Canada’s peacekeeping mission to Vietnam: a snow job that was no job at all
Charles Taylor served for several years as the Globe and Mail’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and Peking. This article is an excerpt from his new book Snow Job: Canada, The United States And Vietnam, 1954-1973 which is being published by Anansi this month.
There are two major myths that sustained Canadian foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s and which have survived — partly discredited but still powerful — into the 1970s. These are the myths of Quiet Diplomacy and Canadaas-Helpful-Fixer. Both have the same rationale: Canada has influence in the world because it is a member of the Western alliance and a good friend of the developing nations. With neither a colonizing past to overcome, nor an imperialistic present to dissemble, with tireless diplomats and an abundant store of selfless common sense, Canada can be trusted by nearly everyone. But — and this is the hooker — Canadian statesmen will only be effective if they speak softly while they carry their slim dispatch cases from capital to capital, from crisis to crisis. To be outspoken — especially against the United States -would destroy our effectiveness in Washington and our credibility elsewhere.
Elegant in style and sometimes filled with moral fervor, our diplomacy has often failed the ultimate test for any foreign policy through being timid and
shortsighted in the expression of national aspirations and the defense of national interests. These limitations are serious — and potentially fatal — at a time when the growing desire of Canadians to be free of American domination within our borders has become linked to a serious quest for a similar independence in our foreign policies.
There is one important case history which illustrates the drawbacks to our traditional diplomacy and about which most of the important facts are now established. Canada’s 20-year record of Quiet Diplomacy and Helpful Fixing in Vietnam is a sorry tale of good intentions and limited achievements undermined by bungling and political misjudgment. For all its special features — and partly because of them — it casts serious doubt on the aims and methods of our diplomacy, especially in its dealings with Washington.
Canada’s involvement in Vietnam dates back to 1954 when we joined Poland and India on the International Control Commission, established by the Geneva Conference in the wake of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The commission was meant to supervise the disengagement of military forces, the exchange of prisoners and refugees and the peace between North and South Vietnam. After some initial success, the ICC soon became deadlocked and virtually impotent as hostilities resumed in the South and both the United States
and North Vietnam began to intervene massively on the side of their allies.
By 1965 Canada was effectively allied with the United States in its senseless and horrendous war against North Vietnam. Canadian officiais were carrying American ultimatums to Hanoi, arguing America’s case on the ICC, furnishing America with political and military intelligence and publicly supporting American policies in southeast Asia. Canada was also selling about $300-million worth of arms and ammunition to the Americans each year, a large portion of which was being used in Vietnam.
Faithful to the tenets of Quiet Diplomacy, Ottawa rarely tried with any real conviction to dissuade the Americans from their war aims or even to dissociate us from them, while allowing its own diplomatic initiatives to serve the American strategy of military escalation.
It is not a happy story. But it is important to establish what went wrong, and with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to suggest other courses of action that would have been more consistent with Canadian self-interest. At the very least we should no longer have any illusions about the chances of influencing our powerful neighbor through Quiet Diplomacy. To study our Vietnam experience is to understand the ruthless use of power instinctive to any American
Canada was always a willing accomplice
Administration. It is a lesson that must be applied to all future confrontations.
It would be wrong to make the Americans into the villains of the piece and to maintain that Canadian support was given reluctantly, in response to overwhelming American pressure and through fear of American economic retaliation. While the pressures were often intense, Canadian support was offered freely out of a tragic misunderstanding of the issues in southeast Asia and a misguided faith in Ottawa’s diplomacy. Throughout, Canada was always an active and willing accomplice.
This was still the case in the early 1970s, when the Americans and the North Vietnamese were making slow progress in their Paris negotiations. For the record. Prime Minister Trudeau and his advisers regarded Canada’s lengthy involvement with the ICC as an “ill-conceived operation” which was not to be repeated. But watching events from his embassy in Washington, the veteran Canadian diplomat Marcel Cadieux warned that Canadians might well react to a request for a new peacekeeping role in Indochina like an old racehorse to a track, and be unable to restrain themselves from having another run.
As it turned out, Cadieux was right.
For Ottawa, the crunch came in late October 1972. The government had long realized that its experience in Indochina made it a prime candidate for any new truce commission. But the first official notification came on October 25, when Secretary of State William Rogers phoned External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp to tell him that “Canada’s name is in play” in the Paris talks. In a statement later that day, Sharp said that Canada had not yet received a formal invitation, adding: “It is possible that we will be asked to play some part in a peacekeeping role and we have said that we would look sympathetically on it as long as it is not a farce like the ICC.”
