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Context of 'May 12-15, 1975: Ford Commits Marines without Congressional Approval in ‘Mayaguez’ Incident'

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Alexander Haig, President Nixon’s chief of staff, is briefly staying on at the White House to ease the transition into the new, hastily assembled Ford staff. Haig, knowing that President Ford will not consider retaining him in the position, believes that Donald Rumsfeld, the US ambassador to NATO, might be the person Ford needs to head his staff (see August 9, 1974). (Nixon held Rumsfeld in grudging admiration, referring to him as a “ruthless little b_stard,” but had sent him to Europe and NATO headquarters because he did not like Rumsfeld’s obvious ambition.) Although Ford is not sold on having a chief of staff at all, Haig believes Ford needs someone with Rumsfeld’s “strong personality and fine administrat[ive skills]” to help him establish himself. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Ford is retaining, sees Rumsfeld as, in Kissinger’s words, an exemplar of a “special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly.” Ford has a good relationship with Rumsfeld, who in the 1960s led an insurgency among House Republicans to replace Minority Leader Charles Halleck with Ford. He views Rumsfeld as something of a maverick, and wants someone not beholden to the entrenched Nixon loyalists remaining in the White House as well as someone with a good relationship with Congressional Republicans. Rumsfeld fits the bill. Rumsfeld, a former Navy pilot, will later write that Ford “had to provide sufficient change to make the transition from what many perceived to be an illegitimate White House and administration to a legitimate administration. It was a bit like climbing into an airplane, at 30,000 feet, going 500 miles an hour, and having to change part of the crew.” (Werth 2006, pp. 60-61; Unger 2007, pp. 49-52) (Rumsfeld will, in turn, ask his own former assistant, Dick Cheney, to once again join him as his assistant in the Ford White House—see 1969). Ford’s longtime aide and speech writer Robert Hartmann will be equally blunt in his own recollections: “The Nixon-to-Ford transition was superbly planned. It was not a failure. It just never happened.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 26)

Map of the Cambodian coast showing the island of Koh Tang.Map of the Cambodian coast showing the island of Koh Tang. [Source: American Merchant Marine at War]A US cargo ship, the SS Mayaguez, is seized by the Cambodian navy in the Gulf of Siam. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urges retaliatory action to punish the Cambodians and retake the ship, arguing that the US must let the Communist forces in Southeast Asia know that, even though the US has withdrawn from South Vietnam, the US would defend itself and its interests. President Ford agrees. Without asking or even consulting Congress, Ford, calling the capture of the Mayaguez an “act of piracy,” orders US Marines to attack Cambodian warships and storm the island of Koh Tang (sometimes spelled Kaoh Tang) where the crew of the Mayaguez is believed to be held prisoner. On May 15, some 180 Marines storm the island in a helicopter assault, with light air support. (American Merchant Marine at War 6/5/2000; Savage 2007, pp. 31-33)
Violation of Constitution, Law - Ford briefs Congressional leaders after the fact; the leaders agree that the attack is the right decision, but sharply disagree with how Ford carried out the decision. A 1971 law prohibits the use of ground forces in Cambodia, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires advance consultation with Congress “in every possible instance.” Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-OK) reminds Ford, “There are charges on the floor [of the House] that you have violated the law.” And Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd (D-WV) asks why Ford did not inform Congressional leaders before ordering the attacks, saying, “I’m for getting the ship back, but I think you should have given them a chance to urge caution.” Ford replies: “It is my constitutional responsibility to command the forces and to protect Americans.… We have a separation of powers. The president is the commander in chief so long as he is within the law. I exercised my power under the law and I complied with the law. I would never forgive myself if the Marines had been attacked.”
'Nerve and Steel' - The Mayaguez and her crew are recovered, and Ford’s decision is hailed by media outlets such as Newsweek as a “daring show of nerve and steel,” a “classic show of gunboat diplomacy,” and “a four star political and diplomatic victory.… It was swift and tough—and it worked.” (Savage 2007, pp. 31-33)
Facts Far Different from Initial Reporting - But subsequent information shows that the initial reports of the US military action were false. The government will claim that one Marine died and 13 were wounded in the invasion of the Cambodian island. In reality, 40 soldiers die—15 in the initial assault (13 Marines and two Air Force soldiers), 23 Marines in a helicopter crash, and three Marines who are inadvertently left behind, captured by the Cambodians, and executed. Forty-four Marines and six Air Force soldiers are wounded. The US expected maybe two dozen Cambodian soldiers on the island, but in actuality well over 200 heavily armed and entrenched Cambodian soldiers were in place. The crew of the Mayaguez had never been on the island; the Cambodians had taken them to the mainland. And the Cambodian government had already publicly announced it was releasing the vessel and the crew before the attack began—Ford had not yet received the message when he authorized the Marine assault. Marines had stormed the Mayaguez and found no one on board; the crew was at sea in a fishing boat when the Marines launched their attack. It is never completely clear why the ruling Khmer Rouge releases the crew so quickly; some speculate intervention by China or Israel. But the facts of the incident, and the unexpectedly large number of deaths and injuries, are submerged in a wave of patriotic fervor that sweeps the country. A Ford administration official will later admit to Newsweek that the operation had been “the sheerest sort of jingoism,” but, he will argue, it worked to perfection, “and nobody challenges success.” Overwhelmed by the outpouring of public support for Ford and the “rescue” of the Mayaguez, Congress quickly shelves its objections to Ford’s usurpation of Constitutional principles. In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write, “The Mayaguez incident revealed just how difficult it would be for Congress to rein in a president once troops were committed.” (American Merchant Marine at War 6/5/2000; Savage 2007, pp. 31-33)

Indonesia invades and occupies the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. An estimated 200,000 people—roughly one-third of the country’s population—will be killed in the violence and famine that follow. (Jardine 11/1993; John Pilger 1994; Gallegos 9/1994; BBC 5/17/2002) The invasion was tacitly approved in advance by US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the day before during a meeting with Suharto (see December 6, 1975).


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