It was a move with the power to unite the country—even if it came at the cost of ruffling a few feathers. Just days after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977, the new President fulfilled a campaign promise: the granting of a blanket pardon to Vietnam War draft evaders by executive order. Yet the draft had proven so divisive that not even the promise of an open-arms reunion could convince as many as 50,000 American dodgers to return home.
At the time of the order, it wasn’t clear what impact it would have, or even how many people it affected. A 1977 New York Times article, for instance, described the act as “narrow,” applying to just 10,000 people, “largely white, and middle or upper class.” The total number, in fact, was closer to 500,000. (Among them was Muhammad Ali, whom President Donald Trump offered to pardon all over again.)
About 100,000 draft evaders had left for foreign shores instead of going to war. The vast majority headed to Canada, where they were accepted as legal immigrants. So far as Canada was concerned, this influx of young men was a highly desirable addition to the labor force. They were often young and well-educated, and had few ties to the country that they had felt obliged to leave—making it easy for them to stay for good, even after Carter issued his pardon and they were permitted to return.
Back in the United States, in the days after the inauguration, the White House was beset with angry phone calls about the pardon. Many people were furious: Senator Barry Goldwater famously called it “the most disgraceful thing a president has ever done,” while the then-director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars described it as sadder “than Watergate or Vietnam itself.” The general public seemed to agree.
But an initial rage burned bright, and then quickly out. “Three weeks later,” says Peter Bourne, who worked with Carter for decades and later wrote his biography, “most people didn't care what he'd done.” The phone calls stopped, the furor died down. While some were happy about the executive order, those who weren’t had largely moved on. “Members of the Congress sort of accepted it,” he says.
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Gradually, people began to come back to the United States. Mostly, however, they were those who had lacked the skills or education to distinguish themselves among the Canadian workforce. (In some cases, they had simply found the weather too severe.) The youngest and most qualified, however, found themselves faced with ample opportunities in Canada—as well as a political climate that felt especially hospitable in comparison to their home country and its draft. There was every reason to stay put.
For Canada, these young people were a boon to the economy, described by the Ottawa government as “the largest, best-educated group this country ever received.” For the nascent Canadians, their new home was a blank slate, without the same history of “lynches and hatred and persecution,” as one draft evader described.
In fact, Carter likely shared many of these young people’s views. Long before he became president, Bourne remembers him as a fierce opponent of the war. “He did feel strongly against it,” Bourne says. “So it was primarily a decision of moral character that he was making.”
As for the optics, Bourne believes Carter barely considered what effect the executive order might have on his public standing, and instead wanted to do what he felt was an ethical imperative. “I think he had no idea whether it would help him or cost him,” he says. “I think he assumed it would cost him.”
For many people, Carter’s presidential pardon changed the course of their lives. Douglas Brinkley, author of the biography The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House, describes it as one of the defining moments of his presidency. “It gave people their lives back,” he says. "Carter dealt with the anti-war issue by saying, ‘You are Americans and we're going to take you back into the fold.'"