uring the same week that former U.S. president Gerald
Ford passed away, Iraqi authorities executed Saddam Hussein. As one might expect,
official Washington's reactions to the two events were radically different.
President Bush expressed sadness in the wake of Ford's death, calling
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, incoming 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.
After all, an Iraqi court convicted Hussein of a crime against humanity for
ordering the killing of 148 Shi'ite villagers, only one of many atrocities he
oversaw while ruling Iraq. Gerald Ford, to the contrary, was never even indicted
for any such crime. But it turns out that this distinction reflects a double
standard for judging similar conduct. Ford, too, was responsible for mass murder
in East Timor and basic justice and honesty demands that he be
remembered for it.
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 green light due to a 1958 agreement that prohibited
Indonesia from using U.S.-origin weaponry, which made up 90% of Jakarta's
arsenal, 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 forces massacred civilians during the first hours of the Dec.
7 invasion, Ford spoke at the University of Hawaii. There, he declared 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
Ford and his White House successors helped make sure that his lofty vision
was not realized in Indonesia-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
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. For
such reasons 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. His administration had previously warned Indonesia against
using American weaponry in any planned aggression. But any reservations that
the administration may have had about the employment of U.S. weaponry seem to
have disappeared by Dec. 6, 1975, with horrific results for the people of East
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 U.N.
ambassador prevented the United Nations from taking effective steps to compel
Jakarta to end its aggression. Later in 1976, Ford's administration shipped
a squadron of U.S. OV-10 "Bronco" ground-attack planes to Indonesia's
military, ones ideal for counterinsurgency of the type it was waging in East
We in the United States, and people throughout the world, should make these
events a central part of our collective memory of Ford's presidency for
the sake of the victims and the rule of law just as Saddam Hussein will
justifiably be remembered for his role in crimes against humanity.