Presidency of Gerald Ford
|August 9, 1974 – January 20, 1977|
|Seal of the President|
The presidency of Gerald Ford began on August 9, 1974, when Gerald Ford became President of the United States upon the resignation of Richard Nixon from office, and ended on January 20, 1977, a period of 895 days. Ford had served as Vice President of the United States since December 6, 1973, following Spiro Agnew's resignation from that office. The 38th United States president, Ford has the distinction of being the first, and to date the only person to serve as president without being elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency. His presidency ended following his defeat in the 1976 presidential election by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Ford took office in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and in the final stages of the Vietnam War, both of which engendered a new disillusion in American political institutions. Ford's first major act upon taking office was to grant a presidential pardon to Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal, prompting a major backlash to Ford's presidency. He also created a conditional clemency program for Vietnam War draft dodgers. Much of Ford's focus in domestic policy was on the economy, which experienced a recession during his tenure. After initially promoting a tax increase designed to combat inflation, Ford championed a tax cut designed to rejuvenate the economy, and he signed two tax reduction acts into law. The foreign policy of the Ford administration was characterized in procedural terms by the increased role Congress began to play, and by the corresponding curb on the powers of the president. Overcoming significant congressional opposition, Ford continued Nixon's détente policies with the Soviet Union.
Ford sought another term, in the 1976 presidential election, but was challenged by Ronald Reagan, a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. After a contentious series of primaries, Ford won his party's nomination at the 1976 Republican National Convention. In the general election, Carter defeated Ford by a narrow margin in the popular and electoral vote. In polls of historians and political scientists, Ford is generally ranked highest for his moral authority and lowest for his vision and ability to set an agenda.
- 1 Accession
- 2 Administration
- 3 Judicial appointments
- 4 Domestic affairs
- 5 Foreign affairs
- 6 Assassination attempts
- 7 1976 election
- 8 Historical reputation
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
The Republican ticket of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew won a landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election. Nixon's second term became dominated by the Watergate scandal, which stemmed from a Nixon campaign group's attempted burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Nixon administration. Due to a scandal unrelated to Watergate, Vice President Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973. Under the terms of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, Nixon nominated Ford as Agnew's replacement. Nixon selected Ford, then the House Minority Leader, largely because he was advised that Ford would be the most easily confirmed of the prominent Republican leaders. Ford was confirmed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, and he took office as vice president in December 1973.
In the months after his confirmation as vice president, Ford continued to support Nixon's innocence with regards to Watergate, even as evidence mounted that the Nixon administration had ordered the break-in and subsequently sought to cover it up. In July 1974, after the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over recordings of certain meetings he had held as president, the House Judiciary Committee voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Nixon. After the tapes became public and clearly showed that Nixon had taken part in the cover-up, Nixon summoned Ford to the Oval Office on August 8, where Nixon informed Ford that he would resign. Nixon formally resigned on August 9, making Ford the first unelected President of the United States.
Immediately after taking the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, Ford spoke to the assembled audience in a speech broadcast live to the nation. Ford noted the peculiarity of his position: "I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers." He went on to state:
I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. Those who nominated and confirmed me as Vice President were my friends and are my friends. They were of both parties, elected by all the people and acting under the Constitution in their name. It is only fitting then that I should pledge to them and to you that I will be the President of all the people.
Upon assuming office, Ford inherited Nixon's cabinet, although Ford quickly replaced Chief of Staff Alexander Haig with Donald Rumsfeld, who had served as Counselor to the President and ambassador to NATO under Nixon. Rumsfeld and Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney rapidly became among the most influential people in the Ford administration. Ford also appointed Edward H. Levi as Attorney General, charging Levi with cleaning up a Justice Department that had been politicized to unprecedented levels during the Nixon administration. Ford brought in Philip W. Buchen, Robert T. Hartmann, L. William Seidman, and John O. Marsh as senior advisers with cabinet rank. Ford placed a far greater value in his cabinet officials than Nixon had, though cabinet members did not regain the influence they had held prior to World War II. Levi, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon, and Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger all emerged as influential cabinet officials early in Ford's tenure.
Most of the Nixon holdovers in cabinet stayed in place until Ford's dramatic reorganization in the fall of 1975, an action referred to by political commentators as the "Halloween Massacre". Ford appointed George H.W. Bush as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, while as part of that reorganization, Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense and Cheney replaced Rumsfeld as Chief of Staff, becoming the youngest individual to hold that position. The moves were intended to fortify Ford's right flank against a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Though Kissinger remained as Secretary of State, Brent Scowcroft replaced Kissinger as National Security Advisor.
