'No Point In Being Bitter'

Bob Woodward and Christine Parthemore
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Upon becoming president in August 1974, Gerald R. Ford faced the task of ending a war -- a war not of his own making. In two wide-ranging interviews with Ford conducted in 2004 and 2005 by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Christine Parthemore, the former president revealed the depths of his disillusionment and frustration during the final years and months of the Vietnam War. The interviews, excerpted below, were granted on the condition that they not be made public until Ford's death.

***Bob Woodward : [Vietnam] is the big master problem you got handed.

Gerald R. Ford: My approach was, we inherited the problem with the job. It's my obligation on behalf of the country to try and solve the damn thing.

You know, there was a fundamental mistake made back after World War II, when the French had committed to support the Vietnamese. In fact, I went down to Saigon [in 1953]. . . . I wanted to find out why we're going to spend a lot of money in South Vietnam on behalf of the South Vietnamese. I was in Saigon, stayed at the ambassador's residence, and I went over to the French military headquarters, and boy, all these French generals and colonels were dressed up here out in Saigon and telling me how they were gonna win the war against the [North] Vietnamese.

Well, it sounded good on paper, and they ought to know more than I did. Well, in about six months the French got the hell kicked out of them in Dien Bien Phu. . . . The point is, we were on the wrong side of the locals. We made the same mistake that the French did, except we got deeper and deeper in the war. We could have avoided the whole darn Vietnam War if somebody in the Department of Defense or State had said, "Look here. Do we want to inherit the French mess?"

What do you think about Vietnam in retrospect? Digging very deeply, what was the mistake? I don't know that you ever looked at [Defense Secretary Robert S.] McNamara's book "In Retrospect," but he says we were wrong, terribly wrong.

I know, and that used to bother me, because if we were wrong, why did he participate? I used to sit in the Congress and hear him testify to support the [Lyndon B.] Johnson commitment of 250,000, or whatever it was, U.S. personnel, and he never backed off until he got out.*

* *How do you feel about it now? Ten years later, you were the president of the United States who had to eat that national humiliation.

It was a combination of following the recommendations of top people in the executive branch and the feeling that we got involved in this, we better finish it. So it was not a pleasant decision over that long 10-year period to try and rationalize it. I don't think I ever adequately did.

Did you ever, as president, during that period, particularly April '75 during the evacuation, wake up in the morning and say, "What happened here? How did I get dealt this mess? "

I couldn't help but wonder that, but we had a plan, or at least it was on paper a plan. . . . In retrospect, you wonder how unwise you were. In retrospect, if you could sit there and see in reality, I would hope you would do it differently, but we went along. And we finally had to concede that the South Vietnamese were inadequate to solve the problem.

But if you look at the memos internally in the Johnson administration, '65, '66, '67, they are saying to themselves: The South Vietnamese are corrupt, terrible. We bet on the wrong horse here.

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