Forty-five years after the fall of Saigon, John Boyko brings to light the little-known story of Canada's involvement in the American War in Vietnam.
Through the lens of six remarkable people, some well-known, others obscure, bestselling historian John Boyko recounts Canada's often-overlooked involvement in that conflict as peacemaker, combatant, and provider of weapons and sanctuary.
When Brigadier General Sherwood Lett arrived in Vietnam over a decade before American troops, he and the Canadians under his command risked their lives trying to enforce an unstable peace while questioning whether they were merely handmaidens to a new war. As American battleships steamed across the Pacific, Canadian diplomat Blair Seaborn was meeting secretly in Hanoi with North Vietnam’s prime minister; if American leaders accepted his roadmap to peace, those ships could be turned around before war began. Claire Culhane worked in a Canadian hospital in Vietnam and then returned home to implore Canadians to stop supporting what she deemed an immoral war. Joe Erickson was among 30,000 young Americans who changed Canada by evading the draft and heading north; Doug Carey was one of the 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the American forces to serve in Vietnam. Rebecca Trinh fled Saigon with her husband and young daughters, joining the waves of desperate Indochinese refugees, thousands of whom were to forge new lives in Canada.
Through these wide-ranging and fascinating accounts, Boyko exposes what he calls the Devil’s wiliest trick: convincing leaders that war is desirable, persuading the public that it is acceptable, and telling combatants that the deeds they carry out and the horrors they experience are normal, or at least necessary. In uncovering Canada’s side of the story, Boyko reveals the many secret and forgotten ways that Canada not only fought the war but was forever shaped by its lessons and lies.
About the author
John Boyko has earned degrees from McMaster, Queen's, and Trent universities. Bennett is his fourth book addressing Canadian history and politics. Reviews of this biography of Bennett, praise him for his "encyclopaedic knowledge of Canadian history," his "engaging style," and his ability to "make the most arid political debate interesting." He has written a bi-weekly newspaper column and a number of op. ed. articles, has spoken throughout the country, and appeared on regional and national radio and television programs. He has been elected to municipal council and served on a number of boards. John Boyko is also an educator. He is the Director of Entrepreneurial Programs and Northcote Campus at Lakefield College School. He lives in Lakefield, Ontario.
Excerpt: The Devil's Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War (by (author) John Boyko)
STORIES THAT MATTER
War is about sending our children to kill theirs. The devil’s trick is convincing leaders that war is desirable, the rest of us that it’s acceptable, and combatants that everything they are doing and seeing is normal or, at least, necessary.
Canada has always been a warrior state. It has fought or involved itself in war proudly, often reluctantly, and sometimes covertly. Some wars were noble pursuits and others just good business. Sometimes forgotten, and even at the time widely denied, is that among Canada’s wars was the Vietnam War, the slow-motion tragedy that revealed the devil’s trick at its wiliest.
There were Canadians in Vietnam fighting and dying in American uniforms; others were working in Canadian-run hospitals; and there were Canadian diplomats in Vietnam who tried to stop the war before it began, and then monitored its carnage. There were Canadian weapons in Vietnamese cities, villages, and jungles and falling from the sky. Back home, young Americans flooded north to escape the war, while Canadians were taking to the streets to urge lawmakers to stop it, or at least end Canada’s involvement. When the guns finally fell silent, if only for a while, more Canadian diplomats headed to Vietnam. Soon, thousands of desperate refugees fled postwar madness, many finding sanctuary in Canada. The war changed everything and everyone it touched. The war changed Canadians. It changed Canada.
One cannot fully comprehend the Vietnam War without understanding Canada’s role in it. One cannot fully understand Canada or the United States without considering the war’s lies and lessons. We deserve the truth, and we need the lessons, because the Vietnam War still echoes in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we are not, and who we aspire to be.
