Gerald R. Ford - The mayaguez affair

Publication of the report came right after a bold presidential stroke to reassert American power, prestige, and presence in Southeast Asia. An American merchant ship, the Mayaguez , and its thirty-nine crew-men were seized by Cambodian forces in the Gulf of Siam on 12 May. The Cambodians claimed that the vessel was within their territorial waters. Washington claimed that the Mayaguez was exercising its right of innocent passage and that actually it was sixty miles off the coast. Ford, seeking to adhere to the War Powers Act of 1973, had White House aides telephone Capitol Hill to inform legislative leaders that he intended to use force to prevent the ship and its crew from being transferred to the mainland. But not until fifteen hours after the military operation was launched did he personally meet with the congressmen in the White House. Clearly they were informed rather than consulted.

Only two minutes before the first American helicopter approached and was shot out of the sky, Phnom Penh radio announced that the ship had been released. Nothing was said about the crew, and the military operations were, in any case, too advanced to be called off. At that point, Kissinger told Scowcroft, "Let's look ferocious! Otherwise they will attack us as the ship leaves." Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier sped to the scene. Three Cambodian gunboats were sunk and four others damaged. Late on the afternoon of 14 May, Ford ordered a marine attack on a nearby island where the men were believed to be held. American planes also bombed mainland targets to prevent Cambodian interference in the rescue operation. Marines from a United States destroyer then boarded and secured the empty Mayaguez , while a small Cambodian boat returned the captured crew to a second American vessel. To rescue the thirty-nine-member crew, about to be released in any case, forty-one Americans had lost their lives and fifty had been wounded.

The legality of the War Powers Act was to be cast into doubt by a Supreme Court decision in 1983, but in 1975, Ford's method of notifying Congress was the immediate center of debate. Another question related to the premature use of force. In hindsight, it is clear that the crew would have been returned without military action and the loss of life. The administration rationalized its actions by citing the unreliability of the Cambodian government, but even that point was debatable. Kissinger, in arguing before the National Security Council, was more direct. He pointed to the important fact that America's NATO and Far Eastern allies were watching. Capturing the boat had enabled Ford to reassert American power, to show that the United States—despite what had just happened in Vietnam—would not allow itself to be further pushed around. Hartmann was more direct: "Did the United States of America, torn internally and with a novice, little-known leader, still have any guts?"

Predictably, public reaction was highly favorable. America had finally stopped "turning tail" and had refused to tolerate harassment from pipsqueak Communist governments. Within the next week, more than fourteen thousand letters, telegrams, and phone calls reached the White House, barely a thousand of which expressed dissent. Ford himself used his memoirs to supply the most candid analysis of the Mayaguez affair. "All of a sudden," he wrote, "the gloomy national mood began to fade. Many people's faith in their country was restored and my standing in the polls shot up 11 points. Mayaguez wasn't the only reason, of course; the economy was improving at a rapid rate, but the net was that I felt I had regained the initiative, and I determined to do what I could with it."

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