Between the 41st anniversary of the landmark decision, Roe vs. Wade and the Federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life is a little remembered anniversary. The pardoning of American draft dodgers was controversial at the time and remains a stigma on some today.
On January 21, 1977, America President Carter granted a pardon to thousands of individuals who dodged the draft amidst the Vietnam War. This year, the forgotten anniversary comes between the Martin Luther King federal holiday and the 41st anniversary of Roe Vs Wade.
Approximately 100,000 Americans left the country to avoid serving during the Vietnam era. 90 percent went north where controversy was stirred over Canada’s decision to welcome them as immigrants. Others went underground in America and a small number of military deserters traveled to Canada. The official Canadian policy was to prosecute; the reality was different. Canada left the deserters alone and even instructed border guards to not question suspected draft evaders too deeply.
The American leadership continued to search for, arrest and take legal action against draft evaders, even after the war came to and end. 209,517 people were charged with defying draft laws. The government estimates several hundred thousand were never charged. For evaders that went to Canada, returning home meant prison or mandatory military service.
During Carter’s 1976 campaign, he promised to grant clemency to draft dodgers. It was his method to put the divisive in the past. After successfully capturing the election, Carter speedily kept his campaign promise. While many Americans returned to the U.S., an approximately 50,000 draft evaders stayed behind in Canada. Because of the large number of American ex-pats in Canada, the Canadian arts community rapidly expanded and Canadian politics were pushed to the left.
Carter’s decision caused a lot of controversy in the U.S. Coming under fire from veterans groups, the Amnesty and Related Relief Plan came under fire for not going far enough. Amnesty groups blasted the plan as military personnel who received other than honorable discharges and anti-war demonstrators who had been arrested weren’t included in the pardon.
Thirty-eight years later the still brings dishonor to some. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been accused of being draft dodgers at one time or another. Vice President Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney, neither of whom saw combat, have been accused as well.
Throughout the Vietnam War era, 1963 − 1975, it was illegal to provide advice and counsel regarding desertion or draft evasion. Singers such as Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie got around the law by using satire in some of their songs.
Singers like Guthrie were key in espousing the foundation of principles behind both Roe vs Wade and Martin Luther King Jr.; they also used their talents in helping fight the war by guiding deserters and would-be deserters through words and music.
“Draft Dodger Rag,” written and performed by Ochs, included a “how-to” list of deferments which would excuse one from military service. The list included ruptured spleen, poor eyesight, flat feet and college enrollment.
Guthrie addressed the dilemma of seeking a deferment by acting crazy in his popular song “Alice’s Restaurant,” while “1001 Ways to Beat the Draft” was a document written by musician Tuli Kupferberg. Methods he listed included showing up at the selective service board wearing diapers.
Both Roe Vs. Wade and Martin Luther King, Jr., had an impact on America and the rest of the world. Draft dodgers made their impact on society as well, and continue to quietly influence policies and politics globally. But this anniversary is barely remembered by anyone.
By Jerry Nelson