United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The question of how to deal with those who resisted the war in Vietnam caused the United States to examine its reasons for fighting the war as well as its basic principles. President Gerald R. Ford’s decision to grant conditional amnesty to draft evaders pleased neither conservatives nor liberals.

Summary of Event

The war in Vietnam was the longest war ever fought by the United States and was also the most controversial. U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1954 with participation in a conference at Geneva that divided Vietnam into two parts. The Viet Minh, or Vietnamese communists, were placed in control of the northern part, where they had already been militarily successful. The United States agreed to support a democratic government in the south. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in favor of this support by saying that allowing the communists to take over South Vietnam would be equivalent to “pushing over the first in a long row of dominoes.” This statement came to be called the “domino theory” and sums up much of the reasoning behind the determination of the United States to defend South Vietnam. [kw]United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders (Aug. 19, 1974) [kw]Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders, United States Grants (Aug. 19, 1974) [kw]Vietnam War Draft Evaders, United States Grants Amnesty to (Aug. 19, 1974) [kw]Draft Evaders, United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War (Aug. 19, 1974) Vietnam War (1959-1975);amnesty for draft evaders [g]North America;Aug. 19, 1974: United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders[01660] [g]United States;Aug. 19, 1974: United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders[01660] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 19, 1974: United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders[01660] [c]Vietnam War;Aug. 19, 1974: United States Grants Amnesty to Vietnam War Draft Evaders[01660] Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders

During the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy, John F. the number of U.S. troops involved grew to more than twenty-five thousand. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Johnson, Lyndon B. the total would increase to almost one-half million as the United States tried to win a military victory. Public opinion was initially in support of the war.

In 1968, spokespersons for the American government claimed repeatedly that the U.S. forces were winning the war and that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” This view was expressed publicly by the overall military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland, William At the Vietnamese New Year’s celebration, “Tet” on the Vietnamese lunar calendar, the South Vietnamese communists, or Viet Cong, and their North Vietnamese allies unleashed a major military offensive that struck at U.S. troops all over South Vietnam. Although the offensive was eventually defeated by U.S. forces, serious questions were raised about the course of the war. Many people in the United States began to ask why the American people had been told that the war was being won when the enemy was obviously building strength. It was at this point that the war began to become unpopular. A significant number of people began to resist the draft or desert from the armed forces. Their motives ranged from moral opposition to the use of force to political beliefs that the United States had no national interest in what amounted to a civil war in Vietnam.

The military draft itself had numerous loopholes. Students enrolled full-time in college were given student deferments, even after completing bachelor’s degrees if they enrolled in graduate school. Members of the National Guard were also exempt from the draft, and the Army sent no National Guard units to Vietnam. These exemptions from service in Vietnam caused some people to justify their resistance to the war by arguing that only the poor and racial or ethnic minorities were fighting the war.

There is considerable disagreement concerning how many people deserted or evaded the draft during the years of the Vietnam War. When U.S. forces officially disengaged in early 1973, it was suggested that about fifty thousand people were actively resisting the war in these ways. The actual numbers seem to have been much higher. More than thirty-two thousand military deserters were “at large” in the United States and in foreign countries. At least twenty-four thousand young men evaded the draft by refusing to report for induction and “going underground” or by leaving the country. It is estimated that another one-quarter million simply failed to register for the draft and were never caught.

For those who chose to evade the draft, life could be very difficult. Edward Sowders went to Canada, tried living “underground” in the United States, and finally surrendered to authorities. He said of his experience, “I couldn’t live in Canada. I had no family, no friends, no real job.” Bill Shiller, who went to Sweden, commented, “You are living by the grace of the Swedes. Paradise can be a prison if you can’t get out.”

Bill Meis went to Canada and found that he felt at home after some time had passed. By 1974, Meis had “a wife, two kids, a house, and a mortgage; everything I thought I was rebelling against.” Other exiles also formed attachments to their new homes. George Meals became an audio engineer in Stockholm and said of amnesty, “If they offered unconditional amnesty, a bonus, and a free plane ticket, I probably would not go.”

As U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in January and February, 1973, President Nixon said of deserters and draft evaders, “Amnesty means forgiveness. We cannot provide forgiveness for them.” In support of this position, President Nixon presented five arguments: There had never been a general amnesty following any war in U.S. history; public opinion polls showed a majority strongly opposed to general amnesty, so granting amnesty would divide the nation; amnesty would be an injustice to all those who served in Vietnam, especially to those who died; no person should be allowed to place personal views above the law of the land; and granting amnesty to those who had deserted or evaded the draft would endanger national security by encouraging others to do the same in future times of danger.

Draft evaders apply for clemency in Indiana on March 31, 1976, hours before the midnight deadline.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1974, the series of political scandals and criminal activity collectively known as Watergate forced Nixon to resign from office. The new president, Gerald R. Ford, took a more flexible attitude toward the problem of amnesty because he perceived that the nation required a time of healing and forgiveness. The past needed to be put aside in order to advance toward the future. President Ford noted that the government was not dealing harshly with draft evaders. In 1972 and 1973, 1,495 draft evasion cases came to trial. Only 260 resulted in jail sentences. One-half of these were for six months or less. The courts were already granting an amnesty of sorts.

