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Seniors Against War

The Early History Of VANA by the founding president, C.G. Gifford

Giff Gifford was a Navigator and Instructor in the RCAF during WW II. In 1944 he was posted to Operations in England, and became navigator in a Pathfinder crew. The Pathfinder’s task was to find the target, at night, and drop flares to guide the bombing force. Giff flew 49 operational flights over enemy territory, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Here he recounts the experience of the four friends who founded VANA in Halifax in 1982.
CG Gifford
C.G. (Giff) Gifford

The four of us who started it were World War II veterans and ranged in age from 60 to 70. . . . I talked. . .with three friends: Kell Antoft, a colleague at Dalhousie University, Lloyd Shaw, a prominent Halifax businessman, and Hugh Taylor, the Nova Scotia provincial archivist. All of us had been aircrew during World War II, . . .

Incompetent Chiefs of the British General Staff in the mid-1930’s had made disastrous errors, such as giving priority to horses and remaining doubtful about tanks until 1941. . . . After 1945, when a weapon powerful enough to turn a whole city into radioactive rubble came into the leaders’ hands, some veterans remembered those past failures. When such weapons grew from a handful to tens of thousands. . .some of us felt desperation. We had a terrible sense that the men at the top were quite capable of drawing us all into into a final catastrophe.

Who better to challenge accepted military policies than people who had experienced war?. . .Our central conviction was that nuclear weapons, by their enormous destructiveness and their radioactive aftermath, have made war unthinkable. Therefore governments must settle their conflicts by negotiation and resort to the World Court.

We drafted a newspaper appeal. Meanwhile, each of us approached 10 other veterans. Out of the 40 thus contacted, 28 joined us, and we collected $750, which paid for a quarter-page advertisement. About 50 people responded, most of them veterans. We invited the 32 supporters of the ad to meet to discuss the next steps. Those who came were [only]: KA, LS, HT, and myself. We elected one another chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer and secretary.

We also decided to seek the $5,000 required to place a full-page ad in the magazine of the Royal Canadian Legion. . . . Of the more than 500,000 Legion members, about 40 responded to the advertisement, . . . . The response was tiny, but some of our most committed members came from it.

Legion Magazine accepted an article which I wrote, columnist Douglas Fisher wrote a counter article, a Globe and Mail reporter did a factual arms race tally, and the mushroom cloud was put on the cover. . .It generated more letters to the editor than any previous Legion article. One letter attacked us, but a dozen or more were favourable.

We began to be invited to give talks across the country, . . .

Branches Begin In the fall of 1983, I spoke at a rally in Vancouver, and 17 veterans came out of the crowd. . .they set a date on the spot to explore establishing a VANA branch.

Similar processes happened in Toronto, in Edmonton, in Victoria, in Ottawa, over the next three years.

VANA has grown through person to person contact, . . . . We don’t think we have changed anyone’s mind -- people change their own minds -- but our existence has ‘clicked’ with veterans and their close relatives who want to act against the military dangers facing us all.

You Can’t Push a Senior We learned many things about organizing seniors, and about our strengths and limitations. We are very tolerant of one another’s lapses of memory. We have understood that you can’t push a senior -- we seniors have to move at a pace we are ready for. We will do great things provided it is by our own choice.

Personality conflicts arose sometimes, but my impression is that this has been less than in pre-retirement life. We have agreed fairly easily on nuclear weapons issues, but sometimes feelings have been strong about procedures, like membership requirements. Almost always, there have been some in the organization who would like to change the name, or change the colour of the beret most of us wear when we appear as a group for a public occasion. The beret is white because, so far as we could tell, no other group was using it, and it shows up well in a crowd.

Our News Conference Phase In the summer of 1982, the Canadian public learned that air-launched cruise missiles were to be tested in Canada. The government said the missile would probably carry a conventional warhead. We believed this was wrong, and opposed it. We investigated the facts and learned that the air-launched cruise missile has no other purpose than to deliver a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead onto the Soviet Union. This is 15 times larger than the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima and killed 200,000 people. It has 100 times the power of the Halifax explosion of 1917. We decided to hold a news conference to give out this information. We were nervous about whether anyone would turn up, but it went well, and we appeared on the national TV news that evening.

Between January 1983 and June 1984 we held five more news conferences on different issues.

