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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    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    The article is not a bad as a general commentary, but this passage glares out like a blinding desert mirage:

    "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.." ??? !!

    Where has the author been the last few years, to have missed the sordid and utterly predictable and predicted unfolding of the greatest disaster in American foreign policy history, perpetrated, above all others, and with colossal arrogance and titanic ineptitude, by the
    crooked Cheney and the disgraced Rumsfeld?

    Ford's "tremendous loyalty" in waiting so long to make public his disapproval of these hypocrite chickenhawks' Iraq folly is utterly true to form. Far from "inexplicable," it is quintessential.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I do not endorse dogmatism, but let us not inconsistently and facilely close our eyes to the most dogmatic and stupid US foreign policy blunder in many decades, if not of all time.

    The tremendous disaster which the pitifully-failed invasion and occupation of Iraq has caused to America's national security, a result which Rumsfeld and Cheney (along with many others who assisted these ringleaders of the asinine "cakewalk") ought to have known was highly likely from the get-go, is now painfully obvious to any intelligent regular reader of daily newspaper headlines.

    One might wonder why Ford waited so long to criticize the outrageous and reckless wounding of America by the arrogant and incompetent Cheney and Rumsfeld but no sensible patriot can question the towering need for such criticism. Cheney, for crying out loud, is still in office, disgracing America to the whole world. Okay, he hasn't fibbed to any grand juries lately about hanky-pankying with interns. But don't forget what Truman said about heat and kitchens.

    The only thing "inexplicable" in this article is the author's timid attempt to imply that Gerald Ford might have viewed this national catastrophe, wrought by his former chiefs of staff, as being on a par with Lyndon Johnson's making snide remarks about his (Ford's) college football career.

    Someone less loyal, like a Scowcroft, might -and in fact did- speak up earlier about how Rummy and Cheney have needlessly and arrogantly helped to seriously damage America's security.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I fail, and utterly so, to see how calling a great and greatly obvious disaster a disaster means "inserting political bias," Mr. Rogers. Or how it can be "politically biased" to criticize someone for calling "inexplicable" a posthumously released declaration that a buck naked emperor is not wearing clothes.

    If a C- president, or his arrogant Sec of Defense, or his foul-mouthed VP, says that 2+2=5, is it "politically biased" to say they are wrong? Is there not such a thing as a politician making mistakes or being deceitful, or is everything any politician ever does ONLY judgeable in terms of whether one agrees with his political position or not? Is this some kind of PC feel-good BS that has infected you and Mr. Green here?

    You are on much more solid ground, I think, in talking about cowardice. I don't think it applies to Ford who (as the article appropriately notes) was a loyal soldier, not a chickenhawk hypocrite like W, Cheney, and Rummy, and whose "embargoing" of his views was thus most probably motiviated by loyalty and a sense of propriety, not by pitiful backside-covering. Cowardice does seem to apply to Woodward -in his first book on Iraq- and to author
    Mieczkowski, however, and it absolutely applies to most Congressional leaders of the Democratic Party who still haven't developed the guts of a lower order of nematode, and who remain unwilling to FINALLY admit their betrayal of America: by (1) giving obvious incompetency a gigantic blank check in 2002, and (2) failing to fess up to it since then.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    We are still not computing here, Mr. Green. I have not objected to the article failing to critique the Iraq diaster. That is obviously not the topic here.

    However, with a historic screw-up as monumental as Rummy and Cheney's in Iraq, there is absolutely nothing "inexplicable" about ANYBODY in the subsequent history of the universe calling it a "big mistake", as Ford did in his interview with Woodward. Period.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "Everyone I know thought, at the time, that [the] Vietnam war was a monumental screw up. History does not prove that judgment to be a good one."

    You have said stranger things here, but this is in the all-time upper rungs, N.

    Nevertheless, your larger point -about historic conclusions being being clearer in hindsight- does of course apply. For example, we don't yet for sure whether Bush's Iraq adventure will be "THE worst US-foreign policy decision ever taken" as the cover to Thomas Rick's book has it, or merely ONE of the worst.

