Those Who Left

Perhaps no category of the choices confronting draft eligible men was more fraught with confusion and uncertainty than the decision to leave the country. This decision had far-reaching consequences since it required one to not only become a fugitive from American justice in violation of the Selective Service System’s laws, but it also necessitated leaving behind one’s support system – those family and friends who in many cases offered the primary connections in the most trying of times and the community within which one had become a man. Not only that, but with the war raging and many Americans seeing those who left as disloyal, deserters, or cowards, the idea of returning home either any time soon or ever was filled with doubt. In addition, once landed immigrant status was gained many had to make other very difficult choices regarding renouncing one’s American citizenship and then becoming a citizen of Canada. These decisions would obviously potentially reverberate throughout one’s life. At a time, a desperate time for many, when a person most needs community, there was also the question of how one would be treated by the Canadians into whose community one has relocated. Would there be enough jobs for the new immigrants so as not to be perceived as taking employment from the locals? Would Canadians’ attitudes toward the war and toward America result in a welcome mat or hostility? Yes, there was safety across the border, but there were enormous trade-offs not the least of which was never knowing if returning would be possible. Tim O’Brien in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED tells the story of a man who came within 12 feet of making this choice and it is a soul-searching as well as gut-wrenching tale. His character fails to leave the country, not because of a failure to see the choice clearly and feel O.K. about it, but rather, in his own mind and heart, as a failure of courage – that choosing to fight in a war he totally disdained was less difficult at that moment of decision than leaving for a life of uncertainty in a country that was not his own.

There is some controversy as to whether those who left the country as a means of dealing with the draft should be classified as expatriates or exiles. The denotative difference has to do with choice – expatriates are individuals who have chosen to live in another country and exiles are those who have been forced to leave their homeland. During Vietnam these differences were obscured and became a function of one’s perception of the level of threat as well as one’s personal moral code. In other words, is a man an expatriate or an exile if what is driving his decision to leave America is a clear sense that to remain in the country during the Vietnam War, facing the certainty of conscription as so many did, would not only put his life at risk, but would require him to kill others? Such a conundrum is obviously far more complicated than the decision to leave the country for economic, social or political considerations. In the case of deserters these alternatives – serving and killing or fleeing – had already been experienced.

Regardless of how those who left are classified, most of those who were draft resisters chose to settle in either Canada or Scandinavia. More than 50,000 draft-age American men and women migrated to Canada alone during the Vietnam War, the largest political exodus from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists traveled north during the American Revolutionary War. Deserters, on the other hand, mostly sought refuge in Europe. A community was established in Sweden in 1967 when four disaffected servicemen off the aircraft carrier Intrepid were granted asylum. When these men, who were often accompanied or later joined by the women in their lives, made the decision to either resist or desert, they realized that there was a great likelihood that they would never be able to return without being arrested for violating American law. It was not until 1977, after many attempts by numerous peace groups, that amnesty was granted to resisters. It was never offered to deserters.
It was largely middle class youth who made the decision to leave during the ‘60’s. Their reasons touched upon a broad array of issues involving the government and its role in pursuing a war that was highly questionable as well as a culture that put forth materialistic values. Nevertheless, it was the draft and its demand for more and more men that drove the great majority to cross the border. It was not until the draft ended in 1972 that the flow of resisters began to diminish. Military deserters in exile were far less likely to come from the middle class. Most of their number were lower class volunteers who had enlisted in the military for financial reasons and either left the ranks as transfer to Vietnam loomed or after having already done time there and experienced tremendous difficulty continuing to participate.
Controversy continues as to what truly motivated those who chose to depart from America. John Hagan in his well-received 2001 book, NORTHERN PASSAGE: American War Resisters in Canada, writes that, “The evidence presented in this book, indicates that the decision of American war resisters to come to Canada was, in political-process terms, a rational and productive response to the opportunity that immigration to Canada provided.” In a review of the book, however, Frank Reed, writing for BOOKS IN CANADA had this to say: “The decision was, I submit, far more than that (Hagan’s preceding view). Ill-articulated at first, increasingly clear over time, was the conviction among American war resisters that their country’s involvement in Vietnam was nothing less than a criminal enterprise from which they were prohibited in participating by their conscience, and by the provisions of the Nuremburg Tribunal.” It is worth mentioning that both of these men were draft resisters who made a new life in Canada. Reed takes his analysis one step further, bringing it 35 years forward when he writes, “The issues of conscience raised by the migration of tens of thousands of Americans to Canada may return to the public agenda in the chilling climate of George W. Bush’s endless war on terrorism.”
Another view on what was behind the decision to emigrate is presented in All American Boys: Draft Dodgers in Canada from the Vietnam War by Frank Kusch. His unique study argues that, “The draft dodgers who went to Canada during the Vietnam War were not always the anti-war radicals portrayed in popular culture. Many were the products of stable, conservative, middle class homes who were more interested in furthering their education and careers than fighting in Southeast Asia. The conflict in Vietnam was just one cause among many for their deep sense of disaffection from the land of their birth. These exiles remained quintessentially American, because evading the draft was, in their opinion, consistent with the very best American traditions of individualism and resistance to undue authority or state servitude.”