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“To Show the World that Giant America Was Still Powerful and Resolute:” Pardoning Ford and the Mayaguez Affair


Pardon me for making a few comments on the short and undistinguished presidential record of the recently departed Gerald Ford. I have not done an exhaustive search on how "mainstream" United States media is reflecting Ford's legacy, so my sense of how dominant ideological authorities are responding is probably somewhat impressionistic. What I've been hearing on the radio and seeing on the television and in newspapers is that Ford deserves to be remembered (a) for helping the nation heal after the "long national nightmare" of Watergate and (b) for (as the New York Times put it in their power-worshipping lead editorial [titled simply "Gerald R. Ford"] today) "more than just the pardon."

One thing you probably won’t hear or see much of in the “mainstream” retrospectives is that Ford pardoned Nixon not just for the limited Watergate crimes that led to Nixon’s resignation (and thereby to Ford’s promotion to the Vice Presidency and then Presidency) but for any and all offenses Nixon committed as president. This means that Ford also gave Tricky Dick a Stay Out of Court (and Jail) Pass for the murderous and illegal invasion and bombing of Cambodia, for receiving illegal corporate campaign contributions and for ordering the illegal wiretapping, infiltration and many-sided harassment of various left and antiwar organizations.         

Ford justified his (more-than) Watergate pardon with the lovely theory that the U.S. would become "ungovernable" if the people had been allowed to try to make the criminal ex-president accountable for any of his many transgressions against democracy and international law.  Yes, the virtuous American way of life would have unraveled and the nation would have been further "destabilized" (after the terrifying shocks of Vietnam, the antiwar movement, the riots, LSD/Altamont/Woodstock/Chicago’68/Black Power and Watergate) if the "we the people" had been permitted to hold one of our leading tyrant's feet to the fire of meaningful popular governance! If Nixon had been subjected to the law of the land (not to mention international law), the whole nation would have spun into a downward spiral like Betty Ford before she got her clinic on.  

It was a fitting argument in a time when leading business and academic authorities were decrying what Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington called the “excess of democracy” and calling for openly authoritarian solutions to the deepening crises of American life at the dawn of the corporate-neoliberal era. 

I suspect that there's some contemporary political logic in dominant "liberal" U.S. (corporate) media's repeated favorable reference to Ford's supposedly noble role in "marking the end of a national nightmare" by letting Nixon off the hook. That media has been letting the equally if not more impeachment- (and removal-) worthy Bush II off the hook for six years (starting most dramatically with its failure to fully acknowledge the blatant stealing of the 2000 presidential election and leading up through and beyond its critical enablement of Team Bush's illegal oil occupation of Iraq) and is blocking reasonable demands for the impeachment and removal of Bush in 2007.  Among the many reasons its top authorities would give (will give?) for not calling for Bush's head is that an impeachment drama would "destabilize a nation that is already in shaky health" (to quote the Times' approving editors today on the rationale  behind Ford's Nixon pardon).

Anyway, it’s the twisted anti-democratic logic behind the Ford-Nixon pardon, not the pardon itself, that I remember most about Ford. 

The second thing I recall most intensely about Ford is his uncharacteristically loud denial of something that was probably true: his appointment to the Vice Presidency and then/thus the Presidency was premised on a deal.  He almost certainly got picked for admission to the U.S. History texts partly because he promised to give Nixon a total pardon. 

The other thing I flash to when I hear the name “Gerald R. Ford” is the Mayaguez affair.  The Mayaguez was an American cargo ship that sailed too closely to a Cambodian island.  Its crew was briefly and courteously detained and released by Cambodian authorities.  In a crassly opportunistic effort to look tough three weeks after the formal triumph of revolutionary forces in Vietnam, Ford ordered a costly U.S. Marine assault on the Cambodian island and directed American planes to bomb the Cambodian mainland.  There is no official count of how many Cambodians died but the number is probably greater than the 90 or so American GIs who died in the immoral and imperial U.S. action.   

What was it all about?  In his marvelous People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn notes that the Ford administration found it “necessary to show the world that giant America, defeated by tiny Vietnam, was still powerful and resolute.”  Zinn quotes from approving contemporary (mid-May of 1975) New York Times coverage and commentary – the latter provided by Times columnist James Reston (a strong critic of Nixon and Watergate who supported the Mayaguez actions) – claiming that the murderous operation was necessary to demonstrate that that the U.S. was still capable of acting quickly and decisively overseas.  “What seemed to be happening,” Zinn notes, “was that the Establishment – Republicans, Democrats, newspapers, television – was closing ranks behind Ford and [his Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, and behind the idea that American authority must be asserted everywhere in the world.”   

Just as Nixon was shamed out of office over relatively minor actions against the other Establishment political party, not over his murderous assault on Cambodia (the latter crime was omitted from the Articles of Impeachment that were drawn up), Ford is remembered for pardoning Watergate, not for pardoning Nixon’s Cambodian (and other) crimes.

Fittingly enough, you don’t hear much about Ford’s own assault on Cambodia, which admittedly left a much smaller Asian body count than the truly mass-murderous, even genocidal assault that Indonesia launched against East Timor with a full-blown green light from Ford and Kissinger. 

On a more amusing note, here’s an interesting quote from Ford while in the White House:  “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been.”

Sounds like something Bush II might say. I wonder how many non-white others are going to die so that the U.S. can look “still powerful and resolute” in the wake of Bush’s fiasco in Iraq.   

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