Ford's accession to the presidency left the office of vice president vacant. On August 20, 1974, Ford nominated Nelson Rockefeller, the leader of the party's liberal wing, for the vice presidency. Rockefeller and former Congressman George H. W. Bush of Texas were the two finalists for vice presidential nomination, and Ford chose Rockefeller in part due to a Newsweek report that revealed that Bush had accepted money from a Nixon slush fund during his 1970 Senate campaign. Rockefeller underwent extended hearings before Congress, which caused embarrassment when it was revealed he made large gifts to senior aides, including Kissinger. Although conservative Republicans were not pleased that Rockefeller was picked, most of them voted for his confirmation, and his nomination passed both the House and Senate. He was sworn in as the nation's 41st vice president on December 19, 1974. Prior to Rockefeller's confirmation, Speaker of the House Carl Albert was next in line to the presidency. Ford promised to give Rockefeller a major role in shaping the domestic policy of the administration, but Rockefeller was quickly sidelined by Rumsfeld and other administration officials.
Ford made one appointment to the Supreme Court while in office, appointing John Paul Stevens to succeed Associate Justice William O. Douglas. Upon learning of Douglas's impending retirement, Ford asked Attorney General Levi to submit a short list of potential Supreme Court nominees, and Levi suggested Stevens, Solicitor General Robert Bork, and federal judge Arlin M. Adams. Ford chose Stevens, an uncontroversial federal appellate judge, largely because he was likely face the least opposition in the Senate. Early in his tenure on the Court, Stevens had a relatively moderate voting record. He later disappointed some conservatives by siding with the Court's liberal wing regarding the outcome of many key issues. In 2005 Ford wrote, "I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court". He also praised Stevens, "He has served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns". Ford also appointed 11 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 50 judges to the United States district courts.
Along with the experience of the Vietnam War and other issues, Watergate contributed to a decline in the faith that Americans placed in political institutions. Low public confidence added to Ford's already formidable challenge of establishing his own administration without a presidential transition period or the popular mandate of a presidential election. Though Ford became widely popular during his first month in office, he faced a difficult situation regarding the fate of former President Nixon, whose status threatened to undermine the Ford administration. In the final days of Nixon's presidency, Haig had floated the possibility of Ford pardoning Nixon, but no deal had been struck between Nixon and Ford before Nixon's resignation. Nonetheless, when Ford took office, most of the Nixon holdovers in the executive branch, including Haig and Kissinger pressed for a pardon. Through his first month in office, Ford publicly kept his options open regarding a pardon, but he came to believe that ongoing legal proceedings against Nixon would prevent his administration from addressing any other issue. Ford attempted to extract a public statement of contrition from Nixon before issuing the pardon, but Nixon refused.
On September 8, 1974, Ford issued Proclamation 4311, which gave Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president. In a televised broadcast to the nation, Ford explained that he felt the pardon was in the best interests of the country, and that the Nixon family's situation "is a tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."
The Nixon pardon was highly controversial, and Gallup polling showed that Ford's approval rating fell from 71 percent before the pardon to 50 percent immediately after the pardon. Critics derided the move and said a "corrupt bargain" had been struck between the men. In an editorial at the time, The New York Times stated that the Nixon pardon was a "profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act" that in a stroke had destroyed the new president's "credibility as a man of judgment, candor and competence". Ford's first press secretary and close friend Jerald terHorst resigned his post in protest. The pardon would hang over Ford for the remainder of his presidency, and damaged his relationship with members of Congress from both parties. Against the advice of most of his advisers, Ford agreed to appear before a House Subcommittee that requested further information on the pardon. On October 17, 1974, Ford testified before Congress, becoming the first sitting president since Abraham Lincoln to do so.
After Ford left the White House, the former president privately justified his pardon of Nixon by carrying in his wallet a portion of the text of Burdick v. United States, a 1915 Supreme Court decision which stated that a pardon indicated a presumption of guilt, and that acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession of that guilt.