On the morning of October 26, Rogers informed Cadieux that both sides in Paris had agreed on a new international commission comprising Canada, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary. Later that day, Henry Kissinger announced peace was at hand in Vietnam.
At that point it seemed all over. But there were a few nagging problems: peace wasn’t at hand (Kissinger was soon back negotiating in Paris after a flurry of recriminations between Hanoi and Washington) and Canada had still not announced its formal agreement to participate on the new commission.
It was hardly a time for Ottawa to give
Washington ignored Ottawa’s terms for joining the ICCS and showed little interest in Canadian sensitivities
serious consideration to a major international commitment. The election of October 30 gave no majority to any of the parties; it left Trudeau preoccupied with clinging to power.
On November 2, Sharp announced that Canada was prepared to make some contribution to peacekeeping in Vietnam. For a start it would make available
to any commission — and for a limited period — its 19 ICC delegates who remained in Saigon and Hanoi. Any further commitment would depend on the precise terms of the new mandate.
By now even the average newspaper reader could surmise that Canada was being railroaded into a new commitment without knowing very much about
it. With a brave show of determination, Sharp outlined Canada’s basic conditions at a November 21 press conference: Canada would insist on freedom of movement to investigate in all parts of South Vietnam as well as an international authority to which the commission could report. Reporting procedures had to be “workable” — in other words there must be no unanimity rule, especially for reports on truce violations. There would have to be a precise time limit on Canadian involvement. Ottawa was also insisting that all four belligerents had to request Canada’s participation, so that Ottawa wouldn’t seem to be acting solely for the United States.
Yet Washington was taking Canada’s participation for granted and showing little interest in Canadian sensitivities. In mid-November, a State Department spokesman said that Canada, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary had all agreed in principle to join the new commission: External Affairs tartly reminded Washington that Canada had still not made a firm commitment. The Americans then told Ottawa that Indonesia, Poland and Hungary had already agreed to serve and that Canada was the “missing piece in the puzzle” — but when Ottawa checked with the other three capitals it discovered that this was also far from true. In another clumsy deception, the Americans assured the Canadians that they had tried hard to find a substitute member but that Canada was the only other Western or Western-leaning nation acceptable to Hanoi. After repeated prompting from the dubious Canadians, Washington finally admitted that only one other country — Japan — had ever been considered.
Sharp was still maintaining on December 3 that the government had yet to make up its mind. By then few politicians or officials in Ottawa took Sharp’s pronouncements at their face value. Five days later, Rogers indicated that he considered Canada’s conditions to be reasonable, adding: “We can accept most of them.” It seemed clear that all of Canada’s conditions would never be met, but that Ottawa wouldn’t refuse to join at the last moment.
The last moment was again postponed when the Paris talks broke down in the middle of the month. This was followed by American bombing of North Vietnam from December 18 to 30. On January 5, the House of Commons gave unanimous approval to a motion that deplored the bombing and requested the United States to refrain from further attacks. This was the
Trudeau didn’t like making another commitment in Vietnam but he wanted to avoid a quarrel with the Americans
strongest official Canadian condemnation of any American action in Vietnam.
Sharp chose the same debate to indicate that the government was resigned to serving on the new truce commission, at least for a limited period. Significantly, he backtracked on one condition: the establishment of a “continuing political authority” (CPA) responsible for the peace and to which any of the commission members could report. Newspaper stories from Paris had indicated that there would be no such authority, although an international conference would be convened 30 days after a cease-fire. According to Sharp, Canada would now be prepared to serve on the commission for a minimum of 60 days, during which time the results of the international conference would be known. If the conference failed to create a CPA, Canada would reserve the right to withdraw at any time.
In a further indication that Canada was watering down its conditions, Sharp suggested that the new commission might be bound by a rule of unanimity,
despite Ottawa’s strong objections. In that case the government would make public any of the commission’s deliberations. This was the origin of Ottawa’s controversial “open mouth” policy.
By now only a congenital idiot could assume that there was any chance Canada would not join the new commission. But the farce had to be played out: on January 16, Sharp maintained that Ottawa was still waiting to see the terms of reference before announcing its decision. Sharp gave a similar assurance on January 23, but on the same day Washington announced that the Paris Agreement had been concluded. Drafted at a time when Sharp was denying any such Canadian undertaking, the agreement explicitly named Canada as a member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision.