    As a sober voice I heard on NPR recently put it, "we need to permanently jettison all talk of success" re Iraq. It is even harder to predict the future than to judge the historic significance of the recent past, but I think it likely that the spinners of the Bush administration have already abandoned any hope of success. Their strategy is more likely to be to try to pass the buck to the Democrats. Given the cowardice and foolishness of most Democrat leaders, this would be a politically clever approach. It does nothing to help America, of course, but who cares less about America than the Bush Administration? But you can ignore this, it is merely a theory of mine.

    Your conclusion, on the other hand, is anything but a theory: "none of the stated aims of the war, except the removal of Saddam, has thus far occurred and none seems even to be on the horizon, yet large numbers of people are dying for what appears to be no benefit for anyone other than thugs." I could hardly agree more. THAT is why I think it would indeed be "inexplicable" if Ford had disagreed with this obvious reality, or sought to protect the unworthy Rumsfeld and Cheny by remaining forever silent on such an important subject. It is not at all "inexplicable" that he gave Woodward the authority to release his criticism posthumously. Mieczkowski may be a wimp, or simply prone to hyperbole, I don't know, but his statement is as bizarre as when I first commented on it at the start of the discussion, nowithstanding people running around in circles in the rest of the thread to discuss all sorts of other things except the weird statement of Mieczkowski's about Ford's posthumous criticism being "inexplicable."

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "Perhaps, we should use this precious moment of civil war to declare victory, to fund all sides of that war and to withdraw our troops."

    I am very unfond of this "ism," but you are taking a truly imperialistic and cynical view of things, N.

    The problem, as Naill Ferguson is learning, is that America and "Empire" do not really fit together. And never really did. America may look like an empire, but Americans, in great contrast to Romans, Russians, Brits etc. of past centuries don't think of it being their destiny to rule lesser peoples. That was never a guiding value in America.

    America in general, and the Bushies in very strong particular, are basically incompetent at even a normal foreign policy, let alone the sophisticated divide and conquer approach you advocate. If we cut and run from Iraq, one side of the other will eventually win and their rule is guaranteed to be based heavily on hating America. Even without oil, a country based on hating American is not a good thing for us. If you want to live in a hated country, move to Israel.

    You'll have to find a more credible tangent from the discussion of Ford's views on Iraq.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "The Israelis are hated for existing, not for their behavior." ??

    Well to any non-hopelessly biased and half-informed person it is obviously a combination of both.

    But to people who live in worlds of white and black, like you N, and like the brainwashed Islamists you cower in fear of in your many posts here, this point is lost.

    But in your addictive desire to talk about how the whole world is really just the militant minority of Israel writ large, and doomed to be forever hated and assaulted by the Islamic bogeyman, you have now taken a tangent on your own tangent to the thread.

    Adios Amigo

    N. Friedman - 1/5/2007


    That is the dumbest thing you have written. Note that I indicated the main thing that drove the dispute in Israel, not the only thing.

    N. Friedman - 1/4/2007


    I was not recommending imperialism. I was not recommending conquering either. I was noting that Muslims inclined toward war might, after they have had it with killing each other, calm down, as occurred in response to the Mongol invasions, when the idea of conquering the world for Allah's glory became, at least for a short time, a millennial dream rather than public policy. And I was speculating.

    You do make a good point that the winner of fighting between Shi'a and Sunni might well hate us. But, then again, they might well hate us nonetheless, just for existing.

    In reading Bernard Lewis' classics The Muslim Discovery of Europe and The Emergence of Modern Turkey, you cannot help by be struck by just how much Islamic society hated its rivals - and over the course of more than a millennium. This is something that Lewis stresses again and again, whether he refers to Arabs, Persians or Turks. Lewis' evidence on this point is rather extraordinary.

