Ford and Foreign Policy: Snapshots from the 1970s
Former President Gerald Ford has died at 93. A Wolverine star of the early 1930s at the University of Michigan, Ford passed up an opportunity to play for the Detroit Lions in the new NFL, going instead to law school. He was Richard Nixon’s vice president during the Watergate scandal and so became president when Nixon resigned. Ford was well liked as president, but faced seemingly intractable problems. These included the increasing price of petroleum after the 1973 OPEC boycott, the simultaneous economic stagnation and inflation (something many economists had considered impossible), relatively high unemployment, the fall of South Vietnam, the Soviet and Cuban challenge in Angola, the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War, nuclear proliferation threats in Israel, India, Brazil and Iran, and the Cyprus controversy with Turkey.
Ford did the country the enormous favor of allowing it to transition out of the poisonous Nixon and Vietnam eras, with a gentleman at the helm of state. I can remember the enormous relief I experienced when I saw the picture of him striding confidently once he had become president. Many of us had been afraid Nixon would stage a military coup. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, I have been told by one interviewee then in government, shared that fear and ordered the senior officers to accept no command directly from Nixon unless they checked with Schlesinger first.
Ford was clearly unwilling to risk further military entanglements in Asia. The one exception was his aggressive response to the Cambodian capture of the Mayaguez, which was enormously popular at the time, though critics argued that the strike was premature since the Cambodians had begun releasing their captives. 41 Americans died in the course of this operation.
Ford pursued “detente” with the Soviet Union (though the Right made him give up the term). He renewed US bases in Franco’s Spain, though half of Spaniards opposed them, in part because they objected to them being used to resupply Israel in its battles with the Arabs. He worried about the Communist parties of France, Italy and some other Western European allies. He had Kissinger conduct “step by step” and then “shuttle” diplomacy with the Egyptians and the Israelis, pushing them toward accommodation and peace and setting the stage in important ways for Jimmy Carter’s later Camp David negotiations.
One of the things Ford was proudest of in his 1976 presidential campaign was that under his administration, the country was at peace.
Ford did not come in strong on foreign policy, and he had some difficulty reining in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He also faced challenges from a triumphal Democratic Congress that frequently over-ruled him on foreign policy. He fired Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who was too much of a hawk for Ford. Ford believed in negotiating with one’s enemies where possible and where fruitful, and in cutting one’s losses in the face of overwhelming odds, so as to live to play another day.
Ford faced a powerful challenge from Ronald Reagan and the then-small far-right wing of the Republican Party, which accused him of under-estimating Soviet military strength and the Soviet threat, blamed him for losing Angola and was suspicious of Ford’s increasing skittishness about dealing with white supremicist Rhodesia. Although it is often pointed out that many officials in the George W. Bush administration got their start under Ford, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and (in a supporting role) Paul Wolfowitz, in fact these individuals went on to convert to Reaganism and to abandon the moderate Republican principles of Ford.
I thought readers might enjoy some news clippings from that era on foreign policy, skewed because of my interests toward the Middle East.
January 18, 1975. The Economist reports that Ford warned that American support for Israel cannot be taken for granted.
‘ Asked if there were any limits on America’s commitment to Israel, he replied:
It so happens that there is a substantial relationship at the present time between our national security interests and those of Israel. But in the final analysis we have to judge what is in our national interest above any and all other considerations. ‘
The Economist noted that many Americans felt that Israel could hardly expect to get peace if it continued to sit on land it occupied from Arab states in 1967, and implied that they could not see why they should pay various sorts of price for Israeli expansionism and intransigence.
February 8, 1975: Facts on File reports that the US Congress cut off military aid to Turkey because of lack of progress on the Cyprus issue.
‘President Ford immediately called on Congress to restore the aid, warning that the cutoff would “affect adversely not only our Western security but the strategic situation in the Middle East.” He stressed that military aid to Turkey was based “on our assumption that the security of Turkey is vital to the security of the eastern Mediterranean and to the U.S. and its allies.” ‘
Turkey’s acting prime minister responded angrily and threatened to rethink Turkey’s commitments in NATO.
March 1, 1975: Ford approved in principle the proposal by the Shah’s Iran that it take a 10% share in the troubled PanAm airline. Iran was flush with petrodollars and Kissinger had worked out with the shah ways of recycling them back into Western economies. Among the major such methods was sophisticated arms sales, a direction criticized by presidential contender Jimmy Carter of Georgia.
April 12, 1975: A Harris poll summarized in the Economist showed that over 60% of Americans supported sending Israel whatever military hardware it needed in its struggle with the Arabs. The poll showed groundless the fear voiced by some pro-Israel advocates that the Arab oil weapon might cause Americans to turn against Zionism. On the other hand, there were some indications in the poll that Americans felt that Israel was taking US support for granted.
April 14, 1975: Newsweek reported on the fall of South Vietnam:
‘ Misery became a way of life in Indochina long ago, but the tide of human suffering that suddenly engulfed South Vietnam last week swept forward with unprecedented cruelty. Along the coastline of the South China Sea, major cities tumbled like tenpins, and exhausted and terrified refugees died by the hundreds in their desperate forced marches to escape the onrushing troops of North Vietnam. The toughest generals of the army of South Vietnam abandoned their command posts, and ARVN soldiers turned to banditry, shooting their way aboard the few evacuation ships that made the beachheads . . . a mercy flight evacuating war orphans . . . crashed and burned only minutes after leaving Saigon – a capital whose own life expectancy dwindled with every passing hour. ‘
May 24, 1975: Facts on File reports that 76 US Senators sign a letter to President Ford opposing any attempt to reduce military aid to Israel. (Ford was trying to get the Israelis to make peace with Egypt and was using aid as an incentive. The Israelis used their Lobby on the Hill in an attempt to paralyze Ford and Kissinger on this front.)
June 9, 1975: Newsweek reports on Ford’s European tour, where he met with 12 European leaders in Brussels, and had one on one meetings with Helmut Schmidt of Germany, the Pope, the premier of Turkey, Anwar El Sadat and others. Ford
‘ also conferred privately with no fewer than twelve European leaders during his two days in Brussels – receiving all but Giscard in the rococo reception room of the American ambassador’s residence in a manner somewhat reminiscent of an eighteenth-century European monarch. . . . He and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt spent the opening moments of their meeting discussing the pleasures of pipe smoking, and Ford revealed that the Presidential pipe collection now numbered 50. When Kissinger told Turkish Premier Suleiman Demirel, “I gained 50 pounds in Turkey last week,” Ford interrupted with a booming laugh and retorted. “He’s using the trip as an alibi. It’s an old problem.” ‘
and on the Middle East, Newsweek said,
‘ there were several signs that virtually all sides wanted a compromise. Both Saudi Arabia’s conservative King Khaled and the militant socialist government in Iraq have recently expressed – in terms never heard before – their willingness to accept the existence of the state of Israel if it withdrew from all occupied Arab territories. What’s more, Syria, which only two weeks ago extended the mandate of the United Nations peace force on the Golan Heights for six additional months, indicated that it could accept a second-stage Egyptian-Israeli accord before the extent of further Israelis withdrawals on the Golan Heights was settled. Syria’s ambassador to Washington predicted “that Sadat will be bringing good signs to Ford.” ‘
August 2, 1975. Facts on File summarizes an interview by Ford with the NYT on his accomplishments. The first was restoration of confidence in the presidency on the domestic front. The second was its restoration internationally. He was also proud of having “kept our cool” in the face of both recession and inflation. He added:
‘ As his largest disappointments, Ford mentioned the fall of non-Communist governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia and the breakdown of negotiations in the Middle East in March.
The President said there was “no possibility” of re-establishing a U.S. presence in Vietnam or Cambodia under current circumstances. As for the Middle East currently, he felt that an agreement could be reached if both Israel and Egypt were “more flexible.”
Ford reaffirmed his policy to go to Helsinki, Finland to sign the international accord on European security, but he was cautious on the strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. ‘
October 25, 1975: Egypt and Israel each pressure Ford not to sell the other certain weaponry.
December 20, 1975: Facts on File reports:
‘ American and Israeli sources said Dec. 15 that President Ford had urged Premier Yitzhak Rabin to consult with Washington on any future Israeli military action against Arab guerrillas in Lebanon. The Ford message, reportedly discussed by the premier in a cabinet meeting Dec. 14, also contained a pledge to oppose any attempt by the U.N. Security Council to impose a peace settlement in the Middle East.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reporting on the Ford note, said the President had “expressed his wish . . . that there should be coordination between the two countries or at least Israel should let the United States know ahead of time what its intentions are.”
The U.S. was said to have been embarrased by the Israeli air strike on Palestinian camps in Lebanon Dec. 2 at a time when the U.S. was attempting to block anti-Israeli resolutions before the Security Council. ‘
March 15, 1976: Newsweek reports on Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi’s Washington parties, which it deems the best in the city at that time:
‘ With an entertainment budget the size of an oil field, the 47-year-old Zahedi is legendary for his kilos of caviar (flown in twice a month from Iran), his seemingly limitless supply of Dom Perignon champagne (dispensed as presents like candy canes at Christmas-time), and his sophomoric sense of partying, which includes impromptu congalines, smooth-tummied belly dancers and drinking and kissing games guaranteed to take the prude out of Washington protocol. In an average month, Zahedi may give three formal dinner dancers for 75, two or three buffet dinners for 300, one or two large receptions for 150, and countless business lunches, late-night suppers or poolside barbecues at his own residence. “It’s business and pleasure at the same time,” says the debonair Zahedi, who once trickled droplets of champagne into Cristina Ford’s cupped hand, then kissed each one away. “If you see your friends at a party, you exchange ideas and views without actually being committed to each other.” ‘
April 17, 1976: Facts on File reports:
‘ Israeli officials April 9 criticized U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon for having accused Israel April 8, of trying to pressure the U.S. Congress to approve more aid [than] requested by President Ford. Toon had spoken at a news briefing and had asked that he be referred to only as “a Western diplomat,” but his identity was subsequently disclosed by an Israeli television analyst. . . Toon had said that Israel’s alleged pressure was close to interference in the internal affairs of the U.S. and that Israel was “playing dirty pool.” He also said it was unwise for Israel’s Finance Ministry to budget sums not actually received. ‘
Toon made his remarks because Ford had threatened to veto a $550 million “transitional” grant to Israel by Congress, on top of the $2.2 billion already approved.
June 19, 1976: Facts on File reports:
‘ Francis E. Meloy Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, and Robert O. Waring, his economic counselor, were kidnapped and shot to death by unidentified gunmen in Beirut June 16. Zoheir Moghrabi, their Lebanese driver, also was slain. Palestinian security agents reported June 17 the arrest of three Lebanese in connection with the assassinations. ‘
This incident foreshadowed the subsequent decades of US involvement in Lebanon, including the taking of hostages and Iran-Contra, the blowing up of the US embassy in Beirut, the assassination of the CIA station chief, the blowing up of the Marine Barracks, and more recent involvement on the side of the anti-Syrian political coalition.
