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Less than 24 hours after taking the oath of office, President Carter fulfilled one of his key campaign pledges: he pardoned the Viet Nam draft evaders. His order covered an estimated 10,000 men already convicted (only seven of whom are still in prison), an additional 2,500 still under indictment, and an undetermined number who never registered for the draft. More than 2,000 who had fled abroad will now be free to return home.

Carter’s pardon was carefully limited. He excluded those few draft dodgers who had used “force and violence” to stay out of uniform. More important, he did not forgive the 4,500 deserters still at large, or the 88,700 who received less than honorable discharges for deserting or going AWOL. He simply asked the Pentagon to review their cases with the aim of possibly upgrading some discharges. Finally, Carter promised to begin another study of the estimated 173,000 undesirable discharges that had been dispensed during the Viet Nam years. Pentagon critics claim that many men received such discharges for conduct that really stemmed from their opposition to the war.

Carter had no sooner issued his proclamation—and signed Executive Order No. 1—than he was vehemently attacked, both by those who thought him too soft and those who thought he was too tough. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars claimed that the decision was an affront to American fighting men who had done their duty by serving in Viet Nam. Carter’s act, Senator Barry Goldwater declared, was “the most disgraceful thing that a President has ever done.”

On the other hand, veterans who were fugitives from the law claimed that Carter should have forgiven everyone who got into trouble for resisting the war. They argued, correctly, that the deserters who were still ostracized were mainly working-class members of minority groups, while the pardoned evaders were usually middle-class whites. Carter’s action “just applies to university kids who dodged the draft,” complained Tom Nagel, an accused deserter who now lives in France.

One man who did warmly support Carter was Senator Edward Kennedy, who said that the new President had taken a “major, impressive and compassionate step toward healing the wounds of Viet Nam.” While announcing his limited program of pardons, Carter said that he had made up his mind to make this move a full two years ago. At that time, he was still a former Governor of Georgia who believed, despite the doubts of others, he would some day have the power to put his decision into effect from the White House.

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