Yesterday, October 22, I talked with a Sunday school class of teenagers at my church about my experience during the Vietnam War. In preparing for telling this story, I noted that October 25 was the 49th anniversary of my entry into Canada.
It’s been a little while since I’ve reflected on that experience, and I again beg forbearance for using another blog post as personal memoir.
First a bit of context. I grew up in a small Mennonite community in Mahoning County, Ohio, on the border with Pennsylvania. My father, David Steiner, was the minister and bishop in the congregation of 100 members in my community, as had been his father, A. J. Steiner, before him. There had been four generations of ministers before that back into Europe. My mother, Katie, was an elementary school teacher and a 1930 graduate of Goshen College in Indiana. I was the youngest of six surviving children.
In my high school years from 1960-1964 I became a philosophical mixed bag combining religious agnosticism with political conservatism. While I rejected what I considered to be a naive Mennonite faith, I embraced a naive American patriotism that scorned the growing Civil Rights movement and believed Fidel Castro was a real threat to the United States. I favored Barry Goldwater in the upcoming 1964 election.
President John Kennedy had been assassinated less than one year before. In 1964 the U.S. war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up, though few Americans had yet been killed. The Cold War was expanding – the Berlin Wall had only recently been erected. The Civil Rights movement, then primarily in the Southern States, was making Americans uncomfortable as African-Americans called for justice in voting rights, education and basic human services.
I turned 18 a couple of weeks after I entered Goshen College as a freshman in September 1964. As was the legal requirement for all American young men, I registered for the military draft at that time. Normally Mennonite young men also stated their desire for conscientious objector status at time of registration, submitting the appropriate forms requesting that status. I didn’t do so, but wrote to my parents that I was neither a pacifist nor a Christian.
My first year at Goshen was a difficult one–I enjoyed playing cards (bridge) more than I did the classroom work. I discovered I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, and my social introversion isolated me within a fairly small group of friends. During fall 1964 I could best be identified on campus by the Barry Goldwater election sticker on my briefcase.
In March 1965 I joined a carload of students who wanted to check out the third Selma-Montgomery march–the one that actually got to Montgomery. I can say without qualification that March 24-25, 1965 was a conversion experience for me in my worldview.
During that car ride into Alabama I finally became emotionally involved in the visible racial injustice that had always been around me. For the first time I experienced internally the underside of the American way of life through the hatred in the eyes of white people, and the huge class disparity I saw between whites and African-Americans. That’s ironic, since my older brother, Albert, had been in a Mennonite voluntary service unit in the near south side of Chicago, and I had visited him several times with my family. But the poverty and repression of black folks living in the south side of Chicago was a curiosity – something to see but not to absorb internally.
In Montgomery, Alabama we Goshen students were billeted with the demonstrators at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex that included a high school, hospital and church. It was surrounded by a chain link fence, and every ten feet around the perimeter of that fence a United States soldier, armed with rifle and bayonet, protected an estimated 10,000 of us from other Americans as we slept. The night of the 24th we enjoyed a concert from the likes of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and The Chad Mitchell Trio, as well as some words from Martin Luther King. After the march to the state capitol building with 25,000 others the next day I was a different person. I heard the hopes and dreams of black men and women, in sharp contrast to the white hatred and black poverty around me.
When I returned to Goshen College from Montgomery, Alabama, I recognized I could not kill another human being on the basis of political (or economic) differences. I also saw the need to combine social justice with my new-found (or rediscovered) pacifism. Belatedly I registered with my draft board as a conscientious objector, but on philosophical, non-religious grounds. I argued that life was inherently sacred, and that I did not have the right – ever – to terminate another human life. I believed I did not have the wisdom to make that kind of decision, nor did I believe Lyndon Johnson had that authority. Since I was still a student, no action was taken on my application.
By 1966-67 the number of American soldiers going to Vietnam– disproportionately young, non-white and poorly educated– increased. The political conversion I had experienced led to an activist phase in my life. I joined radical student organizations
like Students for a Democratic Society and participated in mass demonstrations in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City.
