Denise Bukowski

Denise Bukowski and the Antiwar Migration

Profilers: Ayush Garg, Zi Wang, Anita Wang


The Young Antiwar Movement in the United States

On the war? Yes, I was very antiwar. I didn’t think the United States should have been there.

I was a student in 1964. That’s when the Gulf of Tonkin incident happened. I started college that year, and that was the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin incident which they used as an excuse to invade Vietnam. It was sort of a trumped up excuse because the war was never declared. But the government said that this incident between two ships off the coast of Vietnam, an American ship and a Vietnamese ship, was reason to go in and be more aggressive. It started then. The students were really outraged simply because there was never a war declared. They just gave Johnson carte blanche to go in and do whatever he wanted to do without actually declaring war, and it’s illegal! Congress has to declare war.

I’d like to think that we were all really idealistic and we were just motivated by ideals but the fact is, that it was my generation that was going to be drafted. It was our bums that were on the line. America is involved in a lot of wars at the moment, but you don’t see massive student demonstrations against the war. And I think it’s because there’s no draft! They don’t have their own lives on the line.

I was surrounded by people who were antiwar, I wasn’t unusual. I don’t know. I might’ve influenced people of an older generation, to look at it differently, to look at it as a war that was different from World War II. It wasn’t the same thing. We weren’t defending democracy or defending ourselves from attack. Tt was a very different war. Because the attitude always was that if you’re called by your country, you go. So older people had to be made to understand that in fact, going blindly no matter when you’re called to go is not necessarily the best thing to do. There are different kinds of wars.

Well my father is a history teacher and he sort of got it. He understood why. Although they didn’t like what was happening, they understood why it had to happen so there wasn’t so much a divide in my family. Not so much support either. They were sort of annoyed that we were leaving the country but understood why it had to happen. We didn’t get a lot of support but we didn’t get a lot of opposition. Most of the people who got opposition were actual American citizens, men who were going to be drafted and they refused to do it. Those men often got into hot water with their families that would often just cut them off. And that went on, if not forever, for a long, long time. I know one friend of mine, a woman friend who came up with her husband. His mother was convinced he wouldn’t have come up here if it weren’t for his brazen hussy of a wife and she made him do it. She never really gave up the notion that his wife made him do it. I think it was different in each family but especially if they were soldiers in World War II, they just grew up with the notion that you went when you were called. But it was the ones who were drafted who were actually called up. And there weren’t a lot of them because for a long time, the college students were exempted. So I didn’t have a lot to do with people who were drafted till toward the end of the war. But parents did ostracize their sons. It didn’t happen to me, because I couldn’t be drafted. But if their sons were actually called up and refused to go and left the country, some parents never forgave them. Some reconciled later on.

Well I wasn’t going to get drafted so I was doing it more out of altruism rather than trying to save my own skin. But I did believe quite passionately that these men shouldn’t be sent over to be killed or kill people either. You’ve got to realize you couldn’t even vote then. You couldn’t vote till you were 21 but you could be drafted when you were 18. Though it just seemed outrageous at all fronts. An outrageous thing to do to young men and to do to Vietnamese. So I was quite passionate about it and felt I wanted to leave the country to support the man I wanted to be with. At the time there was a lot of violence starting at the various counter-culture movements and I really think about it. Do I really want to participate in that? Did I want to be one of these sort of violent revolutionaries? And I didn’t I’d rather just leave.

The Story of American Canadians

Well I met him in England and he moved back with me from England after I finished my 4th year at Boston University. They drafted him. They classified him 1A after a year in the United States. So they actually didn’t get around to drafting him before we got out, but they gave him a draft card that said he was 1A which was the most eligible for service. After 1 year and what had happened was that we didn’t realize what was happening at the time. We found out after we came here that non-citizens don’t have to serve abroad. They can be drafted but they have the right to just serve within the United States but when he came over on the ship from England, they made him sign a paper waiving that right so that he could be drafted and sent abroad. We weren’t going to wait for them to come get him so we just decided to come to Canada.

As I said, my father was a history teacher and sort of got what was going on so he didn’t object but they weren’t terribly helpful or supportive. We were sort of on our own, both of us far away from our families, newly married, and right out of college. I wouldn’t have even married the guy, I don’t think, if we hadn’t had to make this decision. He had to leave. Was I going to go with him? Where were we going to go? I was very young to get married. I had no intention of getting married that fast actually. We were living together, but there was certainly no hurry to get married. But we did so we could immigrate and decide to move on together. People in Canada had varied reactions. Most people objected to the war.

