The story of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ fleeing Vietnam following the end of the disastrous U.S. war in that country in 1975 is an enduring one in Canada’s political discourse. It has served to cover up uncomfortable truths about U.S. war crimes against the Vietnamese people as well as Canada’s complicity in those crimes. As Canada receives the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees to land by the end of February 2016, Canadians should be wary of similar political exercises to misrepresent truths about the deadly consequences of decades of imperialist intervention in the Middle East.
On December 26, the CBC Radio One program Day Six broadcast a story concerning Syrian refugees coming to Canada. The story featured three guests who came to Canada in the past as refugees from Chile, Vietnam and, most recently, Syria. All three CBC guests are among the many Canadians who have stepped forward to sponsor Syrian refugees today, gestures that will greatly assist the new arrivals.
The CBC host introduced the Vietnamese-Canadian guest to the program, Marianne Thuy Nyugen, by explaining that she was a boat person who had “escaped Vietnam on the very day the government surrendered” in 1975. What, exactly, she was “escaping” in 1975 was left unsaid, but anyone the least bit familiar with the mainstream news interpretation of this story knows that CBC was alluding to claimed, impending violent retribution by the national liberation forces that had defeated the U.S. military machine.
Another CBC Radio One program, The Current, provided a similar historical interpretation in a broadcast last April on the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the boat people.
The CBC’s news archive of the boat people story is a reminder of the deeply anti-communist ideology that predominated in mainstream news coverage during the 15 years-long ‘American War’, as it is called in Vietnam. The archive describes thusly the fall of Saigon, the capital city in southern Vietnam of the pro-U.S. puppet government of the day: “The Pentagon had been told to plan for the movement of 175,000 South Vietnamese who were in danger of being executed by the Communists for their service to the South Vietnam government or the United States…Those South Vietnamese allies left behind faced years of hard labour, imprisonment and death. The same was true for American allies in Laos, where an estimated ten per cent of the Hmong tribespeople were killed by Communist forces. Those who could, fled – by air, land or sea.”
The long, catastrophic American War finally ended with a humbling military defeat of the U.S. in April 1975. Among the iconic photos of the war are ones showing helicopter evacuations of the last of U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and others showing the first Vietnamese tank to break through the gates of the embassy on April 30, 1975. The Vietnamese fighters on board the tank look scarcely older than teenagers.
The enduring mainstream news story of the boat people of Vietnam depicts them as people fleeing a new government coming to power in Vietnam that was hell-bent on revenge. But this version of events was always a lie. The predicted (hoped for?) violent retributions never took place. On the contrary, the newly liberated country set a model example of how to overcome the profound national and civil schisms created by imperialist war.
Canadian anthropologist and longtime anti-Vietnam War activist Kathleen Gough visited Hanoi in northern Vietnam for ten days in November 1976. She published a book of her visit in 1978, Ten Times More Beautiful: The rebuilding of Vietnam.
Gough wrote that one year after the fall of Saigon and final liberation of Vietnam, 95 per cent of those who had been imprisoned following the U.S. defeat had been released. One year after that, she explained, only a hard core of unrepentant war criminals were still in prison.
The key to Vietnam’s remarkable and successful reintegration of those guilty of war crimes and other violations was patience and willingness by the people and government of the country to reintegrate offenders back into society, provided offenders acknowledged their crimes and atoned for them.
Reintegration was all the more remarkable considering the terrible toll the war had taken. The American War virtually destroyed Vietnam as a country. There were more bombs dropped on Vietnam by U.S. forces than were dropped in all of World War Two. Gough wrote in her book, “During 35 years of revolutionary warfare, Vietnam has transcended the most brutal assaults known to history.”
The U.S. unleashed massive amounts of chemical weapons on Vietnam, notably Agent Orange, a defoliant, and napalm, a jellied hydrocarbon intended to incinerate its human targets.
The lead agent of Agent Orange is dioxin, one of the deadliest compounds manufactured by the military-chemical complex. Forty years after the end of the war, babies are still born in Vietnam with birth defects due to dioxin. A 2013 news article reported: “Citing numbers provided by the Vietnam Red Cross, the McClatchy Foreign Press reported in July that an estimated 3 million people spanning three generations have been affected by Agent Orange. At least 150,000 of these cases have been children born with severe birth defects since the war’s end in 1975.”
