OUR MAN IN SAIGON
While two giants, the United States and China, wrestle —if unofficially —across the killing grounds of Vietnam, a 41-year-old Canadian,
James Blair Seaborn, moves quietly behind both fronts in a frustrating, vital search for a formula for peace... First in a series of reports on our troubleshooters in the world’s hot spots story begins overleaf
A MID ALL THE brutal violence, the harsh insulting language and the shrill cacophony of war which makes Vietnam the most explosive trouble spot on earth, a man you have probably forgotten (if you had ever heard of him) is officially charged with keeping the peace.
He is our man in Saigon, a slight, bespectacled. and deceptively bookish-looking Canadian civil servant from Toronto named James Blair Seaborn.
He lives in this tense, frenetic city, the southern terminal of the most crucial undeclared war in history, the focal point of what could become the most total war of all time. He
is, in this nightmare environment, still vainly attempting to do what he came here to do nearly eighteen months ago — maintain a paper peace between North and South Vietnam, whose once-furtive hostilities now involve semi-confrontation between Red China (and a lukewarm Russia) on the one side, and the United States (backed by somewhat reluctant allies) on the other.
His official title is Canadian Commissioner of the International Commission For Supervision And Control of the cease-fire in Vietnam. Unofficially, he thinks of himself as a diplomat on whom has been thrust the role of a performer in one of the longest futility rites in diplomatic history.
“Frustrating as it is, it may be that if this commission can stand and wait long enough it will be able to play a worthwhile role in the future,” he says.
Almost nobody now remembers that a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam has existed for eleven years; or that Canada, Poland and India volunteered to police it.
It proved impossible to police when just two countries were in bitter, stealthy conflict. Now there are six nations (including Australia, which has fifteen hundred troops in South Vietnam) fighting an open and rapidly escalating war which makes a mockery of the cease-fire.
I sat with the forty-one-year-old Seaborn on the veranda of his official residence, a large, yellow-painted stucco mansion in the French-colonial style, sipping iced drinks, listening to the drubbing of a heavy air bombardment of Viet Cong positions about fifteen miles away, and discussing a thickly leafed tree that blocked our view of the road beyond a hedge.
“It's a frangipani,” he explained. “Its foliage lasts just about all year. That's why I like
“Pity it’s so close,” I observed. “It blocks the view.” But. of course, it would also block a sniper's view.
Seaborn hasn’t been shot at yet, but he’s fond of that frangipani. You get like that in
Saigon. When death comes, as it frequently does, it comes suddenly, unexpectedly, almost carelessly — a homemade bomb tossed over a fence or into a lobby, a hand grenade lobbed into a bar or restaurant, a sniper's fusillade sprayed along a jammed sidewalk.
Just as you don't believe you will ever be killed in a car crash, so you don’t believe these unique local phenomena will ever happen to you. But it’s just as well to have a friendly frangipani, to be careful, in fact.
This city is as safe as any other place under siege if you play by the rules. Only an idiot, for instance, would ignore the curfew. After curfew the police really do shoot to kill anyone who stirs.
There are other rules. When the whisper is out that the police expect trouble, you don’t loiter on street corners; you choose a place to eat which has iron grillwork across the doorways and windows, and you keep clear of prime targets — groups of girl-watching, camera-toting GIs.
These are the routine hazards of everyday life for Seaborn, as are out-of-order telephones, the interminable heat and humidity, the drenching flash-flood showers that pour down every two or three hours every day for nine months on end during the monsoons.
These are all conditions guaranteed to test the temper and patience of an ambitious civil servant, particularly one who became a diplomat because after graduating from the University of Toronto, his application for a fellowship in economics at an American university was not granted.
When particularly bored, or thwarted, he sometimes mutters, “1 know I would never have made a good economist.” Then he recovers by saying, with a grin, “So I became a diplomat.”
Where the watchers went
The ball Seaborn is carrying as Canadian commissioner of the ICSC is more like a balloon with a slow puncture. Originally, when fully inflated and functioning, the commission had inspection teams operating north and south of the seventeenth parallel, the line that divides Vietnam as the thirty-ninth parallel divides Korea.
These teams were in a position to check reports of border crossings, reports on freight and passenger arrivals by plane and ship, and at least operate as if they were supervising and controlling the imports of weapons and military personnel.
Gradually over the years the teams were restricted, co-operation diminished in the South as well as the North, and finally the teams in North Vietnam had to be pulled out altogether.
“Even if the commission couldn’t function
effectively to prevent gun-running from China to North Vietnam, or from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong guerrillas ¡n the South, it still did some pretty useful work,” Seaborn said.
ICSC records give a comprehensive picture of North Vietnam and the jungle country running along the seventeenth parallel. And the commissioners still try to operate in a limited sort of way in the South.
