victims writhing in insufferable agony. The fortunate died.

            A growing awareness of the ghastly effects of napalm led to protests against companies producing it and, one by one, they stopped making it — except Dow, which increased production, including at its plant in Sarnia. Dow became the focus of a number of protests, articles, and letters to editors across Canada.

(Photo: warhistory.com)

            Events at the University of Toronto were a microcosm of debates raging across Canada. In November 1967, faculty members and students staged a sit-in to protest Dow’s plan to conduct job interviews on campus. Mathematics professor David Chandler wrote in Varsity, the widely-read campus paper: “As we would not invade Vietnam, we should not be a cog in a machine which is invading Vietnam.” Dow cancelled its visit.

That decision led U. of T. engineering students to rise up against the anti-war protesters, arguing that they had a right to decide for themselves who they worked for, regardless of a company’s product or customers. The Engineering Society demanded that Dow recruiters be re-invited to the university. Its action inspired other students and student groups to protest the protesters.

            After the Student Advisory Council (SAC) passed a motion condemning all Canadian companies that provided products for use in Vietnam, a 1,600-signature petition led to the resignation of SAC president Tom Faulkner. Faulkner then ran for re-election and won by over 800 votes. Dow’s recruiters did not return to the university, but its Sarnia plant continued to make napalm and sell it to the Pentagon.

Agent Orange

            From June 14th to 16th, 1966, American Army helicopters roared just over the tree tops at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, dropping a fine chemical spray. A year later, from June 21st to 24th, they did it again. They were testing a herbicide defoliant that burned the leaves from trees and shrubs. Variants of the chemical had been used by the American military in Vietnam since 1961 to rob the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, American GIs joked, “Only you can prevent forests.” The military nick-named the chemical after the colours of the bands that secured their metal containers, calling it Agent Purple, Agent White, and the most widely used, Agent Orange.

            From 1962 to 1971, approximately 19 million gallons of the stuff was spread over 10-20 percent of Vietnam and parts of Laos, destroying 12,000 square miles of jungle and forest. It also poisoned crops and water supplies. Later, scientists determined that the chemicals were 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. It was these chemicals that the Americans were testing in New Brunswick. Because they were not registered for use in Canada, the tests were illegal. But there they were – twice.

            In 1956 the Uniroyal Chemical Company had begun producing Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. It was used by Ontario Hydro to clear forest for its lines and by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to clear brush from roadsides. Beginning in 1962, barrels of Agent Orange were regularly loaded onto trains at the Elmira station and shipped to Montreal for transport to Vietnam.

            Elmira’s 7,000 citizens benefitted from the American defence contract as plant and spin off jobs boosted prosperity. They accepted the sickly-sweet smell that wafted over their homes as just part of life in the small town. They accepted without complaint that plant waste was dumped into barrels and buried nearby. What they did not know, however, was that while the herbicide they were making was killing people in Vietnam, it was also slowly killing them. Due to long-standing manufacturing and disposal practices, Agent Orange and residue from other chemicals produced in the plant slowly seeped into the local aquifer, contaminating the water supply. It would affect them long after the war ended.

            Canada’s manufacture of napalm and Agent Orange and its sale to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam raise ethical and moral questions that resonate to this day. Should we enjoy the jobs and profits of a war that the majority of its people deem immoral?

(The article is from The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War, published in April 2021 and available now at independent bookstores across Canada, and through Amazon and Chapter. If you pick it up, please let me know what you think.)

Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

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.)

Canadians Fighting in Vietnam

Rob McSorely was 17 when he quit East Vancouver’s Tempelton Secondary School, craving the action and adventure of war. His distraught parents did all they could to dissuade him but he was determined. McSorley skipped across the border to Blaine, Washington and enlisted.

            After training, he was flown to Vietnam as a proud member of the U.S. Army Ranger’s 75th Infantry, L Company, 101st Airborne Division; nicknamed the Screaming Eagles. On April 8, 1970, McSorley’s twelve-person unit was in the A Shau Valley at the Laos border. Mission Grasshopper involved infiltrating positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, reporting on Viet Cong or NVA movement, engaging if necessary, and calling for air support when needed. Most of the reconnaissance work was done through thick jungle that restricted visibility to just a yard. The Rangers were battle-tested and combat-hardened. They relied on each other like the brothers they had become. At 1:30 in the afternoon, four helicopters dropped them at the designated landing zone (LZ) just inside the Laotian border. Two of the helicopters were empty, to deceive anyone who might be watching about the group’s size.