To most Canadians who had followed the intricate twists and turns of Sharp’s pronouncements, it appeared that their government had been bluffing all along — insisting on stringent conditions for joining the commission and then meekly succumbing to pressure from Washing-
ton. In fact, Trudeau and Sharp had been convinced as early as October that Canada would have to play some role in the supervision of a new ceasefire. This decision was based on a cool assessment of the government’s self-interest. While Trudeau had little liking for the sort of international commitments Lester Pearson had so frequently and fervently embraced, he saw little point in picking a quarrel with the Americans. If Ottawa refused to help police the new truce, it would be telling the world that the settlement had no chance of working. This would enrage President Nixon — who had staked his reputation on achieving “peace with honor” and securing an American withdrawal. It would also make the Administration and key Congressional leaders even more unsympathetic in the tough economic negotiations that lay ahead.
Trudeau and Sharp decided to accept a new Vietnam role for one reason and one reason only: to help the Americans get out. This would be Canada’s contribution to an eventual peace in Vietnam, but Ottawa would undertake no long-
Gauvin’s job was to get Canada out
term responsibility for how the Vietnamese arranged their affairs once the Americans had gone.
This explains why Sharp was at such great pains to keep on restating Canadian terms for serving on a new commission when no one in Ottawa had any expectation that these terms would ever be met. Canada would only stay on the job as long after the American withdrawal as seemed decent and practicable. At that point Canada would find a pretext for its own withdrawal: the conditions Sharp had enunciated so frequently before Canada joined ICCS would be used to justify its subsequent departure.
It was a devious strategy. For its success it would depend on one further ingredient: a large dose of constant publicity for all the failures and stalemates which — Ottawa was quite convinced — would soon engulf the new commission. But this had also been considered in advance. As the 290 Canadians began arriving in Saigon on January 29, Ottawa had already announced that their leader would be Canada’s ambassador to Greece: a 53-year-old career diplomat named Michel Gauvin. What Ottawa failed to disclose was that Gauvin had been especially chosen for his abrasive temperament.
Gauvin had a reputation as a troubleshooter and earlier in his diplomatic career he had spent six weeks in Hanoi and nearly a year in Saigon on the old ICC. That was in 1955: the year when everything started to turn sour for the commission and when its Canadian members became implacably hardened against the North Vietnamese. Of all the choices to head Canada’s delegation to the ICCS, this tough and volatile Québécois was the man most likely to be impatient with delays and unsympathetic to Communist points of view.
When he took up his duties in Saigon, Gauvin had one main instruction: to follow an “open mouth” policy. He was to speak out — loudly and publicly — whenever the ICCS became deadlocked or otherwise frustrated in its work. By sounding off in public, Gauvin would also be hastening the day when Canada could abandon its new commitment: this was the basis of the policy.
In the first days of the commission’s work, the other three members rejected a Canadian proposal that their meetings should be open to reporters. So Gauvin began to cultivate the large foreign press corps in Saigon. At receptions, dinners and in frequent interviews, he regaled the reporters with pungent comments and detailed stories on the turmoil and
Our role was to serve U.S. interests
disputes within the commission. Since most of the reporters were from the West, and since the Poles and Hungarians were slow to develop their own press relations, nearly all the stories filed from Saigon reflected Canadian views and portrayed Gauvin as a skillful and colorful battler for the truth amid a cabal of wily and deceitful Reds.
Trouble soon began piling up. While the withdrawal of American troops was working smoothly, the truce was proving to be extremely precarious, with fighting continuing throughout the South. Only a handful of the violations had been officially reported to the commission: a sign of the contempt in which it was held by both sides.
By the end of the first 60-day period, the commission had become virtually deadlocked along predictable Communist and non-Communist lines. Sharp and several MPs visited both Saigon and Hanoi between March 13 and 18 to assess the general situation. From Gauvin and members of his delegation, they heard the sad story of the deadlock on the ICCS; from leaders of both North and South Vietnam, they received formal assurances of support for the ICCS but little indication that either side was interested in the commission’s investigative role.
An innocent observer might have concluded that Ottawa was preparing to announce its withdrawal from the commission. Instead Sharp told the House of Commons on March 27 that Canadá would remain on the ICCS for a second 60-day period — until the end of May. It would then announce its withdrawal — giving a 30-day grace period until the end of June so that a successor could be found — if the present situation continued and if there was no distinct improvement or progress toward a political settlement. “We will not take part in a charade,” Sharp warned, “nor will we tacitly condone inaction when we believe action is required.”
