Tag Archives: Vietnam

Defence of European empires was original NATO goal

National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, centre, and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance as Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at NATO headquarters.

Second in a four-part series on the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The first installment  in this series discussed how NATO was set up partly to blunt the European Left. The other major factor driving the creation of NATO was a desire to bolster colonial authority and bring the world under a US geopolitical umbrella.

From the outset Canadian officials had an incredibly expansive definition of NATO’s supposed defensive character, which says an “attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.” As part of the Parliamentary debate over NATO external minister Lester Pearson said: “There is no better way of ensuring the security of the Pacific Ocean at this particular moment than by working out, between the great democratic powers, a security arrangement the effects of which will be felt all over the world, including the Pacific area.” Two years later he said: “The defence of the Middle East is vital to the successful defence of Europe and north Atlantic area.” In 1953 Pearson went even further: “There is now only a relatively small [5000 kilometre] geographical gap between southeast Asia and the area covered by the North Atlantic treaty, which goes to the eastern boundaries of Turkey.”

In one sense the popular portrayal of NATO as a defensive arrangement was apt. After Europe’s second Great War the colonial powers were economically weak while anti-colonial movements could increasingly garner outside support. The Soviets and Mao’s China, for instance, aided the Vietnamese. Similarly, Egypt supported Algerian nationalists and Angola benefited from highly altruistic Cuban backing. The international balance of forces had swung away from the colonial powers.

To maintain their colonies European powers increasingly depended on North American diplomatic and financial assistance. NATO passed numerous resolutions supporting European colonial authority. In the fall of 1951 Pearson responded to moves in Iran and Egypt to weaken British influence by telling Parliament: “The Middle  East is strategically far too important to the defence of the North Atlantic area to allow it to become a power vacuum or to pass into unfriendly hands.”The next year Ottawa recognized the colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as “associated states” of France, according to an internal report, “to assist  a NATO colleague, sorely tried by foreign and domestic problems.” More significantly, Canada gave France hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment through NATO’s Mutual Assistance Program. These weapons were mostly used to suppress the Vietnamese and Algerian independence movements. In 1953 Pearson told the House: “The assistance  we have given to France as a member of the NATO association may have helped her recently in the discharge of some of her obligations in Indo-China.” Similarly, Canadian and US aid was used by the Dutch to maintain their dominance over Indonesia and West Papua New Guinea, by the Belgians in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, by the Portuguese in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau and by the British in numerous places. Between 1950 and 1958 Ottawa donated a whopping $1,526,956,000 ($8 billion today) in ammunition, fighter jets, military training, etc. to European countries through the NATO Mutual Assistance Program.

The role NATO played in North American/European subjugation of the Global South made Asians and Africans wary of the organization. The Nigerian Labour Party’s 1964 pamphlet The NATO Conspiracy in Africa documents that organization’s military involvement on the continent from bases to naval agreements. In 1956 NATO established a Committee for Africa and in June 1959 NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the organization’s main political decision-making body, warned that the communists would take advantage of African independence to the detriment of Western political and economic interests.

The north Atlantic alliance was designed to maintain unity among the historic colonial powers — and the US — in the midst of a de-colonizing world. It was also meant to strengthen US influence around the world. In a history of the 1950-53 US-led Korean war David Bercuson writes that Canada’s external minister “agreed with [President] Truman, [Secretary of State] Dean Acheson, and other American leaders that the Korean conflict was NATO’s first true test, even if it was taking place half a world away.”

Designed to maintain internal unity among the leading capitalist powers, NATO was the military alliance of the post-WWII US-centered multilateral order, which included the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, International Trade Organization (ITO) and the United Nations. (For its first two decades the UN was little more than an arm of the State Department.)

A growing capitalist power, Canada was well placed to benefit from US-centered multilateral imperialism. The Canadian elite’s business, cultural, familial and racial ties with their US counterparts meant their position and profits were likely to expand alongside Washington’s global position.

NATO bolstered colonial authority and helped bring the world under the US geopolitical umbrella, from which the Canadian elite hoped to benefit.

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Why does mainstream media keep repeating lies about Lester Pearson?

While coverage of Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to Washington was embarrassingly banal in its emphasis on “bromance” between Obama and the Canadian PM, at least it was accurate (in the limited sense valued by the dominant media), except for the 60 Minutes feature that comically confused a photo of Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall for Margaret Trudeau. However, one aspect of the reporting did stand out as both a lie and dangerous nationalist mythology.

A number of media outlets discussed Lester Pearson visiting Lyndon Johnson the day after he reportedly gave a “scathing speech on American involvement in Vietnam.” The Canadian Press described the former prime minister’s speech and meeting with the US president this way: “Pearson never visited again, after a famous 1965 dust-up. He’d spoken out against the Vietnam War, and Johnson grabbed him by the lapels and snarled: ‘Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.’”