            They immediately saw a number of NVA running down the hill, away from the LZ. Others were spotted on a hill above their position. The Rangers quickly moved to set up a secure perimeter and waited for the inevitable attack that for some reason never came. A single helicopter was called in to fake an extraction, hoping it would entice the NVA into the open.

The ploy worked. Bullets sprayed the helicopter, allowing the Rangers to spot enemy positions and return fire. The firefight quickly escalated with the NVA attacking the Rangers’ perimeter at McSorley’s position. They put their M-16s on rock’ n’ roll – firing automatic bursts – and McSorley killed two NVA and wounded more. Amidst the firing he yelled to Frank “Buff” Johnson: “Hey Buff, I feel like John Wayne!” They continued firing until, finally, the NVA withdrew. There was another quick exchange and another tense quiet.

            With less than two hours of sunlight remaining, the Rangers gathered their gear and prepared to return to the landing zone. McSorley’s closest friend in the unit was another teenager, Bruce Bowland. Bowland was to walk point, that is, lead the column through the jungle. McSorley smiled and said to his less experienced friend, “You forget who taught you to walk point?” Bowland nodded and McSorely took the perilous point position.

            The men were slowly and quietly making their way with McSorley out in front when AK-47 fire crashed in front and around them. McSorely killed three NVA but then his weapon jammed. He took three shots in the chest and shoulder and lay wounded in open ground, over 30 feet in front of the others. Gary Sands crawled out and dragged McSorley back to safety. With McSorley moaning in agony, the firefight continued. Within fifteen minutes he was dead. It was just two weeks past his nineteenth birthday.

            Days later, the doorbell rang at McSorley’s Vancouver home. A hand-delivered telegram brought the news. McSorley’s parents were shattered. It was the wrong order. Children should not die before their parents. Time saw their grief and isolation grow for no one they knew shared their experience of losing a child while fighting in a foreign uniform in a foreign land in an unpopular war.

Rob McSorley (Photo: VVMF)

Rob McSorley’s name is carved into the reflective black granite of Washington’s Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial. Difficulty in defining exactly who is Canadian allows us only to estimate that between 79 and 160 other Canadians share that honour. Canadian visitors remember them by visiting the wall and completing paper and charcoal rubbings, and leaving flags, roses, and tears.

            It has been estimated that between 12,000 and 40,000 Canadians enlisted in the American armed services and fought in the Vietnam War. Some, like McSorley, went for the adventure, some to fight communism, and others because of a sense of duty, having grown up knowing that nearly every man they knew was a veteran. While many died, all suffered. Many returned home as physically and emotionally damaged as their American comrades but to a country that either didn’t know they had fought or had been crazy for having done so.

            The Vietnam War stole many Canadian lives and continues to affect thousands of others. Canadian Vietnam War veteran Doug Carey, who lives outside Ottawa, speaks of being among those who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He can still never play a round of golf without scanning the trees for danger. The stories of Canadians who donned an American uniform to fight are just one part of the larger story of how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was forever changed by it.

(Doug Carey’s story and that of others that fought 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.)

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Joe Erickson and the New Underground Railroad

Joe had a decision to make. It was 1968. He was married and a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. As required by law, he had registered with the United States Selective Service System. The Vietnam War was escalating. Joe and Mary agreed that he would not fight in a war which they believed was morally wrong. He could portray himself as a conscientious objector but that would be a lie. He could go to prison. But there was a third option. After many long and difficult discussions, he and Mary decided that they would escape to Canada.

            In March, Joe and Mary packed what little they had into their old Chevy and drove north. They watched with great relief as the Canadian border agent stamped their forms and wished them luck. Hours later, with the sun setting, they pulled into Winnipeg; a city in which neither knew a soul. Joe had become a thief, having stolen government property by depriving the state of his body.

(Photo credit unknown)

            Joe had joined an army of those rejecting the army. Many moved to rural and remote areas, living alone or in small groups of resister enclaves while others formed communes. Most though, settled in cities and most of them, like Joe after a couple of years, ended up in or near Toronto.

            Many war resisters, like Joe and Mary, made the trek and settled on their own. Thousands of others were helped by resister organizations. Canada’s most influential resister support group was formed at the University of Toronto in 1964 as The Student Union for Peace Action. The ongoing waves of resisters shifted its focus from protesting nuclear proliferation to helping young Americans to settle and find work. In 1966 it became the Toronto Anti-Draft Program.

