Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Notes on President Ford, Vietnam and Iraq

Writer’s note: It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. So here are some thoughts on recent events and issues that continue to be discussed in the media.

1. The passing of former President Gerald R. Ford

In the early 1960s, my dad was a young reporter for United Press International in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of Michigan’s Fifth Congressional district. Congressman Jerry Ford dropped by the office one day to take him and another reporter, from the Detroit Free Press, to lunch. They talked politics and Michigan football, and dad never forgot Congressman Ford’s generosity that day, describing him as one of the most decent men he’d ever met.

Advance 14 years and Ford is the President of the United States and my dad, by then, is UPI’s vice president and general manager.

Business took dad to Washington where he had dinner with a former UPI photographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Hume Kennerly, who, by that time, was President Ford’s official White House Photographer, and Dick Growald, who covered The White House, in tandem, with Helen Thomas, for UPI. Kennerly suggested to dad that he come by The White House the next morning so he could see his office.

Although he didn’t have much of an interest in photography, a visit to The White House, even if was the photographer’s office, had some appeal. Dad arrives and Kennerly suddenly announced that they’re going to say, “Hello.”

Dad inquired, “To Whom?”

The next thing he knew, he was being led into the Oval Office and there was President Ford sitting behind his desk. He stood up and greeted dad as if they were old friends.

Ford spent about 30 minutes that day with my dad, Growald and a White House spokesman. And Kennerly photographed all of it. In fact, I have a picture of the meeting and plan to bequeath it to my children.

Ford couldn’t have been nicer, dad always said. Obviously, the President had been briefed on my dad, so he was aware that they shared a connection to Grand Rapids.

Dad was on Cloud 9. He told us all about his meeting with the President and showed us the pictures.

As a result, I’ve always held the late president in high esteem. Although I was only 14 at the time, I had hoped Ford would be elected president in 1976. And, given the times that Jimmy Carter experienced, I believe Ford would have handled many of the same events between 1977 and 1981, especially the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran, far better than his successor.

RIP, Mr. President.

2. Gerald R. Ford as President of the United States

Ford was always my kind of Republican. As The New York Times recently said, he was the kind of politician who wanted the government “out of your bedroom, living room and the board room.”

I’m not sure about the last one but that has nothing to do with Jerry Ford. No one in the 1970s could have predicted all of the corporate transgressions we’ve witnessed in the past five years.

After Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two men who were prone to professional and personal antics that degraded the Presidency, Ford was clean. Very clean. And he was a steady hand at the helm of a ship that was passing through turbulent waters.

It’s easy to dismiss someone like Ford as an Accidental President. But at the time he came into office, the country needed someone like him, someone who could put the country at ease after the trials and tribulations of Watergate and Vietnam. The nation should be grateful that he successfully moved the country beyond these two debacles.

A number of the obituaries and tributes credit Ford with removing the United States from Vietnam. While some of that is true, it’s important to remember that U.S. troops started returning from Vietnam during the Nixon Administration. In fact, like it or not, Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had more to do with ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam than President Ford.

By the time Ford became President, U.S. plans for Vietnam had been set. We’d signed a peace accord, of sorts, with the North Vietnamese in Paris in 1973, about 18 months before Ford became president. It released U.S. servicemen captured by North Vietnam and committed the United States to withdrawing from South Vietnam.

By the time Communist troops were bearing down on Saigon in April 1975, Ford had few options. As Commander-in-Chief, he could have cited national security concerns, and ordered bombing raids against Hanoi and other parts of North Vietnam in an attempt to force a stalemate.

But, by that time, that action was going to spend more political capital than the President likely wanted and maybe even had. In addition, it’s difficult to say how effective bombing raids would have been since the North Vietnamese had proven that they accepted heavy casualties.

Under no circumstance was Ford going to reintroduce U.S. ground troops to prop up the Saigon government. There was not a scintilla of political support for such action.

Probably the single best thing Ford did was assure the nation that the loss of South Vietnam to the Communists was not a ringing of the death knell for the United States as a superpower. As tragic as it was, Saigon’s fall allowed the United States to focus on more pressing international issues, like the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East.

Ford went on to score three significant victories with each one. He forced the Soviets to recognize human rights; he kept the Chinese engaged with the United States; and, finally, he was able to gain acceptance of a truce between Israel and Egypt.

Ford’s pardon of President Nixon will be debated by historians for adinfinitum. A case for either action – pardon or no pardon – can be made without too much difficulty. By pardoning Nixon, Ford put Watergate behind us just as, in the same way, by letting Saigon fall to Hanoi, he put the war behind us.

3. Iraq

It’s time to dust off our history books. Iraq is no Vietnam. Today, the United States is fighting an insurgency supported by terrorist networks likely coming from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran as well as what’s homegrown in Iraq. They may be coming from other countries, but those are the ones we know about.

At least we knew our enemy during the Vietnam War. It was the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong and they were primarily supported by the Soviet Union and, to a much lesser degree, the Peoples Republic of China. This makes the Vietnam War look much easier to manage than the current one in Iraq.

While the United States has been somewhat successful in separating Iraqi insurgents from foreign insurgents – namely those supported by Al Qaida – we’re not dealing with another nation. Instead, we’re dealing with mercenaries or freelancers who give every appearance of being willing to pay a high price for their cause – preventing the United States and its Iraqi allies from letting Iraq turn into a failed state – and who report to no one.

One of the big differences between our enemies in Iraq and us is the fact that they report to no one. Certainly there’s no leader of the insurgency who is held accountable politically or publicly. The insurgency, wherever it comes from, can afford high casualties and military blunders.

But the lessons of Vietnam should not be dismissed. President Nixon violated a basic lesson of negotiation when he started talking with Hanoi. As the talks were getting underway, Nixon announced he was bringing the troops home, thereby immediately weakening our position.

The North Vietnamese knew, from that point on, that it was just a matter of time before the United States ended its commitments to the government in Saigon. All Hanoi had to do was pay lip service to the negotiations while they continued to fight the war on their terms.

The newly minted Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and her Democratic colleagues, as well as a few Republicans, might review the actions taken by the Nixon Administration. If they really want the United States to fail in Iraq, all they need to do is keep pressing George W. Bush for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

If Bush caves to the pressure, and starts bringing the troops home, this will signal to the insurgents – as well as to everyone else – that it’s just a matter of time before the United States stops supporting the government in Baghdad.

Speaker Pelosi and her allies on Capitol Hill might consider what Iraq will look like if the United States pulls out. And they might also consider how such actions will be perceived by both our allies and anyone else who considers the United States its enemy.

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