Pardon of Draft Evaders Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between 1940 and 1973 the Selective Service Administration oversaw the draft in the United States. During the Vietnam War, draft calls escalated dramatically, forcing numerous American males between the ages of 18 and 26 to confront the choice of going to war or finding a way out of the draft. Many middle-class men were able to avoid the draft through a variety of deferrals or by attaining a position in the National Guard. Several thousand draft resisters chose prison over going to Vietnam. Tens of thousands of those drafted chose exile. The most common destination was Canada, which had fairly liberal immigration policies and neighbored the United States. Canada has historically served as a refuge for those fleeing repression in the United States. These include about 100,000 Loyalists after the American Revolution, fugitive slaves, and Sitting Bull and his Lakota people. After the end of US military involvement in the Vietnam War, the tens of thousands of young men in exile remained one of the unresolved and controversial issues of the war. On Sept. 16, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford issued a “conditional amnesty” for draft evaders and military deserters, which featured “earned re-entry” in exchange for two years of alternative service. On January 21, 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a broader “pardon” for all draft evaders, but not military deserters.

Summary Overview

Between 1940 and 1973 the Selective Service Administration oversaw the draft in the United States. During the Vietnam War, draft calls escalated dramatically, forcing numerous American males between the ages of 18 and 26 to confront the choice of going to war or finding a way out of the draft. Many middle-class men were able to avoid the draft through a variety of deferrals or by attaining a position in the National Guard. Several thousand draft resisters chose prison over going to Vietnam. Tens of thousands of those drafted chose exile. The most common destination was Canada, which had fairly liberal immigration policies and neighbored the United States. Canada has historically served as a refuge for those fleeing repression in the United States. These include about 100,000 Loyalists after the American Revolution, fugitive slaves, and Sitting Bull and his Lakota people. After the end of US military involvement in the Vietnam War, the tens of thousands of young men in exile remained one of the unresolved and controversial issues of the war. On Sept. 16, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford issued a “conditional amnesty” for draft evaders and military deserters, which featured “earned re-entry” in exchange for two years of alternative service. On January 21, 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a broader “pardon” for all draft evaders, but not military deserters.

Defining Moment

Opposition to the draft during the Vietnam War grew dramatically as the war expanded and became more unpopular. Refusing induction carried a penalty of five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Many Americans sought legal deferments or a place in the National Guard to avoid going to Vietnam, and several thousand chose to go to prison as an act of protest. But for many, the draft meant facing one of two stark choices: go to Vietnam or flee the country. Due to its geographical proximity and liberal immigration laws, the majority of those choosing flight crossed the border to Canada.

Estimates vary as to how many Americans fled to Canada, but conservative estimates are at least 50,000 and perhaps many more. Another large contingent of Americans going into Canadian exile were young women, often the wives or girlfriends of male draft evaders. Among the male exiles were several thousand military deserters, who faced even more severe punishment. Approximately 1,000 Americans chose to flee to Sweden; the majority of these were military deserters.

While some Americans sought legal “landed status” in Canada, which would entitle them to work permits, health care, and welfare benefits, others simply moved to Canada without making their American origins known. The three most common Canadian destinations were Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. However, due to Vancouver's stringent union work requirements and French being Montreal's official language, Toronto became the largest destination for American exiles.

Americans made up a relatively small percentage of Canada's immigrant population, but they received a great deal of attention. Many Canadians initially were hostile to these Americans, and until 1969, Canada conducted a covert policy of turning back US military deserters at the border. Many Canadians, however, felt strongly about national sovereignty and were reluctant to become policemen for the US government. Antiwar Canadians, meanwhile, formed organizations like Amex and the Toronto Anti-Draft Program to advocate for American draft evaders and help them settle into Canadian life. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular among Canadians in the late 1960s, Canada's role as a sanctuary became a point of national pride, although American draft evaders were never given any considerations not afforded to all immigrants.

Critics of draft evaders came not only from veterans and traditional Americans, but from some on the left. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) felt the exodus to Canada deprived them of potential recruits for revolution in America, and the pacifist folk singer Joan Baez, whose husband David was in a US prison for draft resistance, told American draft evaders in the audience at a Toronto concert, “How dare you be here while my David is suffering in jail” (Hagen 27).

After US involvement in the Vietnam War ended in January 1973, tens of thousands of draft evaders remained in Canadian exile. Exiles and their supporters formed the National Coalition for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty (NCUUA) to lobby for the return of all draft evaders and military deserters. Weeks into his presidency, President Gerald Ford issued an unconditional pardon to the recently resigned President Richard Nixon for all crimes associated with the Watergate scandal. This raised the question of a pardon for draft evaders, and a week later, on September 16, 1974, Ford issued a “conditional amnesty” for draft evaders and military deserters, in which they could apply for re-entry to the United States and have charges dropped if they agreed to two years of alternative service as determined by the Selective Service Administration. The window for Ford's pardon lasted until the following spring. The majority of those choosing to participate in Ford's conditional amnesty were military deserters already serving time in US prisons.

During his campaign for the presidency, Jimmy Carter promised to issue an unconditional pardon for draft evaders, telling Newsweek he preferred pardon to amnesty because “Amnesty means what you did was right; pardon means what you did is forgiven” (Dickerson 159). Carter officially announced his pardon pledge before approximately 5,000 American Legion members in Seattle on August 24, 1976. Carter's announcement was met with five minutes of booing, but nationally, Carter received credit for his courage in making the announcement before a hostile audience.