Clemency for draft dodgers
During the Vietnam War, about 1 percent of American men of eligible for the draft failed to register, and approximately 1 percent of those were drafted refused to serve. Those who refused conscription were labeled as "draft dodgers"; many such individuals had left the country for Canada, but others remained in the country. Ford had opposed any form of amnesty for the draft dodgers while in Congress, but his presidential advisers convinced him that a clemency program would help resolve a contentious issue and boost Ford's public standing. On September 16, 1974, shortly after he announced the Nixon pardon, Ford introduced a presidential clemency program for Vietnam War draft dodgers. The conditions of the clemency required a reaffirmation of allegiance to the United States and two years of work in a public service position. The program for the Return of Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters established a Clemency Board to review the records and make recommendations for receiving a presidential pardon and a change in military discharge status. Ford's clemency program was accepted by most conservatives, but attacked by those on the left who wanted a full amnesty program. Full pardon for draft dodgers would later come in the Carter Administration.
1974 midterm elections
The 1974 congressional midterm elections took place less than three months after Ford assumed office. The Democratic Party turned voter dissatisfaction into large gains in the House elections, taking 49 seats from the Republican Party, increasing their majority to 291 of the 435 seats. Even Ford's former House seat was won by a Democrat. In the Senate elections, the Democrats increased their majority to 61 seats in the 100-seat body. The subsequent 94th Congress would override the highest percentage of vetoes since Andrew Johnson served as president in the 1860s. Buoyed by the new class of "Watergate Babies," liberal Democrats implemented reforms designed to ease the passage of legislation. The House began to select committee chairs by secret ballot rather than through seniority, resulting in the removal of some conservative Southern committee chairs. The Senate, meanwhile, lowered the number of votes necessary to end a filibuster from 67 to 60.
|GDP||Debt as a %|
By the time Ford took office, the U.S. economy had entered into a period of stagflation, which economists attributed to various causes, including the 1973 oil crisis and increasing competition from countries such as Japan. Stagflation confounded the traditional economic theories of the 1970s, as economists generally believed that an economy would not simultaneously experience inflation and low rates of economic growth. Traditional economic remedies for a dismal economic growth rate, such as tax cuts and increased spending, risked exacerbating inflation. The conventional response to inflation, tax increases and a cut in government spending, risked damaging the economy. The economic troubles, which signaled the end of the post-war boom, created an opening for a challenge to the dominant Keynesian economics, and laissez-faire advocates such as Alan Greenspan acquired influence within the Ford administration.
At the time that he took office, Ford believed that inflation, rather than a potential recession, represented the greatest threat to the economy. He believed that inflation could be reduced, not by reducing the amount of new currency entering circulation, but by encouraging people to reduce their spending. In October 1974, Ford went before the American public and asked them to "Whip Inflation Now". As part of this program, he urged people to wear "WIN" buttons. To try to mesh service and sacrifice, "WIN" called for Americans to reduce their spending and consumption, especially with regards to gasoline. Ford hoped that the public would respond to this call for self-restraint much as it had to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's calls for sacrifice during World War II, but the public received WIN with skepticism. At roughly the same time he rolled out WIN, Ford also proposed a ten-point economic plan. The central plank of the plan was a tax increase on corporations and high earners, which Ford hoped would both quell inflation and cut into government's budget deficit.
Ford's economic focus changed as the country sank into the worst recession since the Great Depression. In November 1974, Ford withdrew his proposed tax increase. Two months later, Ford proposed a 1-year tax reduction of $16 billion to stimulate economic growth, along with spending cuts to avoid inflation. Having switched from advocating for a tax increase to advocating a tax reduction in just two months, Ford was greatly criticized for his "flip-flop". Congress responded by passing a plan that implemented deeper tax cuts and an increase in government spending. Ford seriously considered vetoing the bill, but ultimately chose to sign the Tax Reduction Act of 1975 into law. In October 1975, Ford introduced a bill designed to combat inflation through a mix of tax and spending cuts. That December, Ford signed the Revenue Adjustment Act of 1975, which implemented tax and spending cuts, albeit not at the levels proposed by Ford. The economy recovered in 1976, as both inflation and unemployment declined. Nonetheless, by late 1976 Ford faced considerable discontent over his handling of the economy, and the government had a $74 billion deficit.
