President Ford announced a conditional amnesty program for Vietnam War deserters and draft evaders.
President Gerald Ford, a World War II veteran, issued a conditional amnesty on this day in 1974 to members of the Armed Forces who had deserted during the Vietnam War. To qualify, the president announced, they needed to work for up to two years in a public service job.
Ford said he wanted the nation to move beyond the war, which had cost more than 58,000 American lives and had long divided the country.
He noted in his proclamation that “desertion in time of war is a major, serious offense.” For that matter, he added, draft evasion “is also a serious offense. Such actions, he said, needn’t be condoned. “Yet,” he continued, “reconciliation calls for an act of mercy to bind the nation’s wounds and to heal the scars of divisiveness.”
the Armed Forces who elects to seek relief through this program will receive an undesirable discharge. Thereafter, upon satisfactory completion of a period of alternate service prescribed by the military department or Department of Transportation, such individual will be entitled to receive, in lieu of his undesirable discharge, a clemency discharge in recognition of his fulfillment of the requirements of the program. [However], such clemency discharge shall not bestow entitlement to benefits administered by the Veterans Administration.
The presidential proclamation also covered the conditions under which draft evaders could be granted amnesty by performing two years of “alternate service [that] shall promote the national health, safety, or interest.” However, evaders who had fled the country were deemed to be ineligible.
According to the website miafacts.org, “we have enough solid information on the circumstances of loss for most of the approximately 40 men who are carried on the books as having deserted in Vietnam to be confident they deserted while in Vietnam. But … the statistics don't begin to tell the story. Each and every incident in which an American or group of Americans became unaccounted for is unique. The truth and the complexity of the issue lie in the details of the individual cases.”
On Jan. 21, 1977, in his first full day in office, President Jimmy Carter, an Annapolis graduate, granted a pardon to most draft evaders without requiring them to perform public service. The Carter pardon, however, did not extend to military deserters.
In all, about 100,000 Americans went abroad in the late 1960s and early '70s to avoid being called up. Some studies show that as many as 9 in 10 evaders had crossed the northern border into Canada, where after some initial hesitancy they could remain as legal immigrants. Veterans groups promptly criticized Carter’s action.
Before Carter issued his pardon, those who had fled to Canada faced jail terms if they returned to the United States. An estimated 50,000 draft dodgers chose to settle permanently in Canada.
President Gerald Ford signs a document proclaiming conditional amnesty for Vietnam War deserters and draft evaders, Sept. 16, 1974.