Politicians Begin Consulting the Peace Groups In early 1984, Prime Minister Trudeau issued an open letter to the peace movement, telling them to mind their own business. . . . In the final months of his government, he decided that it was better to consult than to insult the peace groups. We and others were invited, expenses paid, to Ottawa to speak to a parliamentary committee on the establishment of a government-financed peace research institute, . . .

After the 1984 general election, the Conservative government appointed former MP Douglas Roche as Ambassador for Disarmament. He lost no time in inviting people from various groups to participate in the Consultative Group on Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs. . . . As meetings took place over the next several years, we all became better acquainted and more comfortable with our differences and our shared goals. It was a very valuable education about many defence and disarmament topics. . . . It is hard to know whether it influenced government policies.

Meeting ‘The Enemy’ One of our themes had been the importance of expanding communication with the Soviet Union, . . . . The Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. . .asked if I would join a Canadian veterans’ delegation which had been invited to Moscow by the Soviet War Veterans Committee. . . . This was an opportunity to find out for ourselves, so we decided to accept, in spite of the ‘communist dupe’ label some people were trying to attach to us.

We Take Part in a Film Each year in Dresden, East Germany, the churches hold a candlelight vigil and toll their bells at the anniversary of the moment when Allied bombs began to fall on the city on February 13, 1945. For the 40th anniversary, the beautiful opera house, which we had destroyed, was going to be re-opened, restored to the splendour of 160 years before. Martin Duckworth wished to make a film about reconciliation between former enemies, . . . he asked if I would go back to Dresden to be filmed meeting survivors. . . . I had been a navigator in a Pathfinder Force Lancaster bomber. From the moment we had known that Dresden was our target, we did not like it. We could see that it was not militarily significant.

Herr Walther, once a keen member of Hitler Youth, had been taken out of school and put on the [anti-aircraft] guns in 1943. Later, as a pastor, he and his wife made it their personal mission to visit the places where Germans had committed atrocities during the war, and to make his own reconciliation. He and I shared similar feelings. For years after the war, I had not wanted anything to do with Germans. Herr Walther felt that our bombing had been so evil that he had similar revulsion against meeting an Englishman. I was his first encounter with an English airman. For both of us, it was the melting of old hostilities, and we had several good talks that week. Unfortunately our talk in front of the camera was edited from the final film. . . . The film is called “Return to Dresden”, and can be obtained from the [Canadian] National Film Board.

We Open an Office VANA applied to the New Horizons Program for a grant to help us set up a national office. By the time the grant ran out VANA had enough members paying the $20 annual fee to support the office. In September 1985 we had a grand opening combined with a public debate. . .comparing the accepted NATO approach. . .with the idea that the only effective defence now is for former enemies to share responsibility for each other’s security. Vice-Admiral Harry Porter, retired head of Canada’s navy, and Major-General Leonard Johnson, retired head of Canada’s Defence College, agreed to debate the topic “Peace through Strength versus Peace through Negotiation”. Members of some of the established veterans organizations attended. . .from then on we would appear occasionally on the same platforms. We felt that the relationship between us changed from ignoring each other to mainly mutual respect.

As well as General Johnson, Lt.General ‘Tommy’ Burns, Commander Isobel Macneill, and a number of other retired officers of senior rank. . .have given us their expert advice and have given key leadership within the organization.

Creating the Defence Research and Education Centre D.R.E.C. received modest funds from foundations, but its key source of money has been members of VANA. . . . A touching source of funds has been where families of veterans who have died have asked that donations be made to D.R.E.C. in lieu of flowers.

Should We Join Public Protests? The NATO Council met in Halifax in May, 1986. A coalition of peace groups. . .planned a series of events for the occasion. Three components were a round-the-clock vigil, . . . a rally, and a candle-light parade. . . . Fifteen of us debated it. . . . A majority voted for participation, but no one was pressured to do so. Luckily it was a beautiful sunny day, and the streets were full, giving us ample chance to give out pamphlets explaining why we were there. It was a good experience. . . .

Linking with our American Counterparts In 1983 we made contact with a British organization, Ex-Services Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and as time went on we connected with others. One of the high points of 1986 was an invitation to the first convention of Veterans For Peace in the U.S.A. . . . VANA and VFP now regularly exchange representatives at our respective conventions, and some of our branches have held cross-border peace ceremonies.