Pearson’s speech at Temple University in Philadelphia the night before he met Johnson is probably the most cited example of a Canadian leader (supposedly) opposing US militarism. Even generally sensible authors such as Linda McQuaig point to it as having “contributed to ending the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.”

But here’s what Pearson really said in Philadelphia:

The government and great majority of people of my country have supported wholeheartedly the US peacekeeping and peacemaking policies in Vietnam.

In Quiet ComplicityCanadian involvement in the Vietnam War, Victor Levant puts Pearson’s talk in proper context:

In his Temple speech, the Prime Minister did accept all the premises and almost all the conclusions of US policy. The chief cause of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, in Pearson’s view, was North Vietnamese aggression. ‘This situation cannot be expected to improve,’ he said, ‘until North Vietnam becomes convinced that aggression, in whatever guise, for whatever reason, is inadmissible and will not succeed.’ This had wider implications, since ‘no nation… could ever feel secure if capitulation in Vietnam led to the sanctification of aggression through subversion and spurious wars of national liberation.’ If peace was to be achieved, the first condition was a cease-fire, and this could happen only if Hanoi recognizes the error of its ways: ‘aggressive action by North Vietnam to bring about a Communist liberation (which means Communist rule) of the South must end. Only then can there be negotiations.’ Since US military action was aimed at resisting Hanoi’s aggression, the measures taken so far, including the bombing of the North, were entirely justified: ‘the retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese military targets, for which there has been great provocation, aim at making it clear that the maintenance of aggressive policies toward the south will become increasingly costly to the northern regime. After about two months of airstrikes, the message should now have been received loud and clear.

Levant continues:

On the other hand, Pearson argued that continued bombing, instead of weakening Hanoi’s will to resist, might have the effect of driving it into an even more intransigent position. He therefore suggested, as a tactical move, that the United States consider a carefully timed ‘pause’ in the bombing: ‘there are many factors which I am not in a position to weigh. But there does appear to be at least a possibility that a suspension of such airstrikes against North Vietnam, at the right time, might provide the Hanoi authorities with an opportunity, if they wish to take it, to inject some flexibility into their policy without appearing to do so as the direct result of military pressure. If such a suspension took place for a limited time, then the rate of incidents in South Vietnam would provide a fairly accurate way of measuring its usefulness and the desirability of continuing. I am not, of course, proposing any compromise on points of principle, nor any weakening of resistance to aggression in South Vietnam. Indeed, resistance may require increased military strength to be used against the armed and attacking Communists. I merely suggest that a measured and announced pause in one field of military action at the right time might facilitate the development of diplomatic resources which cannot easily be applied to the problem under the existing circumstances. It could, at the least, expose the intransigence of the North Vietnam government.

Let’s further dissect Pearson’s “anti-war” position. Approximately three million Vietnamese died during the US war in Indochina, with about 100,000 killed during the US bombing of the North. To put Pearson’s Temple speech in the crassest terms possible, opposing the bombing of the North was a call to end 3.3% of the death toll.

When Pearson met Johnson the next day the president was mad because senior US foreign-policy planners were debating a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam (which would take place months later and when Washington restarted their bombing campaign Pearson publicly justified it). By speaking out Pearson effectively sided with Johnson’s opponents in the US administration after he enabled the bombing campaign. According to the leaked internal government documents known as the Pentagon Papers, in May 1964 Pearson agreed to Johnson’s request to have the Canadian Commissioner on the International Control Commission, which was supposed to enforce the implementation of the Geneva Accords and the peaceful reunification of Vietnam, deliver US bombing threats to the North Vietnamese leadership. In so doing Canada’s Nobel peace laureate actually enabled a serious war crime.

The story about Johnson challenging Pearson the next day only came to light a decade later, once US actions in Vietnam were widely discredited. In 1974 former Canadian Ambassador in Washington Charles Ritchie wrote: “The President strode up to him and seized him by the lapel of his coat, at the same time as raising his other arm to the heavens.” Ritchie reported Johnson saying, “you don’t come here and piss on my rug.”

While the ambassador’s description is almost certainly an exaggeration, subsequent commentators have further embellished Richie’s account. In one telling Johnson “grabbed Pearson by the lapels of his coat and violently shookhim.”

An entertaining story perhaps, but simply not true, just as saying Lester Pearson opposed the war against Vietnam is a lie.

While logic and facts are irrelevant to nationalist myth-makers, it is critical that we understand the reality of our past if we wish to build a better future.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, The Truth May Hurt