Roy MacLaren: Memoir of a formidable man

| June 26, 2011 | 1 Comment
Roy MacLaren, left, with Queen Elizabeth, his wife Lee, and Prince Philip at the Canadian high commissioner’s residence in London. This photo was taken before a luncheon at which the MacLarens’ dog, Fergus, paid the queen “special attentions.”

Roy MacLaren, left, with Queen Elizabeth, his wife Lee, and Prince Philip at the Canadian high commissioner’s residence in London. This photo was taken before a luncheon at which the MacLarens’ dog, Fergus, paid the queen “special attentions.”

There are times in The Fundamental Things Apply (McGill-Queen’s University Press, $39.95), Roy Mac­Laren’s memoir of his life in diplomacy, business and politics, when one is reminded of the Lanny Budd cycle by Upton Sinclair. This is a sequence of 11 novels in which the character Budd, an American diplomat, seems to bump into all the personages who dominated world events between 1913 and 1953. Mr. MacLaren, who served in the Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien governments, has a similar knack in real life rather than fiction. Some of his meetings were diplomatic occasions and some purely political; still others were social. A very short sampling of the people whose paths he crossed would include Ho Chi Minh, Henry Kissinger, Patrice Lumumba, Harold Macmillan, André Malraux, Nguyen Vo Giap, often called the world’s greatest living general, who drove the French and then the Americans out of Vietnam, and Zhou Enlai.
Mr. MacLaren didn’t come from an elite background. His father, a native of PEI, was wounded at Passchendaele in 1917, and after the war worked in Vancouver. The future memoirist was born there in 1934 and graduated from the University of British Columbia. He was audacious and academically gifted. In 1953, he was accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge. He chose the latter, where he attended lectures by F.R. Leavis and C.S. Lewis, met the novelist E.M. Forster (whose tea parties “were not to me especially amusing”) and dated the suicidal American poet Sylvia Plath. He wanted to come home and earn a doctorate in history at the University of Toronto. But in 1957, acting on a whim, a dare or an impulse, he wrote the foreign service examination at Canada House in Trafalgar Square. As a result, he was offered a position in External Affairs at a probationary salary of $2,200 per annum. He remained with External for a dozen years. “To me,” he writes, “it appeared that joining the Department of External Affairs somewhat resembled what I imagined joining a religious order must be like.” Indeed, there was something almost Jesuitical about the intellectuals to be found there during the so-called golden age of Canadian diplomacy. The book is richly sprinkled with names such as Norman Robertson, George Ignatieff and John Holmes.

Roy MacLaren and Pierre Trudeau at a Liberal fundraising dinner in Toronto in 1974.

Roy MacLaren and Pierre Trudeau at a Liberal fundraising dinner in Toronto in 1974.

