I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember
I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember (ISBN: 1896239145 Paperback, 175pp) covers the story about individual Canadians who fought in the Vietnam War. We will remember them. Order the book.
I Volunteered – Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember fills a significant gap in Canada’s military history—I strongly recommend it.
Les Peate, Esprit de Corps
…a moving first-hand account of a little known aspect of Canadian military and social experience.
Max Hancock, Ottawa Citizen
Did you know?
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The Walker was Canadian
Vietnam Veterans Associations Still Active
Canada and the Vietnam War
When 19-year-old Robert Beattie crossed the border between Nova Scotia and Maine late in 1967, border officials probably thought he was just another Canadian looking for inexpensive Christmas gifts.
Instead, he visited recruiting office for the U.S. Marines and signed up to go to Vietnam.
He joined some 30,000 Canadian men and women agreed to serve in Vietnam as diplomats, soldiers, doctors, nurses and aid workers between 1954 and 1975.
What made him do it?
That’s the most common question I’m asked whenever people hear that I featured Beattie and others in my first book, “I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember.”
After interviewing 218 veterans for the book and multiple other experts over the years since writing it in 1996, I have narrowed the key reasons people go to war down to three: a family history of military service, a desire to escape abuse and poverty, and a need to make the world better.
Family history of military service
Most Canadians count ancestor warriors who went to Afghanistan, Britain, Crimea Cyprus, Iraq, France, Korea, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Africa, Spain and the United States during historic wars.
Even those who don’t remember family warriors probably have a military past somewhere. Many Quebeckers, including me, descend from one of the 1,200 soldiers in the Carignan-Salières Regiment who came to New France in 1665 to protect settlers from attacks by the Iroquois Nation.
Europe brought many wars to the new world, including Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), Father Rale’s War (also known as Dummer’s War), King George’s War, also called the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), and Father Le Loutre’s War (1749–1755) in Acadia and Nova Scotia,
Others share DNA with those who served with the Troupes de Terre and the Compagnies franches de la marine, both of which participated at the battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.
Still others have ancestors within the 30,000 German Hessians who served in the colonies under King George II of England between 1776 and 1783. Many of us have family members among the American, Aboriginal and British soldiers who fought during four intercolonial wars between 1688 and 1773 or later during the War of 1812.
We also have family members participating in more recent wars too, including the Afghan, Gulf, Korean and Kosovo wars. We are justifiably proud of these heroes for sacrificing themselves for a greater good.
So why is Vietnam any different? People tend to describe the Vietnam War as though every soldier who went was drafted. The Canadians prove the lie to this assumption, which is why their story often gets hidden. Then again, governments don’t set up conscription processes unless they believe a conflict should be fought.
Escape abuse and poverty
Some of the veterans I interviewed joined the U.S. military because they needed a job, but others went to escape bad situations at home. Perhaps their families lived in poverty or they witnessed or suffered abuse.
That makes them all mercenaries I’m often told, usually by someone with an incredibly angry tone. These individuals seem to assume that all Canadian soldiers purposely give up their ethics to fight for foreign powers in return for a paycheque and escape.
None of them knew that their actions were technically illegal either, in part because so many Canadian institutions helped make their actions possible. For example, the RCMP provided security clearance reports for any Canadian who joined the U.S. military.
A few of the men I spoke to admitted that they were ashamed of somethings they did when serving in Vietnam, but often they felt like they had little choice by then. They certainly didn’t intend to give up their ethics.
One person told me he thought he wanted to kill before he got to Vietnam, but he said that feeling was based on his training and a misunderstanding of what killing actually meant. The first dead person he saw changed his mind, but it was too late to go home then.
Make the world better
For many, the horrific events at My Lai (Sơn Mỹ) on March 16, 1968 epitomize soldier action in Vietnam. There’s no doubt that 26 American soldiers raped and murdered 504 unarmed civilians. They even reported the event as a justified enemy kill.
We rarely hear about Hugh Thompson, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, the helicopter crew that tried to stop the killing and physically saved people by flying them away.
Thompson and his colleagues prevented an enormous lie from being believed, but he paid a huge personal price for his valour, especially in the early days. People put dead animals on his balcony. He got death threats. Eventually, he got the appropriate appreciation for his work, but that took time.
A Canadian woman got similar treatment from her government. Claire Culhane worked as a librarian at the tuberculosis hospital in Quang Ngai City from 1967 until February 1968. She left her post when she realized that the Canadian medical team head passed along patient information to the American Embassy and CIA.
She understood then that the Canadian government only served in Vietnam to bolster the American war effort.
