Vietnam Revisited By 12570 Mike Kennedy

Vietnam Revisited

 By 12570 Mike Kennedy

Forty years ago this spring, troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam mounted an offensive that would prove to be the final chapter in their seemingly never-ending quest to reunite their homeland. When Saigon capitulated to the PAVN forces at the end of April 1975, it marked the end of a bitter and enormously costly war that had lasted for almost exactly three decades. The North Vietnamese triumph also served as a humiliating denouement for their principal foreign opponent the United States, and in the years that immediately followed the war, Vietnam was something that a great many Americans wanted to forget.

As a nation, Canada stood aloof from the turmoil of Vietnam. Our government’s refusal to send combat troops to the war, and our willingness to offer refuge to draft dodgers and military deserters, both served as sources of bitter resentment for many of our neighbours to the south. It therefore seems somewhat ironic that one of the comprehensive and complete documentary accounts of that conflict would eventually be created by a Canadian.

More

Originally produced 35 years ago, The Ten Thousand Day War is a 26-part documentary series that traces the history of the Vietnam War from its earliest beginnings in 1945, up to the final collapse of South Vietnam in the wake of the spring 1975 onslaught. The series was the brainchild of veteran journalist and broadcaster Michael Maclear, who immigrated to Canada in 1954, and subsequently enjoyed a long and successful career first with CBC and then with CTV. During the Vietnam War Maclear made several visits to that country, and was one of a very few Western journalists ever to be allowed access to the North.

Vietnam had been a French colony since the 1880’s, and following France’s defeat in the Second World War, the country was occupied by the Japanese. It was during this time that the struggle for national independence was begun by the Communist Viet Minh party, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Following a disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French exited Indochina altogether, leaving Vietnam essentially a divided country with the Communists ruling the North, and a supposedly democratic government in control of the South.

American military involvement in Vietnam began quietly and gradually, initially taking the form of military advisors who main role was to offer guidance to South Vietnamese troops seeking to contain Communist aggression. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 the American presence in Vietnam expanded rapidly, reaching approximately 500,000 troops a couple of years later. Time passed, casualties mounted dramatically, and it gradually became clear that no decisive victory was in sight. Concurrent with these developments, the war became hugely unpopular in the United States, and the resulting groundswell of public opposition put enormous pressure on the administration of President Richard Nixon to extricate his country from the morass, and hand responsibility for fighting the Communists over to the ill-prepared South Vietnamese.

Using film footage from the Americans and North Vietnamese, The Ten Thousand Day War provides viewers with an incisive and hard-hitting look at the pivotal events of that conflict. The series features interviews with key military and diplomatic players from the war, including U.S. Generals William Westmoreland and Alexander Haig, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. Featured prominently from North Vietnamese side is former soldier and diplomat Ha Van Lau, who conducts his interviews in French.  Individual episodes also include some of the most iconic images of the war, such as South Vietnamese police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong suspect by firing a pistol point-blank at his head; nine year-old Kim Phuc running down a road naked and screaming after her village was bombed with napalm in 1972; and the ecstatic reunion of U.S. Air Force pilot Robert Stirm and his family following Stirm’s release from six years of captivity in North Vietnamese prisons.

If there is any issue that is not adequately addressed in this series, it may be the lack of any mention of Canadian participation in the war. Although this country’s government refused to send troops to aid the Americans, it is nonetheless estimated that anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Canadians crossed the border to volunteer for service with the U.S. forces. Worth noting is the fact that by doing so all of them violated the Foreign Enlistment Act, originally passed in 1937 to deter Canadians from fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Of those Canadians who volunteered for Vietnam at least 103 are known to have died, and their names and legacy are commemorated on the North Wall, a privately-funded monument erected in Assumption Park in Windsor in 1995.

One noteworthy name on the North Wall is that of Lance Corporal Richard P. Dextraze of the U.S. Marine Corps, killed in April 1969 in Quang Tri province, and posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in battle. Born in Montreal in 1947, Lance Corporal Dextraze was the son of Jacques Dextraze, the legendary veteran of WW II and Korea who rose to become Canada’s CDS in the mid-1970’s.

