For many Canadians, the Vietnam War was an occasion to feel smug. Canada had no troops in Vietnam; it welcomed American draft resisters and even deserters from the U.S. Army. Its medical aid programs and its presence as a member of the International Control Commission (ICC), which was supposed to supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords that had ended France's war in Indochina, seemed innocuous enough, possibly even constructive.
Gradually, however, a different story about Canada's presence in Vietnam emerged. In this version, Canada used its diplomatic and humanitarian position in Vietnam to serve the interests of the United States. The most thorough account of Canada's multifaceted service to the American war effort was the book Quiet Complicity by Victor Levant of John Abbott College in Montreal (Toronto: Between The Lines, 1986). In this excerpt, Levant dissects the political motives behind Canadian medical aid to South Vietnam.
At the height of the National Liberation Front's Tet Offensive in February 1968, Alje Vennema, a Canadian doctor at the Quang Ngai tuberculosis centre, suggested to Ormond Dier, Canadian ambassador to South Vietnam and head of the ICC delegation, that "all voluntary medical personnel be withdrawn from Quang Ngai because they were risking their lives." Vennema later wrote:
"Dier's response was that we must have Canadians at Quang Ngai because it was very important for Canadians to be in Vietnam. Canadians had died for Canada before he said. I asked if it's that important why don't you send a civil servant there from the Department of External Affairs who can just sit there and wave the flag! But he put a lot of things in perspective for me. What was important in Vietnam was Canadian representation--to show we were here."
A similar view of the Canadian aid program in Vietnam was expressed by former External Aid Office adviser Dr. Michael Hall. Testifying before the House of Commons External Affairs Committee in November 1967, he said that "most of the aid given to Vietnam is not given because we want to give them this particular material or these particular people but it is a whole reaction to a demand for involvement." In March 1968, Senior ICC Political Officer Gordon Longmier told medical records librarian Claire Culhane, "Well, our project in Vietnam is 50 per cent humanitarian and 50 per cent political." David Anderson, Liberal MP and former administrator of the Canadian aid program, admitted to the External Affairs Committee in December 1968 that "a good portion of our aid was strictly for political purposes that were of no value to the people in the area concerned."
Conversations between Dr. Hall and the South Vietnamese minister of health about the value of establishing an orthopedic service reveal that this evaluation was shared by the authorities in Saigon. "Dr. Hall," he was told, "you must clearly understand that you are not here as an orthopedic surgeon, you are here as a representative of Canada." U.S. officials concurred that it was neither the precise projects nor the amount of aid that was important, only its existence. "There are many ways of expressing that [support]," submitted Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Some have done it in troops, others have done it in various forms of assistance, but it should be made clear to the authorities in Hanoi by a maximum number of the world community that the independence and future of these smaller countries of Southeast Asia are of great concern to the rest of the world."
In fact, Canadian aid to Saigon was part and parcel of a coordinated and integrated allied counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam, the program developed by the Free World Military Assistance Office. The goals of this program were summarized in the confidential Command History prepared by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, as follows:
"Although many forms of assistance are urgently needed in the Republic of Vietnam the most sought-after are support units or individuals that will have major impact on favorable progress in the counter-insurgency effort by:
"1) Dramatically demonstrating to the government and people of the Republic of Vietnam and to the rest of the world that other free countries are interested in helping the Vietnamese people maintain their freedom and achieve peace.
"2) Providing assistance, short of direct combat actions, of a form that will have the most immediate and noticeable effect on the counter-insurgency effort in a particular locale."
Thirty-three nations, Canada included, were members of the Free World Assistance Program (FWA), furnishing what were described before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as "all kinds of materials and services needed in Vietnam, such as medical supplies, hospital equipment, refugee relief supplies, schools and hospital construction and so forth." Although coordinated by the U.S. State Department, the Free World Assistance Program was sponsored by the Pentagon. Of all the contributions to the Free World Assistance Program from its inception in July 1964 to the height of the war in December 1968, the Canadian contribution of $9,303,508 was the fourth largest.
Canadian pledges of aid to South Vietnam were made through the FWA program, as a March 1965 cable from the U.S. embassy in Saigon to its counterpart in Ottawa reveals. The cable states that an officer in the Canadian embassy had advised that a request from Saigon for aluminum warehouses and roofing material would likely be made against Canada's $500,000 Free World Assistance Program offer. However, conscious of the neutral image necessitated by its role on the ICC, Ottawa would channel its assistance through the Colombo Plan or the Red Cross. Washington was sensitive to Canada's ICC role and had no objection.
In the field, Canadians relied on the United States for logistical and material supplies--specifically on the Agency for International Development (AID), Air America and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. "There was nothing we could do in Vietnam without the Americans," wrote Dr. Vennema. "We depended on them for transportation, often for food, for everything." Dr. Hall told the Commons External Affairs Committee in November 1967 that the drugs and supplies available to Vennema "were derived from the Ministry of Health, that is American money, the Medico stocks given at the hospital, also American, and what he could get from local American army units; only recently did he get Canadian supplies." Canadian medical personnel, reported Claire Culhane, "had to register with the CIA-operated Air America to obtain...priority numbers as part of the Free World Assistance Group." Washington never hid these facts. "AID provides the funds and co-ordinates the efforts of 47 Free World medical teams in Vietnam," declared the State Department in November 1968.
It was precisely the humanitarian appearance of Canadian aid, most of it medically related, and the program's ostensible lack of political content that constituted its greatest asset to the counterinsurgency program. "Medicine is an ideal...action program," wrote Colonel Spurgeon Neel of the U.S. army, "because its humanitarian aspects can be raised above the level of political turbulence....It provides an apolitical avenue through which favorable influence may be maintained and it provides immediate high impact communication."
The campaigns for medical aid in both the United States and Canada assumed a propaganda role designed to mask U.S. responsibility for the deaths and injuries of civilians in South Vietnam. Announcing the establishment of two rehabilitation clinics in Da Nang and Can Tho, Dr. Howard Rusk of the World Rehabilitation Fund said that "never before in history has any nation in the world, including the U.S., established a militarily operational hospital program in wartime to care for injured civilians. This new program could well be called 'Operation Compassion,' for here all civilian casualties who need and seek care will be treated alike." Questioned about the use of napalm in Vietnam, Dr. Rusk declared: "This writer personally saw every burn case in the twenty hospitals he visited. Among them was not a single case of burns due to napalm and but two from phosphorus shells."
Members of the Canadian medical team adopted the same stance. As late as August 16, 1968, one Canadian doctor told the Canadian press that "he had never seen a single case of napalm burns and that the majority of patients he had treated were traffic accidents." Those who chose another path were silenced. When the Toronto Star reported that Dr. Vennema said he was handling "20-30 napalm bomb casualties" in the Quang Ngai TB centre, the Canadian ICC delegation received a cable from Ottawa saying: "Better talk to Vennema about this. That type of thing should not be said. The U.S. government says there are no napalm cases in this province."
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld