A Brief History
On January 21, 1977, newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter created perhaps the biggest controversy of his presidency by pardoning Viet Nam War era draft dodgers.
Digging deeper, we find the United States in the 1960s and 1970s severely divided over support for the war in Viet Nam.
With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Eugene McCarthy and other prominent Americans vociferously opposed to the war, large portions of the population sided with them. The anti-war feeling went beyond just the political aspects and dove into the moral aspects for each individual soldier as well. The youth counter-culture and the peace-niks that gave us the “Summer of Love” in 1967 made refusal to serve in the military mandatory to meet their moral standards.
Folk singers, civil rights activists and many others urged young men not to cooperate with the government and to refuse to serve. This sort of urging is illegal, but through the use of euphemisms and thinly disguised messages, the “burn your draft card” directive got out.
Meanwhile, many Americans who were traditional or conservative saw the hand of communism behind the anti-war/anti-draft movement (correctly so, to some extent) and viewed draft evaders and those who encouraged or aided them as traitors.
Some draft dodgers fled to Canada or other countries, while some went to jail, and others managed to stay in the U.S. in hiding. Feelings on both sides were extreme! People alive at the time remember chants of “Hell no we won’t go” and the ubiquitous “make love not war” graffiti.
When Jimmy Carter took office he kept his promise to pardon the draft dodgers, but the form of the pardon was such that each draft dodger had to individually apply for his pardon. Now, not only did the conservative Americans bitterly denounce Carter’s action, but so did those in favor of the pardons! The peace-nik crowd felt the pardon should be a automatic, blanket type of pardon and that by having to apply, each draft dodger was confessing to a crime.
Proving the old adage that “you can’t make everybody happy,” President Carter managed to really make nobody happy and this reality may have contributed to his defeat in 1980.
The bizarre part of this history, is that by 1992, America elected to the presidency Bill Clinton who had managed to avoid the a draft dodger legally, and then Newt Gingrich, who had likewise used the same legal but immoral ruse to avoid the draft, was selected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Following President Clinton, George W. Bush who had purportedly fraudulently joined the Air National Guard to avoid the draft and Dick Cheney who avoided the draft by medical deferments were elected to the White House!
Also, the current feeling in the United States is one of appreciation for the military men and women with none of the stigma and labels of “baby killer” suffered by Viet Nam veterans. Even those same veterans are treated much differently today than they were in the 1960s and 1970s and have taken their place of honor with all American war veterans.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was President Carter right to pardon Vietnam War era draft dodgers? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Stone, Marvin L., ed. U.S. News & World Report, January 1977.