- Historic Sites
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
At the war’s end President Truman refused to grant a general amnesty for military deserters or draft evaders, and none has been granted since. Truman did, however, grant a number of limited pardons. The first, granted on December 24, 1945, pardoned civilian prisoners who had volunteered for military service and who upon completion of a year’s duty or more received an honorable discharge. The effect of the pardon was to restore their full civil and political rights.
The second Truman pardon was granted to 1,523 draft evaders who had served or were serving prison terms. Like the first, this was a Christmas Eve pardon, and it came twenty-three months after the end of the war, December 24, 1947. A year earlier Truman had established a three-man review panel to examine some fifteen thousand cases of draft evasion. Chaired by Owen J. Roberts, a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the President’s Amnesty Board included James F. O’Neil, the chief of police of Manchester, New Hampshire, and later national commander of the American Legion, and Willis Smith, former president of the American Bar Association and later governor of North Carolina. Well aware that it had recommended pardons for only one out of every ten cases it reviewed, the board defended its choices in these words: “We found that some founded their objections on intellectual, political or sociological convictions resulting from the individual’s reasoning and personal economic or political philosophy. We have not felt justified in recommending those who thus have set themselves up as wiser and more competent than society to determine their duty to come to the defense of the nation.”
On December 24, 1952, Truman granted full pardon and restoration of civil and political rights to former convicts who had served in the peacetime army between August 14, 1945 (the end of active hostilities in World War II ), and June 25, 1950 (the Korean invasion), and who had not been covered by his earlier pardon. In addition, he pardoned all convicted peacetime deserters from the military up to June 25, 1950.
A maximum duty force of 3,700,000 was raised for service during the Korean War. Twenty-seven per cent were draftees. Surprisingly, both the draft-evasion rate and the desertion rate were the lowest of the four wars in this century. At the height of the war in 1952 only twentytwo men per thousand were reported as deserters; in 1954 the rate had dropped to 15.7. In 1950, 109 men were imprisoned for draft evasion; in 1955 the number totalled 217. Exact figures for intervening years are unavailable.
There was no general amnesty for either military deserters or draft evaders.
By the end of American ground participation in the Vietnam war early in 1973 more than six million men had served in Vietnam. Roughly 25 per cent were draftees. Although fully reliable statistics are difficult to come by—even government figures vary on occasion by several thousand—it is estimated that nearly 450,000 desertions took place from 1966 onward. As of November 1, 1972, 32,557 deserters were still at large. Of these, more than thirty thousand are thought to be underground in the United States, the remainder in foreign countries (principally Canada and Sweden).
The number of draft evaders is in excess of twenty-four thousand for the years 1966 through 1972. Nearly five thousand of them are still at large. Of these, 2,300 are thought to be in Canada, and perhaps 1,700 are underground in the United States.
Whatever the true figures—and possibly they can never be accurately reckoned—a sizable number of Americans have lost—or face the loss of—civil rights because of the stand they took during the war. At some point the nation will have to decide whether to forgive them in a general amnesty, to offer amnesty conditional on public service or some form of punishment, or to ignore them entirely, leaving them, in effect, to seek an individual pardon whenever they wish to be restored to full participation in American life.