Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada – HAGAN (CSS)

HAGAN, John. Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. 269p. Resenha de: NEIDHARDT, W. S. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

The Vietnam War was a most traumatic experience for the American people for it was a war unlike any other war that Americans had ever fought. Never before had the homefront seen images of war so quickly and so graphically. The powerful presence of a television set in almost every American home and the nightly war reports from the seemingly war-obsessed news media combined to make this far-away conflict American’s first living room war.

As American casualties increased steadily, a growing concern began to spread throughout much of the United States that this was one war which America might just possibly not win. Indeed, as the war dragged on, a growing number of Americans began to question the legitimacy of their country’s political and military involvement in this far-away conflict in south-east Asia. In fact, by the late 1960’s, America had become a house divided over the Vietnam War and the consequences of that painful experience reached far beyond the borders of the United States.

In Northern Passage, John Hagan has provided a well-written and solidly researched book about the American draft and military resister experience in Canada. During his research, Hagan seems to have consulted a considerable range of archival material and most of the more important secondary literature on the subject. He also managed to interview various Canadian and American government officials as well as one hundred Vietnam war resisters who came to Canada particularly Toronto during those turbulent years.

John Hagan was not a draft resister. He tells us that his first contact with Canada came during a brief visit to Toronto in 1968. Soon thereafter he attended graduate school at the University of Alberta from where he observed the anti-Vietnam drama while occasionally becoming involved in local anti-war demonstrations in Edmonton. In 1974 he arrived back in Toronto to join the faculty of the University of Toronto.

Each of the six chapters in this book has a clear and major focus. Chapter 1 explores the reasons why so many war resisters, including thousands of young women, decided to come to Canada during what Hagan calls the largest politically-motivated exodus from the United States since the country’s beginning (p. xi). Chapter 2 explains why and how the Canadian government – which initially had been rather reluctant to take in any resisters – suddenly liberalized its immigration laws in the late spring of 1969 and thereby allowed thousands of war resisters to find refuge on Canadian soil. Chapter 3 concentrates almost entirely on Toronto’s so-called American Ghetto and how the presence of at least 20, 000 war resisters affected Toronto’s social, economic and political life. Hagan also provides detailed accounts of the Toronto Anti Draft Program (TADP) and Amex the magazine that began as a major source of news for American resisters and eventually became a major anti-Vietnam War lobbying force.

Chapter 4 focuses on the personal and professional lives of many of the war resisters and tries to explain why for so many of them, their resistance activities became a turning point in the development of long-term commitments to social and political action (p. 99). Chapter 5 examines how the Canadian and American governments dealt with the explosive amnesty issue. The Canadian Parliament granted a complete amnesty to all war resisters who had entered Canada illegally and offered each one the opportunity to apply for landed immigrant status. The American government, however, only offered a limited amnesty and then only to so-called draft-dodgers. Chapter 6 tries to explain why-after the Vietnam War was over-so many of these war resisters chose to stay in Canada. It obviously was a difficult decision for many of them, as these words from one deeply-troubled young American so clearly reveal: I feel a very strong allegiance to this country that took me in and made me welcome, but I also feel an identity coming out of my youth, my childhood, of the country where I grew up (p. 204).

Northern Passage serves as a powerful testament to all those young war resisters who risked so much for the sake of their own values and convictions. Choosing to come to Canada certainly must have been a soul-searching event for most of these young men and women whose patriotism and judgement was continuously questioned – and not only on the American side of the 49th Parallel. One wonders what they thought and felt when they learned that Robert McNamara-the once hawkish American Secretary of Defense during the height of the Vietnam War-made this remarkable admission in his memoirs in 1995: I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963or late 1964 or early 1965 (p. 25).

W.S. Neidhardt – Toronto, Ontario.

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