Today in 1977: Carter pardons Vietnam draft evaders

January 21, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryIn an effort to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War, President Carter fulfilled a campaign promise when he officially—and controversially—pardoned all Vietnam draft evaders on his first day in office, January 21, 1977.

With his pardon, the U.S. surrendered the right to prosecute both those who had unlawfully avoided serving in the war and those who had refused to register. Not all groups received amnesty, however. Excluded from the pardon were deserters, soldiers who received less-than-honorable discharges, and civilian protesters involved in acts of violence.

While some were pleased with the pardon, others found it disappointing. Many veterans groups considered the pardon insulting to those who had served in the war willingly, particularly those that had lost their lives.  They felt that Carter went too far in allowing draft dodgers to escape consequences of their actions. According to Tip Marlow, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization:

“We feel that there is a better way for people who have broken laws to come back into the country, and that is through one of the pillars of the formation of our nation . . . our present system of justice.”

An estimated 100,000 Americans went abroad in the late 1960s and early 1970s to avoid being drafted, while thousands of others went into hiding in the U.S., some changing their identities. Many ended up in Canada, where, following a brief period of controversy, the Canadian government accepted them as legal immigrants.

Back in the U.S., approximately 200,000 men were accused of violating draft laws. The draft itself ended in 1973, following a series of lawsuits.

The future of conscription

In the wake of 9/11, representatives Nick Smith and Curt Weldon introduced the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 2001, which would have made it “the obligation of male citizens and residents between 18 and 22 to receive basic military training and education as a member of the armed forces.” Though the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, it never made it to the House floor.

Less than two years later, congressman and armed-services veteran Charles Rangel introduced the Universal National Service Act of 2003. Following a roll call vote in which the bill was overwhelmingly opposed, Rangel was accused of introducing the bill simply for show. In a 2002 New York Times editorial, he had stated:

“If those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve—and to be placed in harm’s way—there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq.”

While additional incarnations of the Universal National Service Act have resurfaced—in 2006, 2007, and 2010—all have failed to gain significant traction.