There are a lot of reasons to feel sorry for Gerald Ford (besides the fact that he’s now dead). He had to deal not only with the ghost of Richard Nixon, but also the slings, arrows, and bullets of Chevy Chase, Squeaky Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore, to name just a few. He had to pull the last Americans out of Vietnam (his diary says he met with guys named Cheney and Rumsfeld the day Saigon fell) and devote grand speeches to inflation, once advising Americans to “Clean your plate before you get up from the table.”
But despite his accidental rise to the presidency and brief stay there (thanks, in part, to one of the all-time presidential debate gaffes), Ford wasn’t just a pawn of history. He also helped to make it—in places like East Timor, where the Ford administration appears to have green-lighted the 1975 Indonesian invasion; the U.S. intelligence apparatus, which Ford restrained (for the time) from domestic spying and assassination; and Cambodia. The 1975 Mayaguez incident, in which the United States attacked Khmer Rouge outposts after they seized an American merchant ship, was the last U.S. military engagement in Southeast Asia.
Reading the minutes of Ford’s National Security Council meetings during the Mayaguez crisis, one gets a sense of his presidential style and the people around him: Donald Rumsfeld was, ironically, skeptical of the intelligence the president was getting, while Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ping-ponged between “I think a violent response is in order” and “We do not want a land war in Cambodia.”
One also gets the sense of time standing still when reading the minutes from the October 7, 1974 meeting, in which leaks to the media were on the president’s mind. “When I hear that the New York Times has more classified material than they can use,” the president said, “something has gone wrong.”