Canadian diplomat and public servant Blair Seaborn, who died in Ottawa on Nov. 11 at the age of 95, was best known for his controversial role as a secret intermediary between Washington and Hanoi at the outset of the Vietnam War.
As a member of the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC), Canada had worked alongside communist Poland and neutral India since 1954 to keep an uneasy peace between U.S.-backed South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam. Consequently, Canada was one of the few U.S. allies with access to North Vietnam. In the spring of 1964, as the war began to escalate, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson asked prime minister Lester Pearson for help in explaining the American position to communist leaders in Hanoi. Washington would not back down, the U.S. leader insisted.
Mr. Seaborn, who was due to replace the outgoing Canadian representative on the ICSC, was the perfect messenger. Regarded in Washington as an expert on communism (and its treacherous ways), Mr. Seaborn was already, at 40 years of age, one of Canada’s “ablest diplomats,” in the words of Canadian foreign minister Paul Martin Sr. With his top secret instructions strapped to his body, Mr. Seaborn left for Saigon in June, 1964.
Over the next 18 months, Mr. Seaborn travelled to Hanoi six times with messages from Washington. But the first visit was by far the most important. He flew north on a battered prewar Air France Stratoliner, whose two pilots left the controls to join their passengers in a cheery champagne toast. He was met in Hanoi by North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong, to whom he delivered a U.S. message of sticks and carrots. Washington would be resolute in defending South Vietnam, Mr. Seaborn explained, bringing the war north if necessary. A negotiated settlement, however, would include U.S. aid for reconstruction. Hanoi was unmoved. “We would be unwise,” Mr. Seaborn presciently cabled Ottawa, “at this stage to count on war weariness or factionalism within the leadership … to cause North Vietnam to jump at the chance of reaching accommodation with USA.”
Mr. Seaborn was always uncertain, then and later, if the first U.S. message was intended to kick-start peace talks or lay the groundwork for escalation and war. But to the increasing discomfort of Mr. Seaborn and Mr. Martin, Washington’s subsequent messages were clearly designed to justify a growing U.S. combat role in Vietnam. This was made obvious when Mr. Johnson exposed the Canadian channel at a press conference in June, 1965. “My God,” Mr. Seaborn exclaimed when he heard the news, “he’s blown my cover!”
As popular opposition to the war mushroomed in Canada, Mr. Seaborn and his mission, further exposed through leaks from the U.S. Pentagon in 1971, seemed proof positive of Canadian complicity in the U.S. war machine. However unjustified and inaccurate, this simplistic charge continues to be associated with Mr. Seaborn’s diplomatic legacy.
James Blair Seaborn was born in Toronto on March 18, 1924, to Muriel and Richard Seaborn, the rector of St. Cyprian’s Anglican Church in Seaton Village, on the northwest edge of downtown Toronto. A late addition to the family, Blair was one of eight children, 18 years younger than his oldest sibling. Only six when his father died, he was raised by his mother on a clergyman’s modest pension.
Mr. Seaborn was educated at the Toronto Normal School and the University of Toronto Schools, before enrolling in Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 1941. His tuition was covered by a Dirkson Scholarship and a wide range of summer jobs, including a short stint on a ferry from Cobourg to Rochester that doubled (to his horror) as the local brothel. Mr. Seaborn enjoyed school. He was excited by his lectures in political economy and history, and active in Trinity’s Literary Institute and dramatic society. He remained an avid theatregoer throughout his life.
In 1943, Mr. Seaborn joined the army, an experience he dubbed his “Khaki holiday.” After training in Canada with the Royal Canadian Artillery, he shipped overseas just as the war ended, and served briefly in England and Holland before returning home in 1946. Given credit for his military service, Mr. Seaborn finished an accelerated BA degree in the spring of 1947 and an MA in political economy in 1948. Later that year, he joined the Department of External Affairs.
The department was on the cusp of a dramatic era of growth and accomplishment. Its new minister, Lester Pearson, was progressive, energetic and ambitious, qualities he transmitted to his youthful foreign service. “We worked hard, and for quite long hours, although it was more a matter of enthusiasm to learn the job than of necessity,” recalled Allan McGill, another veteran who joined in 1948.
