On This Day

Library of Congress
President Ford announces amnesty for
draft evaders, Sept. 16, 1974.

On This Day: President Ford Grants Conditional Amnesty to Vietnam Draft Dodgers

September 16, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 16, 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation that granted amnesty to draft dodgers and military deserters who completed serve two years at a public service job.

Draft Dodgers Pardoned

Gerald Ford took office in August 1974 hoping to heal a nation divided by the Watergate scandal, which had forced the resignation of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, and the Vietnam War. On Sept. 8, he pardoned Nixon. Just over a week later, he offered amnesty to tens of thousands of Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters.

Ford had announced his plans for an amnesty program on Aug. 19 at a speech before a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago. The audience, reported The Associated Press, “sat mostly silent” as he announced his plan.

Ford’s program allowed draft dodgers and military deserters to gain amnesty by turning themselves in by Jan. 31, 1975, reaffirming their allegiance to the United States and serving two years working in a public service job.

In a speech in the White House Cabinet Room, President Ford declared, “I did this for the simple reason that for American fighting men, the long and divisive war in Vietnam has been over for more than a year, and I was determined then, as now, to do everything in my power to bind up the Nation’s wounds. … My sincere hope is that this is a constructive step toward a calmer and cooler appreciation of our individual rights and responsibilities and our common purpose as a nation whose future is always more important than its past.”

Three years after Ford’s conditional amnesty program, President Jimmy Carter granted a pardon to most draft dodgers (but not military deserters) without a requirement of public service.

Background: Draft Evasion

Conscription was used by the United States in the Civil War and World War I. In 1940, Congress introduced America’s first peacetime draft. In 1948, Congress passed a new Selective Service Act that made all men age 18-26 eligible for the draft; the draft was employed every year between 1948 and 1973.

Draft order was originally determined by age; the oldest men would be drafted first. This was changed in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, to a draft lottery that established the order by a random selection of birthdates.

According to the Selective Service System, 1.8 million men were drafted into the military between August 1964 and February 1973, though only a portion actually saw combat action in Vietnam.

Nearly 210,000 men were charged with evading the draft, while hundreds of thousands suspected dodgers were never officially charged. Many men managed to avoid service through legal means. They could receive deferments as students or conscientious objectors, enter the National Guard, Coast Guard or other military institutions that were not likely to deploy troops to Vietnam, or be excused from service due to health reasons or homosexuality.

Others used strictly illegal means, such as burning draft cards, refusing to appear for induction or forging documents. Between 30,000 and 50,000 fled the country, according to the Oxford Companion to American Military History.

As the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, draft evasion became more common. Writing in the Guardian in 1966, Richard Scott reported, “While attempts to escape the call-up or draft have been made on a small scale in all wars the extent and deviousness of the present draft-dodging is unparalleled and it is today socially acceptable as it never was in the past.”

President Nixon abolished the draft in 1973. Young men must still register with the Selective Service System in case the draft is reinstated, but it is unlikely that it will be in the foreseeable future.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War would claim over 50,000 American, and millions of Vietnamese lives. The conflict was mainly fought between the American military and guerillas aided by North Vietnam. The war continued until 1975, when U.S. forces withdrew and South Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese.

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