Prior to Ford's presidency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had illegally assembled files on domestic anti-war activists. In the aftermath of Watergate, CIA Director William Colby put together a report of all of the CIA's domestic activities, and much of the report became public, beginning with the publication of a December 1974 article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. The revelations sparked outrage among the public and members of Congress. In response to growing pressure to investigate and reform the CIA, Ford created the Rockefeller Commission. The Rockefeller Commission marked the first time that a presidential commission was established to investigate the national security apparatus. The Rockefeller Commission's report, submitted in June 1975, generally defended the CIA, although it did note that "the CIA has engaged in some activities that should be criticized and not permitted to happen again." The press strongly criticized the commission for failing to include a section on the CIA's assassination plots. The Senate created its own committee, led by Senator Frank Church, to investigate CIA abuses. Ford feared that the Church Committee would be used for partisan purposes and resisted turning over classified materials, but Colby cooperated with the committee. In response to the Church Committee's report, both houses of Congress established select committees to provide oversight to the intelligence community.
Ford and his wife were outspoken supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed constitutional amendment that had been submitted to the states for ratification in 1972. The ERA was designed to ensure equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender. Despite Ford's support, the ERA would fail to win ratification by the necessary number of state legislatures.
As president, Ford's position on abortion was that he supported "a federal constitutional amendment that would permit each one of the 50 States to make the choice". This had also been his position as House Minority Leader in response to the 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, which he opposed. Ford came under criticism for a 60 Minutes interview his wife Betty gave in 1975, in which she stated that Roe v. Wade was a "great, great decision". During his later life, Ford would identify as pro-choice.
Other domestic issues
When New York City faced bankruptcy in 1975, Mayor Abraham Beame was unsuccessful in obtaining Ford's support for a federal bailout. The incident prompted the New York Daily News' famous headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead", referring to a speech in which "Ford declared flatly ... that he would veto any bill calling for 'a federal bail-out of New York City'". The following month, November 1975, Ford changed his stance and asked Congress to approve federal loans to New York City, upon the condition that the city agree to more austere budgets imposed by Washington, D.C. In December 1975, Ford signed a bill providing New York City with access to $2.3 billion in loans.
Despite his reservations about how the program ultimately would be funded in an era of tight public budgeting, Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established special education throughout the United States. Ford expressed "strong support for full educational opportunities for our handicapped children" according to the official White House press release for the bill signing.
Ford was confronted with a potential swine flu pandemic. In the early 1970s, an influenza strain H1N1 shifted from a form of flu that affected primarily pigs and crossed over to humans. On February 5, 1976, an army recruit at Fort Dix mysteriously died and four fellow soldiers were hospitalized; health officials announced that "swine flu" was the cause. Soon after, public health officials in the Ford administration urged that every person in the United States be vaccinated. Although the vaccination program was plagued by delays and public relations problems, some 25% of the population was vaccinated by the time the program was canceled in December 1976. The vaccine was blamed for twenty-five deaths; more people died from the shots than from the swine flu.
After the 1972 election, good government groups like Common Cause pressured Congress to amend campaign finance law to restrict the role of money in political campaigns. In 1974, Congress approved amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, establishing the Federal Election Commission to oversee campaign finance laws. The amendments also established a system of public financing for presidential elections, limited the size of campaign contributions, limited the amount of money that candidates could spend on the their own campaigns, and required the disclosure of nearly all campaign contributions. Ford reluctantly signed the bill into law in October 1974. In the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court overturned the cap on self-funding by political candidates, holding that such a restriction violated freedom of speech rights. The campaign finance reforms of the 1970s were largely unsuccessful in lessening the influence of money in politics, as more contributions shifted to political action committees and state and local party committees.
Ford continued Nixon's détente policy with both the Soviet Union and China, easing the tensions of the Cold War. In doing so, he overcame opposition from members of Congress, an institution which became increasingly assertive in foreign affairs in the early 1970s. This opposition was led by Senator Henry M. Jackson, who scuttled a U.S.–Soviet trade agreement by winning passage of the Jackson–Vanik amendment. Still in place from the Nixon Administration was the SALT I Treaty, which sought to limit the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States and the Soviet Union. The thawing relationship with China brought about by Nixon's 1972 visit to China was reinforced with another presidential visit in December 1975.
Despite the collapse of the trade agreement with the Soviet Union, Ford and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev continued the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which had begun under Nixon. 1972, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached the SALT I treaty, which placed upper limits on each power's nuclear arsenal. Ford met Brezhnev at the November 1974 Vladivostok Summit, at which point the two leaders agreed to a framework for another SALT treaty. Opponents of detente, led by Jackson, delayed Senate consideration of the treaty until after Ford left office. Ford hoped to push forward SALT II talks, but was unable to come to an agreement with Brezhnev, and the talks would continue into the Carter administration.
