During his presidential campaign, Carter had announced his intention to pardon those who had failed to register for the draft or left the country to avoid service. In a televised debate with incumbent President Gerald Ford, Carter proposed to implement a blanket pardon, in contrast to Ford's more selective clemency plan. Carter interpreted pardon as meaning that what you did, whether it's right or wrong, you're forgiven for it. And I do advocate a pardon for draft evaders.to bring about an end to the divisiveness that has occurred in our country as a result of the Vietnam War. On his second day in office, January 21, 1977, he followed through on his promise.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Carter served on battleships and submarines for eight years, although he did not see combat. His pardon of draft dodgers enraged veterans and was cheered by amnesty groups. Critics argued that not only would the pardon encourage future draftees to defy the law, it was an affront to the men who served and died during the war.
Carter's pardon stated that only civilians who were convicted of [violating] the Military Selective Service Act by draft-evasion acts or omissions committed between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 were eligible. The pardon was unconditional and wiped criminal records clean, but it only applied to civilians, not the estimated 500,000 to 1 million active-duty personnel who went AWOL (absent without leave) or deserted during the war. Many supporters of Carter's decision thought they too should be forgiven by the government in an effort to heal national wounds.