The True North Strong and Free? In Edmonton, in November 1986, . . . a conference on new approaches to Canadian national security called “The True North Strong and Free?”. . .was an enormous success. My own speech was titled “A New Role for Canada’s Armed Forces”. I said that Canada’s forces should be part of an expanded United Nations peacekeeping and war-prevention role, . . . and prepare more fully for international disaster relief activities, rather than concentrating on a bit-part in nuclear war.

VANA has been accused of being anti-defence. From the beginning, we have proposed changed defence roles, because we believe cold-war policies increase our dangers and cannot defend us. We are not anti-defence; we are for a policy that will actually defend us.

Promoting a New Defence Policy Through 1986, the D.R.E.C. research committee was working on a booklet “Towards a World Without War -- Next Steps in Canadian Defence Policy”. The Cold War was still in full swing, but an international commission under Olaf Palme. . .had produced a report urging a new approach called “Common Security”. A reformer named Gorbachev had come to power in the Kremlin, . . . .

A team visited Ottawa in February, 1987. We had a ‘dry-run’ with the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security. Then we spoke with the Minister of National Defence, the leaders of the Opposition parties, the Ambassador for Disarmament, and two of the leading lobby bodies. . . . We ended with a news conference, in the basement of the House of Commons.

About 1,500 copies of the booklet were circulated.

We have learned the lesson. . .that good research gets a hearing from the authorities. In addition it often equips us with information which they either don’t know or haven’t thought about.

A VANA Peace Tour In May 1987, 30 of us visited branches of the Soviet War Veterans Committee. . .Moscow, Kiev, Volgograd and Leningrad. At our request, dialogue rather than long speeches marked our sessions with the Soviet veterans. Spin-offs from this journey included continued contact with people in Kiev. . .and with the Volgograd War Veterans Committee. . . . We flew to Brussels where we visited NATO headquarters. . . . Our last stop was London, where we were hosted by Ex-Services Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Trying to Influence Defence Policy. . .the government’s long-awaited White Paper on Defence came out. It had a frozen cold-war approach. . . . Canada’s contribution to United Nations peacekeeping was to be limited to 2,000 of Canada;s 86,000 military personnel.

D.R.E.C. set to work on a page-by-page analysis of it, and we raised funds to publish “Towards a World Without War -- The Defence Debate in Canada”. One hundred and sixty VANA members commented on the draft;. . . . At this time, Soviet president Gorbachev was doing things which made us joke that perhaps he had read D.R.E.C.’s previous publications. These included stopping tests of nuclear weapons in the hope that the U.S. would do the same, paying USSR’s debts to the United Nations, and announcing USSR’s willingness to accept the rulings of the World Court if our side would do the same.

Talking Disarmament in Moscow The Soviet War Veterans Committee invited four VANA members to go to Moscow along with four U.S. Veterans For Peace leaders, for a week of talks. . . . the group had a long session with staff of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, and a three-hour dialogue with the deputy chief of the disarmament division of the Soviet foreign office. . . . Soviet leaders have come to the same conclusion as retired Marine Corps Col.John Barr, president of Veterans For Peace. He says, “After commanding nuclear weapons for 10 years, I believe that war is obsolete, and we have to find another way of doing business”.

New Activities: Conventions, Conferences, Decentralization In the fall of 1987, I visited every branch. . . . The key proposals were for annual conventions, an annual membership and renewal drive, decentralization of administrative tasks, an annual drive among VANA members for contributions towards D.R.E.C., a national newspaper advertisement for a new defence policy and to promote VANA, and a public conference each year to contribute to thinking about how to achieve a warless world.

The branches were enthusiastic, and some took up a collection on the spot for the advertisement, so strong was their opposition to the government’s White Paper on Defence.

The advertisement effort was the least happy VANA experience. . . . Defence policy is not a simple black-and-white subject, and it was difficult to get our message into a few hard-hitting words. . .this one generated only a small response. . .an advertisement is good if there is a very clear and timely issue, if it calls for simple action, and if one has access to substantial funds.

D.R.E.C. [organized] a national conference on “Peacemaking and Peacekeeping -- Canada and the United Nations in the 21st Century”. Four other groups joined in the planning committee. Speakers were drawn from Canada and the United Nations. The conference was an enormous amount of work, and highly successful, attended in whole or in part by 400 people. It included a special session for 75 high-school students.

