President Ford Proposes Amnesty – September 16, 1974 – Past Daily Reference Room
The War in Southeast Asia; the seemingly endless conflict that consumed Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos and left them countries enveloped in widespread destruction for almost three decades. The Vietnam War, one of the most contentious conflicts in U.S. history – a war that divided friends, families, neighborhoods and generations. A War where protests were met with violence; some from Police while others from those pro-War advocates who, were just as deeply convinced in their belief we needed to be in Vietnam as those who were convinced we did not.
Protests to the War began in earnest right around the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964. At first, the protests against the war were drowned out by those who believed in the Domino Theory, that losing Vietnam would mean Communism had a bigger foothold in the region than before; the “Better Dead Than Red” ideology which was firmly part of our society, via the Cold War and Red Scare earlier in the 1950s.
But as time progressed, and as reports from the field became more ominous – it was clear this was no easy exercise in Foreign Policy but was in fact the rabbit hole – a protracted war; one with no conceivable end. It wasn’t Communism we were fighting; it was preserving a government which was dodgy at best, inept at worst and mis-representative of what the Vietnamese people really wanted. They didn’t want to be a colony anymore. And even though France gave up its claim to the former Indochina in 1954, there were still elements of that colonialism permeating throughout the Vietnamese government and hierarchy; set up and supported by an Eisenhower-era CIA, headed up by John Foster Dulles and continuing long before the final straw was drawn and we officially put boots on the ground.
As the years went by, and as weekly casualty reports and body counts became commonplace, a growing agitation, a feeling of anger that we were being lied to, we were sold a bill of goods and that the youth of our nation was being sacrificed for dubious ideals, made many resort to leaving the country of their birth, vowing never to come back – knowing they’d never be welcomed.
And when Gerald Ford took office, upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was his strong desire to try and heal a broken country – a country in the middle of a nervous breakdown. A country that needed to repair and rebuild.
And so a proposal of Amnesty was announced – it was conditional, there was no blanket “it’s okay, you can come home now” pronouncement. It came with terms and some forms of punishment, but it was a start at trying to patch the cracks and to put us on the road to recovery.
But like the war itself, it was met with a blizzard of conflicting feelings and protests which sprang back and forth. Friends and family of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice looked at those who paid with their conscience with disdain and hatred. And those who paid for their conscience by sacrificing the place of their birth and their former lives looked at the counter-protestors with perplexity and astonishment. Following one’s conscience, whether to carry a gun or refuse to use one were in the same boat; it was a decision based on personal faith and cocnviction, and President Ford and many others understood that.
So on September 16, 1974, President Ford, weeks after granting a pardon to Richard Nixon, was now signing a proposal into law to create an amnesty for those who followed the dictates of their conscience. And in doing so, got the Vietnam War healing process started.
A short announcement, but a profound one, made from the Oval Office and broadcast throughout the world in 1974.