Inheriting the end of the unpopular Vietnam War, former President Gerald R. Ford sought commonsense solutions to heal the nation. But Americans were cool toward his offers of amnesty to draft deserters and his pleas for millions in aid for the Vietnamese people.
As Saigon was about to fall in April 1975, Ford called the events there tragic. But he also told students at Tulane University that the fall of South Vietnam “portends neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.”
Some people, he said, believe the United States has failed if it does not succeed everywhere. “I reject such polarized thinking,” Ford said.
“We can and should help others to help themselves,” he said, reflecting an inclination, not shared with all Republicans and Democrats, to intervene abroad in the right circumstances.
Blending that view with his concept of self-reliance, Ford declared: “The fate of responsible men and women everywhere, in the final decision, rests in their own hands.”
Vietnam was hardly the only problem handed to Ford when he succeed Richard Nixon in August 1974.
A conviction to ‘heal the land’
The country was in turmoil over Vietnam and Watergate. Major cities and college campuses were beset with riots. “As president,” Ford recalled in a 1995 chat with grade-school children sponsored by Scholastic, the publishing company, “it was most important that I heal the land to restore public confidence in our government.”
“Healing America was the greatest accomplishment in my administration,” Ford said.
A month after becoming president, again in a healing frame of mind, he offered amnesty to American military deserters and draft dodgers who had fled the United States to avoid the war.
Ford had hoped amnesty would bring the torn country together, but many Americans who had served in Vietnam or lost relatives there were outraged. Hundreds of veterans sent medals earned in Vietnam and other wars to Ford as gifts of protest.
Two years after the United States quit the vastly unpopular war, Ford tried but failed to persuade Congress to provide $300 million in aid to try to rescue faltering South Vietnam from North Vietnam’s onslaught.
Appearing on a CNN series in 1997, Ford recalled the Paris Accords that Nixon reached with North Vietnam in January 1973, in which the North Vietnamese promised to remove all of their military from South Vietnam.
Saw failures from both sides
Regrettably, they violated that pledge, Ford said, and “equally unfortunately,” Congress refused to maintain South Vietnam’s military strength.
“The net result was, it was inevitable under those circumstances that Saigon would fall.” he said.
There, too, Ford discerned the “very adverse impact” Watergate had on getting Congress to cooperate.
Much as he had tried to put Nixon and Watergate behind, he also sought to encourage Americans to look beyond the disaster in Vietnam.
“America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam,” Ford said. “But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished.”
Evoking Abraham Lincoln, he said, “it was time to look forward to an agenda for the future, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
After Ford’s death, looking back on those troubled times, Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it was hard to remember how divided America was over Watergate, Vietnam and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon.
“He made unpopular but important decisions to keep this country together,” Durbin said. “That will be his legacy.”