Canada has been working tremendously hard as of late to return to the prestigious and strategic table of the UN Security Council. During the gloomy Stephen Harper days, many moaned when we lost out to Portugal, lamenting our tarnished reputation. But last year, despite a kinder and gentler leadership, Canada again lost its bid for a seat. And this time with fewer votes.

Canada has been working tremendously hard as of late to return to the prestigious and strategic table of the UN Security Council. During the gloomy Stephen Harper days, many moaned when we lost out to Portugal, lamenting our tarnished reputation. But last year, despite a kinder and gentler leadership, Canada again lost its bid for a seat. And this time with fewer votes.

For many Canadians, history and myth become blurred when we think of our international reputation. We recall the halcyon days of prime minister Lester B. Pearson, the Blue Helmets, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and peacekeeping. But perhaps, like all memory, our historic recollection is fraught with story and legend rather than the hard truth.

Such is the task of historians, popular and academic alike. John Boyko, author of Blood and Daring and Cold Fire, confronts Canada’s dubious complicity in international conflict through his investigation of our participation in the Vietnam War.

In The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War, Boyko reveals that even in the heyday of the Liberal Party’s international influence under Pearson and Louis St. Laurent, our struggle to reconcile economic growth with moral action persisted.

Methodologically, Boyko uses the stories of six individuals to tell the story of how Canada supported the war effort, conspired with the CIA, sold arms and resources as a means to profit from the war, welcomed and then despised draft dodgers and deserters, and held similar views of refugees who were fleeing the horrors of Vietnam.

Through the stories of two diplomats, Sherwood Lett and Blair Seaborn, Boyko explains how Canada reluctantly became involved in the conflict, due mostly to the gravitational pull of allyship. Coming out of the Second World War, Canada enjoyed what Boyko describes as a "quiet diplomacy," but Vietnam was about to force Canada, St. Laurent and Pearson to make significant decisions that were not only ideological but moral in nature.

Despite Canada’s urging in the 1950s for the Americans and the international community not to become further involved in the conflict, U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s (and later Lyndon Johnson’s) obsession with the domino theory proved to be a runaway train.

Despite secret dispatches of Canadian diplomats to sue for peace with Ho Chi Minh, the Americans were determined to prop up phony governments in the South and eradicate a communist foe in the North. Canada would be drawn into the horrifying conflict, despite the pleas of the likes of diplomat J. Blair Seaborn: "If we are not doing anything really useful, why do we not pull out, if need be, unilaterally?"

Boyko then shifts his focus to other personalities, namely the radical nurse Claire Culhane, who served in a hospital in South Vietnam while at the same time observing how Canada was handing over medical records to the CIA. Disgusted, Culhaine returned to Canada, held a famous hunger strike and even met with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau to register her abhorrence to our complicity in war profiteering.

"All cabinet members knew for decades Canada had been swapping sovereignty or security and principle for jobs, but the Faustian bargain was acceptable when the threats and wars were believed to be just," Boyko reveals.

Despite pressure from the likes of Tommy Douglas and David Lewis, critical voices when even unpopular, the Liberal governments chose economics time and time again — this despite the fact that the war machine produced nearly 6,000 jobs in Winnipeg and draft dodgers like Joe Erickson were able to start a new life in St. Vital. War is complex. War is hell. Even at home.

According to Boyko, as history now tends to rhyme with itself, à la Mark Twain, "Vietnam buried what remained of Canada’s golden age." If it ever existed. Now as we supply Saudi Arabia with munitions for its exploits in Yemen and are caught up in America’s request for extraditions, we need to find a new moral stance

As Boyko argues, our task may be to "understand who we are and to somehow, hopefully with grace, make ourselves a little better tomorrow than we are today." And this might in fact be the purpose of history.

Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.