    Now, if a more religious Middle East takes on the patterns of the theocracies that have traditionally controlled the Muslim regions, it is possible that the pattern of hatred will take its traditional course as well. And it might not depend on our behavior. This is something that is part of the culture, with likely roots in the religion.

    As for your comment about Israel, it is ahistorical nonsense. The Israelis are hated for existing, not for their behavior - except for their behavior of refusing to cave in to Jihad.

    Israel's main problem is that they it is not Muslim but is located on land that Muslims say must, forever, be Muslim ruled. That is the bottom line, most especially for the Islamists, such as the HAMAS. While there are grievances and some of them are even real, they pail compare to the religious objection, which is not possible to satisfy.

    And the religious opposition to Israel is now the party in power among Palestinian Arabs. So, I suggest you consider the issue as it is, not as the fantasy that comes out of The Guardian rag. As noted in the Sidney Morning Herald:

    Everyone I spoke to while visiting Israel recently hates the wall. One prominent Palestinian moderate, Khaled Abu Toameh, who once worked for the PLO and now writes for The Jerusalem Post, told me in Jerusalem: "The wall is a tragedy. The wall is bad. It is the direct result of Yasser Arafat's intifada. It will become the wailing wall for both sides. I'm not optimistic. Not at all."


    "Fatah is the mafia," Abu Toameh told me. "It is responsible for most of the anarchy on the West Bank. Fatah is a monster." Nor does he think much of Hamas, though he thinks it is much less corrupt, much more competent, and more pragmatic. He believes the West erred shockingly in trusting and subsiding Fatah and has now mishandled the transition to Hamas.

    "But on the Muslim side, the message has always been 'No', and 'No', and 'No'. They quote the Koran: God is on the side of the patient . . .


    The "no's" - which have their root in religion, not in pragmatism or Israeli behavior - have more to do with this matter than your theory. I might note that Prince Bandar holds the same view, as I have previously quoted him saying.

    N. Friedman - 1/4/2007


    Thank you for your ringer comment. My point is that notwithstanding the Vietnam war, the US prevailed, in the end, over the USSR and the communist movement. Which is to say, the Vietnam war may be - and I believe it to have been - a terrible blunder but the US ultimately triumphed, with Vietnam being a detour that, unfortunately, cost a lot of lives for no apparent benefit.

    With respect to the Islamic revival movement - which is the underlying issue at hand -, I really do not think we have seriously helped that movement by blundering into or within Iraq. That does not mean, by implication or otherwise, that I support the Iraq war or that I think we have helped ourselves.

    In any event, I do not define winning and losing in terms of their obtaining some new recruits - and that is, as you have noted, the case. Rather, the issue is whether they are any nearer to achieving their apparent ultimate aim, the restoration of Islamic power by reviving Islam as the preeminent religious, political and military force in the world.

    In the case of Iraq war, I do not see us prevailing in Iraq - at least not if the goals are those set forth by our political leaders. But, that does not mean that we have done anything that advances the goals of the Islamic revival movement. Rather, what we have done is create a civil war, the impact of which is very unclear.

    Again, I throw out the notion - and there is historical precedent during the time of the Mongol invasions into the Islamic regions - for consideration that the best way to end the Jihad is for Jihadists to have to fight most especially with each other. Not only might that focus attention away from us but it might reveal to ordinary Muslims just how stupid and destructive they are being. So, perhaps, we should use this precious moment of civil war to declare victory, to fund all sides of that war and to withdraw our troops.

    N. Friedman - 1/4/2007


    Have you read your own words? You write "with a historic screw-up as monumental as Rummy and Cheney's in Iraq ..." That is a judgment that simply cannot be made from an historical bent without some years to look back. Now, I happen to think you will prove correct to the extent that you say that they messed up, since things are not going as they themselves state they should be going.

    But, to take the matter as you have, as an "historic" and "monumental" anything is truly premature. You simply cannot know that at this point.

    By way of analogy, I and everyone I know thought, at the time, that Vietnam war was a monumental screw up. History does not prove that judgment to be a good one. Does it? Rather, what might perhaps be argued is that the Vietnam war likely did not help the US cause against the communist movement and the USSR.

