The Underground Draft Resistance in Bellingham during the Vietnam War.

A summary of an article in The Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society by Dan Hammill pp 38-54 entitled “Peace Underground: Quietly Helping War Resisters Reach Safety in Canada.”  (not yet posted on the Historical Society website at this date 4/1/2022)

by John M Repp

This article tells us about a story from Bellingham during the Vietnam War, from 1966 to 1973. There were similar efforts in many other locations around the U.S, but the proximity of Bellingham to Canada was an impetus to the efforts described here. The article contains short biographies of some of the key figures, many of whom are now dead.

Nearly 50,000 draft age men emigrated to Canada during the Vietnam war. Many had help from informal networks. Standing out is the fact that the people who played a role in the network did not talk about it to each other, nor was it reported to the public. Even an “underground” newspaper like Northwest Passage, circulating in Bellingham, did not report any details of the effort. There was good reason for the silence. Helping young men emigrate to Canada to avoid the draft was a Federal Crime.

There were safe houses up near the border where some draft resisters escaped through the woods at night. One common method was for a “family” with an older couple and their “younger” boy with a few other even younger children would pose as a family driving up to Vancouver for a day trip. They all were careful to appear like a conservative family from the 1950’s. Another way was to play frisbee in Peace Arch State Park and the draft resister would gradually move into the Canadian side of the park and then be picked up by someone on the other side. The border in that park was “very porous” at that time. After 9-11, that changed.

The military and the FBI had no idea what was going on. There is a memo from May 2, 1970, that has been declassified, that was sent from military intelligence to the FBI about military deserters. I will quote from the Historical Society article: “a group called THE MOVEMENT was hell-bent on destroying capitalism and replacing it with a socialist republic. It was doing so by aiding deserters ‘prior to and after entering Canada to become a paramilitary part of its organization.’” The paranoia we see now in some of the right-wing groups was present in some sectors of military intelligence and the FBI during Vietnam. The young draft-resisters were fleeing a war that they opposed. They were not trying to build socialism. The memo shows how out of touch the “intelligence services” were to the draft resistance going on right under their noses.

The key to the success of the underground draft resistance was the discipline manifested by the silence the participants were able to maintain. The article contrasts that silence with the gabbiness so evident in the social media platforms we have today. But if the stakes were as high as they were during the Vietnam war era, I would expect people could again be disciplined and discreet.

Peace Arch Park, on the border of the U.S. and Canada, where the frisbee game was played.