At the United Nations The Third United Nations Special Session on Disarmament took place for four weeks beginning the end of May, 1988. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark invited 20 persons in non-governmental organization to be ‘special advisers’ to the Canadian delegation, . . . It did great credit to Joe Clark that people who were often critical of government policies were offered this opportunity. We were given the run of the Canadian delegation, and badges which allowed us into any U.N. session.

Getting Canada to Speak up in NATO As 1989 began, we became aware of a struggle inside NATO over nuclear weapons. The Soviets had offered to eliminate all short-range nuclear weapons if NATO would do the same. . .The West German and smaller members wanted NATO to agree. Britain, the U.S., and France wanted the weapons strengthened, instead. This was called “modernization”. Canada said nothing.

We discovered fax machines and sent faxed messages to the Prime Minister, . . . I went to Ottawa and, accompanied by two Ottawa VANA members, met with officials from he Departments of External Affairs, and Defence, and the Prime Minister’s office, and with the defence critics... The government people said the NATO unity was the important thing, so they were looking for a compromise that would satisfy all, without taking a stand of their own. . .

VANA’s Second Convention A special component was the participation of two retired Soviet generals and their interpreter. . .we provide hospitality with funds granted by the Canadian Institute for Peace and Security and Peacefund Canada. Six members of U.S. Veterans for Peace came. . .There were 110 VANA members from across the country. . . . Former rank meant very little in VANA, . . . Private Kennedy did morning ablutions at adjoining washbasins with Generals Barabolia and Johnson!. . .Strong resolutions on NATO and disarmament, ending low-level bombing training over Canada, and the need for a comprehensive nuclear-test ban, were sent to the government. Strong feeling emerged around membership qualifications for VANA, as between associate membership for non-veterans versus continuation of welcoming close relatives of veterans as full members. [The latter is still the policy.]

Soviet and U.S. Guests Dialogue with Officials in Ottawa Ray Creery had found talks with Soviet officials in Moscow so valuable that he organized the same thing in Ottawa for our Soviet and American guests, . . . There were two surprises. One was that the American Ambassador spoke fluent Russian. . .the other was that the naval attache at the Soviet embassy mentioned that port visits between U.S. and Soviet naval vessels were to take place. When Ray said, “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful occasion to announce that naval vessels would not carry nuclear weapons into other countries’ ports”, the naval attache replied that that was already agreed as part of the plan. This made front-page headlines in the Globe and Mail, leading to denials from Washington, but later confirmed.

What Have We Learned For many of us, VANA has been an adventure; for some, myself included, it has been a new career. . . . Each year has been marked by some unexpected experience. Friendships. . .have constantly been expanding. It has been hard work, but never dull. We have learned that even when our views have been unpopular with the ‘powers that be’, officials have been respectful to us as seniors, as veterans, and as people who have made ourselves well-informed.

Some of our fellow-citizens have criticized us, but most of them eventually came around to respecting and joking with us about our mutual differences. When we have stood up to them vigorously, though not angrily, we have had more public support than rejection.

A few who have been strong anti-communists have alleged that we and all the peace movement are “communist dupes”. We have learned that there is no point spending time with people that seem narrow-minded, though we have always been willing to debate with them on public platforms or radio phone-in shows, because the contrast between their approach and ours is valuable.

When the majority of us have felt it appropriate to take public action, some were for it right away, some were reluctant but joined in when the majority had decided, and some never felt comfortable with it. This was not a source of conflict, because nobody put pressure on anyone else.

Joining us and then becoming active has been a slow, careful process. It has been an act of moral courage for some, . . . For most members it has been a pleasure and a relief to find ways of expressing deep concern for the future. . . . To sit on the sidelines while nuclear weapons and international hostility spread leaves me feeling upset, hopeless and helpless. Participation in VANA’s work gives me a healthy feeling of being a member of an army of good citizens who are building the necessary future.

This is a much shortened version of Chapter 7 of the book: Canada’s Fighting Seniors by C.G. Gifford (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1990).
The exact original words are retained. For convenience of reading, omissions are marked only when required to preserve the sense. Many of the omissions are whole paragraphs, and these are not marked.
Giff Gifford died in 1993.