Courage to Resist podcast interview with Dee Knight
“Our view in Canada, certainly my view was that whatever form your resistance took is completely justifiable. It’s good to find a form of resistance that allows you to continue to resist, continue to try to stop the war, and my own view is that in Canada, we were able to do quite a lot to actively oppose the U.S. war against Vietnam and provide significant and concrete encouragement to other people who either wanted to resist or needed a way out. This was a gigantic resistance movement. “
“The world changed and I changed forever in 1968. It was really like a tidal wave. I was swept up in a torrent of change.”
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Dee Knight: It’s true that Canada to some degree was a kind of safety valve for resisters, which some viewed as a negative. We didn’t view it that way. We figured that people would do what they had to do. Sometimes they had to get out of harm’s way, rather than go to prison.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. On the podcast today, we’re hearing the experiences of anti-war organizer Dee Knight. As an act of protest during the Vietnam conflict, Dee emigrated to Toronto, Canada, to avoid the draft. There, he joined with other American war resisters in helping to publish and distribute numerous anti-war publications.
Well, Dee, I’m excited to be talking with you this morning to hear your story of anti-war activism and in all the many ways that you’ve participated in that and promoted that throughout your life, and it’s great to just give you an opportunity to share that with us today. Why don’t you start off just giving us a little bit of background information about yourself and how you came to a position of resisting the war in such a strong way?
Dee Knight: Well, I grew up in a small town in eastern Oregon, Pendleton, Oregon. After I graduated from high school, I ended up, not directly, but gradually as a university student at San Francisco State College, which at— during the Vietnam war, was a hotbed of anti-war and anti-racist activities that gave me the opportunity to learn things that I didn’t know, and really, it woke me up. In my new book, just being published now, I basically say, the world changed and I changed forever in 1968. It was really like a tidal wave. I was swept up in a torrent of change.
I dropped out of school in January of 1968 because I saw an ad to join the anti-war presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. I didn’t realize at the time that he wasn’t serious, but it really did get me going. I sold my books and got a plane ticket to Madison, Wisconsin, where McCarthy was in the process of winning a primary against Lyndon Johnson, and I traveled all over the country, sadly witnessed the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as they happened while I was on the campaign trail, so to speak. Ultimately, went to Washington to help the campaign sort of consolidate a unified anti-war position, and then went on to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, which was another eye-opener for me, as I was really confronted with the need to abandon illusions about the ability to end the war through electoral politics at that time. I had made the decision that if this effort failed, I would end up going to Canada.
Ended up in Toronto with no money, but a sure sense that there was support there, and it was right, and I was able to get set up, get a job, become an immigrant, et cetera, et cetera, and it really was the beginning of a new life for me. The whole thing, the war itself, the civil rights movement, the process of having to make decisions and take action were all a formative experience, far more powerful as learning experiences than just going to university. Actually, it took me about nine years to finally complete a bachelor’s degree at York University in Toronto, which I had started back in San Francisco. I also became a member of a genuinely vibrant anti-war resister community in Toronto during the U.S. war in Vietnam. A very large number of young Americans, either draft resisters or military resisters and some other anti-war activists, came to Canada.
It was a movement really, as well as a community. I joined others at the Union of American Exiles, who came together to support each other and to try to sustain a resistance culture, which to some degree, we were able to do. I was one of the editors of AMEX Canada—that stands for American Exile in Canada—and we really did set out to stay in touch with each other and with our supporters on both sides of the border. That process began for me in 1968 and continued right up to 1977.
Matthew Breems: When you moved to Canada, were you in danger of being drafted? Was that your motivation for moving there? What was your main motivation for actually moving out of country?
Dee Knight: Well, as soon as I dropped out of San Francisco State, my draft board got in touch with me and ordered me to appear for a pre-induction physical. I had earlier applied for conscientious objector status while I was at the university. They simply ignored it and said that, “You have a student deferment.” As soon as the student deferment was gone, the draft machinery kicked in. While I was in Canada, I received numerous notices to report for a physical, but at one point, I sent them a letter back saying, “If you keep sending me these things, I’m going to accept.”
I had been deeply impressed and moved by the burgeoning G.I. resistance movement, and had decided that maybe going into the military would be a better form of resistance than being in Canada. Well, as soon as—It wasn’t long after that, that I received notice that the indictment against me for draft resistance had been dismissed on a technicality. I was really a beneficiary of the explosive growth of the anti-war resistance movement at that time.
Matthew Breems: So they understood that if they drafted you, they’d be welcoming another— a strong anti-war supporter into their ranks, and they didn’t want that?
Dee Knight: Well, I’d like to think they thought I was strong, and truthfully, I don’t know.
Matthew Breems: Well, you felt strong enough about it to uproot your entire life and move out of country.
Dee Knight: Absolutely.
