Why Did Gerald Ford Criticize His Former Colleagues and the Iraq War?

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Mr. Mieczkowski is the author of Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (University of Kentucky Press, 2005) and an associate professor of history at Dowling College. 

The revelation that former President Gerald R. Ford harshly criticized the Iraq War has captured headlines since his death.  In a tape-recorded interview that he specified be made public only upon his passing, Ford said that he felt that Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld made a “big mistake” in justifying the war on Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.  Ford also said that if he were president, "I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer."

In one sense, the remarks were characteristic of Ford.  He made the remarks during an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.  Ford liked and trusted reporters, an attitude unlike those of Lyndon Johnson, who delighted in pulling last-minute surprises on reporters to upset their schedules, and Richard Nixon, who placed muckrakers like Jack Anderson on his “Enemies List” and ostracized them.  As a congressman, Ford got along well with reporters, invited them to his Arlington, Virginia home for dinner, and went to social functions at their homes as well.

As president, Ford tried to repair relations between the White House and the media, which had taken a beating during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.   Both of his press secretaries were reporters, Jerald terHorst of the Detroit Free Press, a longtime friend who quit in protest over the Nixon pardon, and Ron Nessen of NBC News, who had covered Ford as vice president.  Ford redid the seating arrangement in the White House East Room so that reporters faced the open doorway of the Great Hallway rather than the room’s far wall, given them more breathing space and a relaxed atmosphere.  He generously granted follow-up questions at press conferences, and when traveling around the country he ensured that local reporters would get a chance to speak to him.  Ford allowed ABC’s Harry Reasoner to interview him at Camp David, giving Americans their first television view of this private presidential retreat.  Ford’s fondness for reporters—despite sometimes unfavorable coverage of his presidency—helps to explain why he may have trusted Woodward enough to record his innermost thoughts about the Iraq War and keep them quiet until his death (although he would have been dismayed that Woodward chose to release them so soon after his passing).

In another respect, though, the remarks were uncharacteristic of Ford.  Ford was loath to criticize colleagues, even when provoked.  For example, while House minority leader, he never retaliated against the ad hominem attacks of President Lyndon Johnson (who unleashed such jibes as “Ford played too much football without a helmet”).  Ford’s extensive reminiscences that he compiled for his presidential memoir, A Time To Heal, reveal a man who always sought to mention laudable traits about colleagues.  He would sooner praise a political opponent for his good golf game than lambaste him for his policies.  Ford was often liberal with praise, peppering White House memos with remarks like “good,” which kept morale high among his staff and contrasted with the behavior of presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, who all tended to be sparing with praise. 

Ford showed tremendous loyalty to friends, too.  At a University of Michigan homecoming shortly after Ford’s graduation, one of his close friends got spectacularly drunk the night before the football game.  Despite the friend’s besotted condition, Ford got him showered and presentable enough to shake hands with the university president at the game.  He took the trouble to do so out of loyalty to a friend.  Later in his life, as Nixon’s vice president, Ford showed the same trait, supporting the president and trusting his word until the Watergate tapes proved his mendacity and shattered Ford’s confidence in him.  Ford even showed loyalty toward the current Bush administration’s war in Iraq, saying in July 2003 that the White House was “totally justified” in the conflict. 

In light of his apparent volte-face and in light of his loyalty and emphasis on positive traits, Ford’s unkind words toward Don Rumsfeld, his former chief of staff and defense secretary, and Dick Cheney, his erstwhile presidential assistant and chief of staff, were uncharacteristic and almost inexplicable, like a mystery that he left for the living to ponder and unravel. 

Certainly, Ford’s remarks reveal the depth of his disagreement with the Iraq War.  Ford abhorred war.  During World War II, he served in the navy aboard the light aircraft carrier U.S.S. Monterey, fighting in the Pacific.  He witnessed the horrors of war firsthand:  attacks from Japanese planes, a raging fire that nearly crippled the Monterey, and his own brush with death when typhoon winds almost swept him off the ship’s deck.  While Ford emerged from the war an ardent internationalist—which marked a break from his previous isolationism—he also felt chastened by war and determined to avoid it.

