Our Short National Nightmare
How President Ford managed to go soft on Iraqi Baathists, Indonesian fascists, Soviet Communists, and the shah … in just two years.
One expects a certain amount of piety and hypocrisy when retired statesmen give up the ghost, but this doesn't excuse the astonishing number of omissions and misstatements that have characterized the sickly national farewell to Gerald Ford. One could graze for hours on the great slopes of the massive obituaries and never guess that during his mercifully brief occupation of the White House, this president had:
- Disgraced the United States in Iraq and inaugurated a long period of calamitous misjudgment of that country.
- Colluded with the Indonesian dictatorship in a gross violation of international law that led to a near-genocide in East Timor.
- Delivered a resounding snub to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the time when the Soviet dissident movement was in the greatest need of solidarity.
Instead, there was endless talk about "healing," and of the "courage" that it had taken for Ford to excuse his former boss from the consequences of his law-breaking. You may choose, if you wish, to parrot the line that Watergate was a "long national nightmare," but some of us found it rather exhilarating to see a criminal president successfully investigated and exposed and discredited. And we do not think it in the least bit nightmarish that the Constitution says that such a man is not above the law. Ford's ignominious pardon of this felonious thug meant, first, that only the lesser fry had to go to jail. It meant, second, that we still do not even know why the burglars were originally sent into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. In this respect, the famous pardon is not unlike the Warren Commission: another establishment exercise in damage control and pseudo-reassurance (of which Ford was also a member) that actually raised more questions than it answered. The fact is that serious trials and fearless investigations often are the cause of great division, and rightly so. But by the standards of "healing" celebrated this week, one could argue that O.J. Simpson should have been spared indictment lest the vexing questions of race be unleashed to trouble us again, or that the Tower Commission did us all a favor by trying to bury the implications of the Iran-Contra scandal. Fine, if you don't mind living in a banana republic.
To enlarge on the points that I touched upon above: Bob Woodward has gone into print this week with the news that Ford opposed the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq. But Ford's own interference in the life of that country has gone unmentioned. During his tenure, and while Henry Kissinger was secretary of state, the United States secretly armed and financed a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. This was done in collusion with the Shah of Iran, who was then considered in Washington a man who could do no wrong. So that when the shah signed a separate peace with Saddam in 1975, and abandoned his opportunist support for the Kurds, the United States shamefacedly followed his lead and knifed the Kurds in the back. The congressional inquiry led by Rep. Otis Pike was later to describe this betrayal as one of the most cynical acts of statecraft on record.
In December 1975, Ford was actually in the same room as Gen. Suharto of Indonesia when the latter asked for American permission to impose Indonesian military occupation on East Timor. Despite many denials and evasions, we now possess the conclusive evidence that Ford (and his deputy Kissinger) did more than simply nod assent to this outrageous proposition. They also undertook to defend it from criticism in the United States Congress and elsewhere. From that time forward, the Indonesian dictatorship knew that it would not lack for armaments or excuses, both of these lavishly supplied from Washington. The figures for civilian deaths in this shameful business have never been properly calculated, but may well amount to several hundred thousand and thus more than a quarter of East Timor's population.
Ford's refusal to meet with Solzhenitsyn, when the great dissident historian came to America, was consistent with his general style of making excuses for power. As Timothy Noah has suggested lately, there seems to have been a confusion in Ford's mind as to whether the Helsinki Treaty was intended to stabilize, recognize, or challenge the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. However that may be, the great moral component of the Helsinki agreement—that it placed the United States on the side of the repressed populations—was ridiculed by Ford's repudiation of Solzhenitsyn, as well as by his later fatuities on the nature of Soviet domination. To have been soft on Republican crime, soft on Baathism, soft on the shah, soft on Indonesian fascism, andsoft on Communism, all in one brief and transient presidency, argues for the sort of sportsmanlike Midwestern geniality that we do not ever need to see again.
Finally to the Mayaguez. Ford did not dispatch forces to "rescue" the vessel, as so many of his obituarists have claimed. He ordered an attack on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang, several hours after the crew of the ship had actually been released. A subsequent congressional inquiry discovered that he, and Henry Kissinger, could have discovered as much by monitoring Cambodian radio and contacting foreign diplomats. Eighteen Marines and 23 USAF men were killed in this pointless exercise in bravado, as were many Cambodians. The American names appear on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, even though their lives were lost long after the undeclared war was officially "over." The Ford epoch did not banish a nightmare. It ended a dream—the ideal of equal justice under the law that would extend to a crooked and venal president. And in Iraq and Indonesia and Indochina, it either protracted existing nightmares or gave birth to new ones.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Gerald Ford by David McNew/Newsmakers.