WASHINGTON – When the merchant ship Mayaguez and its American crew were seized by communist forces off the coast of Cambodia in 1975, the Ford administration was determined to craft a muscular response in hope of limiting damage to U.S. prestige, according to newly declassified documents published by the State Department.
U.S. Marines regained control of the ship three days after its seizure, and the 40 civilian members of the crew were safely returned. But three helicopters ferrying Marines to a nearby island defended by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces were lost to hostile fire, and 18 U.S. servicemen died. Decades later the U.S. was still recovering their remains.
Washington's initial response illustrated how, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, U.S. leaders were eager to put the Vietnam debacle behind them, erase the U.S. image as a helpless giant, and dissuade provocative action by other U.S. adversaries. A non-military response, such as freezing Cambodian assets, was raised and quickly rejected as ineffectual.
When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was informed of the ship's seizure May 12, he was flabbergasted.
"How can that be?" he asked an aide.
"Now, goddam it: We are not going to sit here and let an American merchant ship be captured at sea and let it go into the harbor without doing a bloody thing about it," Kissinger said. "We are going to protest."
Judging by their remarks, Kissinger and other senior administration officials seemed chiefly concerned that the United States, whose prestige had taken a beating in failing to stop a communist takeover of Vietnam, not allow the Cambodia incident to further undermine U.S. standing.
"I know you damned well cannot let Cambodia capture a ship a hundred miles at sea and do nothing," Kissinger said, according to declassified minutes of a May 12 meeting of his senior staff.
A few hours later, after informing President Gerald R. Ford, Kissinger suggested at a National Security Council meeting headed by Ford that the U.S. could seize a Cambodian ship on the high seas to demonstrate U.S. resolve.
"Can we find out where Cambodian ships are around the world?" he asked. Answer: the Pentagon wasn't sure there were any.
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller joined Kissinger in advocating a strong response to avoid the impression of U.S. weakness.
"I think this will be seen as a test case," Rockefeller said. "I think a violent response is in order. The world should know that we will act and that we will act quickly."
Later the vice president added: "We have to show that we will not tolerate this kind of thing. It is a pattern. If we do not respond violently, we will get nibbled to death."
The White House meeting transcripts show that Washington was unsure what motive lay behind the ship's seizure.
William Clements, the deputy secretary of defense, said at the May 12 National Security Council meeting that the incident might not be intended as a challenge to the U.S. but rather a misstep linked to a dispute over oil resources in the region.
"We should not forget that there is a real chance that this is an in-house spat," Clements said.
"That is interesting, but it does not solve our problem," Ford responded. He called for a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to head toward the scene and for plans to be drawn up for laying mines in the waters around the seized ship.
In the early hours of the crisis, top U.S. officials debated the tone and content of an initial public statement.
Donald H. Rumsfeld, the White House chief of staff who later that year became Ford's secretary of defense, suggested a public statement declaring the ship's seizure an act of piracy and saying the U.S. expects the crew's release. He argued against demanding their release — because, he said, that would "activate the Congress" and "seems weaker."
Robert T. Hartmann, counsellor to the president, told Ford at a National Security Council meeting on May 13: "This crisis, like the Cuban missile crisis, is the first real test of your leadership. What you decide is not as important as what the public perceives."
The documents portraying the Ford administration's response to the Mayaguez seizure are among thousands of pages of documents published Friday in a new State Department volume of "Foreign Relations of the United States," covering the period January 1973 to July 1975. It focuses on U.S. policy toward Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
State Department report at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2010/09/147900.htm