Her efforts to stop the government continued for years, but the politicians ignored her. During the year that Culhane served in Vienam, Canada gave $2.7 million dollars to South Vietnam, a figure that surpassed the previous year. Every year, the Canadian Government gave similar amounts, with aid going up to $3.9 million in ’72 ’73.
Canadian Peace Efforts in Vietnam
All in all, our federal politicians voted to give almost $30 million in funds and technical expertise to South Vietnam between1957 and 1975. We sent 497 experts to South Vietnam. Canadian corporations supplied the U.S. military with $2.5 billion worth of goods during that same period. The Canadian military tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick.
During the same years, several reporters announced that the Canadian Government attempted to block private funds from going to North Vietnam. We trained 2,997 South Vietnamese students in Canadian colleges and universities.
In many ways, Canada fell into supporting the American effort during the Vietnam War as a side effect to their efforts to pull India and Pakistan out of an economic depression after WWII.
Pearson and the Colombo Plan
The project began on January 9, 1950, when External Affairs Minister Lester B.(Mike) Pearson joined six of his compatriots at a five-day meeting in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The meeting was the first time that Commonwealth foreign ministers met in Asia. It also marked the first meeting in which India, Pakistan and then Ceylon attended international meetings based on their own sovereignty.
The other foreign ministers at the meeting were:
- Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, Australia;
- Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, Britain;
- Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs, India;
- Fredrick Doidge, Minister for External Affairs, New Zealand;
- Chaudhry Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Foreign Minister of Pakistan; and
- Don Stephen Senanayake, Prime Minister of Ceylon.
A meeting of commonwealth finance ministers took place at the same time. Douglas LePan, a civil servant who served in External Affairs but frequently worked for the Ministry of Finance, participated in those meetings for Canada until the two meetings were linked half-way through the week. Leaders of note in the second meeting included Ghulam Mohammed, Pakistan’s Minister of Finance, Pakistan; and Junius Richard Jayewardene, Ceylon’s Finance Minister.
The Colombo Plan continues to exist today, although Canada left the organization under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1992. Britain had already left a year earlier.
The project the men created via the two series of meetings involved cooperation, mutual economic development and the defeat of communism. None of them wanted the British Sterling to collapse. In addition, India and Pakistan still hadn’t recovered from the world-wide economic depression most other countries came out of during World War II. The communist threat was also top of mind, given the Chinese Communist Party’s defeat of the Nationalists, who retreated to Taiwan the year before.
Colombo Plan funds went to the building of the Mayurakshi Dam in West Bengal, the Hulule Airport in the Maldives, the Da Nhim Hydropower Plant in South Vietnam, and India’s first nuclear power plant, which went online in 1960.
David McGee and Rian Manson describe how the Colombo Plan changed the relationship between Canada and India in chapter 4 of the book Objects in Motion: Globalizing Technology. 
When you look at the actions of these politicians and civil servants, it’s hard not to understand that soldiers also wanted to do everything they could to prevent communist forces from over-taking South Vietnam.
People tell me that this is due to some sort of need to exploit countries through colonialism, but I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect that most people who got involved in Vietnam believed that they were sacrificing themselves to make the world a little better. Or at the very least, they thought they could keep it from getting worse.
There’s no doubt that the Vietnam War featured human brutality in the form of civilian rapes, beatings, dispersions, massacres, military corruption, bestiality, live burials, human burnings, political expedience and incompetence.
It was also atrociously long—lasting from 1954 until 1975 for the American portion. Even longer, if you include France’s attempt to hold onto the provinces of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China along with Laos and Cambodia between 1946 and 1954. Longer still, when you realize that Vietnam was occupied by Japan after France lost to the Germans on May 10, 1940. We can even go back further, to the beginning of French occupation in Vietnam from the Cochin China Campaign in 1858.
Every war features despicable behaviour by bullies and despots. Sometimes, people go to war to stop them, and in this case, many people thought that that’s what they were doing.
Vietnam has a particularly bad reputation because we lost. If we hadn’t, perhaps our many sacrifices might have felt worthwhile.
Then again, it’s possible they were.
We don’t know what might have happened if we’d never been involved in the first place.
 Whiteside, Heather. (2015). Canada’s Reluctant Acceptance of the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia. Waterloo Historical Review. 7. 10.15353/whr.v7.34.
 McGee, David and Rian Manson, “Canada, Communism and the Columbo Plan,” in Objects in Motion: Globalizing Technology, edited by Nina Mollers and Bryan Dewalt (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2016), 46-64, http://aidhistory.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/04_McGeeManson_Artefacts_10_proof.pdf, accessed November 18, 2019.
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About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.