The culture of the “1960s” also came to Goshen College. On three occasions I was suspended from the College – the first time for illegally entering a building, the second time (for a semester) for refusing to hand in computer cards to track my attendance at compulsory convocations/chapels. The last time, in the fall of 1967, it was an indefinite suspension for my role in the Menno-Pause underground newspaper described in another blog.
From the fall of 1967 until my move to Canada in October 1968 I lived on the north side of Chicago, Illinois, most of the time with a fellow Menno-Pause editor, Jim Wenger. I focused my attention on military draft issues. As long as I had been a student, my military obligations had been “deferred.” Now this was no longer the case. A series of legal procedures unfolded that included two appeals to local and state draft boards. At my local appeal back in Youngstown, Ohio, the Draft Board was only interested in whether I had a formal religion. They refused to hear my arguments, or to hear a character witness I had brought along with me. The hearing probably lasted all of 5 minutes. My appeal to the state board was also denied.
I worked for some months as a supply clerk at a hospital in Evanston, Illinois. Some of my co-workers were Mennonite young men who were putting in their two years of “alternative service.” Throughout the Vietnam War it remained relatively easy for young
men from peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers to avoid military service if they stuck to the routine. Sincerity of belief (for a Mennonite) was not a crucial factor, and some of my Mennonite co-workers at the hospital thought North Vietnam should be bombed to oblivion to stop the Communists. I also learned the hospital liked to hire Mennonites to do alternative service in order to avoid hiring African-Americans “from the South Side.”
Gradually, I became more absolutist in my position. I connected with the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) . This group, formed by Gary Rader, an ex-Green Beret, advocated open resistance to the draft, including the step of going to prison. They generated much literature for distribution at high schools, provided draft counselling for minorities, and joined in demonstrations against the war. I participated in an increasing number of these activities.
In March 1968 I received an order to appear for a physical, in anticipation of potential induction into the army. In response I tore up my draft card, which all American men were legally required to carry, and mailed the pieces back to the draft board informing them I would no longer participate in the military system. Among other things in my letter to the draft board, I questioned the use of death as a technique for conflict resolution.
I also questioned the alternative service system, lovingly embraced by Mennonites for decades. I believed “alternative service” simply helped the U.S. military system work more efficiently as Mennonites and other pacifists often performed meaningless service that aided the “national welfare” or replaced the work of others who needed employment.
Word quickly spread at the hospital about what I had done. I was promptly fired from my position.
I soon received an induction order for April 20, 1968. I returned to Ohio to publicly refuse induction. I created a one-page handout outlining my reasons for refusal. My demonstration was in front of the federal building in Youngstown, Ohio, where men were to board a bus for transport to Cleveland for induction. My sign included my induction order, and was headed, “I must resist because I cannot help mankind by destroying it.”
Four persons joined me in the protest–my older brother, Albert, my political science prof from Goshen College, Dan Leatherman, and my friend, Tom Harley. The fourth person was Lowell Rheinheimer. The fact that actually moved me the most was my 67-year-old mother telling me that if no one else had come to stand with me in the demonstration, she would have done so.
The demonstration took place 16 days after Martin Luther King, the most prominent of the pacifist Civil Rights leaders, was assassinated in Tennessee. The aftermath of that assassination had led to violence and burning in many U.S. cities, including Chicago. The sheet I handed out at my demonstration pointed to King’s death as further evidence that death and violence, state-sanctioned or not, was an inadequate response to conflict.
After I lost my job, I could no longer pay my part of the rent. CADRE had friends of draft resisters who provided housing for those who needed it. For a couple of months I lived in a large apartment while the renters were on an extended vacation. The other folks living in the apartment included a small-time drug dealer, and a hippie “guru”, who with his 15-year-old female partner officiated at “weddings” for like-minded souls. They were later arrested for this.