Matthew Breems: That’s pretty strong.
Dee Knight: Well, I got to tell you, it was the best thing I ever did, really. I mean, it changed my life forever. I continue to live off the inspiration, the momentum, the determination of that first decision. Everything about it was right for me. If there were a message I could give to the current generation of young people, it would be, “Don’t be afraid. Follow your conscience. It’s a really good way to live your life, and it helps us win the battle for peace.” It also makes you meet a lot of very interesting people. I worked with some of the coolest people in the world when I was with AMEX Canada. The people that I met and worked with in Canada have been lifelong friends, some of them.
It’s a treasured friendship and comradeship that continues to this day. Of course, other influences that remained very, very strong were the activists and organizers in the G.I. resistance movement, who I came to admire very much and felt proud that our AMEX Canada publication was considered part of that movement, whether it was the bond of the ASU, or Camp News from the Chicago Area Military Project, or Bragg Briefs, all of them. We received all those publications, and many times found ourselves relaying what they were saying as they relayed what we were saying. It’s true that Canada to some degree was a kind of safety valve for resisters, which some viewed as a negative. We didn’t view it that way.
We figured that people would do what they had to do. Sometimes they had to get out of harm’s way, rather than go to prison. There were some arrogant people who thought that if you went to Canada, instead of accepting a jail term, that somehow that was shameful.
Matthew Breems: Justify that for people because that sentiment was definitely out there and was prevalent. Just justify how moving to another country, instead of facing the consequences of resisting the draft here, how did you justify that to yourself? You obviously had strong convictions about it.
Dee Knight: All forms of resistance to an illegal and unjust war are fully justifiable. It is not our job to judge how people resist, and on the other hand, it is good to look for solidarity. For example, military resisters typically had less opportunity to think about the rightness or wrongness of the war before they got in, so their education about it was really the hard way. And if they had to leave, they often did it under extremely difficult conditions and had to go out. On the other hand, there were Ivy Leaguers and elite-school students with a middle class family, who were able to become resistance stars and maybe spend a few weeks or even a couple of years in a jail with plenty of middle class support behind them. Some of them were actually self-righteous about it.
However, I do think that they made a good contribution to the resistance. Our view in Canada, certainly my view was that whatever form your resistance took is completely justifiable. It’s good to find a form of resistance that allows you to continue to resist, continue to try to stop the war, and my own view is that in Canada, we were able to do quite a lot to actively oppose the U.S. war against Vietnam and provide significant and concrete encouragement to other people who either wanted to resist or needed a way out. This was a gigantic resistance movement. This wasn’t about Henry David Thoreau and other prominent middle class intellectuals.
It was a gigantic movement of people from all social classes and sectors, and every way of resisting needed to be developed and encouraged. Stepping back to the present time—I say “the present”—really the period of the Iraq war—my friend Gerry Condon helped to form the war resister support campaign in Canada to make it possible for the Iraq war resisters to find a way to get on with their life. Gerry Condon, of course is another example. He was at Fort Bragg, the home of the Airborne back in 1967, I think it was, when he announced that he was going to refuse to go to Vietnam. Well, he was hauled up before a court-martial, and was looking at a conviction and a dishonorable discharge and so on.
He managed to get off the base, come up to Canada, and then go to Sweden, where he became an active member of the American Deserters Committee, which was a very important resistance group or institution there in Sweden. He helped quite a number of American G.I.’s who were based in Germany get out and become part of the anti-war movement in exile. It’s pretty crystal clear in his case that he made the right decision. I mean, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. As it happened, our movement grew strong enough that in 1975, as part of the AMEX collective, he decided to challenge the ridiculous Clemency program, offered by former Vice President Ford on the heels of Nixon’s pardon, in August of 1974.
I took responsibility for coordinating his challenge tour. He came back to the U.S.A. with this 10-year sentence and dishonorable discharge on his head, and first appeared as the guest speaker at a big amnesty conference in Washington, D.C. Got a lot of media, and I’m very proud to consider him among my closest friends and comrades. Really great guy. The reason I bring all that up is to make it clear that while it does matter how you resist, the real thing is to resist and to do what you can and to keep doing it.
It can be a debilitating argument to try to debate which form of resistance is better. On the other side, for example, in Toronto, we became hosts and defenders of Carl Armstrong, the— He and his brother were charged with murder in the wake of having bombed the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in 1970. Well, at that time, even though non-violent resistance was always the first option, we were fighting against one of the most violent criminal enterprises in world history with the U.S. war in Vietnam, and there were some people who, you could say they might have gone overboard in their efforts to oppose the U.S. War Machine. We did not believe they were criminals at all, rather, heroes, and certainly merited our solidarity and defense. And there was a fairly big extradition hearing for Carl, and we were all involved in it.
