!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

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

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retake the ship, arguing that the US must let the Communist forces in Southeast Asia know that, even though the US has withdrawn from South Vietnam, the US would defend itself and its interests.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]

Entity Tags: Charlie Savage, Carl Albert, Robert C. Byrd, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Ford administration, Henry A. Kissinger

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Ordering 

Time period


Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database

 
Donate

Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now

Volunteer

If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike