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Precedent Ford | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Precedent Ford

Ah, Algeria: thirty-two militants killed in a ill-advised raid of a hostage compound, but at the expense of twenty-three hostages’ lives (as of last count), saving face, posthaste, being judged more important than saving lives. What kind of testosterone-besotted incompetent fourth-raters could botch a “rescue” like that?

Why, our own beloved United States, of course, which once upon a time did something even more splenetically macho, unilateral, and stupid.

It was May 12, 1975. Not a fortnight earlier, the South Vietnamese army in whose cause America had bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and expended 56,000 lives, collapsed in the field and started randomly killing civilians and each other. A Viet Cong tank crashed through the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Saigon, immediately re-dubbed “Ho Chi Minh City.” A chaotic helicopter evacuation of 1,000 American diplomatic and security personnel and 5,500 South Vietnamese (supposedly loyal embassy employees and such, but mostly people with the money and savage cunning to bribe or force their way aboard), ended in that indelibly humiliating image of a line of teeming bodies snaking up a ladder to a precipitous shack atop the embassy roof, the embassy grounds having commandeered by what Henry Kissinger had once confidently dubbed a “fourth rate military power,” North Vietnam (now just “Vietnam”).

And two weeks before that, The Washington Post quoted a remark by Henry Kissinger that he thought had been off the record; “The United States must carry out some act somewhere int he world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power.”

“Some act somewhere”: can you smell the liberty?

Then, on May 12, fortuitously, a rusty merchant tin can called the Mayaguez was captured somewhere off the coast of Cambodia, near the island of Koh Tang, having strayed, the new Communist Khmer Rouge regime claimed, out of international waters and into their territory. Cambodia being a nation in chaos (its pro-US government had fallen in the middle of April), communications were sketchy, negotiations difficult, but, as historian Dominick Sandbrook has written “these kinds of situations were hardly unknown and rarely made the headlines. Ecuador, for example, had seized American crews in disputed waters twenty-three times in as many years, and previous administrations had simply paid a fine to release them.”

But Ecuador was not Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia had just wilted America’s dick.

At a National Security Council meeting, presidential counselor Bob Hartmann told President Ford, “We should not think of what is the right thing to do, but of what the public perceives.” Kissinger, perhaps salivating, said it was time to “draw the line”—and the next night, when no one still knew even where the ship’s thirty-nine crewmen were or whether they were in any sort of jeopardy, Kissinger averred, “I think we should seize the island, seize the ship, and hit the mainland.… people should have the impression that we are potentially trigger happy.”

You must establish a reputation for being too tough to tackle. If you use force, it should be ferociously.”

Someone asked about the War Powers Act, which required consultation from Congress in the event of military action. Ford responded, “I would hit, and the deal with the legal implications.”

And so he did. A Marine landing party stormed the beaches of Koh Tang—and, meeting heavy resistance, lost fifteen men and eight helicopters. American forces boarded the Mayaguez; it was abandoned. A navy pilot spotted white flags waving from a fishing boat—the Mayaguez crew, safe and sound, ready for rescue. Victory, right?

Not for the newly minted 1974 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Alford Kissinger. “Tell them to bomb the mainland,” he said. “Let’s look ferocious.” So they did, with B-52s. (I love that this dialogue is in Kissinger’s memoirs. He’s proud of it!)

The final score: forty-nine American military deaths. Eighty-two total casualties. Eighty helicopters destroyed. Thirty hostages “rescued”—though it had never been established that they was ever any intention by the Cambodians to keep them (this makes this botch different than Carter’s in Iran; at least then people knew there were hostages). “They were so nice, really kind,” a crew member said. “They fed us first and everything. I hope everybody gets hijacked by them.” He should have hoped that nobody got rescued by Ford. As Sean Wilentz wrote, “Subsequently declassified documents revealed that Ford approved bombing missions which, for all he knew at the time, might easily have killed them men he was trying to rescue.”

Conservatives loved it. “It was wonderful,” Barry Goldwater said. “It shows we’ve still got balls in this country.” National Review’s Jeffrey Hart read Christopher Lasch dare excoriate the raid in The New York Review of Books (“an influential barometer of left-academic opinion”) as a “panicky and premature American resort to force out of proportion to the stakes involved,” and countered that “most people…knew instinctively…that details are irrelevant. It proved that the US government is not paralyzed, and that, in particular, President Ford is capable of acting decisively and with broad support.” Yippie!

But then, most of America loved it, too. Newsweek, the most liberal of the newsmagazines, called it “a daring show of nerve and steel.” Time’s cover pictured the president looking resolute, and exulted, “Ford Draws the Line.” His approval rating shot up eleven points. He started getting standing ovations on his travels.

So today we read, “Western leaders have criticized the Algerian government for failing to consult them before the military action.” Maybe they know what they’re doing. Once upon a time, the United States showed them the way.

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