It was tough, but it was very interesting that among the anti-war movement superstars who came up to speak on his behalf, was the famous pacifist Staughton Lynd, who was well-known for his articulation of non-violence. He and Tom Hayden and the others who came, Noam Chomsky, I believe was there as well, all said that Carl did what he did. He was deeply troubled by the fact that someone died. His goal was to destroy this military research center. They even risked blowing it by trying to communicate to the staff that the place was going to be destroyed.
They did it in the middle of the night when they didn’t think anyone would be there. All of that is just kind of to illustrate that what we were looking at at that time was a war against the war, and it was both individual and collective. One of the things about the experience for me is that it made many of us realize that we were not merely individuals. We were part of a gigantic movement of humanity to oppose U.S. War Machine and to try and stop it. My epiphany that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam would lead to more people’s victories around the world was something that Reagan was determined wouldn’t happen after I came back to the U.S. in 1974 to help organize Gerry’s campaign and to help build the National Council for Universal Unconditional Amnesty.
We were able to do a lot, but one of the things I did later on was go to Nicaragua to help the Sandinistas. I saw that Reagan’s efforts to stop the spread of the Vietnam syndrome were very determined, but I’ve remained determined to genuinely stop this U.S. War Machine.
Matthew Breems: Dee, looking back at your time in Canada, what do you feel was your most significant contribution to the anti-war movement during that time?
Dee Knight: Well, we did help to establish the right and necessity of young Americans to refuse to participate in unjust, illegal wars. We created or helped to foster a resistance culture, and of course, we also helped quite a large number of people to change their lives from being cogs in the U.S. War Machine, to being at least able to live a healthy life, and in many cases, to continue their resistance. We also were successful in a somewhat limited way in winning unconditional amnesty for war resisters. It didn’t go as far as we had wanted, For example, veterans with less than honorable discharges, who represent about half— more than half a million people, were not given the justice and relief that they deserved.
Matthew Breems: Dee, just share a couple of the ways that you’ve continued to remain active throughout your life in the anti-war movement.
Dee Knight: Well, right after I came back to the U.S., I decided that I would go with my wife, Carol to Portugal to witness the very interesting Rosas Revolution that toppled the fascist dictatorship in Portugal that had been in existence for about five decades. It was a soldiers’ revolt that brought down the Salazar dictatorship, and the soldiers were rebelling because of the impossible situation they were facing in the Portuguese African colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, where just like in Vietnam, the Popular Liberation Movement was managing to defeat the colonial power, the imperial power. So I got to see it. It inspired me to continue to stay active in the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement here. In the ’80s, I was inspired by the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, and at a certain point, decided that I would go there and help them. I had become a typesetter.
Interestingly, it was because of my work as an editor of AMEX Canada, that I had a sense of publishing and printing and so on, and so I got a job as a typesetter, and that morphed into a computer-based publishing, what was known at the time as desktop publishing, and it provided a valuable solution for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua because they had old, rickety, traditional printing and publishing techniques that were subject to damage by the U.S. blockade, and so what we did is, we brought PC’s and plain paper, page formatting with laser printers. All of these things were relatively low priced and available on the world market, so that it was really quite wonderful to be able to help establish a viable way for publishing there that helped … I worked at the Sandinista national newspaper, Barricada. I came back after three years. It was just in time to deal with the U.S. invasion of Panama, which was pretty close to Nicaragua, so I kind of felt the heat, but it turned out that …
In fact, I was able to use the experience I had in Nicaragua to get a job at the United Nations once again, helping to implement computer-based publishing and use that with the UN Development Program that maintains United Nations offices in developing countries around the world. Once again, I guess I would look back at the experience of refusing to fight in the U.S. war in Vietnam and finding a viable form of resistance, but it changed my life and became the formative experience that has served as the guiding light and the red line that goes right straight through every part of my life since then, and I think pretty much into the future. One good thing for me is that these experiences have managed to keep me young and active despite the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be. But I feel very engaged, my mind is focused, and I know what I’m living for. The changes in my life that took place as a result of my decision to refuse to fight in Vietnam continue to live in me as the dominant aspects of my life and what gives me hope for the future.
Matthew Breems: Well, Dee, do you have any closing thoughts for us today that you would like to share?
Dee Knight: Well, I think that we should try … All of us who have had these experiences and have become aware as a result of them, we should try to get together and take advantage of the opportunities that are presenting themselves to us now, realizing that now more than ever, it’s right to resist, it’s necessary for us to do what we can, really to save humanity and the planet, and we can do it.
Matthew Breems: Well, Dee, thanks for spending some time with us on the Courage to Resist Podcast today. I really appreciate your insights and thoughts in your life of service to the anti-war movement. Thank you so much.
Dee Knight: It’s my pleasure, and I really appreciate this opportunity.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of G.I. resistance to the U.S. war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to Executive Producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.