MR. CARTER'S first-day pardon of Americans convicted of or still sought for draft violations in the Vietnam period meets a campaign pledge that was at the heart of his larger commitment to advance the nation's healing. Mr. Ford had begun the process but had not found it morally necessary or politically compelling to do much more. That some politicians and veterans groups at once protested that the Carter pardon would undo discipline demonstrates only that certain reflexes die hard. Most Americans, we suspect, will understand the larger meaning of the pardon. It is that, for the 10,000 or so Americans whose lives it directly touches, the President's promise to get "the whole thing over" has been fulfilled.

No one could fairly have expected the new President, in his first 24 hours, to delve further into this vastly complicated matter. Still, it must be pointed out that the pardon is a relatively limited and easy act. It does not reach the larger and thornier categories of the estimated 100,000 servicemen regarded as "deserters" and the additional hundreds of thousands of former servicemen who received less than honorable discharges. For the first category Mr. Carter proposes now to do nothing. For the second he proposes a review of some of the lesser bad discharges. That review is to be conducted, moreover, by the Pentagon, which is perhaps the last official place one would look for a disposition to give high priority to healing. It is not the new Secretary of Defense, after all, but the new Secretary of State who has just said that "in light of hindsight, it was a mistake to intervene in Vietnam."

The language of Mr. Carter's pardon was necessarily spare and legalistic: "Acting prusuant to. . . ." From his own earlier pronouncements, however, we know that Mr. Carter has a generous and humane understanding of the catastrophe that the Vietnam war was for a substantial segment of a generation. He has displayed special sensitivity for the poor and unsophisticated youths - many of them black - who entered the armed forces, served loyally and, if they survived, often incurred physical or psychic wounds or legal disabilities (bad discharges) that left them at a disadvantage in rejoining the civilian mainstream. We feel confident, then, that Mr. Carter will go on to develop plans for servicemen who deserted or received bad discharges, and to care better for the health, education and employment needs of other Vietnam veterans. They, too, have a just claim on the respect of a President - and a nation - determinedto put the war behind.