D.W. Maxwell: Unguarded Border

Unguarded Border. American Émigrés in Canada during the Vietnam War

Maxwell, Donald W.
War Culture
New Brunswick, NJ 2023: Rutgers University Press
Anzahl Seiten
276 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Southgate, Department of History, Temple University, Philadelphia

The migration of American draft resisters and conscientious objectors to Canada during the American War in Vietnam is a well-known episode in twentieth century history. The image holds such cultural capital that it is a common refrain for Americans to joke about moving to Canada after disruptive events. American Google searches for the question “how to move to Canada” shot up following the 2016 election, for example, though that didn’t result in a significant amount of actual immigrations. Despite the hold that the idea of crossing the Northern border has on popular imaginations, however, there remain gaps in our understanding of American migrants as historical actors and, as Donald W. Maxwell demonstrates in his first monograph, as Americans. In "Unguarded Border: American Émigrés in Canada during the Vietnam War" Maxwell reveals the voices of those who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War in order to “rescue [them] … from such ahistoricity” (p. 8).

In this engaging account, Maxwell argues that “the impact of the movement of émigrés was most felt in the places from which they left and in which they arrived, more so than the nations from which and to which they moved” (p. 3). In constructing his argument Maxwell localizes the history of movement between Canada and the US in order to unsettle national narratives. This is a striking revision to the historiography which has heretofore been focused on the impact of Vietnam Era war resistors on Canadian society. Although a worthwhile endeavor, this usual approach runs the risk of totalizing the experiences of individuals in service of a national narrative. Indeed, Maxwell’s focus on individual experiences is one of the great strengths of this monograph and makes for an engaging and personal read. He draws on published primary sources as well as original archival research in order to capture multiple levels of discourse.

"Unguarded Border" follows the flow of draft age American men from the US to Canada during the Vietnam War and the first chapter is devoted to outlining the conditions which made this possible. Although not all of these men were necessarily what we might identify as draft dodgers (which is itself a pejorative term that Maxwell avoids in favor of “draft resister”), they all chose to leave the US because they felt “at odds” with American society. Importantly, Canada was also the most convenient choice, not only because of geography but because of policy. In 1969 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced that draft resisters and military deserters would be treated as “ordinary” immigrants and would not be deported. Large numbers of dissatisfied, and frightened men and a nearby country with close cultural ties and tolerant policies seems like a clear recipe for large scale migration.

In the second and third chapters, Maxwell spells out that this movement was not natural, per se, but the result of a dedicated campaign to educate and support draft aged men. The second chapter describes the many articles, manuals and pamphlets that spelled out everything from the draft laws in the US to finding employment in Canada. These guides proved an invaluable support to émigrés and allowed the spread of information. The third chapter dives deeper into the programs set up by religious groups to support émigrés upon their arrival in Canada. Churches, particularly the United Church of Canada, were instrumental in providing material support to émigrés and political acceptance of large numbers of Americans coming into the country. Church leaders were prompted both by genuine humanitarian desire to provide aid as well as political motivations to register a protest to the war. Importantly, Maxwell argues that these political reasons reflected larger aspirations for Canada to set itself apart from the US on the world stage. If religious organizations were one way through which Americans acclimated to life in Canada, education was the other. The fourth chapter explores the, at times mixed, response of Canadian universities to American refuge seekers. While many Americans hoped to find passage to Canada through acceptance in graduate programs this was not always readily accepted by universities trying to avoid “Americanization” of Canadian institutions.

In the fifth and sixth chapters Maxwell brings together the themes that he introduced throughout the earlier sections of the book, namely those of national character and individual identity. Although entering Canada was relatively easy, gaining citizenship was a different matter. The fifth chapter explores the mixed policies of the Canadian government to the formal immigration of Americans and the various attempts of the US government to reclaim draft resisters following the end of the Vietnam War. The émigrés themselves generally responded to attempts to claim them with an ambivalence that Maxwell identifies as cosmopolitanism: “these men did not necessarily adhere to requirements of citizenship in any country, in particular, but saw themselves more as citizens of the world at large” (p. 159). In the sixth and final chapter Maxwell further explicates the way that the experiences of émigrés defy attempts to claim them as a cohesive group or nationality and in this way speak to the limits of the nation-state model of citizenship.

Maxwell ultimately argues that the stories in "Unguarded Border" challenge the paradigms of US immigration history specifically, the lack of attention given to US emigrants and the neglect of the individual and the local. The evidence presented in the monograph is begging for a broader argument that better articulates the nebulous relationship between the US and Canada and the focus on the émigrés as Americans limits the conceptual reach of the monograph. It is further limited by the focus on the draft age men despite the fact that women and non-draft-age male family members were also political emigrants during the Vietnam era. Maxwell justifies this decision because draft-age men “alone were subject to conscription and military laws” (p. 10) which is understandable but somewhat unsatisfying.

These shortcomings are less of a criticism of Maxwell’s thoughtful analysis than they are questions to be taken up in future studies. Overall, this is a rich and engaging work that complicates notions of sovereignty and citizenship along the world’s longest undefended border.

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