July 31, 1976: The Economist reports on American unhappiness about a German company’s willingness to supply the entire nuclear fuel cycle to countries like Brazil and possibly Iran:
For Germany’s major nuclear power station company, Kraftwerk Union (KWU), the Brazil deal represented great leap forward . . . Early in July KWU landed a contract from Iran for two nuclear power stations in a deal worth more than DM 7 billion. This did not include a reprocessing plant, but Iran is known to be shopping around for one. Is KWU to be barred from trying for a follow-up contract? After all, Iran, in contrast to Brazil, has adhered to the nonproliferation treaty. But for the Americans the prospect of a national reprocessing plant on the fringe of the Middle East brings nightmares. Americans have suggested to Iran that it should share with an industrialised country control over any reprocessing plant built there. And they have advocated the creation of multinational regional enrichment centres. But Iran is likely to feel insulted at being picked on in this way. . . ‘
Of course, it had been the Eisenhower Administration’s “atoms for peace” program that had encouraged the Iranians to develop nuclear reactors in the first place . . .
August 7, 1976: Facts on File reports that the US will sell Saudi Arabia sophisticated missiles and “laser-guided bombs” previously given only to Israel.
October 30, 1976: As the presidential campaign heats up, the Economist reports that President Ford was constrained to apologize for remarks by the Chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George Brown, to the effect that Israel is a military burden on the United States. Ford called the statement “very ill-advised.”
Jimmy Carter attacked Ford for presiding over a situation in which the US was becoming “the arms merchant of the world.” But he seemed to contradict himself by demanding that more arms be sent to Israel. Ford responded by loosening some restrictions placed by his bureaucrats and sending more weapons to Israel.
Carter also attacked Ford for not being more confrontational with Arab states about their boycott of Israel, and about the possibility that they might deploy an oil boycott against the West again. He insisted that if he became president, there would be no boycott.
Carter said that under Ford, diplomacy had been conducted with too much secrecy, and that the public needed to be kept fully informed. He accused Ford of being insufficiently awake to changes in southern Africa and of being complacent toward the Soviet Union. But Carter pledged that he would never go to war over a Soviet occupation of Yugoslavia.
Kissinger in response expressed alarm that Carter seemed to be giving the Kremlin a green light in the Balkans. [Tito had pursued an autonomous Communist policy in Yugoslavia, now the independent states of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and . . . I can’t keep up.]
When he presided over intelligence reform in the wake of earlier abuses, Ford wrote,
‘I believe it essential to have the best possible intelligence about the capabilities, intentions and activities of governments and other entities and individuals abroad. To this end, the foreign intelligence agencies of the United States play a vital role in collecting and analyzing information related to the national defense and foreign policy.
It is equally as important that the methods these agencies employ to collect such information for the legitimate needs of the government conform to the standards set out in the Constitution to preserve and respect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.’
He was against just assassinating people, and insisted on warrants for the wiretapping of US citizens.
All presidents make errors, and some abuses occurred on Ford’s watch, though they often were initiated by Kissinger. But Ford faced with no illusions the challenges of his era, of detente with the Soviet Union, continued attempts to cultivate China, the collapse of Indochina, the fall-out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War. Ford was right about detente, right about China, right about Arab-Israeli peace, right about avoiding a big entanglement in Angola, right to worry about nuclear proliferation (one of his worries was the increasing evidence that the Middle East had a nuclear power, Israel, and India was moving in that direction).
Ford’s challengers on the Reagan Right were wrong about everything. They vastly over-estimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union (yes, that’s Paul Wolfowitz). They wanted confrontation with China. They dismissed the Arab world as Soviet occupied territory (even though the vast majority of Arab states was US allies at that time) and urged that it be punished till it accepted Israel’s territorial gains in 1967. They insisted that the Vietnam War could have been won.
But despite its illusions and Orwellian falsehoods, the Reagan Right prevailed. Ford only momentarily lost to Carter. Both of them were to lose to Reagan, who resorted to Cold War brinkmanship, private militias, death squads, offshore accounts, unconstitutional criminality, and under the table deals with Khomeini, and who created a transition out of the Cold War that left the private militias (one of them al-Qaeda) empowered to wreak destruction in the aftermath. The blowback from that Reaganesque era of private armies of the Right helped push the US after 2001 toward an incipient fascism at which Ford, the All-American, the lawyerly gentleman, the great Wolverine, must have wept daily in his twilight years.