By David Kurlander

On “Treason(ish),” this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman focused on the polarized congressional debate over whether to punish enablers of the January 6th insurrectionists. Heather and Joanne looked back at similar back-and-forths concerning the treatment of Tories, Confederates, and Nazi scientists. “We’re talking about episodes of conflict in which government insiders are involved with categorizing, sorting out, and allowing people in or out,” Joanne summated. In the 1970s, another such moment of reckoning came over whether to grant amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders. Despite the obvious ideological and moral differences from the current dispute about the insurrection, the post-Vietnam philosophical debate over forgiveness, mourning, and the nature of armed conflict provides an instructive example of bipartisan engagement in the aftermath of violence and resistance.

On October 28th, 1972, President Richard Nixon saw a woman holding a sign along his motorcade route while he was campaigning for reelection in Mantua Corners, Ohio: “Mr. President, please may I shake your hand. No amnesty. We lost a son in Vietnam.” Betty Lorence’s son, Captain John Lorence, had been killed at age 22 by a booby trap in 1969. Nixon instructed his driver to pull over. Nixon led his entourage to the nearby Lorence home and told the grieving parents, with reporters listening in, “The few hundred that deserted this country, the draft dodgers, are never going to get amnesty when boys like yours died, never.”

Nixon’s invocation of a “few hundred” draft evaders was a bit of an understatement. An estimated 100,000 men had fled to Canada to avoid induction, while hundreds of thousands more had fled elsewhere, deserted, or been dishonorably discharged.

 The question of how to reintegrate draft evaders had swirled in Congress and the campaign trail throughout 1972. Earlier in the year, Democratic New York Representative Bella Abzug introduced the “War Resisters Exoneration Act of 1972,” which would have granted all evaders unconditional amnesty. Nixon’s presidential challenger George McGovern took a slightly more cautious tack, arguing that those who had resisted the draft because of “genuine conscience” should be granted amnesty, but that deserters should still be tried by military courts. Even so, Nixonites still branded McGovern the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.”  

Nixon kept up his anti-amnesty rhetoric even after his landslide victory over McGovern. “Amnesty means forgiveness. We cannot provide forgiveness,” he told the White House press corps in January 1973. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was even more critical of evaders, arguing in March 1973, “We must be unyielding in how we treat them.”

The following year, however, saw the end of formal hostilities in Vietnam and the drama of the Watergate scandal. After Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Gerald Ford, catapulted to the presidency, had in his first weeks to decide not only on shifting the amnesty debate, but on granting amnesty to his own predecessor. 

On August 19th, 1974, after only 11 days in office, Ford announced the outline of a new and more forgiving amnesty plan to the 75th Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Chicago. Ford explained his choice of venue in his autobiography, A Time to Heal: “A liberal audience—Americans for Democratic Action, for example—would be pleased by the change of approach. The conservative VFW would be very disturbed, but announcing it to them would indicate strength on my part.”  

Ford’s wife Betty told reporters, “In the car on the way over to the speech, Jerry said at least he wasn’t worried about being interrupted by applause.”  

Before the audience of 3,000 veterans, Ford explained his difficult position: “Like President Truman and President Lincoln before him, I found on my desk, where the buck stops, the urgent problem of how to bind up the Nation’s wounds. And I intend to do that.” Ford then pivoted explicitly to the evaders. “I want them to come home if they want to work their way back…I am throwing the weight of my Presidency into the scales of justice on the side of leniency.” 

 On September 16th, 1974, less than a month after his announcement to the VFW—and only eight days after his controversial pardon of Nixon—Ford outlined the specifics of his amnesty policy in a brief televised statement. Draft evaders would have until the following January 31st to turn themselves in. They would need to complete an “earned reentry program” through two years of “alternative service.” Ford argued that the program was designed for the “restoration of the essential unity of Americans, within which honest differences of opinion do not descend to angry discord and mutual problems are not polarized by excessive passion.” 

Ford also announced the creation of a Clemency Review Board to look over the cases of evaders who had already been convicted. He appointed former Republican Senator Charles Goodell of New York—the father of the current NFL Commissioner—to head the Board. Goodell’s criticism of the War had put him at loggerheads with Nixon, who helped engineer Goodell’s 1970 reelection defeat at the hands of the hawkish conservative James L. Buckley. Goodell was joined on the nine-person Board by other liberal figures, including National Urban League Executive Director Vernon Jordan, who would go on to be a pivotal advisor for President Clinton, and University of Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh, who had spoken out against the War during campus protests. 

Despite his concessions to the anti-war movement, Ford’s program did not receive the broad participation for which he had hoped. Only around 21,000 evaders signed up.  

The program’s anemic performance opened the door to Jimmy Carter, Ford’s 1976 presidential opponent, who came out in favor of unconditional amnesty. During their September 29th, 1976 debate, Carter levied a bruising attack on Ford’s handling of amnesty, contrasting the limited nature of Ford’s program with his immediate pardon of Nixon: “I think it’s very difficult for President Ford to explain the difference between the pardon of President Nixon and his attitude toward those who violated the draft laws.” 

Carter also struck a populist tone, arguing that the hurdles built into the program unfairly punished poor Americans who had opposed the conflict. “We have got a sharp distinction drawn between white collar crime. The big shots who are rich, who are influential, very seldom go to jail. Those who are poor and who have no influence quite often are the ones who are punished.”

After his loss to Carter, in a December 29th, 1976 press gaggle, a weary Ford acknowledged the political damage of the program’s failure: “I regret that many, many more didn’t participate.” 

 On January 21st, 1977, his first full day in office, Carter granted an unconditional pardon to draft evaders. Echoing McGovern’s position five years earlier, Carter did not include deserters or the dishonorably discharged in his proclamation. Even so, Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater called Carter’s decision “the most disgraceful thing a president has ever done,” adding that it would “utterly destroy the effectiveness of any draft.”  

The partisan rancor over Carter’s choice died down over time. In 2006, Carter appeared in conversation with Caroline Kennedy and newscaster Brian Williams in a JFK Library Forum and offered a unifying interpretation of the pardon: “It was the right thing to do, and I was just following up, basically, on the heroic action that President Gerald Ford had taken in trying to heal our nation, and to give us a chance to move beyond the Vietnam War and obsession with Vietnam into another era of life.” 

We are far from moving on into another “era of life” from the events of January 6th, and the insurrectionists’ crimes are clearly cut of a different cloth than those of Vietnam draft evaders. But as bitter debates continue to rage in Washington over the appropriate balance between accountability and leniency for those who stormed the Capitol, we must hope that a clear-eyed and civil debate can emerge—as it eventually did in the 1970s—over how the nation can best move forward.  

To learn more about Vietnam draft evaders, read Paul Benedikt Glatz’s recent Vietnam’s Prodigal Heroes: American Deserters, International Protest, European Exile, and Amnesty.

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