History of the United States National Security Council 1974–77
President Ford assumed office at a very tense time for both American foreign relations and domestic politics. America's credibility in the world was imperiled by its humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, and the war there was shortly to come to an end with the annexation of America's ally South Vietnam by the North. In domestic politics, the scandal of Watergate had rocked the American political system and left widespread cynicism in the press and among the public about Washington. Ford, a conservative by nature, set out to preserve both Washington's standing at home, and America's abroad.
Ford's room for maneuver in foreign policy was decidedly limited, given the constraints placed on him by domestic politics following the effective loss of the Vietnam War. Nor did Ford desire to bring about decisive change in this field, as he was not a man of Wilsonian vision. Hence, he kept Henry A. Kissinger as both Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. 'I need you,' Ford told Kissinger. 'The country needs you'.
This move was much criticized as Ford suffered from claims throughout his entire term that he was inexperienced in foreign affairs. Opponents of Kissinger claimed that the latter would be the dominant influence on Ford's foreign policy, and his continuation in the dual roles was proof of this. In fact, Ford had accrued experience in foreign policy while serving on the Defence Appropriations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, and had been a committed internationalist since his time serving in the Pacific in World War II. He was largely in agreement with Kissinger on the important issues of American foreign policy, which was mostly in a reactive mode for most of Ford's tenure anyway.
Ford felt Kissinger was essential to provide continuity following the constitutional crisis of Watergate. Himself untarnished by the scandal, Kissinger was able to continue to serve his dual roles on the National Security Council. However, when Ford began to think about re-election in 1975, Kissinger quickly came to be seen as a political liability by the President Ford Committee, the group set up to seek Ford's re-election in 1976. When Ford had taken power, it appeared that one key to his success would be building upon the foreign policy successes of President Nixon, his predecessor. But by mid-1975 these seemed to have unravelled, with South Vietnam annexed, the policy of détente with the Soviet Union undermined by the latter's interventions in the Angolan Civil War and relations with China at a stand-still. Ford's political advisors were clamouring for a change.
Hence, there was a Cabinet shakeup on November 3, 1975, and Ford named Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger's deputy at the NSC, as National Security Advisor. This was largely a move for show. Scowcroft was the perfect neutral manager of the National Security Council, as he would be later under the first President Bush. He saw his job as to mediate between the various agencies represented at the Council and report the various policy options to the President. He managed a toned-down version of the Kissinger NSC system that was compatible with the Secretary of State's role as the President's chief foreign policy adviser. As such, this did not lead to any diminishing of Kissinger's importance in actual terms, as Ford continued to have faith in his abilities and opinions.
The defining moment of crisis for the NSC during Ford's tenure came during the Mayagüez incident. On May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces seized the merchant ship SS Mayagüez and the National Security Council met to consider the American response. Transcripts of the meetings show Kissinger arguing for a forceful response and winning out, claiming that the U.S. had to present a strong front to the new Communist regimes in Indochina. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller argued that if the U.S. did not respond forcefully to this event, then it risked being 'nibbled to death' by a series of small affronts. There was no serious dissension within the NSC on this issue, and a rescue attempt was duly launched by U.S. Marines.
- Gerald R. Ford, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford (London, 1979), 30
- This theme is repeated constantly in Mark J. Rozell, The Press and the Ford Presidency (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1992)
- Box 1, National Security Advisor: National Security Council Meeting File, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library