Vol. 12, No. 1
Crimes Against Humanity From Ford to Saddam
From Ford to Saddam
Crimes Against Humanity
By Joseph Nevins
As one might expect, official Washington’s reactions to the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Gerald Ford have been as different as night and day, with Democrats following the White House lead in lockstep. President Bush called the former president a “great man,” while Representative Nancy Pelosi voiced respect for Ford’s “fair and reliable leadership.” By contrast, George Bush welcomed Hussein’s execution, characterizing it as “an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy,” and Senator Joseph Biden, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared with satisfaction that “Iraq has . . . rid the world of a tyrant.”
On the surface, it makes sense to judge the two men in such divergent ways. An Iraqi court convicted Hussein of a crime against humanity for ordering the deaths of 148 Shiite villagers in Dujail. While the court was of the kangaroo variety, there’s no doubt that the Dujail massacre was only one of many atrocities he oversaw while ruling Iraq. Gerald Ford, to the contrary, was never even indicted for any such crime.
But this distinction reflects a double standard for judging similar conduct. If we examine Ford’s behavior through an internationalist lens similar to that employed to judge Saddam Hussein and concerned with crimes against humanity, we find that Ford, too, was responsible for mass murder—in East Timor.
On Dec. 6, 1975, Ford and Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, were in Jakarta, Indonesia to meet the country’s dictator, General Suharto. Ford was fully cognizant of Indonesia’s plans to launch an imminent invasion of the former Portuguese Timor. According to declassified documents published by the Washington-based National Security Archive, Ford assured Suharto that with regard to East Timor, “[We] will not press you on the issue. We understand . . . the intentions you have.”
Suharto needed Washington’s go-ahead due to a 1958 agreement that prohibited Indonesia from using U.S.-origin weaponry, which made up 90 percent of Jakarta’s arsenal at the time, except for “legitimate national self-defense.” For this reason Kissinger suggested that the invasion be framed as self-defense, thus circumventing any legal obstacles.
Kissinger then expressed understanding for Indonesia’s “need to move quickly” and advised “that it would be better if it were done after we [he and Ford] returned [to the United States].” About 14 hours after their departure, Indonesian forces invaded neighboring East Timor.
While Indonesian troops massacred civilians during the first hours of the Dec. 7 invasion, Ford spoke at the University of Hawaii. There, he declared—apparently with a straight face—his commitment to a “Pacific doctrine of peace with all and hostility toward none,” and spoke of an Asia “where people are free from the threat of foreign aggression.”
Ford and his White House successors helped make sure that his lofty vision was not realized in occupation-ravaged East Timor. According to the now-independent country’s truth commission report, released late last year, Indonesia’s war and illegal occupation resulted in many tens of thousands of East Timorese deaths, widespread rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls, and, in the waning days of Jakarta’s presence, systematic destruction of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure. Today, East Timor is one of the world’s poorest countries. It is, according to a 2006 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, a country “chained by poverty.”
Over the almost 24 years of Indonesian rule, Democratic and Republican administrations alike provided invaluable diplomatic cover and billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, military equipment and training, and economic aid to Jakarta. The truth commission report characterizes U.S. assistance as “fundamental” to the invasion and occupation, and calls upon Washington to apologize and pay reparations to East Timor. Washington’s considerable share of the blame for East Timor’s plight does not rest solely at Ford’s feet. But it was Gerald Ford that opened the door to this dreadful chapter in history.
There is little doubt that Ford’s authorization was key to Indonesia’s invasion. Intelligence and diplomatic documents reveal that Jakarta was so worried about how the U.S. would react to its aggression that Suharto had vetoed earlier plans to invade. Had the United States (along with its allies, especially Australia and Britain) said “no” to Jakarta’s invasion prior to its launching, the Suharto regime would have been in a very difficult bind and most likely have reversed course. And, given the profound anti-communism of the regime, it could hardly have turned to the likes of the Soviet Union as an alternative.
As William Colby, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1975, said in the 1990s, if the United States had vetoed Indonesia’s plan to invade, “[w]e certainly would have had a little diplomatic strain there,” but nothing beyond that, the implication being that Jakarta would have backed down. Colby suggested that Jakarta had no other options apart from securing Washington’s compliance, asking rhetorically, “where would have [Suharto] gone” had the Indonesian ruler not been happy with the U.S. position?
One week after the meeting in Jakarta, Ford sent Suharto a package of golf balls as “a personal gift.” In the months that followed, his UN ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, prevented the United Nations from taking effective steps to compel Jakarta to end its illegal aggression. Later in 1976, Ford’s administration shipped a squadron of counterinsurgency OV-10 “Bronco” ground-attack planes to Indonesia.
In the 1990s, journalist Allan Nairn asked Gerald Ford if he had authorized the invasion. Ford replied, “Frankly, I don’t recall,” explaining that there were many topics on the December 6, 1975 meeting agenda, and East Timor was one of the lesser items. While Ford had the luxury of forgetting, the East Timorese are condemned to remember.
They will live with the physical, social, and psychological effects of the horrific war and occupation for decades. According to a 2006 UNDP report, 90 out of 1,000 East Timorese children die before their first birthday, half the population is illiterate, 64 percent suffers from food insecurity, half lack access to access to safe drinking water, and 40 percent live below the official poverty level of 55 cents a day. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims determined that about one-third of East Timor’s population suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder.
This is a legacy for which we should remember Gerald Ford, just Hussein will justifiably be memorialized for his role in crimes against humanity.
Joseph Nevins, a co-founder of ETAN, teaches at Vassar College. He is the author of A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, which is available from ETAN. A version of this article appeared in Counterpunch.