Amnesty for All?

The Consistory of the Christian Reformed Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan is overturing Synod 1973 to “urge the President of the United States and Congress to grant, at the earliest opportunity, amnesty for those who by reason of their Christian conscientious objection to the Second Indochina War are in exile, at large, incarcerated, or deprived of the fun rights of citizenship” (Agenda for Synod 1973, pp. 602–607).

Rev. Fred Van Houten, Chaplain from 1943–46 during World War II and now serving as pastor of the Ninth St. Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, gives his evaluation of this request.

Overture 24 in the Agenda for Synod 1973 is “On Amnesty.” It was originally a petition from the Ann Arbor Chapel Campus Household for Peace to the Consistory of the Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church to overture Classis Lake Erie to overture Synod to support a national policy of amnesty for those who by reason of conscience could not participate in the Second Indochina War. The Ann Arbor Consistory approved, but the overture was not sustained by Classis Lake Erie at its January 12, 1973 meeting. Consequently the Ann Arbor Consistory is appealing the classical decision to Synod 1973.

The overture at once appeals to the Testimony Regarding tile Christian’s Attitude toward War and Peace, a document adopted by the denomination in 1939 and reaffirmed in 1969. This Testimony was occasioned by the pacifism of such religious liberals as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Ralph W. Sackman. and the entire document breathes a stand against that brand of pacifism. This is explained very well in the light of Romans 13:1–5 and Article 36 of the Belgic Confession. In the second to the last paragraph the Testimony allows for a conscientious objector who has “intelligent and adequate grounds” and “when he is absolutely certain in the light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause.” The document as reaffirmed in 1969 enlarges on this paragraph particularly.

The plea for general and unconditional amnesty, quite naturally, arises from those who were opposed to the Vietnam war. Some claim to be absolutely certain in the light of the principles of God’s Word that our country fought for a wrong cause, but there are many who do not feel that way at all. Now after all the activity of those who staged rebellions, trampled on the flag, burned their draft cards, fled to other countries, and deserted the army, all these should be pardoned and welcomed into society again! So says the amnesty crowd.

It was a real surprise to the objectors and opposers of the Vietnam war when the prisoners of war came home at last without bitter words of scathing rebuke for President Nixon, without cynical criticism of America, without stamping Old Glory into the ground, and without moaning about their most difficult lot. Are these loyal Americans, or are they plain suckers? How are we going to treat them now? Our nation has always been known to respect its war dead, and every Memorial Day there are many cries of “Lest We Forget.” Some 55,000 young Americans were slain in the war. There are still many “missing in action.” Their families cannot forget! Must we?

A burning question is whether an individual has the right, and whether he can have the knowledge, to decide which wars he will support. If he does, can our government survive? For each man unilaterally to veto the law would create anarchy. Must we excuse from consequences of breaking the law?

To be sure, there is sentimentality also for those who are “exiled” in Canada and Sweden, for those who wear the stigma of draft dodgers and army deserters. However, the sentimentality should not be allowed to obscure the profound political issues raised by amnesty demands.

It should be remembered that those in self-imposed exile chose not to plead conscientious objection through established legal channels when they had the opportunity to do so. Grounds for claiming conscientious objection status have been broadened in recent years by the Supreme Court.

At the appropriate time there should be opportunity given for individual cases to be judged on their own merits, but this does not mean general amnesty for all, and for all kinds of violations. What these amnesty exponents arc demanding is the right to formulate and act upon a foreign policy of their own making, and different from the foreign policy of the U.S. government.

It should be remembered that to grant this demand would be to extend to future dissenters a right of veto over the nation’s foreign policy. No responsible. government can do this. Draft dodgers and deserters want to constitute a kind of a government in exile, resting claims to superior moral insight and higher spiritual sensitivity.

It should be remembered that in the annals of our national history there has never been a general amnesty for draft dodgers and deserters following any American war. In 1863, before the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered pardon to Confederates who took an oath of loyalty to the Union. In 1865 he offered full pardon to Union military deserters if they would return to their units within sixty days to serve out a period of time equal to their original enlistments. In 1865, 1867, and 1868 full pardon was offered to all Confederates who would take an oath of allegiance. In 1866 President Johnson allowed deserters to return to military duty without punishment, but with forfeiture of pay.

In 1924 President Coolidge granted amnesty to 100 soldiers who had deserted after the November 11, 1918, armistice. In 1933 President Roosevelt granted amnesty to 1,500 men who violated the draft and espionage laws during the First World War, but only after they completed their sentences.

In 1947, 28 months after V.J. day, President Truman pardoned 1,523 out of 15,803 violaters of the draft law, a ratio of one to ten. Those who were pardoned had received favorable recommendations, upon individual review, hy the Amnesty Board.

In 1952 President Truman granted amnesty to peacetime deserters, those who had left their units between V.J. day and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. There was no amnesty after Korea.

There never has been a general amnesty after any war for draft dodgers and deserters for the reason that the government has never been willing to recognize the sovereign claims of a counter government composed of its own citizens. God forbid that the Christian Reformed Church should put this kind of pressure on the U.S. government for amnesty travesty.