As my finances dwindled I sold possessions like my camera to maintain myself. At the lowest point I sold my blood for money, and lived on 18 cents a day, enough to buy a Kraft dinner.
When my CADRE-provided lodgings ended, my friend, Jim Wenger, took pity and allowed me to move back to his apartment even though he now had another roommate, and I could contribute nothing to expenses.
It became a time of waiting for the government to take action. On one occasion the FBI invited me to come downtown for a chat. They were non-committal on when I would be arrested.
The Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in late August. Lyndon Johnson had pulled out of the presidential race, and the convention became a focal point for protests against the Vietnam War. I participated in a number of the demonstrations in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. The police riot on the last night of the convention in late August resulted in hundreds of arrests and injuries when police charged demonstrators from three sides forcing demonstrators into crowded streets in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. I escaped that charge at the last moment because of access to a friend’s car parked nearby and a warning from a police officer that something was about to happen.
My experience during the Democratic National convention left me disenchanted with the radical Left in the United States. I came to believe that the New Left leaders, like Tom Hayden, also invited violence against the masses to help bring their revolution to fruition.
My emotional health began to suffer and paranoia increased. I took a civil service exam, hoping to get a job with the post office, but wondered whether it was worth it, since I could be arrested at any time. I heard rumors that neighbors had been contacted asking if I was still living at the apartment. An emotional crisis in late September 1968 led me to go to Goshen to see friends; this visit included a long conversation with Sue Clemmer in the cemetery near the seminary building at Goshen College. On October 13 three Goshen students, Dean Jost, Carol Beechy and Sue Clemmer came to Chicago almost as an “intervention” to persuade me to go to Canada, as well as to celebrate the first anniversary of Menno-Pause.
One of these visitors had become especially important to me. Sue Clemmer and I had been part of the publications “Bruderhof” at Goshen College, and initially were just friends. But in the turmoil of 1968 my attraction to her went much deeper. We had talked more deeply several times that August as we reflected on earlier romantic disappointments we had each experienced. We went to a concert that weekend, along with other Goshen people, to hear Donovan, the Scottish-born singer/songwriter. Somebody else must have bought my ticket.
Our relationship changed for good that weekend, and Sue was key in persuading me to pursue the Canadian option. I returned to Goshen with my friends and a suitcase of clothes, and made plans for departure. Dan Leatherman, my political science prof, had married a Canadian woman, Kathryn Shantz, whose family was rooted in Waterloo County, Ontario. He offered to drive me to Canada as part of a family visit. I agreed and asked Sue to go along with me as support. After some hesitation she agreed to postpone taking an exam for graduate school, and joined me on the trip.
We drove into Canada as visitors on Friday, October 25, 1968. As it happens, Kathryn Leatherman’s oldest sister was Lorna Bergey, who later became a mentor to me in matters of Ontario Mennonite history. My first night in Canada was at the home of another sister, Beth and Paul Good, and on Sunday morning we attended the Blenheim Mennonite Church, where I was a bit of a curiosity. The Leatherman family and Sue then returned to Goshen.
I contacted a former roommate from Goshen College, Peter Enns, and was invited to stay at the home of his parents for a few days as I sorted things out. A visit to Walter Klaassen at Conrad Grebel College (who I understood to be involved with assisting draft dodgers) resulted in being put in touch with Jim Reusser, then pastor at the Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Jim arranged for me to be a lodger at his wife’s aunt’s home. Stella Cressman was a retired single women who lived on Pandora Ave., and had rented rooms previously. Jim also contacted Lester Zehr, a parishioner at Stirling Ave., and president of Zehrs Markets. Lester gave me a job as a grocery clerk at the store at Bridgeport Road and Weber Street in Waterloo. I have been forever grateful to Jim Reusser for his assistance, and mourn his recent death.
The next weekend the Leatherman family and Sue Clemmer came to Canada again to take me back to the border to apply for landed immigrant status. It was possible in those days to apply for this status at the border. From my draft counselling days I understood that the Port Huron/Sarnia border point was “friendlier” than the Detroit/Windsor point. So on Saturday, November 2, we returned to the U.S. through Detroit and went to Port Huron to cross the border again.