On his first day in office, Carter issued a pardon for all Vietnam draft evaders. Conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater denounced the pardon as “the most disgraceful thing a president has ever done” (Dickerson 162). Some on the left criticized Carter for not going further and pardoning military deserters. Passions soon subsided, however, and Carter's pardon was welcomed as a step toward healing the wounds of a deeply divisive war.

Author Biography

James Earl Carter, Jr. was born on October 1, 1929 in Plains, Georgia where he grew up. In 1943, Carter entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1946 married his wife Rosalynn. Carter served on submarines and, beginning in 1952, assisted Admiral Hyman Rickover in developing America's nuclear submarine force. After his service, Carter worked as a farmer and in 1962 was elected as a Democrat to the Georgia State Senate. In 1966, he lost a race for governor to segregationist Lester Maddox, but won the governorship in 1970. Carter was elected the thirty-ninth president of the United States in 1976 over incumbent Gerald Ford, but he lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter's post-presidency life has involved work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, which has supported community health programs around the world. In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Historical Document

Proclamation 4483

Acting pursuant to the grant of authority in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution of the United States. I, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, do hereby grant a full, complete and unconditional pardon to: (1) all persons who may have committed any offense between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective Service Act or any rule or regulation promulgated thereunder; and (2) all persons heretofore convicted, irrespective of the date of conviction, of any offense committed between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective Service Act, or any rule or regulation promulgated thereunder, restoring to them full political, civil and other rights.

This pardon does not apply to the following who are specifically excluded there from:

All persons convicted of or who may have committed any offense in violation of the Military Selective Service Act, or any rule or regulation promulgated thereunder, involving force or violence; and

All persons convicted of or who may have committed any offense in violation of the Military Selective Service Act, or any rule or regulation promulgated thereunder, in connection with duties or responsibilities arising out of employment as agents, officers or employees of the Military Selective Service system.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have unto set my hand this 21st day of January, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and first.

Executive Order 11967

The following actions shall be taken to facilitate Presidential Proclamation of Pardon of January 21, 1977:

The Attorney General shall cause to be dismissed with prejudice to the government all pending indictments for violations of the Military Selective Service Act alleged to have occurred between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 with the exception of the following:

Those cases alleging acts of force or violence deemed to be serious by the Attorney General as to warrant continued prosecution; and

Those cases alleging acts in violation of the Military Selective Service Act by agents, employees or officers of the Selective Service System arising out of such employment.

The Attorney General shall terminate all investigations now pending and shall not initiate further investigations alleging violations of the Military Selective Service Act between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973, with the exception of the following:

Those cases involving allegations of force or violence deemed to be so serious by the Attorney General as to warrant continued investigation, or possible prosecution; and

Those cases alleging acts in violation of the Military Selective Service Act by agents, employees or officers of the Selective Service System arising out of such employment.

Any person who is or may be precluded from reentering the United States under 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(22) or under any other law, by reason of having committed or apparently committed any violation of the Military Selective Service Act shall be permitted as any other alien to reenter the United States.

The Attorney General is directed to exercise his discretion under 8 U.S.C. 1182 (d)(5) or other applicable law to permit the reentry of such persons under the same terms and conditions as any other alien.

This shall not include anyone who falls into the exceptions of paragraphs 1 (a) and (b) and 2 (a) and (b) above.

Any individual offered conditional clemency or granted a pardon or other clemency under Executive Order 11803 or Presidential Proclamation 4313, dated September 16, 1974, shall receive the full measure of relief afforded by this program if they are otherwise qualified under the terms of this Executive Order.

Document Analysis

President Carter's Proclamation 4483 begins by noting the presidential power of the pardon granted in Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which is absolute. Carter's proclamation outlines the dates covered by the pardon, corresponding to the beginning of US escalation of the war after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964, and running through the 1973 Paris Peace Accords and the expiration of the draft.

Carter declares “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all persons in violation of the Selective Service Act. Carter excludes from his pardon anyone whose violation of the act involved “force or violence” and individuals were who “agents, officers or employees of the Military Selective Service system.” At the conclusion of the document, Carter also includes anyone offered “conditional amnesty” under President Ford's executive order who meets the conditions of his pardon.

Although it is not mentioned, Carter's pardon does not cover military deserters (estimated to have reached a half million individuals) or others who broke the law resisting the war while in uniform. The Executive Order 11967, also reprinted here, simply outlines how the pardon shall be carried out, primarily by the US Attorney General, dismissing all indictments covered by the pardon.

Essential Themes

Carter's pardon of draft evaders was controversial. Some Americans were outraged, especially many who served in Vietnam and veterans of previous wars. The term “draft dodger” has acquired the stigma of cowardice and lack of patriotism despite the fact that many who chose exile came to the decision after deep soul searching and from an alternative patriotism, which saw the war as an immoral departure from American ideals. Others argue that those choosing exile are more precisely described as “draft resisters,” while those who sought legal ways of avoiding the draft more accurately fit the idea of “draft evader” or “draft dodger.”

Choosing exile did not come close to approximating the hardships and dangers facing those who went to Vietnam or chose prison; however, exile often entailed far greater hardships than experienced by the beneficiaries of legal deferments. Some told of being unable to visit ailing parents or to attend the funerals of loved ones back home. About half of those living in Canada drifted back to the United States after Carter's pardon. The other half chose to remain in Canada. Many Canadians hail these US-Canadians for their contributions to Canada and continue to look with pride at Canada's role as a sanctuary.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Bourne, Peter G. Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency. New York: Scribner, 1997. Print.
  • Dickerson, James. North to Canada: Men and Women against the Vietnam War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. Print.
  • Hagen, John. Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters and Canada. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
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