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'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.

Well, if that's the way they felt, why in the hell didn't they go to the public? They never related that to us.*

* *When [Richard M.] Nixon came in, in '69, and took over as president, took over the war, did you ever have any conversations with him or [Henry] Kissinger about what to do, or how to -- or your old friend [Melvin] Laird, who was defense secretary? . . . Even Nixon was saying we were gonna get out. He always said, "Peace with honor. "

He was obsessed with that phraseology.

What did it mean ?

That we had saved Vietnam from becoming communist. That was his goal, superficially, and that's what he kept emphasizing. And we're preventing the domino theory from taking place in Asia. Well, the domino theory never really materialized. . . . Nixon really believed that, that it won't take place if we stayed firm. . . .

I hope we never live through another era like that in American history. The answers were very evasive. The results were very disillusioning.*

* *What's the big lesson from all of this? What's the big lesson from the broadest history ?

Well, I've often thought about that, Bob, based on my 30 years in government in very difficult times. We have to assume that we are the most powerful nation in the world militarily, and that we have some obligations on behalf of democracies worldwide. But I don't think we can force democracy on people or a nation that aren't prepared for it. But that doesn't mean we should go to war to change their mind. We believe in democracy and we think it's the right policy. We had a standoff with the Soviet Union, but we never went to war with the Soviet Union for other good and sufficient reasons, economic and so forth. That ill-fated system failed. . . .

I'm often asked . . . does the president today have a tougher job than you and [Ronald] Reagan had about our enemies? I said I think Reagan and I and [Jimmy] Carter, we had a relatively simple problem. That sounds kind of silly, but we had one enemy. We knew what their military capabilities were. They knew generally what our capabilities were. And we had a standoff for 40 years. The present situation where you have these renegade governments on a global basis in this part of the world and that part of the world, they're a different kind of enemy. And I don't envy the present president, whoever it might be, having to combat that circumstance.

What did [Donald H.] Rumsfeld think of Vietnam? Do you recall any input from him ?

Don was never vocal in his support or criticism. . . . Don never got off the track, as far as I remember. He was not a critic. He just followed good, what his boss thought was good policy.*

* *You could have been very bitter about [Vietnam], and you weren't at all.

Well, I'm not a bitter person. . . . There's no point in being bitter about it. Just change the policy.I

tried to justify what happened. I tried to justify what we were doing about it. But I never -- the Vietnam War, in my opinion, should not have been in the '76 campaign. That was an event that took place and it was over. There should not be a place where they said, "You were wrong, you're responsible." We had plenty of other problems that had to be solved. You know, we ended Vietnam and I think reasonably successfully, but we had a terrible economic circumstance. We had high inflation, high interest rates, the economy was sluggish. I tell you, it was a mess.

But no bitterness ?

No, I don't carry grudges.

You said it was the saddest day of your presidency when all the helicopters were --

I did, when they left the embassy in Saigon. Oh, to see those helicopters go out, come back, go out and come back. We saved the lives of not only our U.S. military personnel, our U.S. civilian personnel, but on my personal orders, saved the lives of South Vietnamese who had supported us, contrary to [Defense Secretary] Jim Schlesinger, who wanted to let everybody go to hell.

You saved some lives. You could have saved more if there would have been more time.

That's right.

I think at one point Kissinger said, "If we had another week we could have saved 12,000 more."

Oh, at least I think, . . . Well, if you see pictures of that mob in the area of the embassy, you know there were a lot of people that never made it, and if they didn't make it they probably lost their lives under the North Vietnamese.

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