Samuel T. Livingston
Original, January 8, 2007, revised July 12, 2019.
An American President died last month; his death signaling the racial and ideological divides in America. Conservatives and whites generally mourned the man lauding his humility, moderation, and down-to-earth affability; Africans in America, generally, have been politely silent while the majority population grieves. This brief essay is an attempt to break the silent majority’s solemnity induced by rhetoric of not just absolution, but the valorization of a man that suborned civil war and mass murder. Conversely, the African Diaspora should find the will to speak out against the silenced murder of hundreds of thousands of their brothers and sisters.
Ford ruled for two years restoring a measure of respectability to the Oval office. That respect registered, primarily, among his constituency, the American silent majority. There was little in Ford’s government service that would garner the respect of African- and other Americans interested in a progressive agenda. In fact, Ford’s service in government was consistent with the worst of American Cold War chauvinism. Ford served in Congress from 1949 to 1973 establishing a middle of the road conservative track record and to some extent presaging contemporary conservatism. When an attempt to railroad Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. out of Congress was checked by the Supreme Court in 1967, Representative Ford opined that the Warren ruling was “an unfortunate transgression” on the powers of Congress. In addition to concurring with the attempted removal of the most prominent African American legislator at the time, Ford was an early proponent of limiting the high court’s ability to interpret the constitution in an activist manner. After all, he was ‘a Ford, not a Lincoln.’
History will record his pardon of Nixon’s fascist deeds, but even more relevant, Ford fully endorsed the American realpolitikof international racism in the mid-1970s. Most appalling was his hypocritical presidential foreign policy toward those struggling for freedom in the Southern parts of the globe. More precisely, Ford exemplified what Marimba Ani terms rhetorical ethic, a Eurocentric communication device intended to assuage and manufacture consent among members of the in-group, while simultaneously targeting cultural and racial “others” for exploitation, punishment and worse. Lest we assign too much blame and brilliance to Ford, let us understand, as Ani clearly demonstrates, that rhetorical ethic may be found in most Western thought since the Enlightenment. For example, after World War II, America put forward its best face toward the emerging democracies south of the Equator, with the Truman Doctrine, yet maintained a neo-colonial worldview and policy toward Asia, which we may generalize toward the rest of the Global South:
The political problems of Southeast Asia were to be solved in such a way as to enable the region “to fulfill its major function as a source of raw materials and a market for Japan and Western Europe,” the State Department explained in 1949.
Likewise, Ford, the “internationalist,” endorsed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, according rights to the struggling Slavs and other Eastern Europeans in Soviet bloc states, while abetting the violation of African and Asian life and liberty.
He stood ahead of the US intelligence and military communities as they actively aided and supported the brutally dictatorial Suharto government in Indonesia as it invaded the East Timor province. In a communiqué dated Dec. 6, 1975, Gen. Suharto raised the specter of the spread of the communist threat with the impending victory of North Viet Nam, and insurgencies in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Suharto claimed that the insurgencies had spread to Timor, and that an invasion was necessary. The record shows that Ford knew of invasion plans in July of 1975 and supported the dictator’s duplicitous claims of interest in “the security, tranquility and peace of Asia and the southern hemisphere.” The East Timorese, darker cousins of the Indonesians, sought a greater degree of autonomy and human rights; their movement was comprised of militants, and exceptional statesmen, such as Xanana Guzmao, who were more than willing to negotiate. Ford, saw no need in encouraging negotiations with such “insurgents.” When the Indonesian dictator requested rights to build an M-16 rifle factory in Indonesia, President Ford, responded, “We would be more than sympathetic, we would be enthusiastic about such a concept.” Gen. Suharto’s military invaded in American planes, fired bullets from guns made in America and eventually killed approximately 200,000 people, almost a third of the East Timorese population. As the ‘tanks rolled and the bodies stank,’ Ford endorsed the Helsinki Human Rights Accord on December 7, 1975 at a Pearl Harbor Day Memorial. This hypocrisy lingers in the air of American history. Ford and Secretary of state, Kissinger denied knowing of plans for the invasion, but history records him as an American president who saw Black and Brown human rights as no great obstacle to stemming the tide of global communism.
