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Safe Return: A Vietnam Veteran’s Involvement in the 1970s Amnesty Movement

Above: Draft-age Americans being counseled by Mark Satin (far left) at the Anti-Draft Programme office on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, August 1967. The front room was so crowded at the time that the counseling session here is taking place in one of the small side rooms. The Toronto Anti-Draft Programme was Canada’s largest organization providing pre-emigration counseling and post-emigration services to American Vietnam War resisters. [Photo: Laura Jones. Source: Wikimedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).]


Longtime Veterans For Peace member Michael Uhl has written a number of books about his experiences in Vietnam, and now shares the story of his work with those who chose to flee the country to avoid military service during that era. Part historical account and part memoir, the book takes its title, Safe Return, from the project he co-founded with Tod Ensign (1972-1977) as part of the movement to grant amnesty to Vietnam War resisters. Uhl notes the e-book is available on Amazon “for only five bucks, the twentieth part of a c-note.”

From the author’s introduction:

The current volume covers the middle six years of my unique political partnership with Tod Ensign, and documents the role the Safe Return Amnesty Committee played in the campaign to amnesty those who had resisted the Vietnam War. The amnesty movement emerged when it appeared that American participation in the Vietnam War was winding down, and, indeed, large numbers of U.S. troops were being brought home from the front. Concern arose, initially among church affiliated pacifists and due process liberals about the fates of the thousands of young Americans who had avoided or refused the draft, a great number of whom had found refuge in neighboring Canada. Under what conditions would they be allowed to come home, once peace was officially established?

 

When we founded Safe Return in late 1971, what most disturbed Tod and I, and many others in the not yet fully depleted ranks of the antiwar movement, was that, behind President Richard Nixon’s smokescreen of troop withdrawals, the public was being lured into a comfortable fiction that the U.S. role in the war was – or would soon be – over. Those informed feared worse. Not only were tens of thousands of American troops still engaged in Vietnam combat in the early seventies, but the violence had now expanded openly throughout all of Indochina, with the relentless use of American air power as lethal to local populations as it had ever been. Looking for a new issue to prolong our own antiwar activism, Tod and I quickly shifted our attention to amnesty. We reasoned that a campaign positioned to anticipate a post-war political climate might become an adaptable vehicle for addressing a war vanishing from the headlines, but still far from over.

 

If we had not yet come to see that advocating on behalf of veterans and GIs would define our political work in the years ahead, that trajectory was already evident when we created Safe Return. Thus our orientation in this emerging movement would not be on behalf of those who’d refused to serve, but those who’d come to resist the war as a result of entering the armed forces. Once in uniform, many would run afoul of a draconian system of command dominated military justice and institutionalized racism, and in epidemic numbers desert, some to foreign exile. We had initially coined the term Self-Retired Veterans to perfume the onus with which the American public could be expected to despise the word “deserter.” But the euphemism proved cumbersome in explaining our objectives to the media and the public. It was precisely because we understood that, at the moment the war was declared over, the public was more likely to support amnesty for middle class objectors of conscience, that we devoted our campaign to elevate deserters to the status of “military resisters.”

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