Pardoning Vietnam War Draft Dodgers Was a No-Win Situation for Jimmy Carter

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Jimmy Carter gives acceptance speech as presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, 1976. (Library of Congress)

The election of 1976 was the first presidential election since the end of the Vietnam War. The war had been over for Americans since 1973; North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam, reuniting the country by force in 1975. Still, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter believed the fates of thousands of war resisters, draft evaders and deserters were the war's "unfinished business."

In August 1976, Carter addressed the American Legion National Convention in Seattle, where he announced the promise of a blanket pardon for those who evaded the draft during the war in his first week in office. Deserters would be considered on a case-by-case basis. True to his word, it was his first official act as president of the United States.

The result was a presidential proclamation that left everyone feeling slighted, left out or otherwise betrayed.

Between August 1964 and March 1973, 209,517 American men violated the Military Selective Service Act were charged with failing to register with local draft boards or leaving the country to avoid military service, relocating to places like Canada or Sweden. Another 360,000 were never formally charged. Returning to the U.S. meant a likely prison sentence, so 50,000 of the 100,000 evaders who left the country stayed in Canada permanently.

Carter's predecessor and opponent in the 1976 election, Gerald Ford, offered conditional clemency, allowing evaders to avoid prison time by working in public service for two years. What to do about these war resisters was still a controversial issue in 1976.

Ford's clemency program faltered due to low participation. Only 15% of the evaders eligible for clemency actually applied, meaning a better solution was necessary. Carter wanted to "get the Vietnam War over with" by issuing the blanket pardon. Researchers​​ L. Amber Roessner and Lindsey Bier break down why a pardon failed to achieve Carter's stated goal.

A pardon was still a touchy subject, even within the Democratic Party. Party leaders were vocal opponents, while only a slim majority, 56%, of Americans supported it. Veterans groups saw the evaders as unpatriotic lawbreakers, and even expelled members for supporting them. Carter, a Navy veteran and member of the American Legion, called his support for the pardon "the hardest decision of his campaign."

He was a supporter of the Vietnam War until 1973, when he claimed the war "lacked moral principle." During his campaign, Carter said he wanted the war to be over “in the hearts and minds of Americans" and "heal the domestic wounds of Vietnam."

Carter was a dark-horse candidate from the beginning, and few Americans knew who he was when he announced his bid for the presidency. In March 1976, he told The Washington Post, "I don't have the desire to punish anyone, I'd just like to tell the young folks who did defect to come home."

His stance on the issue was derided by journalists and politicians, while drawing wide support on opinion pages and letters to the editor from everyday Americans. Even The Wall Street Journal's editorial board applauded Carter for "his ability to treat the topics of abortion and amnesty with the complexity they deserve."

Carter's political opponents, like vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole, were against any kind of blanket amnesty, criticized Carter's support for it and campaigned against it. Others criticized Carter's plan, because it didn't go far enough: It did not address the problem of deserters or veterans with less than honorable discharges.

The election of 1976 was one of the closest in modern U.S. history, with Carter edging out Ford by 57 electoral votes. As president-elect Carter, he heard more voices than ever who wanted him to adhere to his campaign promise, and more voices compelling him to extend the pardon to deserters, those who resisted the war after seeing combat in Vietnam.

On Jan. 21, 1977, the day after his inauguration, Carter issued Executive Order 11967, granting a pardon to all Vietnam War draft dodgers. It included those who failed to register for the draft, but did not address the fate of deserters. After the pardon was issued, polling revealed only 20% of Americans supported the executive order.

President Jimmy Carter in the White House, 1977. (Library of Congress)

Some reporters commented that it would set a precedent for future military desertions during wartime; others believed it fell short of healing the wounds caused by the war. The U.S. military continued to search for deserters, such as Allen Abney, who deserted from the Marine Corps in 1968 and was arrested in 2006.

Veterans and veterans groups expressed outrage and resentment. Deserters and supporters of deserters were disappointed. Only 85 of those deserters who were eligible for the case-by-case pardon actually returned to the U.S. Many stayed in their new homes abroad.

The United States ended the draft in 1973 under President Richard Nixon, switching to the all-volunteer force the U.S. has today. Ford ended the Selective Service registration requirement for male citizens between ages 18 and 25 in 1975. It was Carter who reimplemented mandatory registration for males between ages 18 and 26 in 1980.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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