After asking some members of his cabinet to study the issue, President Ford made up his mind to offer deserters and draft evaders a “second chance.” This was to be labeled an “earned reentry program.” On August 19, 1974, in a speech at the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Chicago, President Ford said of the deserters and evaders, “I want them to come home, if they want to work their way back.” The audience did not react negatively to the speech, but three days later the Veterans of Foreign Wars did adopt a resolution opposing the president’s proposal. This attitude was widely shared among those who had served in Vietnam. Ford’s plan did not please many conservatives, who felt punishment was in order. Because Ford had issued a presidential pardon to prevent prosecution of former president Nixon on Watergate-related charges, many liberals looked on the amnesty offered to Vietnam deserters and evaders as an act of hypocrisy.

As the Ford plan was analyzed over the next several months, it was generally agreed that no real amnesty was involved. Anyone turning themselves in under the program would receive forgiveness only after a period of service in one of several public service agencies. Those who deserted the armed forces would not receive honorable discharges even after public service. Prison sentences of up to five years would remain the penalty for those who did not participate in the plan by its cutoff date.

Despite controversy and complaints, the Ford plan was implemented, with a final deadline for being included set as March, 1976. By the time the plan ended, it had been only a qualified success. About one-sixth of those eligible had applied, and about one-third of those had received pardons. Of the large number who did not respond to the Ford plan, the attitudes of many were probably summed up by Darryl Adams. Originally from San Diego, Adams had gone to Canada to avoid the draft. Adams said, “What the United States really wants is an admission that the war was right and us wrong. Any act of contrition is demeaning. It is out of the question.” Those who shared this opinion still seemed to believe that the war had been politically and morally wrong.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, the issue of amnesty was debated by Ford and his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter. Carter had originally opposed amnesty but had changed his mind under the influence of his sons, who were the same age as those who had fought in Vietnam and those who had resisted the war. Carter’s sons presented their case directly, asking, “What if we were one of them? How would you want the president to act?” Following his election, President Carter kept the pledge he had made during the campaign. Within six hours of taking office, he ordered Attorney General Griffin Bell to draft the document granting an unconditional pardon to all who had peacefully resisted the draft during the Vietnam War. Those who had deserted the military were not included.


The war in Vietnam was the most wrenching to the social fabric of the United States of any conflict since the Civil War. Therefore, the question of amnesty would also be wrenching. Many government officials serving under presidents Nixon and Ford were opposed to amnesty, as were the leaders of most veterans’ groups. The reasons for this opposition included fear of setting a precedent that would encourage more opposition in the future and concern that forgiving those who opposed the war would dishonor those who fought in the conflict. Some church groups, civil libertarians, liberal members of Congress, and former government officials favored amnesty. These supporters pointed out that forgiveness was extended to the Confederates at the end of the Civil War and to huge numbers of Germans and Japanese at the end of World War II. Such actions argued in favor of forgiving, as one said, “our own sons and daughters.” Eisenhower, Dwight D. Vietnam War (1959-1975);amnesty for draft evaders

The question of amnesty was also connected with basic questions about the war in Vietnam. Many members of the American public believed the war to be an attempt to protect valid national security concerns of the United States while also protecting a weak nation against the spread of communism. Others felt a sense of shame and guilt over the methods used to conduct the war, arguing that the United States was doing more harm than good to the Vietnamese. Also involved was the very basic matter of the right of the state to insist on obedience versus the right of the individual to follow his or her own conscience. Those who believed that the war was a proper response to international conditions and who believed in unvarying obedience to the state were likely to oppose amnesty. Those who took the opposite side were more likely to favor amnesty.

The program presented by President Ford did not please those who had opposed the war. His program calling for a term of public service in exchange for amnesty was viewed as punishment and as an admission of guilt. At the same time, many conservatives saw any conditions for amnesty as wrong. In this way, it was courageous for President Ford to propose a program that he believed to be correct but that would please so few. His position was undermined, however, a few weeks after announcing his program when he granted a full pardon to former president Nixon, a man many felt to be implicated in wrongdoing greater than that of any war resister. The full pardon given to draft evaders by President Carter did not please the more extreme groups on either side of the issue. Conservatives objected for the same reasons, while some liberals complained that deserters were omitted from the pardon.

It should be kept in mind that the root meaning of “amnesty” is “forgetting.” Amnesty means that the law and the government forget what has been done. The importance of the 1974 event is that the process of forgetting began. Vietnam War (1959-1975);amnesty for draft evaders

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. 1985. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. This book looks at how American culture influenced the way the United States decided to enter the war in Vietnam, how it fought, and how many Americans decided to oppose the war. The cultural assumptions discussed in this book show why the debate over amnesty was bitter and difficult to resolve.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. An in-depth history of the military, political, and social events that made up the Vietnamese conflict. The author correlates the military events in Vietnam with political and social events in the United States. This book is a companion piece to a film series originally broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menzel, Paul T., ed. Moral Argument and the War in Vietnam. Nashville: Aurora, 1971. Written when the war was coming to an end, this collection of essays reflects a wide variety of opinions about the war and will help the reader understand the public debate and the process by which draft evaders and deserters made their decision to resist the war. Because these are essays written in the heat of the controversy, there is little analysis, but each writer argues for a distinct point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Kathleen Dean. Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Presents a history of clemency and examines the philosophy and controversies surrounding pardons from the seventeenth century to post-Watergate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988. John Paul Vann was a lieutenant colonel who served extensively in Vietnam before becoming a critic of the destruction caused in that country. Vann served as a civilian worker in Vietnam from 1965 until his death in 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witcover, Jules. Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976. New York: Viking Press, 1977. Provides an excellent discussion of how the amnesty issue was handled by both major parties during the presidential campaign of 1976.

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