We must begin by placing the war in its time. First, the war’s American phase and Canada’s involvement, from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, occurred during a period of sweeping changes in Canada and the United States that challenged all that had been considered certain. A generation that had suffered the Depression and fought the Second World War and were finally enjoying peace and prosperity, were being confronted by attacks on unspoken rules. Those in defiance of all that was thought proper presented discomforting questions about who should be in charge and who should know their place; whether more people should share the benefits of good times; and even the relevance of material comfort. The Civil Rights and burgeoning Indigenous Rights movements were forcing re-evaluations of original sins. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution saw bombs killing innocents amid demands for Canada’s splintering or, at a minimum, a fundamental redefinition of nationhood. A youth quake, reflected in music, fashion, art, and attitude, and fuelled by the raw clout of baby-boom numbers was redefining social norms. The Women’s Movement’s Second Wave and the licence afforded by the newly invented birth control pill were slowly spurring changes from bedrooms to boardrooms.
As the war progressed through the sixties, its brutality was seen every night on the widely watched Canadian and American television evening news programs —along with police dogs ripping flesh, night sticks cracking heads, radicals throwing rocks at the prime minister, fires consuming buildings, the public murders of progressive leaders, protests in universities, and young men burning draft cards.
Within the broad context of so much challenge and change, the war united some families and divided others. It unified the movements and linked individuals in the streets with those privately hoping for change. In Canada and the United States, Vietnam became a symbol for all that was wrong and needed to be fixed or torn down. Until late in the war, Canadian and American political leaders and the business and media elites who supported it seemed wedded to the status quo. The power structures they represented became the ramparts to be breached by those wanting to replace the old with the new. Communities split as the elites drew support from those who felt that anti-war beliefs, the various movements, and all those long-haired kids were unpatriotic and dangerous.
Second, we must contextualize the war by recalling that it was part of the larger Cold War. In the Second World War the liberal West joined the communist Soviet Union to defeat the fascist Nazis. Even before Hitler shot out what was left of his brains, however, the alliance was crumbling. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union planned a postwar world with Soviets and Americans struggling for global dominance. With the war’s end, guns and money were sent to the competing sides in every nationalist movement, civil war, and crooked election. In August 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. The West appeared to be no longer safe. Just two months later, a decades-long revolution ended with the formation of a communist government in China. The West appeared to be no longer winning.
In 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a young clerk working in Ottawa’s Soviet embassy, had defected and revealed there were communist spies operating in Western countries. In February 1950, American senator Joseph McCarthy began insisting that communists had infiltrated unions, the government, the military, and Hollywood. People were encouraged to see “reds” under every bed and to choose to be dead rather than red. Four months later, communist North Korea invaded the non-communist South, and Canada joined the American-led coalition to push it back. Meanwhile, books, comics, and movies told of alien invasions as tremendously popular cowboy movies and television shows spoke of taming frontiers— but they were all really about battling communists. Three strings of radar lines across Canada’s north watched for incoming Soviet bombers. Communities practised air raid drills, families built fallout shelters, and teachers taught children to hide under their desks in the faint hope that the thin bit of plywood would protect them from a nuclear onslaught.
The “Red Scare” led most Americans and Canadians to support more of their tax money being diverted to defence and more of their personal freedoms being ignored to weed out subversives. For a while, it also led a majority of Canadians and Americans to support the fighting of communists in Vietnam as parents tucked their children into bed each night knowing that either by design or accident, nuclear annihilation could be visited upon them before breakfast.
Finally, we must also consider the war from the Vietnamese perspective. The war’s roots can be traced back to 111 BCE, when an ethnic group called the Viet was conquered by China, leading to a centuries-long struggle for independence. In the 1600s Portuguese and then French missionaries began converting the region’s people to Christianity. In 1857 French ships arrived to support priests who were being mistreated by locals. Attacks on those ships led to an invasion and by 1897 the creation of French Indochina, composed of what later became Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Vietnamese nationalists attacked the French colonizers as they had the Chinese.
Ho Chi Minh was among a group of outspoken nationalists deported by the French in 1911. Ho’s thirty-year exile took him around the world, even to the United States, where he lived for a while in Boston and New York City. Ho was in Paris when world leaders assembled at Versailles to settle the recently ended First World War. American president Woodrow Wilson was promoting self-determination as a guiding principle of the postwar world, and Ho wrote to him asking that it be applied to Vietnam by having the French leave and his people granted self-rule. Wilson either did not see or ignored the plea. With America’s blessing, the French kept their colony. Ho travelled to the Soviet Union and China, where he studied, spoke, and wrote of the yoke of colonialism —and communism as a means to end it.
