The second Underground Railroad

Andrew Wood looks at escaping draft resisters during the Vietnam war era

Draft-age Americans being counselled at the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme office in August 1967. | Photo: Photo: Laura Jones and Bennett Jones Phillips, via Wikimedia Commons.

Historically, the term ‘Underground Railroad’, used in North America, described a loosely organised system that enabled fugitive slaves to escape from the Confederate States to Canada or areas of safety in the Union states, during the civil war period. It was run by local groups of Union abolitionists. The term – and others like ‘passengers’, used for escaping slaves; ‘stations’ for homes where they were sheltered; and ‘conductors’ for those who guided them – gave the impression that the Underground Railroad was a highly systematised, secret organisation. In reality, most of the help given to fugitives was offered spontaneously, not only by abolitionists and self-styled members of the system, but by anyone who sympathised with runaway slaves. Quakers were particularly prominent as ‘conductors’, as were Unitarians and Mennonites.

Second Underground Railroad

It was not until the 1960s, when the United States became embroiled in fighting against the Viet Cong, initially in defence of the government of South Vietnam, that the necessity arose for a second ‘Underground Railroad’. Evasion and resistance to being drafted for military service reached an historic peak. Immediately after having graduated from university, students received notification that they were to be drafted into the military. A whole generation of highly educated young men were expected to become cannon fodder.

Draft resisters applied for registration as conscientious objectors, failed to report for induction when called up or claimed disability on medical grounds. Serving soldiers went AWOL and, with many resisters, fled to Canada through a burgeoning second ‘Underground Railroad’ network. The scale of draft resistance was a real restraint on the US government’s ability to wage war in Vietnam.

Draft resistance was initially led by a group called ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS), the university and college arm of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). LID was the USA’s first mass student movement. It was founded in 1905 by, among others, Jack London, best known as the author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

Draft card burning

In 1964 students began burning their draft cards as an act of defiance. Draft resistance reached its peak by the later years of the war. By 1972 there were more conscientious objectors than those who dutifully obeyed the draft. It was reported that 206,000 young men disobeyed the draft during the entirety of the war. Draft resistance, together with the wider anti-war protest on university and college campuses and inside the military, was successful. There were simply far too many ‘draft dodgers’ to punish or send to prison; so many that in 1977 president Jimmy Carter passed a general amnesty, for all those who had fled the USA in defiance of the draft, allowing them to return home.

‘Vietnam Day’, a debate held at Berkeley in October 1965, drew thousands to discuss the moral basis of the war. A two-day march on the Pentagon in October 1967 attracted huge media attention, while leaders of the war resistance called for young men to return their draft cards to Selective Service Centres. The ‘Underground Railroad’ funnelled draft resisters to Canada and some to Sweden; some churches in the USA, including Quaker Meetings, gave sanctuary to others.

War Resisters League

Another organisation that opposed the war was the War Resisters League (WRL), formed in the US in 1923 by Jessie Wallace Hughan, a suffragist, socialist and pacifist. The WRL was a section of the London-based ‘War Resisters’ International’. On the outbreak of the Vietnam war, it was the first peace group to call for American withdrawal from South-East Asia. It organised mass burnings of draft cards, rallies and demonstrations at Selective Service Centres. WRL members travelled illegally to North Vietnam and wrote about their experiences in the League’s journal Liberation. Members were key activists in the new ‘Underground Railroad’ helping draft resisters to find refuge outside the USA.

Between 1969 and 1973 the anti-war movement became more powerful but, at the same time, less cohesive. A majority of older Americans pragmatically opposed the escalation of their country’s role in Vietnam, on the grounds that the economic cost was too high, while disapproving of the youth counter-culture that flourished alongside the anti-war movement. The clean-cut SDS members, who had pinned their hopes on the Democrat presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, were losing their influence as leaders of the movement. Their replacements, identified as ‘hippies’, faced much more mainstream opposition from middle-class Americans, uncomfortable with the youth culture of the period characterised by long hair, casual drug use and promiscuity.

True nature of the war

With the publication of ‘United States–Vietnam Relations 1945-1967’ by the New York Times, a Department of Defence history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam, Americans became aware of the true nature of the war. Details of drug trafficking, political assassinations and indiscriminate bombings led many to believe that the military and intelligence services were no longer accountable to their own government. Anti-war sentiment, previously regarded as anti-American, instead became a normal reaction.

In 1969 Canada signed the United Nations ‘Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’, agreeing not to return anyone to their country of origin if they had grounds to fear persecution. Between 1965 and 1973 more than 100,000 draft-age Americans made their way to Canada. Pierre Trudeau, then the Canadian prime minister, is supposed to have said, in an interview with the United Church Observer in September 1971, ‘Those who make the conscientious judgement that they must not participate in this war… have my complete sympathy, and, indeed, our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.’ In reality the article revealed Trudeau as hesitant and hedging, using words like ‘hypothetical’, ‘indirectly’ and ‘theoretical’. He is also reported to have said: ‘Surely a person who deserts from the armed forces of the US is guilty of a criminal offence and, accordingly, would be inadmissible to Canada on that ground alone.’

Canadian turning point

Despite that, the widespread resistance to the Vietnam war proved to be a turning point in Canada’s development as a nation. Asserting its sovereignty in relation to the US, Canada opened its border and gave those Americans who wished to do so the chance to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam war, by moving to a new country and starting a new life.

The Canadian government, somewhat reluctantly, called an end to what had been its covert discrimination against US war resisters in May 1969; the only specific action it ever took with respect to US Vietnam war draft dodgers and war resisters. In fact, Canada’s immigration regulations often forced US applicants to run a dangerous gauntlet when crossing the border. Unable to meet Canadian immigration requirements or unwilling to chance failure and deportation, thousands of them spent months and years in an underground limbo.


Between 1965 and 1973, more than 100,000 draft-age Americans who refused to take part in the Vietnam war made their way to Canada. Today, more than half of those who ‘dodged the draft’ remain north of the border. Many settled in rural areas, becoming part of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the late sixties and seventies. Others gravitated to Canada’s urban centres, where they continue to work for the kind of social justice they experienced when they arrived in the country. Many Canadian communities are richer in the arts, cultural life and education thanks to the contributions made by the many American expatriates who have made their homes there. A personal friend of mine, a member of the Oneida people, told me that his favourite and most influential teacher had been a war resister.

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