When Ford took over in August 1974, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) negotiations had been underway in Helsinki, Finland, for nearly two years. Although the USSR was looking for a rapid resolution, none of the parties were quick to make concessions, particularly on human rights points. Throughout much of the negotiations, US leaders were disengaged and uninterested with the process. In an August 1974 Kissinger told Ford, that "we never wanted it but we went along with the Europeans ... [i]t is meaningless—it is just a grandstand play to the left. We are going along with it."
In the months leading up to the conclusion of negotiations and signing of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975, Americans of Eastern European descent voiced their concerns that the agreement would mean the acceptance of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe and the permanent incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR. President Ford was concerned about this as well and sought clarification on this issue from the US National Security Council. The US Senate was also worried about the fate of the Baltic States and the CSCE in general. Several Senators wrote to President Ford requesting that the final summit stage be delayed until all matters had been settled, and in a way favorable to the West.
Shortly before President Ford departed for Helsinki, he held a meeting with a delegation of Americans of Eastern European background, and stated definitively that US policy on the Baltic States would not change, but would be strengthened since the agreement denies the annexation of territory in violation of international law and allows for the peaceful change of borders. he told the delegation that:
- The Helsinki documents involve political and moral commitments aimed at lessening tensions and opening further the lines of communication between peoples of East and West. ... We are not committing ourselves to anything beyond what we are already committed to by our own moral and legal standards and by more formal treaty agreements such as the United Nations Charter and Declaration of Human Rights. ... If it all fails, Europe will be no worse off than it is now. If even a part of it succeeds, the lot the people in Eastern Europe will be that much better, and the cause of freedom will advance at least that far."
His reassurances had little effect. The volume of negative mail continued to grow. The American public was still unconvinced that American policy on the incorporation of the Baltic States would not be changed by the Helsinki Final Act. Despite protests from all around, Ford decided to move forward and sign the agreement. As domestic criticism mounted, Ford hedged on his support for the Helsinki Accords, which had the impact of overall weakening his foreign-policy stature. His blunder in the debate with Carter when he denied Kremlin control of Poland prove disastrous.
Though Ford was criticized for his apparent recognition of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the new emphasis on human rights would eventually contribute to the weakening of the Eastern bloc in the 1980s and speed up its collapse in 1989.
One of Ford's greatest challenges was dealing with the continued Vietnam War. American offensive operations against North Vietnam had ended with the Paris Peace Accords, signed on January 27, 1973. The accords declared a cease fire across both North and South Vietnam, and required the release of American prisoners of war. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South. The accords had been negotiated by Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Lê Đức Thọ. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was not involved in the final negotiations, and publicly criticized the proposed agreement. Seeking to extricate American military forces from Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger successfully pressured Thieu into sign the agreement. In multiple letters to the South Vietnamese president, Nixon had promised that the United States would defend Thieu's government, should the North Vietnamese violate the accords.
Fighting in Vietnam continued after the withdrawal of most U.S forces in early 1973. As North Vietnamese forces advanced in early 1975, Ford requested Congress approve a $722 million aid package for South Vietnam, funds that had been promised by the Nixon administration. Congress voted against the proposal by a wide margin. Senator Jacob K. Javits offered "...large sums for evacuation, but not one nickel for military aid". President Thieu resigned on April 21, 1975, publicly blaming the lack of support from the United States for the fall of his country. Two days later, on April 23, Ford gave a speech at Tulane University, announcing that the Vietnam War was over "...as far as America is concerned".
With the North Vietnamese forces advancing on the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, Ford ordered the evacuation of U.S. personnel, while also allowing U.S. forces to aid others who wished to escape from the Communist advance. Forty-thousand U.S. citizens and South Vietnamese were evacuated by plane until enemy attacks made further evacuations by plane impossible. In the final phase of the evacuation, known as Operation Frequent Wind, military and Air America helicopters took evacuees to off-shore U.S. Navy ships during an approximately 24-hour period immediately preceding the fall of Saigon on April 30. During the operation, so many South Vietnamese helicopters landed on the vessels taking the evacuees that some were pushed overboard to make room for more people.
The Vietnam War, which had raged since the 1950s, finally came to an end with the Fall of Saigon, and Vietnam was reunified into one country. Many of the Vietnamese evacuees were allowed to enter the United States under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. The 1975 Act appropriated $455 million toward the costs of assisting the settlement of Indochinese refugees. In all, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees came to the United States in 1975. Thousands more escaped in the years that followed. Following the end of the war, Ford expanded the embargo of North Vietnam to cover all of Vietnam, blocked Vietnam's accession to the United Nations, and refused to establish full diplomatic relations.