            Many resisters found that adjustment to Canadian life led to heartaches, regret, and, for some, clinical depression. Some experience trivial problems akin to the discomforts felt by American tourists discovering that corner stores didn’t sell Marlboro cigarettes or beer. Resister Jack Todd later wrote that his compatriots initially assumed that Vancouver’s overall quiet, gentleness, and politeness were insincere but that they learned to accept and enjoy it. They adopted Canadian idiosyncrasies such as celebrating Thanksgiving in October and adding the letter ‘u’ to words like colour and neighbour. They agreed, though, that it would be time to leave if they ever fell into the Canadian habit of ending sentences with “eh?”.

Resisting the Resisters

While many Canadians, especially church groups, welcomed the resisters, others did not. A 1968 poll indicated that 58% of Canadians believed war resisters should not be allowed into the country. Many Canadians saw them as even more dangerous than the growing number of long-haired young people with odd clothes and annoying music because they were outsiders. Like so many of the rebellious children, the appearance, actions, and very presence of these hordes of young Americans seemed to be tearing down the old while offering nothing new.

            Toronto Mayor William Dennison spoke for many when he said in 1968, “A few hippies and deserters are Toronto’s only problem.” Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell said on CBC TV: “We’ve got a scum community, that have organized, have decided to grow long hair, and decided to pretend to be hippies…Half of them are American draft dodgers who won’t even fight for their own country.”

            The number of draft dodgers and deserters who settled in Canada has been estimated at between 40,000 to 60,000. When, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty, American film crews rushed to the border to film the mass exodus back home. They were disappointed. Some returned. Most, however, like Joe Erickson, were already home.

            Joe and a friend had formed a company specializing in the restoration of pre-Confederation rural historic buildings. Joe and Mary split but he found love again. He eventually settled on a southern Ontario farm where he renewed his love of theatre and horses. Like the thousands of others, he was changed by Canada and, in turn, the massive influx of so many predominantly well-educated young people had changed Canada. They had forced Canadians to consider who they were and who they wished to be.

            In September 2012, Joe was at the American border on the way to a high school reunion. The guard looked at Joe’s Canadian passport and frowned. Joe was in his 60s and the 60s was seeking revenge. Joe was about to experience the shock of his life.

(Erickson’s story and that of the war resisters 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.)

The One-Woman Army

Admirers called Claire Culhane the One-Woman Army. In May 1967, the 48-year-old hospital administrator read an article about a tuberculosis hospital being built by Canadians in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Quảng Ngãi. She was so moved that she signed on with external affairs and within weeks she was there, right in the middle of the Vietnam War.

            The small Canadian hospital, run by Canadians, saw 150 patients a day. Those suffering from the area’s TB epidemic were treated along with victims of the war, many wounded by American bombers. Most were women and children, weak with malnutrition and ghastly wounds. Culhane and the Canadians worked tortuous hours with their lives always at risk. They were evacuated during 1968’s Tet Offensive but were soon back; the hospital now a fortress.

            Culhane respected the hospital’s first director but his replacement was officious and cleared the hospital of all non-TB patients. She was angered upon discovering that he regularly gave copies of her meticulous patient records to the CIA. Its agents used them as part of its counterinsurgency program that saw teams descend on villages to interrogate male adults and kidnap, torture, or kill those suspected of hiding information or being Viet Cong.

            It was the last straw for Culhane. Six months into her one-year assignment, she left. Upon her arrival back in Canada she met with external affairs officials and wrote a detailed report of all she had seen and learned. She was ignored. But she persisted.

(Photo by Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

            With help from Canada’s only national anti-war organization, the Voice of Women, she trained a searchlight on Canada’s secret involvement in the Vietnam War. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, letters to politicians, and speeches delivered across the country she addressed the twisted irony of the Quảng Ngãi hospital helping a few while Canada was complicit in the death of thousands.

            Culhane explained that Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, were producing and selling 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. The war boosted by 54%, Canadian exports to the USA of oil, aluminum, and ores. For example, the majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            In September 1968, Culhane drew international media attention with a ten-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Among the politicians who stopped by to chat was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s powerful minister of citizenship and immigration Jean Marchand. They were soon in a heated debate. Marchand snapped: “Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 workers that they’re out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the U.S.A. under the defence contracts we hold with them?” Marchand had expressed the essence of the national conversation.

            On the fast’s last day, Trudeau invited Culhane to his office. As the prime minister left their brief meeting he whispered, “You have no idea the pressure I am under.” Culhane replied: “Why do you think I spent ten days out there, if not trying to bring on another set of pressures?”

            Culhane represented Canada’s anti-war efforts at a conference in Stockholm. In France, she met two North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks. In Britain, she was feted by the London press. Back home, she earned national attention by chaining herself to a House of Commons gallery chair and tossing leaflets on the unsuspecting parliamentarians below.