If events have overwhelmed the commission, shrinking it to the point where it exists virtually in name only, the work of registering violations of the cease-fire agreement in North and South Vietnam continues.
Scoreboard of frustration
“Our function was drawn up when this was a local civil war,” Seaborn said, “so we proceed as if it were still true. We have to ignore the rather awesome confrontation the big powers have superimposed upon it.”
This means that when the South Vietnamese capture Viet Cong guerrillas, anything that might indicate they come from the North is reported to the ICSC — Communist-made weapons and confessions to being infiltrators are usually produced as evidence.
“Once we have the evidence we take it up with the North Vietnamese military authorities, asking them to explain how weapons made in the Soviet Union or Red China, for instance, happened to find their way into the hands of the Viet Cong,” said Seaborn. “If there’s no answer — and there usually isn’t — then I register the South Vietnamese complaint as a violation of the cease-fire by North Vietnam. Sometimes we three commissioners don't agree, and this can be irritating.”
Seaborn's colleagues are the Polish commissioner, an enthusiastic Soviet-type (as opposed to the China-type) Communist, and the Indian commissioner, who acts as local chairman.
When they disagree, the chairman attempts to be fair by scoring a point for Seaborn, then a point for the Polish commissioner. In other words, he gets a violation registered against the South and Seaborn gets one registered against the North. “I get pretty damned mad at times when I'm convinced I should be getting a lot more points than the Pole,” Seaborn says.
Early this year he felt so strongly that he wasn’t getting enough points that he flatly refused to sign the draft of the 1965 annual report of the ICSC to its co-chairmen, the British and Russian governments.
“I did this,” he explained, “because I felt the draft ignored facts the commission had collected over the last eleven years showing that North Vietnam has deliberately encouraged, incited and supported the Viet Cong. I wanted this spelled out as the root cause of the present dangerous situation.” When his colleagues
wouldn’t agree, Canada submitted a minority report, saying that peace in Vietnam depended upon North Vietnam stopping its subversive activities in the South.
Seaborn's ultimate frustration is that the Geneva powers that created the commission in 1954 are all involved in violations of the ceasefire they agreed to preserve, and this, more than any other factor, stultifies his work.
“You have to remember,” he said, “that Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Red China agreed on the cease-fire, set up the ICSC (which Canada, Poland and India undertook to form) and are responsible for paying its operating expenses. Britain and Russia are our co-chairmen. The U.S. didn't sign it, didn't like it particularly, but went along with it just the same.
“So now we have a situation in which these same powers all but ignore that we exist. The Soviet Union and China send missiles and arms into North Vietnam, and the U.S. sends an entire war machine into South Vietnam."
It would be as futile for Seaborn to protest the Russian and Chinese intervention in the North as it would be for the Polish commissioner to protest U.S. intervention in the South.
And in any event it’s questionable what Seaborn would gain by condemning the Soviet Union, which is one of the commission’s cochairmen.
No masquerade: it works
The four Geneva powers actually share equally the operating costs of the ICSC, approximately $1.6 million a year. Though it has had a hand in all but tearing up the Geneva cease-fire agreement, the Soviet Union continues to pay its twenty-five percent, but Red China, which hasn’t paid a cent for several years, is already more than a million dollars in arrears but the other powers still pay lip service to the proposition that Red China is still a co-sponsor.
In spite of all the frustrations, Seaborn sees compensations in the broader aspects of the commission’s work.
“There is a temptation to regard the whole thing as one long, solemn masquerade,” he said, “but that just isn’t true. The presence of the ICSC in Vietnam since the Geneva agreement has helped to frustrate the Communists’ attempt at taking over the entire country.
“There are seventeen million people, a highly organized army, and a stable experienced government in North Vietnam. Here in the South we have a young state of six million, granted independence by the French before they quit Indo-China in 1954, politically immature and largely disorganized.
“Even with the large number of American advisers who helped the Saigon regime organize the country, it / continued on page 42
continued from page 13
could never have withstood a Communist coup. The ICSC has contributed to stopping Hanoi getting away with blatant aggression. Instead the Communists have had to resort to subversive tactics by reactivating the Viet Minh guerrillas under the guise of Viet Cong national liberation forces.
He believes that Americans and South Vietnamese are now strong enough on the ground successfully to counter this tactic. It’s entirely questionable whether they would have had the time to build up effective defense forces if the ICSC had not been here to keep watch over North Vietnamese subterfuge.
“I agree that there’s not much left of the commission’s original functions, but the organization itself must be kept in being until it is absolutely certain that it no longer has any useful purpose to serve.”
