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Canada in Vietnam: Diplomacy or complicity?

Canada has enjoyed a reputation for diplomacy ever since Lester B. Pearson came up with a novel solution – peacekeepers – for the Suez Crisis in 1956. We've also been recognized for our involvement in human rights issues, nuclear disarmament, and the International Criminal Court. But have our efforts made for a more peaceful world, or is the image of the "good diplomat" a convenient holdover from the days when Canada actually made a difference?

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It has been 25 years since the end of the war in Vietnam, and the CBC Radio program As It Happens looks back at Canada's role in the war. In 1964, Blair Seaborn was head of Canada's delegation to the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam. He recalls his assignment to visit Hanoi on behalf of the United States -- a visit some would later view as good diplomacy, while others would see it differently.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson worried that South Vietnam was vulnerable to a communist takeover. Johnson asked Prime Minister Pearson if Canada could glean North Vietnam's intentions with regards to the South. The Americans would do whatever was necessary to prevent a takeover of South Vietnam, and As It Happens wonders whether Canada's willingness to convey this threat is evidence for its complicity with U.S. interests.
• The International Control Commissions were created at the Geneva Conference in 1954 to be peace observers in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the defeat of the French in what was then French Indochina. They were composed of military officers and diplomats from Canada, India and Poland.
• For Canada, the ICC mission in Vietnam was frustrating. The peace it was meant to keep was nonexistent, and Poland consistently favoured the North Vietnamese.

• Blair Seaborn visited Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital, about six times in the spring and summer of 1964. Leader Van Pham Dong listened politely to Seaborn's message, but gave no indication of his intentions. He was also not tempted by the implied offer of U.S. aid if he cooperated with requests to stay out of South Vietnam.
• Seaborn's visits were less than successful. U.S. bombing in North Vietnam began months later in February 1965.

• The Americans were keen to protect South Vietnam because of the "domino theory." Their concern was that if South Vietnam fell to communists, other Southeast Asian countries -- Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and others -- would follow like dominoes. This theory proved unsound after the fall of Saigon, as only Laos and Cambodia were overtaken by communists.

• Seaborn's Hanoi meetings were revealed in the "Pentagon Papers," secret documents about U.S. involvement in Vietnam that were released in 1971.
• When news of Seaborn's mission emerged, some suggested that he had been spying for the United States. The Canadians had been gathering details about North Vietnam but, Seaborn pointed out in 2003, it was the kind of information any diplomat gathers: the country's mood, influences from other countries, and whether war preparations were under way.
Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: April 25, 2000
Guest(s): Blair Seaborn
Interviewer: Barbara Budd
Duration: 4:06

Last updated: July 18, 2013

Page consulted on November 4, 2014

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