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Ford’s Impact on Foreign Policy

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: January 4, 2007


America honored Gerald R. Ford Jr., the thirty-eighth U.S. president, with a state funeral on Tuesday, a man credited by presidents past and current for helping shepherd the country through the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Ford is remembered most for his pardon of predecessor Richard M. Nixon, but his two-and-a-half years as president were also marked by some significant foreign policy developments.

Ford was appointed vice president in 1973 after Spiro Agnew was forced out of office on tax evasion charges. By August of the following year, he was in the White House. Richard M. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal. “Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford famously announced during his inauguration. In a 1974 article for the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that Ford “wears the presidency with a mild-mannered conviction that is altogether reassuring.” But the accidental president’s controversial decision to pardon Nixon haunted his failed 1976 presidential campaign. This timeline offers a history of important dates in Ford’s life.

Though president for less than three years, Ford oversaw an important milestone (Foreign Affairs): the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. He marked the end of the conflict with an aggressive attack on the Cambodian navy, forcing the surrender of the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship seized by the Khmer Rouge forces in 1975. The incident, according to TIME magazine, upheld Ford’s resolve to show that “the U.S. would not allow itself to be intimidated” after its defeat in Vietnam. However, in an interview with's Bernard Gwertzman, prominent historian Robert Dallek says Ford's handling of the incident “was hardly something one can point to as an accomplishment” and that “he’ll be remembered as a distinctly minor figure” in American history.

Ford continued efforts to maintain the Cold War thaw, or détente, begun under his predecessor. His administration entered into the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which accepted the integrity of Moscow’s territorial claims in Eastern Europe while pushing for the Soviet Union’s recognition of human rights law. Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh said the accords “helped to engender the dissident movements that blossomed in the 1980s and eventually destroyed the Soviet bloc.” He also credited Ford with strengthening Washington’s ties with ites transatlantic allies. Ford also followed up on Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China with his own presidential visit to Peking.

Despite his overseas experience, a verbal miscue called into question his foreign policy expertise. During an October 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." That gaffe, along with rising inflation kicked into high gear by the OPEC oil embargo of 1974 (CNN), sealed the fate of his presidential bid. But his legacy was felt in future Republican administrations (ChiTrib): Dick Cheney served as Ford’s chief of staff and Donald Rumsfeld served as his secretary of defense. Ford, however, later criticized Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with President Bush in how they justified (WashPost) going to war in Iraq.

Ford eventually became a close friend of his former rival Carter after the two attended the funeral of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In 1998, he co-authored an op-ed with Carter calling for the censure (NYT) rather than impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton. In interviews, Ford attested to his friendship with Carter as an example of bipartisan cooperation, something he often said was lacking in Washington. He bequeathed this spirit of bipartisan bonhomie to his presidential successors: Clinton and the man he ousted from the White House, George H.W. Bush, joined forces to provide disaster relief to tsunami victims in 2004.   

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