Each Remembrance Day, as we pause to pay tribute to veterans of past wars, there is one group that is always overlooked: Canadian Vietnam veterans.
The popular misconception in Canada, and one supported by the Canadian government, is that Canda had no involvement in the Vietnam war. The truth is that Canada was involved, although not to the extent of the United States.
From 1954 to 1975 Canada provided $22 million for capital assistance and technical training, and $6 million in food aid, for a total of $29 million in aid to South Vietnam. As well, Canada provided aid through various non-governmental organizations and multilateral agencies. The Canadian government also supported multilateral aid programs in Vietnam through the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Although they did not ship arms and supplies directly to Vietnam, Canada did sell them to the U.S., knowing full well what they were intended for. The government’s attitude was that they knew the supplies were going directly to Vietnam, but they could not be responsible for what the U.S. did with them.
More important than the money and supplies, however, is the human factor. From the time the United States officially entered the Vietnam war in 1959, at least 40,000 Canadians enlisted with the U.S. armed forces.
In order to enlist Canadians had to give a U.S. city or town as their place of residence. After the war this created a major problem as there were no records of Canadians who had served in Vietnam. Through extensive research some, but not all, volunteers were identified. Because of this the number of Candians who volunteered is believed to have been closer to 80,000.
The Canadian government considered Vietnam to be a “friendly state”. Under the Foreign Enlistment Act it was illegal for Canadian nationals to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly state. Most Canadians who enlisted were not aware that they were, in fact, breaking Canadian law.
Why did Canadians volunteer to go to Vietnam and fight in a war not sanctioned by their country?
For John G. Radcliffe, it was “the right thing to do.” The idealistic young man from Winnipeg, Manitoba enlisted in January 1969 at the age of 21.
Prior to enlisting Radcliffe dropped out of university where he had been studying mathematics and physics. After spending almost a year in England he returned to Canada with the plan to enlist in the U.S. military. He wanted to join the Special Forces because “if you are putting your life on the line, you want to be with the best.”
“I felt it was time for people such as myself to stand up and be counted.,” said Radcliffe. “Being born after the end of WW II, I grew up in the midst of confrontation after confrontation, between the west and the communists. It started with Korea, of course, but I do not remember anything about that war except, perhaps, the things that were picked up after the fact, either on TV or comic books. I remember my parents stockpiling canned goods as advised by the Canadian government in anticipation of possible nuclear war. I also participated in air raid drills at school.”
After enlisting at a recruitment centre in Fargo, North Dakota, Radcliffe was deployed to Vietnam in August 1969. Instead of Special Forces, he ended up as a U.S. army-combat Still Photographer, assigned to the 221st Signal Company, 40th Signal Battalion. He was initially based in Long Binh, III Corps, and subsequently went to Phu Bai and then Da Nang in I Corps.
During 14 months in Vietnam Radcliffe’s belief that this was the right thing to do never waivered.
“We were still fighting against an authoritarian regime which was attempting to impose its will on a group of people who were not and did not want to be communist.”
After serving their tours of duty Canadian Vietnam veterans were all but ignored by their country. Not considered war veterans by their government, they were forced to seek medical treatments in the United States for any illnesses relating to their time in Vietnam. Many vets disabled in the war did not realize they were eligible for benefits. Only through dogged determination by veterans on behalf of their fellow vets were those who needed aid able to receive it. Some never did receive help and have been forced to deal with their issues completely alone.
When Radcliffe returned home he “found it difficult to sleep for about five years without bolting upright at the slightest sound.” He did not seek professional help for this because “no one had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder then.”
No official recognition has ever been paid to Canadians who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. Canada’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs would not even accept deceased Canadian Vietnam veteran’s because they fought for the U.S. military in Vietnam. The government’s position: Vietnam was not a war.
There is no official war memorial commemorating Canadians who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam. Former Public Works Minister David Dingwall was once quoted in a letter stating: “No federal site will be provided for such a monument because the Vietnam conflict was not a Canadian war.”
Radcliffe views Dingwall’s response as “typical of politicians — hypocritical. They pretend to not know that Canadians did volunteer to go to Vietnam, and they conveniently forget that Canada quietly provided logistical support for the war effort under NORAD.”
A war memorial was erected by a small group of Michigan veterans to recognize those Canadians who served in Vietnam. Dubbed the North Wall, it sits in Assumption Park in Windsor, Ontario overlooking the Detroit River. On the wall are 103 names of known Canadians who died in Vietnam, as well as the names of seven people listed as missing in action.
On the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington 104 Canadians are among the 58,206 names inscribed on the wall.
That Canada has countrymen who volunteered to go to Vietnam often comes as a surprise to the majority of Canadians. This is due, in part, to the fact that most Canadian Vietnam veterans are very reluctant to talk about their experiences. All but ignored by their government, and treated with indifference by the media, they believe that no one really wants to know or understand why they volunteered their services to this cause.
Their experiences are part of Canadian history and deserve to be recognized. These Canadians believed in freedom and saw in South Vietnam the need to protect that freedom from the threat of communism. Yet their commitment, bravery and sacrifice has been ignored.
Today Radcliffe, who holds a B.A. (Honours) First Class from the University of Manitoba, an M.A. from Queen’s University (Kingston), and a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburg (Scotland), is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. He still believes he was right in going to Vietnam.
“I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of doing. I still believe it was the right thing to do and have seen nothing since then to confirm that I am wrong.”
© 2008 Tallulah