It was only my second presidential ballot, but in 1976, I left it blank. I could not vote for Gerald Ford after he had let North Vietnamese tanks roll into Saigon without lifting a finger to stop them. Presidents who lose wars do not deserve to stay in office. The sentimentality that has been expressed for the Ford administration in recent days does not fit the facts. It was a very grim time, during which many of us wondered whether America really was finished as a great nation. President Ford seemed more like an example of the problem, rather than its solution.
The decade of the 1970s started on a hopeful note. Communist forces had been pushed back into the South Vietnamese hinterland following the failure of Hanoi's 1968 Tet Offensive. Enemy bases in Cambodia were raided in 1970, a victory that set off more antiwar activity. It was battlefield success, however, that allowed U.S. forces to come home as South Vietnam stood up a million-man army. In 1972, Hanoi again invaded, but Saigon's forces held with the aid of U.S. air power.
The Democrats had run Sen. George McGovern in 1972 on an antiwar platform, but had lost in a landslide. President Richard Nixon carried 49 states in his re-election bid. But the Democrats still controlled Congress, and the New Left controlled the Democrats. The Watergate scandal was used to overturn the presidential election and the campaign to lose the war went into high gear.
In May 1973, Congress voted to cut off all funds for military action in Indochina, including air support. Having deprived Saigon of U.S. firepower, Congress then cut aid to South Vietnam’s own forces in 1974, resulting in shortages of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition. A month after this Congressional action, the Hanoi Politburo decided to launch a new invasion in 1975.
In August, 1974, President Ford wrote a letter to all allied governments pledging “to carry out the policy of my predecessors involving South Vietnam.” That policy included coming to Saigon’s aid if Hanoi violated the 1973 Paris peace agreement. When Hanoi invaded in 1975, President Ford addressed a joint session of Congress on April 10. He laid out how the “North Vietnamese illegally introduced over 350,000 men into the South” and “continued to receive large quantities of supplies and arms from their friends [Russia and China].” He argued, “We cannot abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs. We cannot dismantle our defenses, our diplomacy, or our intelligence capability while others increase and strengthen theirs.”
But all he asked for was emergency funding for the South Vietnam’s military (which was denied) and for permission “to clarify immediately its restrictions on the use of U.S. military forces in Southeast Asia for the limited purposes of protecting American lives by ensuring their evacuation.” In other words, to cut and run.
He decried the limitations on his authority as “raising the possibility of a dangerous erosion of the president's ability to govern” – but he accepted them. The “imperial presidency” was over. Ford had spent too many years in Congress, in the dispirited GOP minority, to think seriously about the executive powers that were now his, especially those of commander-in-chief. Millions died all across Indochina, and tens of millions more have suffered under a brutal tyranny as a result of his failure to act. In exchange for its aid to Hanoi, the Soviets deployed bombers and warships in the former U.S. bases in Vietnam, shifting the balance of power in the region. America’s enemies were emboldened around the world, creating more turmoil and death.
To make matters worse, President Ford then said there should be “no recriminations” against those who had stabbed the country in the back. He even offered conditional amnesty to draft evaders and deserters. The lavish praise among liberals for the “healing” power of Ford’s surrender is meant to encourage President George W. Bush to follow his example.
Gerald Ford, as a man, has been praised for his honesty and virtue, but in our dangerous world, these traits are not adequate for national leadership. President Jimmy Carter also demonstrated personal integrity without a hint of scandal, but he was a failure in the global arena as well. Ford did not end our “national nightmare.” It was just beginning, as the 1970s became the era of “malaise,” the term used by Carter as he urged Americans to dial down their expectations along with their thermostats, and accept decline. Carter refused to lift a finger to save the Westernizing Shah of Iran when threatened by militant Islamists, thus opening the door to the greatest danger menacing the Middle East today. Failure to intervene when American interests are at stake is not a virtue.
In the absence of strong presidential leadership, Congress as a body is incapable of conducting a positive foreign policy. That is why the Framers of the Constitution created the presidency, having seen the failure of the Confederation’s congressional system to provide for either defense or diplomacy following independence. The Framers understood John Locke, who wrote in Of Civil Government that executive power sometimes means acting “for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes against it.”
There is a disturbing pattern in recent events that is not dissimilar to the 1970s. President Bush was re-elected by a convincing margin on the issues in 2004, but the Democrats then exploited scandals to take control of Congress in 2006. President Ford cannot provide the model for dealing with this situation, because his short tenure in office was a failure.
Today's Democratic leaders are trying to look more responsible than their predecessors of three decades ago – at least until after the 2008 elections. Most critics of current Iraq strategy speak in terms of a “redeployment” of troops rather than a hasty withdrawal. And they pledge to keep open the option of a rapid military response to any new threats in the region. This is what should have happened in 1975.
In their January 5 joint letter to President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested, “Rather than deploy additional forces to Iraq, we believe the way forward is to begin the phased redeployment of our forces in the next four to six months, while shifting the principal mission of our forces there from combat to training, logistics, force protection and counter-terror.” Since most U.S. combat operations in Iraq are “counter-terror” missions, the Democratic plan is much more a “stay the course” option than the one the president is fashioning to further consolidate the victory that U.S.-led coalition achieved when it eliminated the Saddam Hussein regime. Indeed, the “new” Democratic letter merely repeated the views expressed in a letter sent last July. The Democratic leaders still preface their proposals with an expressed desire “to do everything we can to help Iraq succeed in the future.”
The left-wing of the party however, is as vile as ever in its desire to see “American imperialism” vanquished. It will push Congress for an irrevocable retreat that will guarantee defeat. Shortly after the November election, Michael Moore wrote:
Quit looking for a way to win. We can't win. We've lost...We demand the Democrats listen to us and get out of Iraq now.
President Bush must resist such demands with every element of executive power, and not cave in, as President Ford did.
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