On this day in 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter grants an unconditional pardon to hundreds of thousands of men who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.
In total, some 100,000 young Americans went abroad in the late 1960s and early 70s to avoid serving in the war. Ninety percent went to Canada, where after some initial controversy they were eventually welcomed as immigrants. Still others hid inside the United States. In addition to those who avoided the draft, a relatively small number–about 1,000–of deserters from the U.S. armed forces also headed to Canada. While the Canadian government technically reserved the right to prosecute deserters, in practice they left them alone, even instructing border guards not to ask too many questions.
For its part, the U.S. government continued to prosecute draft evaders after the Vietnam War ended. A total of 209,517 men were formally accused of violating draft laws, while government officials estimate another 360,000 were never formally accused. If they returned home, those living in Canada or elsewhere faced prison sentences or forced military service. During his 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter promised to pardon draft dodgers as a way of putting the war and the bitter divisions it caused firmly in the past. After winning the election, Carter wasted no time in making good on his word. Though many transplanted Americans returned home, an estimated 50,000 settled permanently in Canada, greatly expanding the country’s arts and academic scenes and pushing Canadian politics decidedly to the left.
Back in the U.S., Carter’s decision generated a good deal of controversy. Heavily criticized by veterans’ groups and others for allowing unpatriotic lawbreakers to get off scot-free, the pardon and companion relief plan came under fire from amnesty groups for not addressing deserters, soldiers who were dishonorably discharged or civilian anti-war demonstrators who had been prosecuted for their resistance.
Years later, Vietnam-era draft evasion still carries a powerful stigma. Though no prominent political figures have been found to have broken any draft laws, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Vice-Presidents Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney–none of whom saw combat in Vietnam–have all been accused of being draft dodgers at one time or another. Although there is not currently a draft in the U.S., desertion and conscientious objection have remained pressing issues among the armed forces during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.