When we crossed the border at Sarnia I indicated I wished to apply for landed immigrant status. While the Leatherman family and Sue waited, I was taken for an interview by an immigration official. Canada was already using a “points” system that gave points for years of education, proficiency in English and French, whether a job offer was in hand, location of intended residency, and other things. There were significant points also available at the discretion of the border official.
The interview went quite smoothly, and as had been mandated by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, no questions about my military status in the U.S. were asked. (Canada did not have a military draft, so this was not considered relevant on the matter of immigration.) After the official had told me I had been accepted, he asked if I was a draft dodger. I said that I was, and he then asked if I knew the consequences if I tried to return to the United States. He was very friendly and gracious throughout.
Unknown to me, I had been indicted on October 30, 1968 by a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio for not submitting to induction. I have always assumed I missed arrest by a week or so. My departure from the U.S. meant I missed a scheduled court date in December 1968.
Thus began my life in Canada, and particularly in Waterloo County, Ontario. In about a year, Peter Enns’ father, Jake Enns, got me a job at the Mutual Life Assurance Company, where I worked several years, mostly as a computer programmer.
Sue Clemmer remained a lifeline as I adjusted to a new world, and battled my feelings of guilt for not going to prison. Sue came to Canada after she graduated from Goshen College in 1969, and we were married at Conrad Grebel College on August 2, 1969. The wedding was also the first time I met her parents, who were understandably less than enthusiastic about their daughter’s decision. Fortunately we developed a very positive relationship over the years.
For the next seven years the FBI would annually visit or call my parents to ask if I had returned to the United States. It apparently became very cordial over time. My parents instructed me not to return for their funerals if one of them died.
In 1975 I asked the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to look into my case from a legal point of view. It appeared several U.S. Supreme Court decisions bore directly on my case. The court had declared that inductions could not be speeded up if someone missed a physical, and more importantly, they had ruled that religious affiliation had no bearing on conscientious objector applications. They ruled that “sincerity” of belief was the key factor, not church affiliation. After the ACLU submitted a brief in late 1975, and my application was heard in federal court, the charges against me were immediately dropped. I was able to visit Sue’s family in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for the first time at Christmas 1975.
Our first years in Canada were not easy. We did not find our way back to the Mennonite Church until the early 1970s. This was influenced by Sue’s employer at Provident Bookstore, Aaron Klassen, who with his wife, Helen, became something of parental figures for us. For some time I continued to deal with feelings of guilt for not following through on going to prison.
The reality that so much of the help we had received had come from Mennonites who did not judge us, was not lost on us. We became attracted to Rockway Mennonite Church, then meeting in the library at Rockway Mennonite School. John Snyder was formally the pastor, but leadership came from many people like Norman High and Wilson Hunsberger, and no ideas about faith were dismissed out of hand. We slowly became more involved, and when I returned to studies at the University of Waterloo I became an intellectual disciple of Walter Klaassen and Frank H. Epp in the study of Anabaptist and Mennonite history.
One thing led to another, and I ended up for 33 plus years in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, and Sue ended up as a Mennonite minister. We could have found no better home.
My experience with the U.S. draft has appeared in print in the following places:
Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982: 95–114.
Sam Steiner. “Confessions of a Lapsed Radical.” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 52, no. 4 (October 1991): 6-10. Available at https://archive.org/stream/MennHistBull1991v52#page/n53/mode/2up
Samuel J. Steiner, “Alternative Service or Alternative Resistance? A Vietnam War Draft Resister in Canada.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2007): 195–204. Available at https://jms.uwinnipeg.ca/index.php/jms/article/viewFile/1234/1226.
My story has also been interpreted in a drama authored by Rebecca Steiner, Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft, and put on in fringe festivals across Canada in 2012, and at Goshen College in 2013 by Theatre of the Beat.