Mayaguez and Panmunjom
North Vietnam's victory over the South led to a considerable shift in the political winds in Asia, and Ford administration officials worried about a consequent loss of U.S. influence in the region. The administration proved it was willing to respond forcefully to challenges to its interests in the region on two occasions, once when Khmer Rouge forces seized an American ship in international waters and again when American military officers were killed in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea.
In May 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon and the Khmer Rouge conquest of Cambodia, Cambodians seized the American merchant ship Mayaguez in international waters, sparking what became known as the Mayaguez incident. Ford dispatched Marines to rescue the crew, but the Marines landed on the wrong island and met unexpectedly stiff resistance just as, unknown to the U.S., the Mayaguez sailors were being released. In the operation, two military transport helicopters carrying the Marines for the assault operation were shot down, and 41 U.S. servicemen were killed and 50 wounded while approximately 60 Khmer Rouge soldiers were killed. Despite American losses, the rescue operation proved to be a boon to Ford's poll numbers; Senator Barry Goldwater declared that the operation "shows we've still got balls in this country." Some historians have argued that the Ford administration felt the need to respond forcefully to the incident because it was construed as a Soviet plot. But work by Andrew Gawthorpe, published in 2009, based on an analysis of the administration's internal discussions, shows that Ford's national security team understood that the seizure of the vessel was a local, and perhaps even accidental, provocation by an immature Khmer government. Nevertheless, they felt the need to respond forcefully to discourage further provocations by other Communist countries in Asia.
A second crisis, known as the axe murder incident, occurred at Panmunjom, a village which stands in the DMZ between the two Koreas. At the time, Panmunjom was the only part of the DMZ where forces from North Korea and South Korea came into contact with each other. Encouraged by U.S. difficulties in Vietnam, North Korea had been waging a campaign of diplomatic pressure and minor military harassment to try and convince the U.S. to withdraw from South Korea. In August 1976, North Korean forces killed two U.S. officers and injured South Korean guards who were trimming a tree in Panmunjom's Joint Security Area. The attack coincided with a meeting of the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at which Kim Jong-il, the son of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, presented the incident as an example of American aggression, helping secure the passage of a motion calling for a U.S. withdrawal from the South. At administration meetings, Kissinger voiced the concern that North Korea would see the U.S. as "the paper tigers of Saigon" if they did not respond, and Ford agreed with that assessment. After mulling various options, the Ford administration decided that it was necessary to respond with a major show of force. A large number of ground forces went to cut down the tree, while at the same time the air force deployed flights over Panmunjom. The North Korean government backed down and allowed the tree-cutting to go ahead, and later issued an unprecedented official apology.
In the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, two ongoing international disputes developed into crises during Ford's presidency. The Cyprus dispute turned into a crisis with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, causing extreme strain within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. Turkey had invaded Cyprus following the Greek-backed 1974 Cypriot coup d'état. The dispute put the United States in a difficult position as both Greece and Turkey were members of NATO. In mid-August, the Greek government withdrew Greece from the NATO military structure; in mid-September 1974, the Senate and House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to halt military aid to Turkey. Ford, concerned with both the effect of this on Turkish-American relations and the deterioration of security on NATO's eastern front, vetoed the bill. A second bill was then passed by Congress, which Ford also vetoed, although a compromise was accepted to continue aid until the end of the year. As Ford expected, Turkish relations were considerably disrupted until 1978.
In the continuing Arab–Israeli conflict, although an initial cease fire had been implemented to end active conflict in the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger's continuing shuttle diplomacy was showing little progress. In 1973, Egypt and Syria had launched a joint surprise attack against Israel, seeking to re-take land lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. However, early Arab success gave way to an Israel military victory, and Ford sought to implement a peace among the belligerents. Ford disliked what he saw as Israeli "stalling" on a peace agreement, and wrote, "Their [Israeli] tactics frustrated the Egyptians and made me mad as hell." During Kissinger's shuttle to Israel in early March 1975, a last minute reversal to consider further withdrawal, prompted a cable from Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which included:
I wish to express my profound disappointment over Israel's attitude in the course of the negotiations ... Failure of the negotiation will have a far reaching impact on the region and on our relations. I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel, with the aim of ensuring that overall American interests ... are protected. You will be notified of our decision.
