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Did You Know That President Jimmy Carter Pardoned Draft Dodgers On His Second Day In-Office In 1977

President Jimmy Carter’s controversial campaign promise to pardon draft evaders was enacted on his second day in office. Unlike the amnesty order of his predecessor, President Gerald Ford, Carter’s executive order did not excuse wartime deserters. It also didn’t pardon criminally charged war protestors or those discharged less-than-honorably. Despite the gentleman from the South trying to please everyone, the order was not well received. People complained in a rage that it went too far; others were indignant that it didn’t go far enough.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Oakland (Calif.). Police Dept

Understanding The Difference

Draft evasion, or dodging, is fleeing a government’s compulsory order to serve in a nation’s military. Desertion, on the other hand, is a military term for intending to permanently abandon a post without permission. And less-than-honorable discharge status is assigned upon permanent leave from military service. This type of discharge happens when a judicial or non-judicial action has been taken for failure to meet military standards, including bad or criminal behavior. Finally, there were conscientious objectors who were assigned alternative civilian service in place of conscription and did not need to be pardoned.

Meanwhile, anti-war objectors protested in a gamut of extremes. Peaceful objections were staged in an orderly manner, following the right to assembly guaranteed in the Constitution. But other activists were arrested and charged for participating in violent demonstrations, including students on college campuses. While violence among students appears to have happened less often than sensationalized in the media, it was still considered a problem at the time.


Under What Authority?

American presidents are not called Commander-in-Chief as some ego-boosting appellation. Rather, it’s the indication, as outlined in the Constitution, that the President is the supreme military commander over all American armed forces. As such, the sitting president can issue orders that affect the rules, or counter the decisions, of the military branches and their leaders.

Partial amnesty was granted in 1974 to Vietnam deserters by President Gerald Ford. Ford granted these conditionally, imposing the qualification that the deserter owed two years of public service employment. Ford stressed that desertion was a serious offense that should not be condoned, especially in wartime. But he offered the pardon as an act of mercy, to bring the country back together from the divisiveness it was experiencing.

In 1977, Carter extended unconditional amnesty to draft evaders, with no requirement for public service. He also wanted Americans to put the unpopular Vietnam War behind them. But he disagreed with Ford about pardoning wartime deserters who were already in the fight because they had sworn an oath to protect their fellow soldiers.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Library of Congress


The reaction to Carter’s executive order was swift, passionate, and loud. A few thought Carter had shown compassion, especially the families of draft dodgers who returned home. But many people were livid, and they let the White House hear about it, keeping the switchboard lit up and the operators hopping from angry call to angrier one.

Remarkably, according to the biography of Dr. Peter G. Bourne, who worked closely with Carter in several senior advisory positions, this outrage that burned so fast and hot died out in less than a month.

Photo:’s Bureau Centennial’s photostream

Did It Help?

As the amnesty took effect, some evaders returned to the United States from the foreign countries where they’d been hiding. Surprisingly, though, many who’d fled to Canada didn’t return. Canada wasn’t plagued with the civil unrest that still continued in the States. And the evaders, often young and educated, found themselves welcomed with open arms into the Canadian workforce. Carter’s presidential pardon was not enough for many of those who had begun to establish lives and families in Canada.

In retrospect, Carter’s pardon gave people their lives back, despite the temporary backlash. It’s been referred to as his defining presidential moment. But it appears that Carter was unconcerned with the court of public opinion. He just wanted to bring Americans back home.