As president, Ford only sent U.S. troops in harm’s way once, in May 1975, to rescue the American merchant vessel Mayaguez and its 39 crewmembers after Cambodian pirates took them hostage.  The Cambodians freed the Americans, but 42 marines were killed in the operation, and Ford remarked, “This was a high toll, and I felt terrible about it.” 

But the Mayaguez mission was an exception.  During Ford’s presidency, the nation enjoyed peace, and in the third and final 1976 campaign debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford proudly proclaimed, “We are at peace—not a single young American is fighting or dying on any foreign soil….”  Ford placed a high premium on peace, and his aversion to bloodshed and military conflict may help to explain his objections to the Iraq War.

Perhaps the example of Eisenhower can elucidate Ford’s comments as well.  Ford admired the 34th president and even asked that his portrait adorn the Ford Cabinet Room.  In 2001, when a reporter asked Ford whom he considered the best president of the 20th century, his answer was Eisenhower.  There was a remarkable coincidence between the principles and policies of Ford and Eisenhower.  Both men were Midwesterners who were raised in frugal households and advocated economy in federal spending.  While both favored a strong defense, they supported a diversified civilian economy, unencumbered by a military-industrial complex.  Both favored an internationalist posture for America, including arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and “personal diplomacy” with the leaders of America’s allies.  Both passionately pursued peace. 

Some surviving members of the Eisenhower administration have expressed their dismay with the Iraq War.  In 2004 John Eisenhower, son of the president, broke party ranks to endorse Democratic nominee John Kerry, citing dissatisfaction with George W. Bush’s Iraq policy.  Dr. William Ewald, who worked as an Eisenhower speechwriter and helped the former president write his memoirs, believes that Eisenhower would never have gotten the U.S. involved in the Iraq War.  The former general was leery of trouble in the Middle East and condemned Britain, France, and Israel for attacking Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis. 

Later in 1956, in another of the world’s trouble spots, the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising, and Eisenhower refused to help the rebels despite their pleas, fearing the U.S. could get dragged into a large-scale conflict.  In words that seemed to echo Eisenhower’s thoughts, Ford said in his Washington Post interview that America should not “go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security."  This thinking put Ford in the “realist” realm of foreign policy, much different from the neo-conservative bent with which the Bush administration has been associated.

Importantly, Eisenhower also avoided the perilous path into Vietnam that his Oval Office successors took.  During the 1960s, when Eisenhower speechwriter Arthur Larson asked his old boss why he never sent ground troops into Vietnam, the former president just replied, “Nobody asked us.” 

That seemed a simple response, but it reflected a caution and restraint that Eisenhower practiced, as did Ford.  Inheriting the Oval Office at a time when members of Congress and the public expressed concern over an imperial presidency, Ford wielded presidential powers with moderation, which earned the respect of Capitol Hill.  He proposed no grandiose domestic spending programs, nor did he engage the country in ambitious overseas conflicts, especially ones that rested on a dubious rationale. 

Cheney, whom Ford described in the Washington Post interview as having become more “pugnacious” since the Ford administration, has been clear in his belief that the Bush White House should assert presidential power more forcefully.  These views partly stem from Cheney’s experience during the Ford years, and thereby may hang a tale.  While Ford emerged from the White House with more respect for the executive branch, he remained a man of the House.  As his helicopter left Washington after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, Ford asked the pilot to fly over Capitol Hill, and as he looked down at the dome, he remarked, “There’s my real home.”  Having served a quarter-century in Congress, Ford appreciated the role that Congress must play in making government policy.  Implicit in Cheney’s attitude is the view that Congress overpowered the presidency after Watergate, that future chief executives should avoid that pitfall.  Did Ford sense that the Bush administration sought the kind of imperial presidency that he found dangerous in Johnson and Nixon? 

For these reasons, perhaps, Ford decided to express his opposition to the Iraq War.  It was fitting that he trusted a reporter to guard his views in confidence.  And while Ford’s criticism of his administration alumni seemed surprising, it also reflected his values, for Cheney and Rumsfeld were the architects of a war that has created far more casualties than occurred during the Ford and Eisenhower presidencies and has required massive federal spending, which Ford and Eisenhower tried to restrain.  In short, it is a war that has assaulted the principles of both former presidents. 

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