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April 2000
war protesters
Photo taken at a 1972 protest at Seal Beach, California by Debby Kinsman
War Resistance, Amnesty and Exile – Just the Facts
by Harold Jordan

As the Vietnam War fades into the past, the struggle for reinterpretation continues. One area that has received insufficient attention is war resistance. The script offered in public circles often reads like this: the war has ended for resisters; isolated numbers of people resisted military service, most of them "draft dodgers"; all of the legal issues surrounding military resisters were resolved – they eventually "got off"; and people only refuse military service when they face a draft.

Draft evaders and military absentees were treated differently.

These myths, like most others about the war, are designed to influence future generations of potential warriors. The reality of the Vietnam Era is that large numbers of people resisted military service in different ways. Some were facing the draft while others resisted after enlisting in the military. Universal amnesty was never granted to war resisters.

Here are the facts:

War Resisters and the Courts

Draft Law Violators – During the entire Vietnam War, 209,517 young men were formally accused of violating draft laws. Government officials estimate that another 360,000 were never formally accused. Of the former group, 25,000 indictments were handed down; 8,750 were convicted; and just under 4,000 served jail time.

Military Resisters – It is difficult to say how many military service members were prosecuted for offenses growing out of opposition to the Southeast Asia War. Most estimates consider the rates at which service members went AWOL (absent without leave) or deserted – commonly referred to as "absence offenses." AWOL and desertion rates hit an all-time high during the Vietnam War, 1971 and 1972 being the peak years. The Pentagon documents 1,500,000 instances of AWOL and desertion during the war. Official estimates of the actual number of service members who went AWOL or deserted run between 500,000 (Pentagon) and 550,000 (officials in the Ford Administration). It is important to remember that not all service members who received bad discharges for offenses related to the war were absentees. Adding other types of anti-war activities for which service members were prosecuted significantly increases these figures. Many went to jail and/or received bad discharges.*

Resisters in Exile

Estimates of the number of draft and military resisters who went into exile during the Vietnam Era vary widely. The best estimate is about 100,000, at least 90% of whom went to Canada. How many are still living abroad is unknown. The New York Times estimates that 25,000 draft resisters still live in Canada, an estimate which seems high by most accounts. (This figure does not include active duty service members who went into exile.) There are no reliable estimates: it is most likely still in the thousands.

Both relief programs had conditions many exiles found hard to accept.

Today military resisters who return to the United States may still face the possibility of punishment in the form of criminal prosecution or a bad discharge. GI resisters, including those living in exile, remain in legal jeopardy. No universal amnesty was ever granted them. The two 1970s limited relief programs expired decades ago. Every year a small number are arrested upon returning to the US. For example, Richard Allen Shields, who went AWOL from an Army base in Alaska in 1972, was arrested March 22, 2000 on the US-Canadian border (in Metaline Falls, WA) by U.S. Customs agents as he was attempting to drive a lumber truck across the border. Shields was taken to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and discharged from the Army with an "Other Than Honorable" discharge in April of 2000.

Relief for War Resisters

Two programs providing limited legal relief for draft and military resisters were implemented in the 1970s. Military resisters and draft evaders were treated differently from each other in both Ford and Carter programs.

Ford Clemency Program (1974)

In 1974, President Ford established a program of partial relief for war resisters. This clemency program was considered a complement to President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon, who had resigned from office in lieu of likely removal by Congress. The program covered the following categories of persons: convicted draft violators, convicted military deserters and AWOLs, draft violators who had never been tried, and veterans with less than honorable discharges for absence offenses.

The Ford program was widely regarded as a failure, even by people who administered it.

The conditions under which a person could receive relief were onerous and discriminatory. Persons receiving clemency were required to do up to 24 months of alternative service and were required sign broad oath of allegiance to the United States.

In addition to these measures, military deserters automatically received bad discharges ("Undesirable"), although they could later apply to get them changed to "Clemency Discharges" (considered "Other Than Honorable") after performing 24 months of service. Under the plan, GI participants would automatically lose all veterans benefits, unlike many other veterans with less than honorable discharges.

