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Dallek: Historians Will Regard Ford as ‘Distinctly Minor President’

Interviewee: Robert Dallek
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 3, 2007

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Robert Dallek, a prominent historian on the American presidency, says that historians will remember President Gerald R. Ford as “a distinctly minor figure,” in part because he was in office for such a short period and “one cannot point to any great initiatives that changed the course of history, in my judgment, in that time.” Dallek, whose next book, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power is due to be published in May, says “historians will look back and say foreign policy in the Ford presidency was very much dominated by Kissinger, with a kind of continuity from the Nixon period.”

Noting that Ford failed to win backing from Congress for last-ditch efforts to help the South Vietnamese in 1975 when they were being overrun by the North Vietnamese, Dallek likens the situation to President Bush’s seeming reluctance to quit Iraq. “If he escalates or increases the number of troops in Iraq, it will be about as useful and productive as the increases in troop numbers in Vietnam. The circumstances in Iraq now are such that I don’t think we can succeed there, whatever ‘success’ means.”

How do you think President Ford will be remembered by historians, particularly in his conduct of foreign affairs?

I think he’ll be remembered as a distinctly minor figure. He was there, of course, for such a short period of time, 895 days, and one cannot point to any great initiatives that changed the course of history, in my judgment, in that time. He presided over the collapse of South Vietnam, which by the time he was in office I think was a foregone conclusion. The congressional resistance to his appeals in 1975 to appropriate funds and give support to South Vietnam, then under attack from the invading North Vietnamese troops, was simply all part of a development that had been long in the making. It happened to be on his watch that South Vietnam fell in April 1975. I wouldn’t blame it on him by any means, but there’s nothing to credit him with there either.

What about the Mayaguez crisis in May 1975?

That was hardly something one can point to as an accomplishment of any sort. An American ship and its sailors had been captured by the Khmer Rouge and then freed without anyone in Washington knowing about that. Then Ford, thinking the sailors were imprisoned, sent in forces and we lost forty-one Marines.

Ford is praised for continuing the efforts to ease tensions with Moscow.

Of course, in dealing with the Soviets, Ford did continue the détente policy. There was the notable Helsinki Agreement [recognizing post-war borders in Europe and guaranteeing human rights] signed on August 1, 1975. That accord was a continuation of what had been evolving since the Kennedy administration when the Russians resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and agreed on the subsequent limited test-ban treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere and in outer space.

But the movement toward détente, which President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to follow up on at a summit meeting with Soviet Prime Minister Aleksi N. Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, didn’t get terribly far [because of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968]. But, of course, President [Richard M.] Nixon and his national security adviser and later Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger did make some strides forward with the SALT I [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] agreement in May 1972 and in really putting détente more firmly into place.

Historians will look back and say foreign policy in the Ford presidency was very much dominated by Kissinger, with a kind of continuity from the Nixon period. Ford is not going to be remembered as a really significant foreign policy maker. I think what he will be remembered for is being the only unelected vice president and unelected president in American history.

The most positive thing that historians will say about him is that he presided effectively over the transition from Nixon to [President Jimmy] Carter and that Ford sensibly managed the constitutional crisis that had been provoked by Nixon resigning for the only time in American history.  But, of course, a shadow was cast over his presidency by his pardon of Richard Nixon. So I don’t think there’s an awful lot that one can point to as a major foreign policy achievement or even a domestic policy achievement, because domestic affairs were something of a mess with the economy in such bad shape and so much inflation and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression.

Now of course, you talked about the Vietnam War, which came to an end on Ford’s watch. It brings to mind the current situation in Iraq where the polling numbers give an awfully low standing to President Bush. Do you see much parallel between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War in its last phases?

I do indeed. What I find so striking with this administration is how reluctant Bush is to learn the lessons of Vietnam. In Vietnam, we began with advisers, moved on to bombing, and then of course to sending in massive numbers of ground forces. At the height of that war in 1968 we had 545,000 American troops in Vietnam, before Nixon came to office in 1969 and began reducing the numbers by pulling out the troops. There were only, I think, 29,000 or 39,000 troops left by the end of Nixon’s first term. Vietnam was a palpable failure. And of course, in retrospect, it was even more clearly a disaster and a failure than maybe people understood at the time.

This war in Iraq has turned into a similar failure, and Bush, of course, can’t let go of it, whether it’s for reasons of ego or whether he genuinely believes that national security is bound up with turning Iraq into some kind of stable, democratic society. Ultimately, I think, historians will learn more about the answer to that question. But he’s embarked upon a foolish journey here. If he escalates or increases the number of troops in Iraq, it will be about as useful and productive as the increases in troop numbers in Vietnam. The circumstances in Iraq now are such that I don’t think we can succeed there, whatever “success” means. And that became crystal clear after a while in Vietnam as well. Now, one can say, of course, we could have “won” in Vietnam if you had wanted to put, let’s say, a million-man army in Vietnam and invade North Vietnam to turn it into American colony.

We could “win” in Iraq, if we want to put maybe half-a-million to one million men in Iraq now and essentially take over its governance and repress the civil strife there—no doubt at quite a cost in blood and treasure—we could do it. But American public opinion is very much opposed to that. The public doesn’t see this as exactly like Vietnam, and that’s sensible. But they see the Iraq war in the shadow of Vietnam, and it reminds them of the stalemate, of the “quagmire,” as it was called at the time. So what Bush is up against is the same thing that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford came up against—a decided national consensus against pursuing that war.

Now of course in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many felt the United States should have fought harder in Vietnam. These people galvanized around Ronald Reagan and became the so-called “neo-cons.” They believe this tough policy led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. Do you think there’s any parallel here where you will get sort of revisionist view that we should’ve been tougher in Iraq?

My feeling is that it’s a misreading of history to say that, as the Reagan supporters do, that Reagan won the Cold War. There’s no doubt he made a contribution, but what won the Cold War was essentially the wisdom of the containment doctrine, the thinking put forth by George Kennan at the start of the Cold War with President Harry Truman, that the Soviet Union was a contradiction in terms—that it was doomed to self-destruction, that it could not be an effective, productive consumer society, that it invested so mightily in its military side, that at some point it was going to fall of its own weight.

What did in the Soviet Union was the Soviet Union. The best thing we did was to contain them, to be patient, to avoid an all-out conflict with them, because, as so many of the presidents of the time understood, nuclear war was impermissible, was a step toward mutual suicide. The Soviet Union happened to collapse at the time that Reagan and the first [President George H.W.] Bush were in power. Now, again, I’m not discounting their contribution to the Soviet collapse, but I would say it’s essentially the containment doctrine. That’s also why Harry Truman now, I think, has such a significant standing among historians and with the public.

What we need to do is, of course, find some fig leaf for getting out of Iraq with a degree of respect and honor. And then recalibrate, or sort of rethink how we are going to meet this danger from jihadists. You see, Bush’s problem, it seems to me, is that he has no larger design the way Truman did. I think Bush’s foreign policy, like the Vietnam policy of the past, will be remembered as a great disaster.

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