The Vietnam War had its roots in the French colonial conquest of Indochina in the mid-19th century and in the nationalist movements that arose to oppose it. At the end of WWII, on 2 September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam was proclaimed an independent country by Ho Chi Minh; Hanoi was its capital. The French attempt to reconquer Vietnam met with defeat in the valley of Dien Bien Phu on 2 May 1954. The July Geneva Agreements provided for a cease-fire and a provisional military demarcation line at the 17th parallel, pending nationwide elections for reunification in July 1956. Western efforts to divide the country permanently by creating a Vietnamese republic in Saigon, coupled with the refusal to hold the promised elections, led to rebellion in the S, massive US military intervention and the ensuing civil war.
The failure of US policy became apparent in February 1968 when 525 000 American soldiers were unable to stop the insurgents' Tet Offensive; it would take two more assaults, the third lasting six weeks, before US and South Vietnamese forces were able to stop the offensive and retake lost territory. In January 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed, upholding the unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam and providing for the orderly withdrawal of US troops, the release of 200 000 civilian detainees and POWs and the organization of free and democratic elections in South Vietnam. The refusal to implement these last conditions provoked an armed insurrection and on 30 April 1975 Saigon fell. The cost of the war was staggering: 1.7 million dead, 3 million wounded and maimed, and 13 million refugees. The US dropped 7 million tons of bombs, 75 million litres of herbicide and lost 10 000 helicopters and warplanes. Some 56 000 US soldiers were killed and another 303 000 were wounded. The direct cost of the war was $140 billion; indirect costs are estimated at $900 billion.
During the years 1954 to 1975 Canada served on 2 international truce commissions and provided medical supplies and technical assistance. Canadian diplomats were involved in negotiations between Washington and Hanoi and successive Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, maintained that Ottawa was an impartial and objective peacekeeper, an innocent and helpful bystander negotiating for peace and administering aid to victims of the war. However, Cabinet papers, confidential stenographic minutes of the truce commissions as well as top-secret American government cables revealed Canada to be a willing ally of US counterinsurgency efforts.
Canada's record on the truce commissions was a partisan one, rooted in the presumption of Hanoi's guilt and Saigon's innocence and designed to discredit North Vietnam while exonerating South Vietnam from its obligations to uphold the Geneva Agreements. Canadian delegates engaged in espionage for the US Central Intelligence Agency and aided the covert introduction of American arms and personnel into South Vietnam while they spotted for US bombers over North Vietnam. Canadian commissioners shielded the US chemical defoliant program from public inquiry, parlayed American threats of expanded war to Hanoi, and penned the reports legitimating both the rupture of the Geneva Agreements and the US air war over North Vietnam. Ottawa would later assert that these actions were necessary to counterbalance the activities of the Eastern bloc countries with whom they shared membership on the truce commissions.
Canadian aid during the war went only to South Vietnam, $29 million 1950-75, routed through the COLOMBO PLAN and the Canadian Red Cross. Although humanitarian in appearance, Canadian assistance was an integral part of the Free World Assistance Program, co-ordinated by the US Department of State with the International Security Office of the Pentagon as the point of contact. In the field, Canadian capital assistance was regulated by the US-RVN Health Defense Agreement and administered by the International Military Assistance Force Office in Saigon. On a number of occasions, Ottawa stopped the shipment of ecumenical medical relief to civilian victims of the war in North Vietnam.
At home, 500 firms sold $2.5 billion of war materiel (ammunition, napalm, aircraft engines and explosives) to the Pentagon. Another $10 billion in food, beverages, berets and boots for the troops was exported to the US, as well as nickel, copper, lead, brass and oil for shell casings, wiring, plate armour and military transport. In Canada unemployment fell to record low levels of 3.9%, the gross domestic product rose by 6% yearly, and capital expenditure expanded exponentially in manufacturing and mining as US firms invested more than $3 billion in Canada to offset shrinking domestic capacity as a result of the war. The herbicide "Agent Orange" was tested for use in Vietnam at CFB Gagetown, NB. US bomber pilots practised carpet-bombing runs over Suffield, Alta, and North Battleford, Sask, before their tours of duty in Southeast Asia. And the results of the only successful peace initiative to Hanoi - that of Canadian diplomat Chester RONNING - would be kept from public knowledge in order not to harm official US-Canadian relations. Ten thousand young Canadian men fought in the US armed forces in the war. At the same time 20 000 American draft-dodgers and 12 000 army deserters found refuge in Canada.
See also AMERICANS; Sherwood LETT; James B. SEABORN.