45 Years Later, Revisiting Vietnam and the Bombing of Hanoi

Marshall McLuhan, when discussing the Vietnam War in the pages of the Montreal Gazette in 1975, commented, “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.” Meanwhile, in the capital city of Hanoi, far from the comfort of those American homes, entire Vietnamese communities were pulverized into rubble.

“An area of working-class housing in Hanoi was bombed,” Malcolm Caldwell reported from Vietnam on behalf of the International War Crimes Tribunal in early 1967. “(T)he area looked like a battlefield, and we were told 300-plus dwellings had been completely destroyed – certainly there was little that was habitable left standing, and the area was pitted with craters.”

The ruin Caldwell described was the result of an American bombing raid on the capital city of Vietnam. The strikes took place 45 years ago today – December 13, 1966 – as part of Operation Rolling Thunder.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, though the temperament of war has a general tendency to turn plans on their heads. When Rolling Thunder began in 1965 specific orders were given to avoid attacks on, or even within a specific radius of, the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. By late 1966, however, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson reversed his stance in an effort to destroy enemy storage facilities and supply lines. While city centres were still technically off limits to bombings, it was hard to convince the innocent civilians, whose homes were destroyed and loved ones lost, that it was all just a big misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, on the American television sets that McLuhan described the true brutality of war was being broadcast in a way that it had never been previously seen. Gone were images of heroic flag raisings at Iwo Jima and ticker-tape parades for returning G.I.s. Those belonged to a previous generation’s war, one fought against a very clear symbol of evil and those soldiers who embodied it. For many Americans, Vietnam was an unjust war played out on an impoverished landscape in which there was no pride in fighting.

One image in particular, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut featuring a 9-year-old Kim Phuc running naked and crying down a Vietnamese street after a napalm attack, put a face to the horror of the conflict that remains a chilling reminder to this day. As an adult, Phuc came to Canada seeking political asylum and still resides just outside of Toronto. Coincidentally, it was stories like hers that prompted thousands of Americans to flee to Canada years earlier.

It’s estimated that around 50,000 draft resisters moved to Canada to avoid conscription to Vietnam. Once settled they continued their protest and even banded together with Canadians sympathetic to their cause to form their own communities in Toronto, Montreal and British Columbia – a movement Zoomer explored earlier this year. Unfortunately for draft resisters seeking a land free of the mechanics of war, Canada wasn’t as innocent as it seemed.

Despite the nation’s official wartime stance of “non-belligerent” – a term that by its own wording proves ominously prone to loopholes – the Canadian government and industries did help provide U.S. forces with everything from aircraft engines and combat boots to weapons to be used against the Vietnamese. Of course the items weren’t sent directly to Vietnam, but rather to American counterparts in the United States, absolving the collective Canadian conscience and allowing the nation to maintain its “non-belligerent” status by employing the transparent “we didn’t know they were going to use it in Vietnam” excuse.

As well, while government officials have denied accusations that they played any part in the chemical warfare employed in Vietnam, a report released in the early 1980s showed that Canada allowed the U.S. to test Agent Orange at New Brunswick’s Base Gagetown in 1966. Paul Hellyer, the defence minister at the time, said the chemical was tested as a means of stripping the trees of their leaves to make enemies more visible, and not for use in chemical warfare.

Appropriately, on this same day in 1967, Arlo Guthrie released his anti-war anthem “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” on the album Alice’s Restaurant. The nearly 20-minute song/monologue recounts yet another incident of logic-defying morality. After being arrested for littering, Guthrie was denied enlistment into the Vietnam War. As he puts it in the song, “I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.” Guthrie’s fingerprints were subsequently recorded and sent to the FBI offices in Washington.

All the while, as American authorities cracked down on “litterbugs” and anti-war protesters fled to the border and the Canadian government dabbled on both sides of the wartime fence, McLuhan’s television sets brought the raw proceedings of the conflict into “the living rooms of America.” Of course the war, as observed in the living rooms of those living in Hanoi, was much more real than any television set, from McLuhan’s time to ours, could hope to convey.

-Mike Crisolago