            On Christmas Eve 1969, Culhane established a camp at a church near Parliament Hill and told reporters that she would endure the sub-zero temperatures to bring attention to Canada’s complicity in the war. Trudeau came by in his limo and cracked the window a little but they only spoke past each other for a moment.

            Culhane refocussed her efforts on Canada’s involvement in the research, development, and sale of chemical weapons used in Vietnam. She spoke of helping to treat napalm victims at the Quảng Ngãi hospital who were wrapped so tightly in Vaseline and gauze that she could not tell if they were men or women, alive or dead. She spoke of napalm-doused children dying slow and agonizing deaths. Culhane explained that napalm was among the chemical agents manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam.

            Another was Agent Orange. It was a defoliant sprayed by planes to clear jungle to better attack the enemy. The problem was that exposure caused cancers and genetic damage resulting in terribly ill or disfigured children. Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario and shipped to Vietnam.

            Culhane did not stop until the war stopped. She forced Canadians to admit their involvement in the Vietnam War. She forced a reckoning by asking the difficult question of whether it is immoral to profit from an immoral war.

(Culhane’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.)

The Canadian Who Could Have Stopped the Vietnam War

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.)

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.)

An Old Image and New Inspiration

A photograph can change our mind. It can change a lot of minds.

Let’s consider an example. In January 1968, the United States had been actively engaged in the Vietnam War for three and a half years. (Canada was involved too but that story is for another day.) Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one day, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas captured all or most of every South Vietnamese city. In an action that took only five seconds, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, casually approached a Viet Cong suspect who was being held on the street. Loan fired his pistol into the suspect’s right temple, killing him instantly.

Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of the bullet’s impact. The photograph appeared on television and in newspapers around the world and across America. It changed minds. Subsequent polls indicated a significant uptick in Americans opposing the war. Within months, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term and all presidential candidates campaigned on ending the war.

Many other photographs have had similar effects. I am betting you can easily picture the lone protester standing before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the determined look on Terry Fox with the Trans-Canada Highway stretching forever behind him, and the red fireball of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. They touched our hearts and changed our minds. But there is one in particular that affected us then and that we need again to weave its magic.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders peered out a small hatch window as his Apollo 8 spacecraft was beginning its fourth of ten orbits around the moon. He was gobsmacked. Grabbing his Hasselblad camera, Anders floated weightlessly to another window for a better view and snapped an image of the earth rising over the moon’s gray wasteland, reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue against the blackness of space.

(Photo: NASA)

NASA released the photograph on December 30. It was placed on a stamp and was seen in newspapers and magazines. The year had been horrendous. Americans had endured more of their children returning dead or damaged from a war in which fewer believed, a presidential election that had seen more of their children beaten by Chicago police, race riots that had set cities ablaze, and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. Canadians suffered widening generational, gender, and racial divisions, bombs killing innocents in Quebec, and domestic terrorists throwing rocks at their prime minister. Tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia and tear gas scattered protesters in Paris, London, and Berlin.

And then, for a moment, with that terrible year in which it looked like the centre would not hold nearly over, everyone paused before the power of the picture of the little blue ball in space. The earth hung there without the invisible borderlines for which so many lives had been sacrificed. For a moment, it looked like we were not divided by nationhood, race, gender, religion, or the many other social constructs invented to define us and others. It looked like we were one. The picture also spurred the nascent environment movement, informed by the revolutionary concept that we are one people on one planet. Anders said that like millions of others the photograph made him realize, “This is the only home we have and yet we are busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests.”

If the year 1968 was terrible, 2020 is worse. But in tragedy there is hope. Maybe the global pandemic urges us to recall what the photograph had to say so many years ago – we are all in this together. The vaccines are here but none of us will be safe until all of us are safe – all of us; everywhere. Perhaps the photograph asks us to consider that while each country must commit to combatting climate change that none will be successful until we all are successful. Further, as we emerge from our isolation and all the stores reopen, maybe the photograph will remind us that we make and buy too much unnecessary stuff because it eventually all ends up getting thrown away and there really is no away.

The pandemic, climate change, and rampant, empty consumerism remind us that mother nature is always the last at bat. And even scarier is that mother earth does not need saving. If we fall to another pandemic, ignore the changing climate, and succumb to shopping as a leisure activity to fill holes in our souls then the earth will be just fine. We, of course, will be gone – victims of our greed and stupidity; our refusal to read obvious signs; and our stubborn refusal to heed the potent message of William Anders’ photograph.

Let’s look at the picture again. Let’s really look at it this time. Hopefully, with so much at stake and a better future to be forged from the current madness we’ll not just see it but hear it.

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