In September 1940, with France distracted by its defeat by Hitler, Japan took Vietnam as part of its territorial expansion. Four months later, by then in his mid-fifties, malarial, and frightfully thin, Ho returned home, with five comrades. It was at this time that he adopted the latest of several aliases —Ho Chi Minh, meaning “He Who Enlightens.” In May 1941 his small group merged with other nationalists to become the League for the Independence of Vietnam, the Vietminh. It was soon carrying out guerrilla actions against the Japanese. Ho contacted agents of America’s Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, which supplied him with weapons and support. He worked briefly with OSS officer Lieutenant Colonel Paul Dewey, who in September 1945 was killed in an ambush, America’s first Vietnam casualty.
With the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, Ho seized the moment, oversaw the abdication and exile of the puppet emperor Bao Dai and, on September 2, 1945, declared Vietnam a unified, independent state with himself as president. Before a cheering crowd at Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square, he began his speech by quoting Thomas Jefferson in espousing the idea that he pledged would guide Vietnam’s new government: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Weeks later, with the support of British troops and the tacit backing of American president Harry Truman, France overthrew Ho’s government and re-established its Indochinese colony. Ho negotiated with the French and some agreements were signed but, when it became clear that France would never allow genuine self-rule, Ho ignited a new guerilla war to win back his country. Understanding the power of Cold War alliances, he declared himself a communist and won Chinese and Soviet support.
In 1946 the United States gave $160 million to help the French in Indochina. In 1950, while also fighting in Korea, Truman declared that the United States would not allow the Vietminh to take Vietnam, arguing that its fall would eventually result in the entire region becoming communist. The first American Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived in Vietnam in September with money, advisors, and weapons to augment French forces.
The conflict had thereby become a Vietnamese civil war, a nationalist war of liberation, a European colonial war, and a Cold War proxy war. By the end of 1952 the United States had sent $1 billion to support French efforts. Its funding rose annually, so that by 1953 it was paying 80 percent of the war’s escalating cost. Meanwhile, with 100,000 French troops in Vietnam and already having suffered over 50,000 casualties, the French peoples’ patience for the war was evaporating. And then came the turning point.
French general Henri Navarre had created a French fortress in a long, narrow valley in northwest Vietnam. Fifteen thousand young men dug in. The brilliant Vietminh general Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the handful of exiled nationalists who had returned to Vietnam with Ho back in 1941, moved fifty thousand troops to the surrounding hills. On March 13, 1954, his artillery began pounding the French at Dien Bien Phu.
The battle captured the world’s attention and certainly that of American president Dwight Eisenhower, who had publicly spoken of the danger of Vietnam becoming communist lest surrounding countries fell like dominos. Eisenhower was urged by the French and his own advisors to send help. His generals asked him to consider a nuclear strike. The president said no.
The nations involved in the recently suspended Korean War and the ongoing Indochinese War had agreed to meet in Geneva to settle both. On May 8, 1954, just as delegates were taking their places at the first plenary session, they received the startling news that the French had surrendered at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Conference, focused by the French defeat, led directly to Canada’s involvement in what became the war’s next phase.
In the pages that follow, six Canadians will act as our guides with their experiences leading us through the story of Canada’s Vietnam War. First is Canadian brigadier general Sherwood Lett, a decorated veteran of two world wars, who led the Canadian delegation that arrived in Vietnam shortly after the Geneva Conference, a decade before the landing of American troops. Lett and the Canadians risked their lives enforcing an unstable peace while wondering if they were stopping a war or merely acting as American lackeys and midwives to a new one.
With American battleships steaming across the Pacific, respected Canadian diplomat Blair Seaborn spirited himself to Hanoi for a clandestine meeting with North Vietnam’s prime minister. His top-secret reports presented Washington with a road map to peace with honour. If Seaborn could convince the Americans to see the vision of the future he was so clearly providing, those ships could turn around and the war could be stopped before it began.
