I had just finished posting the first entry in a new blog series about my experiences with the Vietnam Era draft and was working on a draft of the second installment, when I took time out to check my usual sources for good ideas for a post for today. Was it kismet to discover that thirty-five years ago today on January 21, 1977 President Jimmy Carter on his first day in office issued a blanket pardon of most draft evaders, including those who went to Canada or assumed new identities and went underground in the states?
The controversial act, which brought harsh criticism from veterans’ organizations and near mutinous grumbling from some high level officers in the military, was not unexpected. It fulfilled a campaign promise. The idea was to put the bitter national divisions over the Vietnam War and Nixon years behind us, or in Carters own words, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
The accidental President, Gerald Ford, had issued a conditional pardon for draft offenders, including those who were abroad, in September of 1974. That was mainly to provide cover on the left for his blanket pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon for any offenses that he “may have committed." The Ford conditional pardon is generally better remembered than Carter’s much more substantial action because of the linkage despite requiring those who accepted the pardon to work in alternative service occupations similar to those of conscientious objectors for six to 24 months. Far fewer men than expected took Ford up on his offer.
Carter’s action was much more sweeping, but a little noticed provision said that a pardon would be given to all offenders who requested one. Some resistors refused to make a request because to do so was an admission that they had committed a crime in the first place. Many, many more were unaware, because of hazy press coverage, that they had to make a request. The Justice Department did not even make a cursory effort to inform the eligible by a letter to a “last known address.”
The wording also was unclear on an important point for men like me—did the pardon cover those who were already convicted and served sentences for draft offenses? I don’t think that last point has yet been fully answered.
None the less tens of thousands of draft refusers, evaders, and military deserters acted on the assumption that they were covered and the Justice Department ceased actions against anyone who could have been pardoned.
During the war, and continuing after it ended and Draft call-ups stopped in 1973, 209,517 men were accused of violating draft laws, and another 360,000 were never formally charged. Around 100,000 went abroad, 90% of them to Canada. The exact number who went “underground” has never been established, but is thought to be in the tens of thousands.
Upwards of 50,000 of those in Canada chose to stay there rather than return home. Most were granted Landed Immigrant status and eventually Canadian citizenship. A highly educated group with significant resources, these people had an impact on Canada. Many became leading figures in academia, the arts, and in politics. They are widely credited with/accused of moving Canadian politics generally to the left.
Likewise a good, but unknown, number of those who went underground chose to continue to live their lives under the identities that they assumed. In the 1960’s and early 70’s it was absurdly easy to establish a new identity. It is thought that as this cohort becomes eligible for Social Security or die many of these assumed identities will unravel.
As for an old Draft con like me, I never got any pardon papers. But I have lived my life quite openly, and even drawn some modest attention to myself. So far so good.