Seaborn believes there are two good reasons for keeping the commission alive. First, he is convinced that when Hanoi is finally brought to a conference table, the starting point of negotiations may have to be the Geneva cease-fire agreement.
“There will have to be a new ceasefire, of course, while these negotiations are taking place,” he said. “But the basic machinery for administering it exists here already with the ICSC.”
Second, he thinks that a point of Western contact with Hanoi has never been so vitally necessary as it is today. He admits that no one can predict how events will ultimately develop, and gives this as the most important reason for maintaining contact.
In this context he refers to the present commissioners or to whoever might follow them.
The ICSC maintains a small office in Hanoi (at present headed by Douglas Turner, a junior member of Seaborn’s Canadian staff) which records North Vietnamese complaints against South Vietnam.
The three ICSC commissioners visit Hanoi about once every eight weeks to discuss these complaints with the North Vietnamese military authorities. This gives Seaborn the unique advantage of being the only Western diplomat in regular contact with Hanoi.
“It may be that neither side will want to exploit this situation, but it should be there just the same in case the need arises,” he said.
Seaborn has been to Hanoi six times since becoming commissioner. He has used these opportunities to speak with as many North Vietnamese leaders as would see him (never the president, Ho Chi Minh) and has reported these talks to Ottawa.
There’s nothing to indicate that if Ottawa passed on this information to Washington it has in any way influenced U. S. policy, yet Seaborn’s name is repeatedly linked with secret American attempts to start up some sort of dialogue with the Communists. These rumors are not entirely devoid of substance. On one occasion he did act as an emissary for the Canadian government.
It happened in May, after President Johnson had picked up Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s suggestion (made
in his Philadelphia speech in March) that there should he a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam while efforts were made to start negotiations.
The president ordered a five-day suspension in bombing operations as a sign to the Communists of U. S. willingness to negotiate.
When it failed to produce even the slightest hint of a response in Washington’s opinion. External Affairs Minister Paul Martin in Ottawa ordered that Seaborn be instructed to find out just what the effect of the bombing pause had been on Hanoi.
There were two difficulties in using Seaborn for this purpose. As a member of the ICSC, Canada could not become too deeply involved in the affairs of one side only. The second consideration was Seaborn’s personal safety.
He is constantly exposed in the middle of a fluid and confused conflict in which tempers and suspicions are as easily aroused in Saigon as in Hanoi. Both cities are dangerous places at the best of times, with bombs falling and — in Saigon — with the Viet Cong threatening terrorism.
One Canadian diplomat, Lucien Canon, of Montreal, was stabbed to death in his apartment here eight years ago in mysterious and unresolved circumstances. It was generally believed at the time that he was followed home from the IC'SC offices by a thief who subsequently broke in to steal his wallet. There were signs of struggle in the bedroom, but no clues as to the identity of the killer.
Seaborn’s instructions from Ottawa, were to take advantage of a scheduled trip to Hanoi on May 31 to try to see someone high up in the North Vietnamese government—the prime minister if possible, or if not, the foreign minister—to see if there was any change in their position.
They had previously stated that all foreign troops had to leave South Vietnam before they would even consider sitting down at a conference table.
Seaborn didn't even try to see Ho Chi Minh, who rarely sees Westerners. He did try to see Pham Van Dong, the prime minister, because he had met him before. In the end, he saw the foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh.
“Hanoi is a pretty grim place in need of repair and a coat of paint. His office was in one of the old yellow sandstone French administration buildings with wide verandas and long halls.
“He was polite, courteous, and tough — as they all are.”
Seaborn spoke for more than an hour, explaining the American position, testing out the foreign minister’s reactions to the bombing pause, and indicating that, as a member of the ICSC, Canada would be willing to give all possible assistance in bringing about negotiations on equitable terms.
"It didn't do any good.” Seaborn said. “Trinh simply listened, nodded his head a couple of times, and then said his government’s position was clear.” American troops had to quit South Vietnam, the bombing had to be called off for good, and South Vietnam had to allow the national liberation front (Viet Cong) the right of self-determination.
It was the sort of outcome he expected. These people have all the time and patience in the world. A five-day bombing pause is meaningless to them. If it had been a fivemonth pause they might have attached more significance to it.
On a previous visit to Hanoi he had tried to interpret American motives for intervening in South Vietnam to Pham Van Dong. He used Canada’s own historic conflicts with the United States to persuade the prime minister that he might be a more reliable interpreter than Pham’s own advisers.
“When 1 finished,” said Seaborn, “Pham put a hand on my shoulder and said, ’My son, you have your experiences with the Americans and we have ours. They are not the same.’ ”
Privately, and on the basis of what he has seen of the situation on the ground in Vietnam, Seaborn is unstinting in his sympathy for what the South Vietnamese are trying to do, and for what the United States is doing to help them. He is well aware that there is still much misunderstanding about the truth of what is going on in Vietnam.