The predictions that the new authorities in Vietnam would undertake violent retributions as well as the present-day recantations of same served then as they serve now to cover up the grave war crimes committed by the United States government and military against the people of Vietnam over the course of several decades. They also distract attention from the complicity in those war crimes by U.S.-allied countries, including the weapons manufacturers on their territories.
The list of complicit countries includes Canada during the Liberal Party governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Canada’s role in Vietnam as an accomplice to war crimes is detailed most thoroughly in the 1986 book Quiet Complicity: Canadian involvement in the Vietnam War, by Victor Levant. It is also told in many other books and essays.
According to a Wikipedia entry, citing sources, the number of people who left Vietnam by boat was approximately 800,000 between 1975 and 1995. An even larger number left the country by other means. Vietnamese people were the largest wave of refugees to come to Canada in modern times. Wikipedia reports, “The three countries resettling most Vietnamese boat people and land arrivals were the United States with 402,382, Australia with 108,808 and Canada with 100,012.”
Why did so many Vietnamese people flee their homeland? The reasons were manyfold. Many were children and thus had little or no say in the matter. A 1975 photo of the guest on the Day Six program, for example, shows a child in her early teens.
Many who fled were guilty of crimes related to the war—killings, governmental repression, torture and other mistreatment of prisoners, espionage, and so on.
Anti-communist ideology ran deep in Catholic southern Vietnam and so many of those who left simply did not wish to live in the socialist society that the new leaders of Vietnam were pledging to build.
Probably a majority of those who left can be described as economic refugees, people living marginal existences and believing life abroad could only be better. Vietnam’s economy was wrecked by the war. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese lived a perilous existence around U.S. military bases, providing services including bars and restaurants, prostitution and drug trafficking. Many were drawn into spying for U.S. intelligence. All of that collapsed and disappeared with the defeat of the U.S.
In contrast to their Liberal governments of the day, a majority of Canadians came to oppose the American War. This considerably narrowed Ottawa’s options in supporting its U.S. ally. One reflection of the popular sentiment was the open door that Americans fleeing compulsory military service found in Canada. Tens of thousands of U.S. draft resisters and military deserters settled there.
Canada and the 1973 coup in Chile
The Day Six broadcast included a guest who was born in Chile. The program host introduced Rosalinda Paredes saying she “was forced to flee Chile… during the brutal Pinochet regime”, referring to the military coup in Chile in 1973.
Canada (again under Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau) initially turned a blind eye to the 1973 coup in Chile. The coup was orchestrated by Canada’s celebrated and closest political and military ally, the United States; hence, sensitivities surrounding the subject are understandable.
Canada eventually received some 7,000 refugees from Chile, including people for other Latin American countries caught in Chile at the time of the coup. But their road to Canada was rocky and did not come without a political fight. A 2007 essay on the subject explains:
The Chilean refugee crisis provoked mixed reactions among Canadian government officials and the general public. Canadian officials were justifiably criticized for inaction and for the mixed messages they sent in the months that followed the coup. Pressure from both within and outside of the country helped to force the ministers of External Affairs and Manpower and Immigration to take action to expedite the acceptance and entry of political refugees into Canada. In the context of the Cold War, however, the political ideology [left-wing] of the refugees proved to be an impediment to government action.
A 2013 article in the Globe and Mail describes the work of the then-First Secretary of the Canadian embassy in Santiago, Marc Dolgin, at a time when Canadian Ambassador Andrew Ross was out of the country:
While Mr. Dolgin searched for options, getting little response or direction from Ottawa, Canadian church groups and other activists were organizing on [behalf of Chileans targeted by coup repression] and raising an alarm about human rights violations by the junta…
Then in late September, an obscure government worker leaked diplomatic cables in which Mr. Ross, the ambassador, referred to Latin American leftists as “riff-raff” and expressed relief at the overthrow of the Allende government.
“I was angry,” recalled Bob Thomson, the former Canadian International Development Agency worker who found and passed on the cables. He said he wanted Canadians to know “what kind of foreign policy was being developed in response to the coup based on the ambassador’s advice.”
The leak did more: It created momentum to bring persecuted Chileans to Canada and ultimately to include refugees as a special class in its immigration act.
Ambassador Ross’ reprehensible conduct contrasted with that of Sweden’s Ambassador to Chile, Harald Edelstam. He and his embassy staff bravely saved countless lives during and following the coup. Among their exploits was a personal intervention by Edelstam that saved the Cuban embassy and staff from assault by the Chilean military.