Canadians at the time were very anti-American. I used to try to hide the fact that I was American most of the time because I didn’t want to people to know. “You Americans this, you Americans that. You think you have the right to take over the world.” As if we’re all, 300 million of us, all the same. And especially if you’re a female and an assertive female of course, you’re a pushy American broad. So I didn’t tell them for the most part. Though those who knew were very supportive. They were against the Vietnam War. The government was officially against the war. Pierre Trudeau said at the time that Canada should be refuge for militarism and he supported letting these draft dodgers into the country. So that was the official policy of the government. Some people who had a more conservative background might have objected. We also lived among a bunch of new immigrants for whom English was their second language. I think they were just struggling to get on with their own lives as immigrants and didn’t really have much feeling about it one way or the other. But most people were against the war and supportive of us. But they could still be very dismissive of Americans. Canadians have always had a love hate relationship with the Americans but they were particularly against the war. They thought it was imperialistic the way we did.

I don’t remember all the details. I just remember they promised they wouldn’t be prosecuted if they came home. Before that they could be tried and jailed, which happened to a lot of them who went home before that, if they went home. There was one case I mentioned to you of a guy who went home and his father was killed in a car accident and he was arrested on the spot and tried and jailed. I remember writing letters of support for him. In fact I looked him up the other day and he was back in Canada so he must have decided he wanted to come back here.

A Student of War

I saw a lot more news about the war that I didn’t see in the States. About what was going on there that we never heard about. About horrible things such as one famous case of a woman who was a teenager actually, who was kidnapped and raped and murdered by a group of soldiers. And there were stories like that constantly coming out there that I’d never heard of before. A lot of those stories came out later in the States but when I was there, the first time was ’66- ’67, there weren’t any. I hadn’t heard of any of these stories in the States before. But I also found in England, generally speaking, there was much more awareness about the rest of the world, much more news about the rest of the world. In the States it’s almost always about the States and the rest of the world came in if there was something that affected the United States but, you felt like you were closer to what was going on in all of the world and you had a much different worldview from living in England. And I still feel that’s true in England, and in Canada too. You get a much more complete view of the world because there’s not so much self-absorption and the news isn’t just about the United States.

Well, the risks were having to start all over again in a new country as a young person – as virtually a refugee. Yes, a refugee for middle class life but I had no connections. I had no job. I had nothing. It was like starting all over again in your early 20s in a new country as two young people. That was the risk you were taking: whether you could actually re-establish yourself in a new country when you haven’t even really established yourself as an adult right out of college in the United States. You started with no family, no connections, and no work. Those were the main risks. Women were altruistic because they weren’t at risk of being drafted so they were doing things purely because they believed in their ideals and believed in the person they were following. By the way, I know I said that men went back and women didn’t. That was anecdotal, I don’t really have statistics on that. Just of the cases I know, marriages, generally speaking, didn’t survive and often the men went back after the divorce after Carter granted clemency. But not always. My ex is still here. A lot of the other ones are still here.

No, but I did do one book in particular that I pursued connected to Iraq War deserters who came up here. This was a period where we had a very right wing government and they were not supportive of these deserters at all, but one of them I heard on the radio, on national radio, talking about why he deserted. He had been in Iraq and had been sent home for a brief leave. He came up to Canada and just decided he couldn’t go back and do all the horrible things they were making him do over there. When I heard him talk on the radio it just made my hair stand on end and I found him and I got him a writer to ghost write the book for him. Also, the lawyer who’s taking his case, and the cases of all the Iraq War deserters, was an American Vietnam War draft dodger. He had been a Vietnam war draft dodger in the 60′s and 70′s and now, as a lawyer, he was representing the Iraq deserters in Canada to fight for them to stay. Those things are connected. You’re always politically active in that way, I think all your life once you are influenced by something like that.

One thing that I wanted to mention: if you look at my website you’ll see there’s a book by a Vietnamese Canadian woman on the homepage by Yasuko Thanh it’s just her father is Vietnamese not her mother. But she’s fascinated by the period when the French ruled Indochina. She’s written a novel based on the history of her family. I mean it was an era that I was not aware of at all. It’s called the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. It’s about the Vietnamese who were fighting against the French to try to get them out but they always failed. They were always trying to stage coups and they were always failing. That’s what this novel is about. She skips right over the Vietnam period. She’s most curious about the French period and I learned a lot about it from reading her book too. It’s a novel but it’s based on her father’s family’s history. I find a lot of Vietnamese currently alive were born long after the war and they don’t really care or think about the war very much because they weren’t even alive then and they sort of want the Americans to get over it. I’ve also represented another novel about an American Vietnam vet but I couldn’t sell rights all over the world because the Europeans would just roll their eyes and say, “When are Americans going to get over it?” You know, “All these years later they’re still obsessed with it.” Both the young ones born after the war and Europeans, people all over the world see it as an American obsession. But there’s a lot to be learned about the French period as well. The French were in Vietnam a lot longer than Americans were.

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