He is impatient with many of the arguments used in Canada and elsewhere to criticize the United States for escalating the war, or to condemn American military operations as being unnecessarily brutal. “Whole villages are forced to give food and shelter to the guerrillas, who then turn the place into a strongpoint where they can ambush South Vietnamese patrols,” he said.
“If the villagers object, they are killed or tortured. It’s not very nice.
“The North Vietnamese are responsible for all this. They could stop
it right now by withholding arms and supplies from the Viet Cong, by ending their constant incitement to war.”
Does he believe that Hanoi might eventually negotiate on terms acceptable to Washington?
“Yes I do — if the Chinese keep out of it,” he said. “It may take a couple of years to rid the countryside of the Viet Cong, and when that happens it may be possible to make the seventeenth parallel a permanent border between the two countries. Hanoi would probably agree in the hope that it might then be free to undermine the Saigon government by political means.”
Seaborn sees the conflict, in its broad historical context, as a significant battle in the far wider struggle to prevent Southeast Asia from falling within the Communist orbit.
The whole area is sliding rapidly toward the political Left, so that Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore are all feeling the effects of Chinese pressures. The Americans went through all this once before in Korea, and now they've chosen Vietnam as the battlefield for another confrontation.
They had to drive the North Koreans to truce talks, and they’ll have to drive Hanoi to the conference table in the same way.
He believes that outside influences may play a decisive role in the timing of negotiations. Hanoi, he thinks, doesn't like the idea of being a Chinese satellite any more than it could tolerate South Vietnam being an American satellite.
He said, “Ho Chi Minh is a Vietnamese nationalist as well as a Communist. It may suit him sooner than we think to have his independence underwritten by an international peace conference rather than allow the Chinese in to defend him. From what he’s said I would guess that Ho would prefer client-state status with C hina instead of outright puppet subservience.”
“I won’t be sorry to leave”
Seaborn lives alone here, with just a couple of servants to take care of the residence, since his wife, formerly Carol Trow of Stratford, Ont., returned to Ottawa to have their two children ready for the September school term. He will join them when his tour with the ICSC expires at the end of this month.
“I won’t be too sorry to leave,” he told me, “but that shouldn’t be taken as meaning I don’t think there’s still some useful work to be done here. I think I’ve made that clear already. It’s a frustrating job, but isn't every job full of frustrations? Perhaps it is just that this one seems to have a lot more of them.”
He will probably miss making the trips to Hanoi, not so much because of the diplomatic opportunities these afford, but because of an affection he shares with the whole Canadian delegation for “Aigle Azur,” the tiny, two-plane airline run by French bush pilots, w'hich is under contract to the ICSC, and which provides the only means of transportation from Saigon,
through Cambodia and Laos, to Hanoi.
The two planes are Stratoliners, pre-World War II forerunners of the postwar Stratocruiser. They can lumber up to five thousand feet with considerable effort, and reach one hundred and fifty miles an hour if pushed really hard. There’s never any danger of being shot down over North Vietnam as the flights to Hanoi are arranged weeks in advance, and flight plans are filed days before takeoff. Both planes are silver-painted, with ICSC letters clearly painted on wings and fusellage.
“The disconcerting thing about these trips is that the aircraft is occasionally called upon to fly itself,” commented Seaborn. “For some obscure reason, every time we fly it turns out to be some sort of French national holiday. The stewardess serves me champagne, then goes back to join a crew’s party in the rear of the aircraft. The first time I saw the pilot go back and help himself to champagne I blinked, but didn’t say anything until we were on the ground. Then I asked him if it was really he I had seen pass down the aisle with a glass in his hand?
“He looked at me in horror, rolled his eyes knowingly, and said, ‘M'sieu, perhaps you should not drink champagne, eh? Perhaps it does not agree with you.’ ”
Seaborn is the seventy-sixth Canadian foreign-service officer to serve with the ICSC, a figure that represents a quarter of the entire service. The cost to Canada in terms of
salaries and allowances for militar/ personnel as well as diplomats has. exceeded six million dollars over the past eleven years. The Canadian government also provides direct aid to South Vietnam, which runs at around $1.2 million a year. Does Seaborn think Canada should do more?
“I wouldn’t advocate sending troops,” he replied.
Seaborn will be home in Ottawa for Christmas. He may be surprised and disappointed at the extent of Canadian public opposition to U.S. actions, as indeed I am. South Vietnam and the U.S. need all the allies and the help they can get if this small nation, which has become symbolic of man’s right to decide his own destiny, is to be saved from bleeding to death internally. ★