The program was widely regarded as a failure, even by people who administered it. Only 27,000 of the 350,000 eligible persons applied; 21,800 were granted clemency, mostly men living in the U.S., not exiles. Those granted clemency were almost equally divided between "draft offenders" and "military offenders." Most exile groups based in Canada, Sweden, Britain and France endorsed a boycott of the Ford program because of its punitive nature. The "oath of allegiance" requirement was considered especially offensive given the generous treatment of Nixon. Nixon received a pardon, pension, and was not required to swear allegiance to the U.S. despite his role in undermining democracy. Program administrators estimated that about 566,000 military "offenders" were still in need of relief after the Ford program ended, an ultimate indicator of the program’s failure.

Carter Program (1977)

In 1977, President Carter established two programs to assist war resisters. In January of 1977 he declared an unconditional amnesty for draft resisters, both accused and those who could face possible prosecution. Later that year, he set up the two stage "pardon" process for military absentees.

Once again, draft evaders and military absentees were treated differently.

Draft evaders were granted unconditional amnesty automatically if there were no other legal charges pending. They would not have a criminal record. Young men who were considered draft evaders did not have to apply (in any formal sense) to get amnesty. It was a blanket amnesty granted to all draft evaders whether they had been engaged in a legal process or not. This is why no figure exists for the real number of draft evaders who benefited from the Carter program. This includes people who were never prosecuted, people who were investigated and not prosecuted, people who were indicted, people for whom charges had been brought, etc. The only restriction is that the person not have other (non-draft evasion) charges pending against them. So a draft evader who had criminal charges pending for participating in a protest would not have those protest-related charges dropped, only the draft evasion charges.

Unfortunately, universal and unconditional amnesty was never granted to military resisters.

Similarly, military deserters and AWOLs could apply for a limited pardon if there were no other charges pending. Under the Carter program deserters would automatically receive a less than honorable discharge ("Undesirable"), but could apply for an upgrade later. The upgrade would not be automatic and few veterans received them. They were barred from receiving veterans benefits, unlike many other vets with less than honorable discharges. Military resisters had to apply for relief within a certain time frame, about 5-6 months, during 1977. Only 4,200 of them were considered eligible for the program; less than 25% of them were processed and received the less-than-honorable discharge. The program allowed for a case-by-case review of potentially another 430,000 cases of veterans with bad discharges; yet only 16,277 benefited from this procedure.

The Carter program was more successful than the Ford program despite its serious limitations. Many of the resisters (especially military absentees) had trouble surviving in other countries. Exile groups urged people to take advantage of the Carter program and work from within the US for a full amnesty.

One factor leading resisters to remain in exile was the poor advertising of the details of the Carter relief program (1977) in the aftermath of what was regarded as a highly discriminatory and defective Ford Clemency program (1974). Congress refused to fund the Carter program fully. Both relief programs had conditions many exiles found hard to accept. Finally, the period of time under which one could apply for relief was sharply limited.

Unfortunately, universal and unconditional amnesty was never granted to military resisters. It is estimated that only 28,420 Vietnam Era military resisters received any form of legal relief – many of them received bad discharges – while another 550,000 never received any form of relief. To place this figure in perspective, the number of ex-GIs who never received legal relief roughly equals the number of soldiers who participated in the Gulf War of 1990 and 1991. This is another way in which our country has yet to fully come to terms with the legacy of the war in Southeast Asia.


Leonard Baskir and William Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: the Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation, New York: Random House, 1978.

New York Times (3/5/00)

Seattle Post-Intelligencer (4/10/00)

David Surrey. Choice of Conscience: Vietnam Era Military and Draft Resisters in Canada, New York: Praeger, 1982

About the Author

Harold Jordan coordinates the American Friends Service Committee’s National Youth and Militarism Program. He can be reached at youthmil@afsc.org. The author wishes to thank Jack Colhoun for his insightful comments.

* The term "bad discharges" refers to several categories of discharge from the military (such as "Undesirable," "Other Than Honorable," etc.) that may result in post-service job discrimination, the loss of veteran's benefits, or both.

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