Claire Culhane worked in a Canadian hospital in Vietnam. But, enraged by what she was seeing, she returned home ahead of schedule. Culhane confronted Canadians with the lies they were being told and all they were choosing to ignore about complicity with the CIA and arms sales to the Americans. She implored Canadians and their leaders to consider the morality of supporting what she declared an immoral war.
Joe Erickson was among the thirty thousand young Americans who evaded the war by heading north. Many Canadians welcomed or ignored the war resisters, while others smeared them as cowards, traitors, or part of the youth rebellion that threatened values they held dear. Canada commemorated its 100th birthday in 1967 with a world’s fair and a fresh wave of patriotism, while debates about immigration and the invasion of the un-American Americans such as Erickson forced them to consider exactly what they were celebrating.
Doug Carey was among the twenty thousand Canadians who headed the other way to fight in the war that so many his age were protesting against or fleeing. Carey and his fellow Canadians suffered the horrors of jungle warfare. Many died. Those who survived endured the long and dreadful struggles of emotional and physical recovery.
Rebecca Trinh and her family lived in a comfortable Saigon neighbourhood but, when the Americans left Vietnam and the communists took power, the family ran out of choices. They needed to run and risk their lives to save their lives. The Canadian government partnered with faith-based groups, grass-roots organizations, and passionate individuals in welcoming waves of desperate Indochinese refugees —even as some Canadians called for the door to be locked shut.
The stories of our six guides are not biographies but invitations. They urge us to consider the stories of many others who, together, tell us how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was changed by it. They remind us that as lives are shaped in great swirls of historical change, a nation’s grand story is written.
PRAISE FOR THE DEVIL'S TRICK
“Among the wealth of Vietnam War analysis, John Boyko’s The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War deserves a respected place. . . . This book has many strengths. And, if a Canadian historian, reporter, Asia watcher, or diplomat in training ever needed a primer on placing the war in its time, Boyko’s first thousand words do the trick.” —Ted Barris, Canada’s History
“[A] compelling study. . . . John Boyko is an impressive historian with seven well-received books to his credit. . . . [A]mbitious and far-reaching . . . [The Devil’s Trick] skillfully unfolds a complex narrative. . . . I came away not only impressed by the power of the narratives he creates but by his sensitive handling of issues that continue to affect us. . . . [A] powerful, thought-provoking book.” —The Peterborough Examiner
“In his trademark style, Boyko delivers another fast-paced narrative, exploring Canada’s contentious and contested involvement in the Vietnam War. . . . In this revealing book, Boyko lays bare the lies and lessons of a foreign war that bled into Canadian society, and which still remain relevant.” —Tim Cook, author of The Fight for History
PRAISE FOR COLD FIRE
“[E]ngaging. . . . Cold Fire is a well-researched political page-turner featuring penetrating portraits of the key players, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, and backbiting comments. Boyko also shows, as others have, that in the most anxious days of the Cold War, Canada was one of America’s most trusted allies, yet Canadian leaders could not be pushed around or taken for granted.” —Allan Levine, Maclean’s
“Boyko’s detail and fluid storytelling make some of what is now ancient history come alive. . . . This book pumps life into the people and times and is an object lesson for current politicians, diplomats and followers of the news. And it busts myths.” —Allan Bonner, author of Political Conventions, Troy Media
“Clearly, Boyko has done his homework. Heavily footnoted and brimming with quotes from primary sources (talking both on and off the record), Cold Fire ably recreates the tense and dangerous era of the early 1960s. Conversational accounts offer a compelling fly-on-the-wall viewpoint. . . . There are also a few bombshells, as well as some refreshingly assertive analysis. . . . Cold Fire illustrates a crucially important pivot point in Canadian politics—and makes for a great cautionary tale.” —The Georgia Straight
Other titles by John Boyko
Sir John's Echo
The Voice for a Stronger Canada
Kennedy's Northern Front
Blood and Daring
How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation
The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation
Into the Hurricane
Attacking Socialism and the CCF
Last Steps To Freedom
The Evolution of Canadian Racism