Ford’s African policies lead to even more deaths in the Southern hemisphere and to a little-known Black military victory over America’s proxy forces in Africa’s Southwest. By 1974, Angola made great strides toward overthrowing the Portuguese colonial regime. Three ethnically-aligned nationalist groups opposed the Portuguese: the Bakongo formed the ethnic populist FNLA, the Mbundu controlled the socialist MPLA, and the Ovimbundu composed the apolitical UNITA organization. The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) took the reigns of power in November of 1975 as the Portuguese ceased their claims on their rebellious colony. The FNLA and UNITA united in opposition. The United States’ major ally in Africa at the time, South Africa, saw an opportunity and funded Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in order to destroy a socialist and nationalist government accountable only to the African people of Angola and not foreign interests. Resources and access to the Atlantic Ocean were the stakes. Despite the foreign attempts at disruption, the MPLA government was gaining international traction as Sweden and Brazil recognized the communist government in 1975.
Ford’s support for the invasion of Angola by South Africa, and Zaire, and UNITA’s rebellion reveals much about the nature of American realpolitik and its retrograde inhumane ethics. The Ford administration and China–under an aging and politically waning Chairman Mao, concertedly, sought to crush the nationalist and socialist aspirations of the MPLA because the two world powers sought unfettered access to the mineral and material wealth of Central Africa. On June 27, 1975, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger discussed Angola. Despite all of the African death and destruction, President Ford revealed his grave concern for the white minority population in the country. He directed a racially-motivated line of questions at Director of Central Intelligence, Bill Colby: “What are the white areas in the borders of Angola;” “what is the white population;” and “Are these mostly white Portuguese?” Whether he was looking for allies in their effort to overthrow the MPLA or expressing concern for their safety is unclear as large portions of the document are redacted. Far from the Truman doctrine, which ostensibly supported the independence of formerly colonized states, the Ford-Kissinger team sought to crush any grandiose African dreams of autonomy. In fact, Ford, at Kissinger’s encouragement, seemed to strongly consider the dissolution of the Angolan state. Kissinger opined, “we might wish to encourage the disintegration of Angola,” to create a failed state like neighboring Zaire that would be wide open for capitalist exploitation.
In this 1975 episode, there is a degree of American-Chinese collusion against the African liberation struggle that deserves further research, especially in light of China’s African leg of its Belt and Road Initiative. In a conversation with Chinese Vice Premier, Teng Hsiao P’eng on December 3, 1975, Ford stated that the US was committing $35 million above what it had already given to UNITA and the FNLA. The Chinese Vice Premier stated that the investment was well worth it “Because that is a key position of strategic importance.” Ford concurred noting that “They have an important port; and their natural resources are vital.” Angola held large reserves of crude oil and minerals vital to western development. While Ford denied any knowledge of South Africa’s invasion of Angola, it is clear today that US intelligence was in the loop. The CIA and then the US
military armed, trained and propped up Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA adding fuel to Angola’s Civil War in 1975 just as it did the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo (Zaire), which in turn joined White supremacist South Africa’s failed invasion of Angola in 1978 and 1988 at Cuito Carnavale. The US role in Angola’s internecine war has the American executive’s bloody fingerprints all over it. One must recall that the Angolan civil war with its funding from the US lasted twenty -seven years (until 2002), inflicted upwards of 80,000 landmine casualties, displaced hundreds of thousands of Angolan people, and lead to over a million war deaths. Just as significant, Gerald Ford’s policies clearly stated to the world that American material demands outweighed the value of African lives, human dignity, and freedom.
This was Gerald Ford’s legacy – all in the name of anti-communism and securing mineral and oil rights. This was the Gerald Ford known to African and Asian cultural others -the rest of us. The American public is wont to ask the question of African, Arab and Asian peoples, ‘why do they hate us?’ The answer to this question, in part, is because this is a nation that forsakes historical memory and dearly mourns its leaders who preside over silent murders and mass killings muffled by cultural, political and geographic distance. The rest of us should not mourn Leslie Lynch King, Jr. a.k.a. Gerald R. Ford. To the contrary, we all must observe his death as another historical marker in the all too slow demise of the American rogue state.
Samuel T. Livingston, Ph. D.
Africana Studies Program
830 Westview Drive, SW
Atlanta, Georgia 30314
Noam Chomsky, “East Timor,” James Peck (ed.) The Chomsky Reader.(New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 304.