On March 24, Ford informed congressional leaders of both parties of the reassessment of the administration policies in the Middle East. "Reassessment", in practical terms, meant canceling or suspending further aid to Israel. For six months between March and September 1975, the United States refused to conclude any new arms agreements with Israel. Rabin notes it was "an innocent-sounding term that heralded one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations". The announced reassessments upset the American Jewish community and Israel's well-wishers in Congress. On May 21, Ford "experienced a real shock" when seventy-six U.S. senators wrote him a letter urging him to be "responsive" to Israel's request for $2.59 billion in military and economic aid. Ford felt truly annoyed and thought the chance for peace was jeopardized. It was, since the September 1974 ban on arms to Turkey, the second major congressional intrusion upon the President's foreign policy prerogatives. The following summer months were described by Ford as an American-Israeli "war of nerves" or "test of wills". After much bargaining, the Sinai Interim Agreement (Sinai II) between Egypt and Israel was formally signed, and aid resumed.
A civil war broke out Angola after the fledgling African nation gained independence from Portugal in 1975. The Soviet Union and Cuba both became heavily involved in the conflict, backing the left-wing MPLA, one of the major factions in the civil war. In response, the CIA directed aid to two other factions in the war, UNITA and the FNLA. After members of Congress learned of the CIA operation, Congress voted to cut off aid to the Angolan groups. The Angolan Civil War would continue in subsequent years, but the Soviet role in the war hindered détente. Congress's role in ending the CIA presence marked the growing power of the legislative branch in foreign affairs.
List of international trips
Ford made seven international trips during his presidency.
|1||October 21, 1974||Mexico||Nogales, Magdalena de Kino||Met with President Luis Echeverría and laid a wreath at the tomb of Padre Eusebio Kino.|
|2||November 19–22, 1974||Japan||Tokyo, |
|State visit. Met with Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.|
|November 22–23, 1974||South Korea||Seoul||Met with President Park Chung-hee.|
|November 23–24, 1974||Soviet Union||Vladivostok||Met with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and discussed limitations of strategic arms.|
|3||December 14–16, 1974||Martinique||Fort-de-France||Met with President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.|
|4||May 28–31, 1975||Belgium||Brussels||Attended the NATO Summit Meeting. Addressed the North Atlantic Council and met separately with NATO heads of state and government.|
|May 31 – June 1, 1975||Spain||Madrid||Met with Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Received keys to city from Mayor of Madrid Miguel Angel García-Lomas Mata.|
|June 1–3, 1975||Austria||Salzburg||Met with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.|
|June 3, 1975||Italy||Rome||Met with President Giovanni Leone and Prime Minister Aldo Moro.|
|June 3, 1975||Vatican City||Apostolic Palace||Audience with Pope Paul VI.|
|5||July 26–28, 1975||West Germany||Bonn, |
Linz am Rhein
|Met with President Walter Scheel and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.|
|July 28–29, 1975||Poland||Warsaw, |
|Official visit. Met with First Secretary Edward Gierek.|
|July 29 – August 2, 1975||Finland||Helsinki||Attended opening session of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Met with the heads of state and government of Finland, Great Britain, Turkey, West Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Also met with Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev. Signed the final act of the conference.|
|August 2–3, 1975||Romania||Bucharest, |
|Official visit. Met with President Nicolae Ceaușescu.|
|August 3–4, 1975||Yugoslavia||Belgrade||Official visit. Met with President Josip Broz Tito and Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić.|
|6||November 15–17, 1975||France||Rambouillet||Attended the 1st G6 summit.|
|7||December 1–5, 1975||China||Peking||Official visit. Met with Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping.|
|December 5–6, 1975||Indonesia||Jakarta||Official visit. Met with President Suharto.|
|December 6–7, 1975||Philippines||Manila||Official visit. Met with President Ferdinand Marcos.|
Ford faced two assassination attempts during his presidency. In Sacramento, California, on September 5, 1975, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, pointed a Colt .45-caliber handgun at Ford. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Larry Buendorf, a Secret Service agent, grabbed the gun, and Fromme was taken into custody. She was later convicted of attempted assassination of the President and was sentenced to life in prison; she was paroled on August 14, 2009.
