WASHINGTON -- President Ford, describing it as an act of "reconciliation," today offered conditional amnesty to thousands of Vietnam era draft evaders and military deserters in exchange for up to 24 months of public service and a reaffirmation of allegiance to the United States.
The offer of conditional amnesty requires draft evaders and deserters to surrender to a U.S. attorney or military officials before Jan. 31, 1975, and applies only to violations between Aug. 4,1964, to March 28, 1973.
The proposal fell short of the demands of thousands of young war resisters who sought refuge in Canada and Sweden. A spokesman for one such group of resisters described it as "a cover-up and not amnesty" and predicted very few young exiles would accept Ford's offer.
But the proposal was expected to have wide acceptance among those violators already in prison, whom Ford said would be released as soon as possible and given "priority consideration."
Under Ford's plan, deserters and evaders who surrender would first be required to take a oath vowing to "support, protect and defend" the Constitution against "all enemies, foreign and domestic" and have no reservations about taking such an oath.
Then, either the attorney general, the appropriate military officials of a special nine-member clemency board will determine what kind of alternative service the violator must serve and for how long.
The 24-month period of alternative service can be shortened on a case-by-case basis. Deputy Attorney General Laurence Silberman said, however, that those eligible to participate in the amnesty program should expect to serve the entire 24 month period.
The violator at first will be given a undesirable discharge, which will be converted into a clemency discharge at the end of the period of alternative service. But a clemency discharge rules out eligibility for veterans benefits.
Byron Pepitone, Selective Service director, said the government will assist in job searches as alternative service. He said the public service jobs would be along the same lines of those currently performed by conscientious objectors - such as helping in hospitals or homes for the aged or children.
Ford, who announced his offer in a brief, televised statement, said in a proclamation that amnesty was requured for "reconciliation... an act of mercy to bind the nation's wounds," But he said he did not condone the actions of those who will be provided amnesty.
House Republican Leader John J. Rhodes, one of the congressional leaders who met with Ford on the amnesty issue prior to his announcement, said there was no connection between it and Ford's controversial pardon of President Nixon.
But the draft evaders and deserters disagreed. Dee Knight, spokesman for the National Council for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty, complained that Nixon "was given a complete pardon for his violations and these people, who without any criminal intent and with the highest of motives, are now being called to further punishment before being considered full citizens."
Knight who called it "a cover-up, not amnesty," and said that "those few who come back will come back only out of ignorance."
The White House said about 15,500 draft evaders are "potentially eligible." Of that total, it said, about 8,700 have been convicted of draft evasion; about 4,350 are under indictment (4,060 listed as fugitives) ; about 3,000 are in Canada, and about 2,250 are under investigation, but not yet indicted.
About 130 individuals are said to be currently imprisoned for draft evasion.