Michael Maclear was the only Western TV correspondent in North Vietnam the day Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. Half a million mourners clad in white queued for hours to see Ho laying in state, his head resting on a soft pillow. It was “a great river of people,” Maclear recalls. The temperature hit 107° and kept climbing: “Every few seconds in the intense heat, even among the ranks of soldiers, someone would faint.”
Reading Guerrilla Nation is like opening a drawer to find a lapsed passport or faded yearbook. In an instant you are in a time and place once very important and now utterly forgotten – “the strangest of journeys in the most divisive of times, when ‘Nam confounded us all,’” writes Maclear.
Travel was expensive. Asia seemed distant. And a CBC-TV foreign correspondent like Maclear was assured fame and a mass audience. One of Maclear’s newsroom colleagues, Knowlton Nash, went into management and self-appointment as network anchor. Another, Roméo LeBlanc, became governor general. Maclear remained a working reporter, still writing in his 84th year. He died in 2019.
Most indelible are Maclear’s vignettes: the memory of old men wheezing as they freighted 100-kilogram loads on bicycles through the Vietnamese countryside. Or the 12-year old boys press-ganged into a road repair crew. Or a Red propaganda officer who shook his fist at Maclear, “Capitalist swine – you are here to exploit us.”
And, there is controversy.
Maclear recounts a dubious scoop, a 1970 incident in which he was invited to take a camera into a North Vietnamese camp and “interview” two imprisoned Americans. Maclear agreed to submit four questions in advance: name and rank? How often can you write home? Can you describe your daily routine? And, what are your feelings on the war?
“The war is wrong,” one POW remarked as his guards stood nearby. “The answer is that the war must be ended.”
It was a propaganda shoot. The U.S. government called Maclear’s story a “carefully staged production.” U.S. Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture in Vietnamese custody, later cursed Maclear’s interview subjects as “two camp rats” who collaborated with the enemy.
Maclear could nurse a grudge, too. He remembers an American who called his coverage “pinko crap” and the CBC managers who ultimately suspended him on trumped up complaints over coverage “with my own network echoing, ‘Were you duped?’”
This all happened decades ago, yet Maclear writes: “Time has not erased the memories, nor should it, for the network by its actions not least betrayed the public.” To read Guerrilla Nation is to recall in a flash this angry era, and then marvel at how it is so completely forgotten.
By Holly Doan
Guerrilla Nation: My Wars In and Out of Vietnam, by Michael Maclear; Dundurn; 216 pages; ISBN 9781-45970-9409; $19.99