Mr. MacLaren’s first foreign posting, in 1958, was to Vietnam, to be a part of the International Control and Supervision Commission, which was set up following France’s forced departure from Indochina and was “neither controlling nor supervising nor a commission.” It was a tripartite affair that required some people from India, some from Poland and some from Canada. Mr. MacLaren seems not to have cared much for Vietnam, whether North or South. While there, however, he began seeing an American foreign service officer, Alethea Mitchell. (Today, as Lee Mac­Laren, she knows everyone and everyone knows her and has been a high-powered diplomatic and political hostess for more than 50 years.) Next, he was second secretary at the Canadian embassy in Prague. Two years later, however, he was kicked out of the country in reprisal for the expulsion from Canada of a Czech diplomat who tried to recruit a Czech-Canadian to spy on the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1964, Mr. MacLaren began four and a half years as Canada’s second secretary to the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. He resigned from the service in 1969 for a very sound reason.
I should point out that I’ve been slightly acquainted with Roy MacLaren for about 35 years and have considerable admiration for him. He is a cultured individual who has written many books, most of them scholarly works of Canadian military history, and is interested in painting and literature. (It’s a telling fact that he once had a dog called Bardolph, after the minor character in The Merry Wives of Windsor who recurs in Henry IV and Henry V.) Another matter for which he can be admired (the “sound reason” mentioned above) is that on leaving External Affairs he resolved to make some serious money so that he could devote himself to public life. Easier said than done, of course, unless one has a sponsor or a benefactor.
He found the former in Marietta Tree (1917−91), the American socialite and Democratic Party mover and shaker (and lover of Adlai Stevenson and the film director John Huston, and mother of Penelope Tree, the famous fashion model of Swinging London). Through Mrs. Tree he was connected to his benefactor, David Ogilvy (1911−99), “the father of modern advertising,” and became Massey Ferguson’s vice-president of public relations. That the company was faltering through poor management seemed to be common knowledge. So after four years, Mr. Mac­Laren became the president and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather (Canada), where there was real money to be had. All this while he had been “warily circling the idea of standing for Parliament in a Toronto constituency,” but realized he wasn’t quite ready, not yet. So he had a turn as an entrepreneur.
In 1977, still only 44 years old, he had the idea (brilliant, as it turned out) of buying the dreadfully dreary magazine of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Montreal. It was called Canadian Business and had long been known as the resting place of unrewritten press releases. Odd as this may sound today, in 1977, Canadian financial journalism, other than The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business section, was considered a backwater. Smart young people looking to get ahead didn’t yearn for careers in the field. Mr. MacLaren turned the magazine into a glossy monthly full of business features, profiles and columns. At the time, when I was a young fellow in a rush to rid himself of the second of two mortgages, I worked there for a year on a consulting contract. Mr. MacLaren had a gifted art director, but his editor, although not without some talent and a little brains, never went out of his way to overwork them. Several editors later, once he quit politics in 1993, Mr. MacLaren sold the publication to Maclean-Hunter, which was later acquired by Rogers Communications.
In addition to working on the magazine, I was a volunteer worker bee in two of Mr. MacLaren’s successful campaigns to sit in the House of Commons as the Liberal member for the riding of Etobicoke North, a Toronto suburb with large Italian-Canadian and Sikh populations. By then, he was already a fairly well known figure in international economic circles, with much of his attention given over to such matters as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. He proceeded from parliamentary secretary to the minister of energy, mines and resources, to minister of state for finance (both under Marc Lalonde). When the Turner government failed, he became the opposition finance critic. When the Liberals resumed power, he finally joined the cabinet, first as minister of national revenue (where he sorted out certain systemic difficulties, thus avoiding a possible scandal or at least a widespread public protest). Lastly, he was minister of international trade.
Through it all, he was an attentive constituency politician. In one of the numerous diary entries quoted in the book, he writes of canvassing in 1980 at a house where “a woman at the door was so busy hiding her face from us that I was barely able to speak with her. Noting my puzzlement, [a woman on his campaign staff] explained, as we descended the steps, that the woman was clearly ashamed of having been beaten by her husband. As a result of that revelation and several subsequent confirmations from the police about the incidence of wife-battering, I took the first occasion to channel some federal financing toward a transient home for battered wives and frequently for the children as well — at least for those wives who have the formidable courage to run away from their loutish husbands. If I do nothing more as an MP, I shall always be pleased that I did that.”
The style of such diary entries is almost indistinguishable from that of his diplomatic memos, on which he also draws at times. In both cases, the word choices and the word order are slightly formal in a particularly anglophilic manner, yet the tone of voice is pleasantly relaxed and even conversational. The book is, of course, notable for what it has to say as well as how it chooses to say it. The author tells us little of his children, for example, “believing that one’s family life has no place in a book about the public sphere.” Fair enough. But like so many other books in this genre, the gaps are quite informative. While giving a few words to a brief encounter with young Senator John F. Kennedy (and Mrs. MacLaren’s acquaintance with Jacqueline Kennedy) he doesn’t mention the one-hour conference he had with President Kennedy in the Oval Office. In running through his life in business, he omits the fact that he was once the president of the publishing house McClelland & Stewart — possibly because he turned out to be something of a caretaker owner. The reader finds no reference to his former campaign manager who resigned as a top executive of the Toronto Stock Exchange after being discovered to have exaggerated his résumé.
He scolds John Turner but holds back the criticism of Mr. Chrétien that was a recurring topic in private conversation. In the end, Mr. Chrétien appointed Mr. MacLaren to what must have been the latter’s dream job: High Commissioner to Great Britain (1996-2000) — back to Canada House where his life as a diplomat had begun. Being the natural writer that he is, Mr. McLaren later published Commissioners High, a history of the office and its occupants. But the congeniality evaporates when he tells us how Prime Minister Chrétien killed his chances of becoming head of the World Trade Organization. Since then, Mr. MacLaren has kept busy sitting on a wide variety of corporate boards, big and small.
Until now, a work entitled Canadians behind Enemy Lines has been seen as Mr. MacLaren’s most important book. The Fundamental Things Apply probably has surpassed it. I take this opportunity to tell him how much I learned by watching him and listening to him — and how sad I am that I was never taken into his confidence. For he is a smooth diplomat and a clever professional politician.
OTHER DIPLOMATIC MATTERS