In reaction to this attempt, the Secret Service began keeping Ford at a more secure distance from anonymous crowds, a strategy that may have saved his life seventeen days later. As he left the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore, standing in a crowd of onlookers across the street, pointed her .38-caliber revolver at him. Moore fired a single round but missed because the sights were off. Just before she fired a second round, retired Marine Oliver Sipple grabbed at the gun and deflected her shot; the bullet struck a wall about six inches above and to the right of Ford's head, then ricocheted and hit a taxi driver, who was slightly wounded. Moore was later sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled on December 31, 2007, after serving 32 years.
Ford made the first major decision of his re-election campaign in mid-1975, when he selected Bo Callaway to run his campaign. The pardon of Nixon and the disastrous 1974 mid-term elections weakened Ford's standing within the party, creating an opening for a competitive Republican primary. The intra-party challenge to Ford came from the conservative wing of the party; many conservative leaders had viewed Ford as insufficiently conservative throughout his political career. Conservative Republicans were further disappointed with the selection of Rockefeller as vice president, and faulted Ford for the fall of Saigon, the amnesty for draft dodgers, and the continuation of détente policies. Ronald Reagan, a leader among the conservatives, launched his campaign in autumn of 1975. Hoping to appease his party's right wing and sap Reagan's momentum, Ford requested that Rockefeller not seek re-election, and the vice president agreed to this request. Ford defeated Reagan in the first several primaries, but Reagan gained momentum after winning North Carolina's March 1976 primary. Entering the 1976 Republican National Convention, neither Ford nor Reagan had won a majority of delegates through the primaries, but Ford was able to win the support of enough unpledged delegates to win the presidential nomination. Senator Bob Dole of Kansas won the vice presidential nomination.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Ford campaigned at a time of cynicism and disillusionment with government. Ford adopted a "Rose Garden" strategy, with Ford mostly staying in Washington in an attempt to appear presidential. The campaign benefited from several anniversary events held during the period leading up to the United States Bicentennial. The Washington fireworks display on the Fourth of July was presided over by the president and televised nationally. The 200th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts gave Ford the opportunity to deliver a speech to 110,000 in Concord acknowledging the need for a strong national defense tempered with a plea for "reconciliation, not recrimination" and "reconstruction, not rancor" between the United States and those who would pose "threats to peace". Speaking in New Hampshire on the previous day, Ford condemned the growing trend toward big government bureaucracy and argued for a return to "basic American virtues".
Eleven major contenders competed in the 1976 Democratic primaries. At the start of the primaries, former Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia was little-known nationally, but he rocketed to prominence with a victory in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. A born again Christian, Carter emphasized his personal morality and his status as a Washington outsider. Carter won the presidential nomination on the first ballot of the 1976 Democratic National Convention, and selected liberal Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate. Carter began the race with a huge lead in the polls, but committed a major gaffe by giving an interview to Playboy in which he stated that "I've committed adultery in my heart several times." Ford made his own gaffe during a televised debate, stating that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." In an interview years later, Ford said he had intended to imply that the Soviets would never crush the spirits of eastern Europeans seeking independence. However, the phrasing was so awkward that questioner Max Frankel was visibly incredulous at the response. As a result of this blunder, Ford's surge stalled and Carter was able to maintain a slight lead in the polls.
In the end, Carter won the election, receiving 50.1% of the popular vote and 297 electoral votes compared with 48.0% of the popular vote and 240 electoral votes for Ford. Ford dominated in the West and performed well in New England, but Carter carried much of the South and won Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Though Ford lost, in the three months between the Republican National Convention and the election he had managed to close what polls had shown as a 33-point Carter lead to a 2-point margin.
Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Ford as a below-average to average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Ford as the 25th best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians also ranked Ford as the 25th best president. Historian John Robert Greene writes that "Ford had difficulty navigating a demanding political environment." He also notes, however, that "Americans, by and large, believed that Gerald Ford was an innately decent and good man and that he would (and did) bring honor to the White House. Although this sentiment proved too little to bring Ford to victory in 1976, it is an assessment that most Americans and scholars still find valid in the years after his presidency."
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- All figures, except for debt percentage, are presented in billions of dollars. GDP is calculated for the calendar year. The income, outlay, deficit, and debt figures are calculated for the fiscal year, which ends on September 30. For example, fiscal year 2017 ended on September 30, 2017. Prior to 1976, the fiscal year ended on June 30.
- Represents the national debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP
- In 1976, the beginning of the fiscal year was moved from July 1 to October 1, creating a "transition quarter" that lasted from July 1, 1976, to September 30, 1976.
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