Canada’s Role in the Vietnam War

2043 words | 6 page(s)

In Canada, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) has been chiefly remembered as one of the episodes in the domestic politics full of riots, protests, and dissent. Politically, it has also been remembered as a particularly unfortunate period in the relations between Canada and the United States (Bothwell, 2011). On the one hand, the war was a political issue, but on the other hand it was a public matter. Indeed, during the years of war, the public dimension grew unbelievably important. Even though the public tolerated Canada’s support of the United States in the first half of the war and shared the romantic image of Canada’s chivalrous role in settling down the conflict, it drastically changed its position in the second part of Canada’s involvement in Vietnam.

The public made Canada’s “quiet diplomacy” lose to the force of the country’s aroused and extremely irritable public opinion (Bothwell, 2001). In the end, there was no other policy choice for Canadian politicians but surrender to the loud demands of numerous Canadians. MAIN CLAIM: Canada played a controversial role in the Vietnam War as its political elites unofficially supported the war and its diplomats failed to meaningfully contribute to the functioning of ICC whereas its public promoted the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam through wide protests, support of U.S. dodgers, and angry publications in the media.

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Evidence: Canada in Vietnam
Canada’s involvement in Vietnam started in July 1954 when the Geneva Accords were signed. That summer, Canada along with Poland and India, was selected for membership on ICC (the International Control Commission), based on the proposal of the states meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. It needs to be said here that the Geneva Accords guaranteed that “the sovereignty, the independence, the unity and the territorial integrity” of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos had to be supervised by three international commissions, with one ICC unit for each of these nations (Van Es, 1995, p.7). As a member of ICC, Canada was involved in the following tasks: inspecting bureaucratic facilities (e.g. elections in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) to see if the tasks were completed; checking migration options; release of prisoners of war as well as civilian internees after the preceding war between the Vietnamese nationalists and France; supervision of military withdrawal; and allocating supplies both to the military and to the civilians (Van Es, 1995).

Next, Canada was involved in the war indirectly through selling arms and goods to the United States. Throughout the war, the arms producers in Canada sold enormous stocks of army equipment either as units or as parts of U.S. equipment. It was estimated that “sales reached an all-time high of 441.2 million dollars in 1967 when United States purchases of war materials …. were at their frenzied peak …” (Van Es, 1995, p.8) There is lots of evidence that even though the country was “officially non-belligerent,” the government of Canada assisted the U.S. by providing the services of military intelligence, technical assistance, medical equipment, and devastating chemical substances. For example, the documentary directed by Andy Blicq Vietnam: Canada’s Shadowy Role states that intelligence was provided by Canada to the U.S. by way of UN representatives, who secretly delivered information about the forces of the enemy. In the meantime, as Blicq found out, the industry of Canada sold $2-billion worth of various supplies, including military hardware, airplanes, and green berets, to the United States (The Canadian Press, 2015). Moreover, Blicq established that Canada was involved by supplying Agent Orange to the military forces of the United States, produced at Uniroyal Chemical plant located in Elmira, Ontario. It turns out that as many as 75 million liters of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used for plant devastation but having horrible long-lasting effects, got then sprayed all over the zone of military conflict in Vietnam with the aim to strip away any vegetation where the opposing forces could hide.

If to examine the direct ways in which Canada was involved in the war, one will find evidence of Canadians’ direct participation in the conflict. There is abundant evidence suggesting that Canadians fought in Vietnam by enlisting with the U.S. armed forces. In particular, it was estimated that around 40,000 Canadians fought in the Vietnam War in support of their American counterparts (Van Es, 1995). While the Canadian government did not send its troops to Vietnam and passed legislation that stated it was illegal, it did not prosecute those who volunteered to join the U.S. military by signing up. Those people simply went south of the U.S.-Canadian border. Ray Heimes, the Vietnam War veteran now living in Detroit, says in his interview to Citizen: “A lot of the guys in our unit were Canadians. They just came across the border and got a post office box or used a buddy’s address and joined up” (Clarke, 2012). Heimes, aged 69, shares that many signed up because there wasn’t any other war at that time and those people desired to follow in their relatives’ footsteps with regard to serving in the military in order to “keep up the tradition.” According to the veteran, “The attraction was you got to see the world, you got a trade out of it, and they paid you, and in the ’60s it was a little hard to find a job” (Clarke, 2012).

Finally, Canada was involved in the conflict by its protest movement and provision of safe haven for U.S. draft dodgers. In particular, the protest movement united Canadians and U.S. refugees in major cities and became the national phenomenon. Researchers state that it was a movement that demonstrated Canada’s solidarity with the people of Vietnam and Canada’s sympathy with U.S. public leading the international effort to bring the war to an end. At the same time, the movement criticized the role of the country as the supplier of arms, intelligence gatherer, and cheerleader of America’s role, at least at the early stages of the conflict. The examples of slogans were “End Canadian Complicity” and “Withdraw U.S. Troops Now” (Powell, 2010, p.476).

Patterns and Change
Van Es (1995) classified the patterns of change in the domestic political consensus over the course of Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Specifically, 1954-1955 was the period of a liberal-moderate consensus, when Canada’s participation in ICC was proactive and the political elites were prepared to report the violations of the Geneva Accords with regard to both parties – the U.S. and North Vietnam. Next, 1956-1964 was the period labeled as conservative consensus. It was at that time that the political elites unanimously supported the U.S. and its military actions in Vietnam. The support stemmed from the observations of perceived expansion of communism. Further, in 1965-1967, the political stance in Canada returned to the liberal-moderate consensus, when Canadians politicians started to engage in discussion of the sincerity of the peace-making attempts of the U.S., criticize certain military initiatives of the U.S. army, and express skepticism as to the ability of America to find a peaceful solution. Next, in 1968-1972, the political stance was marked as conservative ideological containment. Trudeau refused to publicly criticize the U.S. military actions in Vietnam. That constraint on the public criticism by officials went in line with escalated public protests. Finally, in 1973, when the political consensus about the conflict “had come the full circle,” liberal-moderate conservatism prevailed. It was the time when everyone in Canada agreed that the war had been lost and the U.S. had to withdraw its troops (Van Es, 1995, p.51).

Cause and Effect
The connections between the roles played by Canada and certain outcomes in the war can be traced. Specifically, Canada’s complicity in the first half of the war, based on misrepresenting Canada’s support of the U.S. to the public as an act of honor, led to the international legitimization of the U.S. intrusion. Its supplies helped run the war, including human capital. Besides, its weak role in ICC led to the escalation of the tension between the opposing sides in Vietnam. At the same time, Canada’s active position with regard to public protests, providing safe haven to draft dodgers fleeing from the U.S., and increasing instances of frank media coverage, at least at the second part of the war, contributed to the end of the government’s public support of the United States. Powell (2010, p.476) says that by the end of the Vietnam War, although failing to ever oppose the U.S. intervention in the Southeast Asia in public, Canadian political elites “had at least learned to keep […] mouth shut” and, in this way, deprived their U.S. allies of international legitimacy, which was badly needed at the time. In addition, learning from its diplomatic failures as a member of ICC over the course of the war and the public opinion condemning its role as “a submissive errand boy” of the U.S. leaders, Canada was able to adopt a new international role with regard to security issues in the region of Southeast Asia – the role of “system supporter” (Simpson, 2002, p.46). It resulted in attempts to admit the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and increase its diplomatic recognition; in enhanced role of ICC following the war; and, in general, in encouraging stability and peace across the region contrary to the desires of the U.S (Simpson, 2002).

Judgments & Perspectives
Many Canadians have been ashamed of their country’s quite complicity. Others have been proud of Canada’s peace movement, its warm acceptance of draft dodgers from the United States, and its post-war acceptance of as many as 69, 000 refugees from Indochina in 1975-1980. Those refugees were known as boat people because they crossed the ocean in very small and overcrowded ships. Still others have condemned the Canadian government’s silencing of Canadian citizens’ casualties and role in the Vietnam War over a long time period. Indeed, the official recognition of the veterans’ contribution to the war came only in 1995, when they were given full membership privileges by the Royal Canadian Legion and when the memorial was constructed in Windsor, Ontario (Clarke, 2012).

Among scholars, different viewpoints and biases have been evident. Whereas the majority agree on the adverse historical role of Canada’s weak ICC membership, its politicians’ secret alliances with the U.S., Canada’s financial and equipment support, and extensive media manipulations aimed at misrepresenting the war, others cheer the ICC efforts of Canada as the country’s first international experience of the sort and argue that Canada could not have prevented the war outbreak by ICC participation (Powell, 2010; Simpson, 2002; Van Es, 1995). All, however, agree that Canada has made a positive contribution through its public protests, fair media coverage in the second half of the period, and acceptance of dodgers (Powell, 2010; Hagan, 2002; Van Es, 1995).

This paper provides evidence of the controversial role played by Canada in the Vietnam War. While the political elites’ actions cast a shadow as to Canada’s international role as “a submissive errand boy” in those years, the contribution made by the Canadian general public clearly outweighs the errors and complicity of Canada’s officials. In the end, the public will view Canada’s experience in the war as something that helped define Canada as a nation that is politically capable to resist the United States’ hegemony; as something that touched thousands of Canadians and helped them step on the path of civil activism and anti-war sentiments.

  • Bothwell, R. (2001). The further shore: Canada and Vietnam [1954 to 1965]. International Journal, 56 (1), 89-105.
  • Clarke, T. (2012). Canada played active role in Vietnam War. Citizen. Retrieved from http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/news/local-news/canada-played-active-role-in-vietnam-war-1.1030949.
  • Hagan, J. (2002). Class and crime in war time: Lessons of the American Vietnam War resistance in Canada. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 37 (2), 137-162.
  • Powell, C. (2010). ‘Vietnam: It’s Our War Too:’ The antiwar movement in Canada: 1963-1975. Unpublished PhD thesis. The University of New Brunswick.
  • Simpson, K. (2002). Pacific paradox: Canadian foreign policy in Vietnam, Korea, and the People’s Republic of China in 1947-1970. Unpublished PhD thesis. York University, Ontario.
  • The Canadian Press (2015). Film outlines Canada’s role in Vietnam War. Times Colonist. Retrieved from http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/television/film-outlines-canada-s-role-in-vietnam-war-1.1804991.
  • Van Es, R. (1995). Canadian “chivalry” in Vietnam: The press coverage. Unpublished PhD thesis. McMaster University.

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