There’s no surprise in seeing that Jane C. Loeffler’s book The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies, first published in 1998, has now come out in a revised edition (Raincoast Books, $27.95 paper). After all, 1998 preceded 2001, when, as we’re constantly being told, the world changed, correct? No, says Ms Loeffler. “While many suppose that the more recent events of 11 September 2001 reshaped [the U.S. state department’s] building program, it was the earlier events that started the process that produced the change.” The earlier events to which she refers began with anti-American riots in the 1960s and grew in intensity, leading to Aug. 7, 1998. That was the day that the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed, resulting in 220 dead and thousands of injured and the destruction of “prominent symbols of America’s foreign presence.” At that time, the U.S. had 260 diplomatic posts round the world. It proposed to retrofit many or most of them and construct 150 new ones by 2018.
The problems that such a large-scale initiative set out to address were, of course, already familiar. In 1980, the government rejected Frank Gehry’s design for a new embassy in Damascus because, so its critics charged, it placed aesthetics above the security of embassy personnel (and that of the ambassador’s automobile). Suicide bombers killed dozens at the embassy compound in Beirut in 1983. That same year, a new post opened in Kuala Lumpur; in addition to the usual bulletproofing and such, it was surrounded by a thick nine-foot wall and had no windows within 15 feet off the ground. “It looks friendly,” the architect said proudly, “but it’s built like a fortress.” In many later instances, friendliness was neglected altogether.
Ms Loeffler’s study goes into considerable detail about diplomatic architecture qua architecture and the complicated politicking and financial legerdemain necessary to keep the system up and running — and expanding. For example, she considers the fact that from 1946 to 1958, embassy construction was paid for from funds taken from repayment of lend-lease agreements. After that, the money had to come directly from new tax revenues, a fact that changed the complexion of Foggy Bottom’s relations with Capitol Hill. The law of averages being what it is, the politicians were sometimes correct.
The Ohio congressman, Wayne Hays, one of the most powerful people in Congress (and also, many said, the nastiest) argued that a new and bigger embassy for Mogadishu was ill-advised. The congressman was posthumously proved correct when Somali mobs blasted their way into the compound with RPGs in 1991 and thoroughly looted the chancery. In 1963, Rep. Hays (who was finally brought down by a sex scandal) had opposed a new embassy for Saigon.
One of the key statistics in The Architecture of Diplomacy is that there were 243 attacks and attempted attacks on American diplomatic compounds between 1975 and 1985. The first date is a highly charged one in the American psyche, for on April 29 of that year, the Army of the Republic of [North] Vietnam overwhelmed the city of Saigon. The following day, they took over the U.S. embassy there. The North had gained control of part of it once before, during the Tet Offensive of 1968. But 1975 was different. Having regained the rest of the South bit by bit, the North now had 150,000 regulars inside South Vietnam’s capital. As the airport had been destroyed, the U.S. organized the evacuation by helicopters of its own people and some of the Vietnamese nationals who had worked for them. It was a close call.
Those of us who were adults at the time easily recollect a famous photograph of a long queue of people being helped up a flight of stairs to one of the military choppers for transport to naval vessels in the South China Sea. The building in the picture is the ten-storey Pittman Apartments, a block of 132 flats for the use, we were told, of embassy staff. As Bob Drury and Tom Clavin make clear in Last Man Out (Simon & Schuster Canada, $29.99), the photo was actually taken the day before the embassy was seized and looted and shows a CIA chopper. In their interviews with former U.S. Marines who were present, the authors also indicate that the Pitt­man building was, in fact, being used as a residence for CIA people. After the war, with relations restored, the Americans had the Pittman building razed — in order to erase the shame associated with it, or so I was informed by one of Marines guards at the chancery not that many years ago.
Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin either feel no such shame or are trying to smother it in their patriotism. The book is subtitled The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam. It performs a useful service in drawing on newly declassified “after-action” reports and of interviews with a number of key ex-Marines (but none with the veterans on the other side). But it is handicapped by rootin’ tootin’ macho prose. Here is a sample, about a Marine sergeant named Mike Sullivan watching an early rocket attack on the city: “From instinct Sullivan pictures their makeshift launchers, ingenious ladder-shaped devices fashioned from thick bamboo stalks that could be toted up a steep mountain trail or across a muddy rice paddy. But, no, he realized suddenly. Not tonight. There were too many rockets. Which means they had to be fired from the flatbed of a Russian-made six-by-six truck. Which meant a road. Which meant they were close. He craned his neck, scanned the sable sky, and pointed. Got one.” One instantly recalls the work of the neo-Platonist philosopher Mickey Spillane, the author of I, The Jury and My Gun Is Quick.
The most compelling account of the embassy’s seizure is a long and beautifully written memoir by the English poet and art critic James Fenton, who happened to be in Saigon at the time and became so caught up in the action around him that he was sitting atop one of the North Vietnamese tanks that crashed through the facility’s steel gates. It is a piece of writing worthy of quotation.