By now the government realized that, in its zeal to avoid a long-term commitment to the ICCS, it had made a tactical mistake in agreeing to serve for only 60 days. This period coincided exactly with the time allotted for the American military withdrawal. If the Canadians pulled out immediately after the last American troops had left the South — and the last U.S. prisoners had been returned from the North — Ottawa would be accused of having joined the ICCS merely to serve the interests of Washington. This was the case — given the fact Ottawa had decided that serving the interests of
Our troops acted like Scoutmasters
Washington was also the best way of serving its own interests — but in view of the rising nationalist feeling in Canada the government could not afford to acknowledge the real basis of its policy.
There was a strong element of deception in Ottawa’s public position. While Sharp might warn that Canada would not participate in a charade, his earnest words about the need for an effective ICCS were little more than pious hypocrisy. By the end of March, it was quite clear that the Paris accords were foundering and that Hanoi and Saigon were still implacable adversaries. At that point, the last thing that Ottawa wanted was any change for the better in the commission's role, since this would have meant an extended Canadian commitment. Rather, the government was determined that further frustrations and disputes — well publicized and to some extent provoked by Gauvin — would soon provide the excuse for Canada’s final and carefully prepared withdrawal.
On April 7, an ICCS helicopter on its way to a team site near the Laotian border was shot down by Communist fire. There were nine men on board and all were killed in the crash, including Captain Charles Laviolette of the Canadian Army.
This was to become the most celebrated and controversial incident during Canada’s six months on the ICCS. Before it was finally wrapped up in an untidy and inconclusive report at the end of May, it had widened the ideological split on the commission and involved Gauvin and the Communists in a welter of insults and vituperation. In retrospect it would seem that some such incident was always inevitable: by early April the ICCS was approaching stalemate, with the Poles and the Hungarians increasingly critical of the Canadians and Gauvin more than ready to reply in kind.
Much of the trouble sprang from the fact that Ottawa had its own ideas about the commission’s role: ideas that were shared by none of the other members or any of the three remaining belligerents. For the Canadians were quite alone in wanting to act according to the rule book. Impeccably dressed in berets, green shorts and knee-length socks, they looked like a team of international Scoutmasters. Sticking strictly to the letter of the Paris ceasefire agreement, they kept blowing whistles at anyone who continued fighting.
This approach always veered between the quixotic and the futile. The Poles and Hungarians argued that investigations of ceasefire violations were use-
Canada didn’t want any mediation
less exercises which would only increase tensions on the commission and in the country. The commission members should act as mediators, seeking to restrain the two sides instead of trying to catch them cheating.
But the Canadians had no desire to be mediators or arbitrators. Although they were quite ready to criticize Saigon on occasion, they rejected any larger, more ambitious role that would have enmeshed them indefinitely in the murky issues of Vietnamese politics. It was never stated openly — but it was always quite evident — that by sticking to the rule book and blowing their whistles whenever possible the Canadians were also driving the commission into deadlock and hastening their own departure. This, of course, was quite deliberate.
By the time the helicopter incident was finally wrapped up, the commission was locked in another dispute — this time over the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops — which proved equally acrimonious and even more difficult to resolve. The dispute dragged on for six weeks. On June 30, Gauvin finally broke the deadlock with a compromise which allowed the infiltration report to be sent to the belligerents, but without committing the Poles and Hungarians to endorse its findings. This was Canada’s last important move on the commission.
By the time the Canadian troops left Saigon on July 31 — immaculate as always in their dark green shorts and light green shirts — they had established a new reputation for Canadian peacekeepers. This was considerably different from the reputation for quiet efficiency and impartial common sense previous Canadian contingents had established in Cyprus, the Middle East, the Congo and Kashmir. While efficiency and expertise were still part of the package, notice had been served that Canadian peacekeepers could be officious, out-spoken, short-tempered and self-righteous.
It seems likely that Ottawa’s ICCS venture will never rank among the most successful and farsighted undertakings of Canadian diplomacy. There was too much hypocrisy, too many public protestations of our good intentions, too much manipulation of public opinion and the press, too much partiality, too little concern for the Vietnamese themselves and, above all, there was too much cynicism. Of all the possible options, Canada chose the worst: accepting a role and then abandoning it as soon as possible, regardless of the consequences and leaving a legacy of bitterness and recrimination. 0