The story of Canada’s role during the 1973 coup in Chile, including the heroic work of Bob Thomson, is told in a 2013 article by David Heap in Rabble.ca, on the 40th anniversary of the coup.
That same year, Bob Thomson was awarded the 2013 Integrity Award by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for his work in Chile 40 years earlier. Thomson reflected on that experience in a column in the National Post on Dec 6, 2013.
Syrian refugees to Canada today
The issue of Syrian refugees to Canada, the focus of the CBC Day Six story, is in the spotlight as Canada has begun to receive a promised 25,000. This was a commitment made by Justin Trudeau during the election campaign of October 19, 2015 won by him and his Liberal Party.
Trudeau promised that the 25,000 would be safe in Canada by year’s end. But the targeted date is now set for the end of February 2016, due to logistical problems says the government minister responsible.
Impressionist reporting of the Syrian refugee crisis by media in Canada would have Canadians believing that Ottawa is making an exceptional contribution to alleviating the suffering of Syrians. But Canada is a latecomer in responding to the plight of Syrian refugees, as is Canada’s neighbour to the south. Canada’s goal of accepting 25,000 Syrians, and the corresponding number of 10,000 for the United States, pale in comparison to the estimated four million Syrian refugees who have been forced from their homeland. They are living in difficult conditions in neighbouring countries where the means to care for them are limited. Many have embarked on the perilous journey to Europe; more than 3,500 have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Syrian numbers are part of the 60 million refugees estimated by the UNHCR, the UN refugee rights agency, to have been forced from their homes or their countries by war. UNHCR says this number is an all-time high in 2015.
There are many ways which Canada could alleviate the refugee crisis in Syria. It could start by ending its participation in the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq and ending its support, including arms sales, to the repressive regimes in the region that are also fomenting war in Syria, such as Saudi Arabia.
Canada could support diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria, such as the UN Security Council resolution of December 18, 2015. The government and mainstream media in Canada do not breathe a word of that important, breakthrough resolution, no doubt because it marks a significant achievement for Russian diplomacy in the region.
Canada could be using military and other vessels in the Mediterranean Sea to assist the safe movement of refugees, thus preventing any more drownings of those fleeing to Europe. Some 3,500 refugees have drowned and, tragically, it is still allowed to happen. Instead of saving human lives, Canada’s military ships and those of its allies are uselessly parading around the Mediterranean and Black Seas as part of NATO’s ongoing, threatening military posture against Russia.
The full scope of the Syrian refugee crisis goes largely unspoken in Canada because that would require examining why Syrians are being forced to leave their homes and their homeland in the first place. The best outcome to the crisis is not to watch Syria become emptied of its population due to war. It is to end foreign intervention that aims to overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad and which is the main cause of the refugee crisis. Instead, a political settlement is needed for the admittedly difficult political conflict that has torn Syria apart internally. Once that is achieved, massive assistance in the rebuilding of Syria and its neighbouring countries will be required.
Canada should be demanding that NATO-member Turkey end its brutal internal war against the Kurdish population in the east of that country. But the government and loyal media are silent as Kurdish towns and cities have been are routinely shelled and bombed in recent months by the Turkish military and hundreds have died.
The policies of permanent war and ‘regime change’ against governments that do not jump to Washington’s orders are at the root of the political and humanitarian disasters in the Middle East.
Canada, Israel and the countries of the European Union all share responsibility for what has unfolded. But rather than recognize the disastrous results of their policies, they are going in the opposite direction, boosting their military and political intervention. In the case of Canada, the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed to implement its election promise to withdraw its fighter jets from the U.S.-led bombing of Syria. Defense Minister Harjip Sajjan has concluded a five-day tour to the Middle East just prior to Christmas as part of a plan to expand Canada’s military role for Canada in the Middle East.
Given the Trudeau government’s course in the Middle East and its unwavering support to the NATO countries’ threats and economic embargo against Russia and Crimea, Canadians have a renewed duty to speak out and organize against war and militarism. In this ‘honeymoon’ period of the Trudeau government, there were hopes that ‘something’ would improve in Canada’s foreign policy. But we have seen that movie before, following the election of Barak Obama in 2008. It did not end well and neither will this new script unless we act.