Ford Leads Nation Through Difficult Days of Watergate

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This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we tell about the administration of the thirty-eighth president of the United States, Gerald Ford.

Gerald Ford was sworn-in as president on August ninth, 1974. The day before, President Richard Nixon had announced that he would resign.

If he had not resigned, he probably would have been removed from office. A Congressional investigation had found evidence that Nixon violated the Constitutional rights of the American people during the Watergate case.

The new president spoke about Watergate, and what it meant to America, on the day he was sworn-in.

FORD: "Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. ... As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate -- more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars -- let us restore the 'Golden Rule' to our political process and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate."

Gerald Ford became the only president in American history to serve as vice president and president without being elected.

Richard Nixon nominated him for vice president in October, 1973. That was when Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned. When Nixon himself resigned, Ford became president.

Ford was a long-time Congressman from the state of Michigan. He was well-liked. He had been a good student and a good athlete. He studied economics and political science at the University of Michigan. The he studied law at Yale University. During World War Two, he served as a Navy officer in the Pacific battle area.

After the war, Ford entered politics. He was a member of the Republican Party. He was first elected to Congress in 1948. He won re-election twelve times. Other Republican members of the House of Representatives elected him minority leader during the presidential administration of Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

Ford was still minority leader when Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968. In his leadership position, he helped win approval of a number of Nixon's proposals. He became known for his strong loyalty to the president. It was no surprise, then, that Nixon named Ford vice president.

Gerald Ford became president suddenly. Almost as suddenly, he had to decide what to do about former President Nixon. After Nixon left office, he could have been charged with crimes for his part in the Watergate case. Instead, one month after Nixon resigned, President Ford settled the question. He pardoned Nixon of any crimes for which he might have been responsible.

The pardon made many Americans angry. Some believed Nixon should have been put on trial. They thought he might have answered more questions about Watergate if he had not been pardoned.

The new president did what he thought was right. He said he pardoned Nixon to end divisions in the country. For a while, however, his action seemed to increase the divisions.

Anger about the pardon was still strong when President Ford took another highly disputed action. He pardoned the men who illegally escaped military service in the Vietnam War. Most were not sent to prison. Instead, they were permitted to perform work for their communities. Many of the men did not accept the president's offer, however. They remained in hiding in the United States. Or they remained in other countries where they had fled.

President Ford received much better public support when he asked Congress to control and limit the activities of the nation's intelligence agencies. He hoped this would prevent future administrations from interfering with the Constitutional rights of citizens.

Other problems also caused trouble for President Ford. As vice president, he had described inflation as America's 'public enemy number one'. He proposed several measures to fight it. As president, he was forced to cancel some of these measures because there was an economic recession.

During the recession, inflation decreased. But fewer Americans had jobs. Unemployment in 1975 was at its highest rate since the great economic depression of the 1930s.

In foreign policy, Ford usually took the advice of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger served as President Nixon's assistant for national security and as secretary of state. He kept those jobs under President Ford.

Kissinger won much praise for his service to Richard Nixon. Yet he received much criticism, too. He was accused of interfering with civil liberties in the name of national security. And he was accused of supporting the overthrow of the leftist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.

Still, President Ford was pleased that Kissinger would remain in the administration. Even Kissinger's worst critics admitted that he was excellent negotiator.

At the time Ford became president, America's situation in the world was generally hopeful. Former President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had signed two agreements to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Also, relations with China were less tense than before.

However, American policy in parts of Southeast Asia had failed completely.

American involvement in the Vietnam war officially ended the year before Ford became president. But fighting continued between South Vietnam and communist forces from North Vietnam. The peace agreement signed by the United States and North Vietnam in 1973 left South Vietnam to defend itself. By 1975, it became clear that South Vietnamese forces were in danger of defeat.

President Ford tried to prevent a total communist take-over of the south. He asked Congress to approve seven hundred-million dollars in military aid for South Vietnam. The American people, however, were tired of paying for the war. Their representatives in Congress said no.

What happened in Vietnam was like a bad dream. Communist forces moved into Saigon, capital of the south. Ford ordered the rescue of American citizens and of Vietnamese who had supported American efforts. Few who saw people trying to escape Saigon will ever forget the day.

It was April thirtieth, 1975. Terrified Vietnamese were screaming for help at the American embassy. Everyone was pushing, trying to escape. Some who reached the embassy's roof passed their children forward. At least, they hoped, they could get the children to safety on American military helicopters. Others held on to the helicopters from the outside as the overloaded aircraft tried to take off.

The Ford administration also faced trouble in the Middle East. Israel and an alliance of Arab nations had fought two wars in about ten years. After the war of 1973, Henry Kissinger led negotiations to settle some issues.

Israel agreed to give up some of the territory it had seized during the fighting. In return, the United States made a promise. It would not recognize or deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization as long as the P-L-O failed to meet certain conditions. In September, 1975, Israel and Egypt signed a ceasefire agreement. They also agreed to permit American civilians to act as observers along the ceasefire lines.

Henry Kissinger received widespread praise for his peacemaking efforts. Yet the situation in the Middle East remained tense.

The Ford administration could not fix all the problems of the world. Still, as the presidential election campaign of 1976 began, things seemed better. The United States was not fighting any wars. Unemployment was high. But inflation had improved a little. Most important, Gerald Ford had led the country through the difficult days after Watergate.

The election will be our story next time.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.


Editor's Note: Gerald Ford died December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 93.