Mr. Seaborn thrived in his chosen profession, rotating among a succession of steadily more senior positions in Ottawa and abroad, including third secretary in The Hague, first secretary in Paris and counsellor in Moscow in the early 1960s. As second-in-command of the Moscow embassy, Mr. Seaborn helped pass Soviet defector Colonel Oleg Penkovsky along to British and U.S. intelligence. It was perhaps here that he drew Washington’s favourable attention.
After his stint in Vietnam, Mr. Seaborn returned to External Affairs in 1966, serving briefly as deputy head of Eastern European Division before being named head of Far Eastern Division in 1967. Over the next few years, he was a leading member of the team that helped negotiate Canadian recognition of the People’s Republic of China.
Prime minister Pierre Trudeau disliked External Affairs, but admired its staff, recruiting many mid-level executives for senior positions throughout the public service. In 1971, Mr. Seaborn joined the exodus and accepted a post as assistant deputy minister in the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. In 1975, he was promoted again, becoming deputy minister at Environment Canada.
This was an ideal assignment, perhaps Mr. Seaborn’s favourite. From his youth, he had been an accomplished athlete and enthusiastic outdoorsman. In addition to tennis, which he played into his 90s, he was an avid canoe tripper, hiker and backcountry cross-country skier.
The job brought all his formidable personal and bureaucratic skills to bear. Established in 1971 by combining several existing agencies with long histories, established cultures and bitter rivalries, Environment Canada got off to a slow start under inexperienced leadership. Mr. Seaborn was sent in to fix it. “His diplomatic skill was much needed,” recalled Raymond Robinson, an assistant deputy minister at the time.
Unassuming and unfailingly polite, Mr. Seaborn had a diplomat’s capacity to listen and bring people together. His senior colleagues and political masters trusted his judgment and admired his integrity. According to Art Collin, the former chief science adviser to the federal government, Mr. Seaborn was “a gentle and wise leader,” who left Environment Canada with a strong sense of its corporate identity and mission.
From 1982 to 1985, Mr. Seaborn served as the Canadian chair of the International Joint Commission, the Canada-U.S. agency responsible for managing boundary waters.
In February, 1985, Mr. Seaborn was appointed intelligence and security co-ordinator at the Privy Council Office, making him one of the country’s top spies. He came armed with a mandate to improve co-ordination among the several government departments and agencies engaged in foreign intelligence gathering and assessment. As chair of the government’s Intelligence Advisory Committee, he was also responsible for providing policy guidance to the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic spy agency, and security and intelligence advice to prime minister Brian Mulroney.
His first year in the job was dominated by the fallout from the terrorist bombing of Air India flight 182 in June. His efforts to co-ordinate the government’s intelligence work were greatly complicated by sharp tensions and continuing rivalry between the RCMP and the newly created Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Although a 1987 review by veteran civil servant de Montigny Marchand concluded that the government’s intelligence function was more effective, Mr. Seaborn himself remained unconvinced. His power was limited and he found the position difficult, wondering in retrospect if he ought to have been more forceful. He retired from the public service in May, 1989, at the age of 65.
“I tell young friends, ‘Don’t retire at 65′,” Mr. Seaborn once told a reporter. “Take on a part-time job.” He followed this advice. In 1989, Mr. Seaborn was named chair of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s panel on Nuclear Fuel Waste Management. The conclusions of the “Seaborn Panel” on the merits of burying nuclear waste – technically safe, but politically toxic – continue to frame the policy discussion in this field today.
Mr. Seaborn’s wife, Carol (née Trow), whom he met at Trinity College in 1948 and married in 1950, died suddenly in 2011.
A fall earlier in this year led to period of declining health for Mr. Seaborn. He leaves a son, Geoffrey, a daughter, Virginia, as well as three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
A funeral service for Mr. Seaborn, a devout Anglican, was held at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa on Nov. 17.
Greg Donaghy is director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.