    So, we should be careful throwing overblown analysis around. You would be better to argue that the Iraq war has thus far been disastrous, given that none of the stated aims of the war, except the removal of Saddam, has thus far occurred and none seems even to be on the horizon, yet large numbers of people are dying for what appears to be no benefit for anyone other than thugs. That makes the point more than well enough.

    N. Friedman - 1/2/2007


    I agree with the critique of your critique. Stating that the Iraq war is a disaster is an opinion, not a fact, and hence involves a bias. It may be an bias I share at least in part but that does not, no matter how I might see the matter, turn your bias or my bias into a fact.

    I might also note that while I tend to suspect that the Iraq war is a disaster, we are too near in time and too personally affected to quite sum it up neatly, as your formulas 'great and greatly obvious disaster' or 'greatest disaster in American foreign policy history' purport to do. It may turn out to be so or, like the Vietnam War, may not turn out to be the greatest blunder it seemed to be at the time. In any event, the Iraq war has a lot of competition in the 'worst' category.

    I note one possibility not considered - a latency, no doubt, but one that needs to be considered before making a judgment -. If personal Jihad turns into fitna (civil war) among Muslims, Muslims may conclude that Jihad is not the great thing promised by the religious revivalists. In that case, the dream of making the entire world Muslim might, as it did in the face of the Mongol invasions, become more of a millennial dream rather than something that Muslims are encouraged by their preachers to pursue.

    I am not saying that such will occur. I am merely saying that it is far from an impossibility so that it makes no sense to use terms such as 'worst' or the like, at least not yet.

    What I think is appropriate to say is that because the goals of the Bushites require (according to what they state) stability, they are not remotely succeeding; in fact, in such event, they are failing miserably. And, even then, such assumes that we are thinking relatively short term. Over the long term, it is not at all clear what the impact of the Bushites' war will be.

    Cary Fraser - 1/1/2007

    Given that Gerald Ford had to absorb the political costs of "cleaning up" the Vietnam mess left by his predecssors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the recognition that he might die before the current Iraq mess is cleaned up, it is perhaps logical that Ford would ask for the posthumous release of his views on the Iraq war and his erstwhile subordinates.
    What is striking about his comments is that, like his contemporary, Robert Byrd, Ford recognized the hubris that has now led to disaster. In the final analysis, both Ford and Byrd have shown greater wisdom than the current President, Vice President, and the former Secreatry of Defense - and for that they should be commended.

    Michael Green - 12/31/2006

    Mr. Clarke, it might or might not surprise you to know that my feelings about W and Cheney and Rumsfeld may be even stronger than yours. But that is not the point here. As should be obvious from reading it, the article was not designed as a critique of what I consider an even more disastrous set of actions than those which got the U.S. into Vietnam, and that is why I took the position I took--on this article.

    tom rogers - 12/30/2006

    Mr. Clark, I think Mr. Green's comment still stands. It seems as if you are wondering why the author of this article didn't insert your political bias into the story. Although I personally agree that Ford should have said something long before now, and IMHO was cowardly to wait so long(as a side note, I feel that woodward did a grave disservice to his readership with the first Bush book, and, I hope it's found out that Ford NEVER said the things Woodward attributes to Him) to chastise Cheney/Rummy, the author chose not to take that tack, which I admire.

    Michael Green - 12/29/2006

    Mr. Clarke might note that the author of the article about Gerald Ford used a couple of qualifiers and explained how it was "inexplicable" given Ford's earlier public statements and known sense of loyalty. Given that whether Ford's words were right or wrong can be debated, two things are unfortunate about the above comment. One is that the author of the article did not give his position either way on the Iraq war, nor did his article attempt to stake out a position. That was, as is obvious to any reader of the article, not the purpose. The other is that this article was an attempt to do what this website should do: discuss the interplay of past and present in an intelligent way, without resorting to the dogmatism that appears all too often here and elsewhere.