Apart from this one unfortunate omission, The Ten Thousand Day War otherwise provides an excellent and in-depth analysis of one of modern history’s longest and most misunderstood conflicts. The youngest veterans of the Vietnam war are today well into their 60’s, but the lessons they learned a half-century ago in the jungles of Southeast Asia played an instrumental role in driving the massive transformation of the U.S. armed forces that took place in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This series is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in learning more about the causes of the Vietnam War, the pivotal events of that conflict, and most importantly, what it was really like to be there on the ground.

The complete Ten Thousand Day War series is available on DVD, and can be ordered on-line at www.chapters.ca or www.amazon.ca.

Ed note: On April 9, 1975, the PAVN forces reached Xuân Lộc, which was apparently the last line of defence outside Saigon. The Battle of Xuân Lộc began on April 9 and was the last major battle of the war, ending of course in the North Vietnamese victory. Coincidentally (or maybe not) April 9 was also the date on which the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge began in 1917.

5 Comments

  • Lionel Boxer

    February 23, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    I know Canadians who joined the Australian Defence Force so they could fight in Vietnam. I also know US draft dodgers, who spent many years in Toronto. I spent half a week in Hanoi about 10 years ago working with about 30 young professionals from that city – they were most impressive in their enthusiasm and professionalism. There was one more senior professional from HCMC (formerly Saigon) whose presence implied a legacy of resentment and disunity between north and south. Also, interesting to have been taken on a tour of a brand new subdivision of town houses all empty; having been built with the proceeds of corruption – no one will live in these for fear of identification as a recipient of the proceeds of kickbacks. Corruption is not typical of Vietnam – it the normal way of business and government in many nations. Even Canada – albeit in a more subdued manner.

  • George Wissler

    February 23, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Very nicely written, I enjoyed the article very much. I was a teenager through the 60’s, growing up in southwestern Ontario and spent many evenings watching the news from US tv stations reporting on the Vietnam war. Over the years since that time, I have met many Canadians living in the United States or Canada who served in Vietnam. I have essentially lived in the US since 1988. During that time, I have had numerous conversations with US citizens who knew nothing about Canadians’ participation in the war.

  • 6533 Gordon Forbes

    February 23, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    When I was on exchange with the US Navy from 1973 – 1975, there was a sailor on our staff from New Brunswick who had joined to fight in Vietnam. Most of the people I worked with had served in Vietnam ay one time or another, usually aboard ship. I was still in the US when Saigon fell. We must also remember that Canada played a significant role in the International Control Commission that gave a six month respite to the fighting so that the US could pull most of their troops out of the war.

    The Ten Thousand Day War was also made into a book.

  • LCol(Ret'd) Jerry Donahue

    February 23, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    3035 Jerry Donahue
    Haven’t read the book referred to but just wanted to add that Canada was involved in Vietnam with two Control Commissions. The first started in 1954 and lasted until 1973. It was made up of India, Chairman, Canada and Poland with team sites in North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The second Commission started in 1973 after the Paris Peace talks and consisted of Canada, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary. The chairmanship shifted to each country after Canada did the initial set up. I did two tours in Vietnam and was one of only a dozen Canadian Forces personnel to serve in both Commissions. “My Story” is chapter 15 in a book written by Col John Gardam on Canada in Peace and War.

  • Geoff Bennett

    February 24, 2015 at 12:53 am

    My father, 2435 Bob Bennett, also did two tours with the ICC in Vietnam in 1961 and 1971. He had many stories but my favourite was when he was briefly captured by NVA soldiers while cycling (unauthorized) in the countryside west of Hanoi. The soldiers thought they had hit the jackpot and captured an American pilot.

    My own more poignant memory was of visiting West Point in February of my senior year in 1971 and seeing the rows of Corvettes in the parking lot. Most of them were owned by seniors who would go to Vietnam as young lieutenants later that year.

    Today I travel to Vietnam often on business. In our office I see a subtle rivalry between the northerners and the southerners although they generally cover this up with joviality. As a group, the Vietnamese are the most confident of all the SE Asians with whom I come into contact. After all, they beat the French and the Americans and even gave the Chinese a good whipping. They call it the “American” war, of course.

    One of the most interesting venues to visit, especially for Ex-Cadets, is the Cu Chi tunnel complex just west of HCMC. I was given a personal tour by an army sergeant who dared me to go down to the third (non-tourist) level. I gained a whole new appreciation for the tenacity of the Vietnamese.