In the days before the dénouement, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the American networks had instructed their employees not to remain. Mr. Fenton writes: “Everyone was talking about the secret password, which would be broadcast when the time came: an announcement that the temperature was 105 and rising, followed by the song ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’” When the moment actually arrived, Fenton rushed to the embassy “where the looting had just begun. The typewriters were already on the street outside, there was a stink of urine from where the crowds had spent the night, and several cars had been ripped apart [….]
“The place was packed, and in chaos. Papers, files, brochures, and reports were strewn around. I picked up one letter of application from a young Vietnamese student who wished to become an interpreter. Soon people gave me suspicious looks, as if I might be a member of the embassy staff, so I began to do a little looting myself, in order to show that I was entering into the spirit of the thing [….] One man called me over to a wall safe and seemed to be asking if I knew the number of the combination. Another was hacking away at an air conditioner, another was dismantling a refrigerator.”
The compound was “filling up so much that it might soon become impossible to get out. What I did not know was that there were some Marines on the roof. As I forced my way out of the building they threw tear-gas down on the crowd and I found myself running hard, in floods of tears. Although the last helicopter had just left, people still thought there were other chances to get out. One man […] had several plausible reasons why he was entitled to leave. Another man, I remember, could only shout ‘I’m a professor, I’m a professor.’”
This memoir, perhaps 12,000 words or so in total, is found in Mr. Fenton’s book All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim, published in 1988. It has come to be seen as a classic of late 20th-century journalism. The authors of Last Man Out appear unaware of its existence.
QUICKLY, SOME OTHER BOOKS OF NOTE
“When I began writing this book,” says Allison Stanger in One Nation under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, US$18 paper), “Americans were in the era of getting the government out of the way so that the markets could work their magic […] Our collective celebration of free markets after the Cold War’s end made many of us lose our sense of the things that only governments can do well. That sense is what this book aims to restore.” She leaves unsaid, except between the lines, what European rulers knew hundreds of years ago: that using mercenaries is the worst way to fight a war, because they weaken the subjects’ loyalty to the crown, cost a fortune and will go to work for the opposition if the ducats and florins ever stop flowing. But she sees the use of “independent contractors” and PMCs (Private Military Companies) as only one example of a culture of outsourcing that has led to “the end of statesmanship.”
One often reads mentions of the Office of Strategic Service and its evidently colourful but always mysterious leader, William Joseph (Wild Bill) Donovan (1883−1959). Such references usually acknowledge the OSS as the “precursor of the CIA.” Franklin Roosevelt established the OSS by executive order in September 1941, about two months before the U.S. joined the Second World War. President Roosevelt was a spy buff who, of course, understood the need for a national foreign-intelligence agency for use in the coming war in Europe. As depicted in Douglas Waller’s skilfully written book Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage (Simon & Schuster Canada, $34.99), the man chosen to create and run the OSS, though a native of Buffalo, New York, would have made a credible Texan.
Wild Bill acquired his nickname during the Great War, when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for heroism in the field. During Prohibition, he was a public prosecutor drunk on publicity. Later he made a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer.
He began as the only employee of the OSS but soon had more than 20,000 people under him. They made up a global network devoted to all types of intelligence gathering and analysis. (Infiltrating embassies was one of their minor specialties.) The organization included the usual highly improbable characters. For example, another new book is A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jeannet Conant (Simon & Schuster Canada, $32). Yes, that Julia Child. No one denies the highly significant role the OSS played during the war. It didn’t survive in the postwar world because it was never intended to be, even subordinately, a tool for harassing American citizens of moderate political views. That was the self-assigned task of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, whose conspiratorial excesses and authoritarian personality closely paralleled those of Mr. Donovan. Naturally, the two men enjoyed a mutual hatred, and each worked hard to undermine the other.
Almost exactly four years after it was founded, the OSS was disbanded by the new president, Harry Truman. Wild Bill Donovan lapsed into bitter retirement. President Truman then divided the duties of the OSS between the state department and the military, leaving only an interim agency in place until the CIA was founded. President Truman may or may not have believed there was a place for a powerful paramilitary force during what would soon be known universally as the Cold War. Like his successors, however, he surely must have recognized the political utility of such spy agencies. As they are largely immune from close oversight, they are thus a tool of the executive branch more than one of the legislative. In such a spirit, the CIA was established in 1947, and has barely been free of mischief since then.

George Fetherling is the author, most recently, of Indochina Now and Then (Dundurn Press).

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  1. Mary Bonk says:

    Would the author or another know how to get in touch with Mr. MacLaren? His wife was my great aunt; my mother is hoping to write to him.

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