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Manitoba History: Review: Victor Levant, Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War

by Alvin Finkel
Department of History, Athabasca University

Manitoba History, Number 16, Autumn 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War. Victor Levant. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1986. 322 pp.

There was adequate evidence before the publication of this book, particularly in works by James Eayrs and Charles Taylor, that Canada’s role during the Vietnam war was not that of a neutral despite this country’s membership on the International Control Commission from 1954 to 1973 and its brief participation on the International Commission of Control and Supervision in 1973, both of which called for neutrality. Indeed the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 raised the question whether Canada was more than a choreboy for the Americans on the I.C.C. and in the larger diplomacy related to the Vietnam issue.

But the present volume, based on extensive research of American and other foreign government sources as well as Canadian materials, is likely to shatter any remaining myths about Canada’s role in Indochina. Indeed Victor Levant’s evidence suggests that much of the Canadian government’s attempt over the years to project Canada as a “middle power” honestly attempting to inhibit America’s imperialist ambitions is fraudulent. In Indochina, Canada needed no cues from the Americans to subvert the Geneva peace agreements that it was sworn to uphold. Indeed Levant stresses repeatedly that Canada took its own initiatives to camouflage or excuse South Vietnamese and American attempts to prevent the democratic elections and the reunification of Vietnam promised in the 1954 agreement.

Levant provides familiar statistics about the integration of the Canadian and American economies and Canada’s interest in the direct benefits (such as sales of war materials thanks to the Defence Production Sharing Agreement) and indirect benefits (from increased American purchases thanks to their buoyant war-fatted economy) of the Vietnam War. But he stresses above all the shared simplistic anti-communism of Canadian and American government leaders which pushed the former to act without coercion as a propaganda agent and spy for the latter. Indeed Canada was not asked to pass on classified ICC information to the Americans; it decided to do so on its own from the very beginning and continued on this course throughout the ICC’s existence.

Canada’s culpability might be less grievous if our leaders had not known the full extent of Saigon’s duplicity and suppression of human rights or of America’s plans to step up military pressures against North Vietnam and eventually to carry out a full-scale but undeclared war against the people in both halves of the artificially-divided country. But the record, as Levant demonstrates painstakingly, indicates that, notwithstanding attempts by key politicians afterwards to plead ignorance, Canada was well informed by the Americans and by its own intelligence of the realities of life in Vietnam. Nonetheless Canada chose to whitewash the “pacification” programs in which most of the rural population of the South was uprooted, acted as the delivery-boy for American threats to Hanoi and created two standards for viewing human-right violations by the two Vietnams. Perhaps worst of all Canada, sup-ported on this occasion by India which always found itself hopelessly attempting to balance its support of partisan Poland and Canada on the ICC, signed a trumped-up 1962 “Special Report” which purported to prove that North Vietnam was responsible for the considerable rural insurrection in the South. The report, based entirely on evidence supplied by Saigon without any independent substantiation, would soon provide the Americans with their official excuse for widening the war in Indochina. Later evidence suggested the report was nonsensical and that Hanoi, far from having organized the National Liberation Front’s rebellion in the South, was dragged along by the need not to appear to repudiate a popular revolt.

By the end of the sixties, with the Americans mired in an unwinable and unpopular war, there was some rethinking in Canada of the wisdom of publicly identifying with a hopeless cause. The Trudeau government had started out with hopes of keeping Canada somewhat more distant from American entanglements. However, fears of American economic retaliation should it do otherwise caused Canada to participate for six months in the ICCS in 1973. Interestingly, this time, while we were unwilling participants and no longer shared unthinkingly the “free world” precepts that allowed us to justify duplicitous behaviour in the fifties and sixties, our fear of the Americans caused us to continue to act as their spies and propagandists.

The American State and Defence departments appeared keen to aid Levant in providing documents that gave the lie to Canada’s retrospective self-serving claims that attempted to minimize our role in Indochina. He suggests perhaps not too unkindly that the Americans resented the sanctimoniousness of those who had been willing, without pressure, to aid and abet America’s Cold War efforts before certain of these efforts failed and caused public revulsion.

Even more interesting, and quite disturbing, was the reluctance of Canadian government agencies to supply Levant with access. The Historical Division of External Affairs withheld documents that had been made available to less critical researchers, and denied the existence of other documents, copies of which Levant eventually found in the files of other nations. It would appear that External Affairs is only willing to cooperate with researchers willing to accept in advance that Canada has played an independent role in the conduct of its foreign affairs rather than the role of a satellite not unlike that which Poland played for the Soviet Union in Indochina.

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