Crimes Against Humanity From Ford to Saddam


Now that both Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein are dead and buried, the question of how they will be remembered here in the United States arises. If the talk of officialdom and the mainstream media outlets thus far is any indicator-and surely it is-the U.S. collective memories of the two leaders will be diametrically opposed.

As one might expect, official Washington’s reactions to the two deaths have been as different as night and day, with Democrats following the White House lead in lockstep. 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 contract, 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. After all, 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, it turns out, reflects a double standard for judging similar conduct. If we do not limit our analysis of Ford to his role as a U.S. “statesman,” and instead examine his 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. The responsibility goes further than Ford’s now-well-known giving to Indonesia the proverbial green light to invade. What the green light metaphor obscures is just how decisive Ford’s authorization was, and how his complicity with Indonesia’s crimes continued throughout his brief White House occupancy.

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.” (1)

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.” (2) 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-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.” (3)

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. (4) 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.” (5)

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. 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, told an interviewer during 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. He went on to suggest that Jakarta had no other options apart from securing Washington’s compliance and to ask rhetorically, “where would have [Suharto] gone” had the Indonesian ruler not been not happy with the U.S. position? (6)

Nonetheless, Ford’s 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 Timor-Leste, as the now-independent country is officially known..

One week after the meeting in Jakarta, Ford sent Suharto a package of golf balls as “a personal gift.” (7) In the months that followed, his U.N. ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, prevented the United Nations from taking effective steps to compel Jakarta to end its illegal aggression. (8) 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 Timor.

In the 1990s, journalist Allan Nairn interviewed Gerald Ford and asked him if he had authorized the invasion, Ford replied, “Frankly, I don’t recall.” As Nairn recounted recently on Democracy Now!, Ford explained that there were many topics on the December 6, 1975 meeting agenda, and East Timor was one of the lesser items. (9)

While Ford had the luxury of forgetting-an example of what we might call imperial privilege-the people of East Timor are condemned to remember: they will live with the physical, social, and psychological effects of the horrific war and occupation for decades.

According to the 2006 UNDP report, 90 out of 1,000 children there 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 post-traumatic stress disorder. (10)

This is a legacy for which we should remember Gerald Ford, just as Saddam Hussein will justifiably be memorialized for his role in crimes against humanity.

JOSEPH NEVINS is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2002) and, most recently, A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005). His email is

(1) Quotes taken from William Burr and Michael L. Evans, eds., East Timor Revisited: Ford, Kissinger and the Indonesian Invasion, 1975­76, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 62, Document 1, December 6, 2001. Available online at

(2) Text of agreement reprinted in United States Congress, House of Representatives, “Human Right in East Timor and the Question of the Use of U.S. Equipment by the Indonesian Armed Forces,” Hearing before the Subcommittees on International Organizations and on Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Committee on International Relations, March 23, 1977, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977: 76.

(3) Address of President Gerald R. Ford at the University of Hawaii, December 7, 1975; available online at

(4) Chega!, Final Report of the Commission for Truth, Reception, and Reconciliation (CAVR) in East Timor, Dili, 2005; available online at

(5) United Nations Development Programme, The Path out of Poverty: Timor-Leste Human Development Report 2006, Dili, Timor-Leste: United Nations Development Programme, January 2006.

(6) Quoted in Allan Nairn, “Foreword,” in Constâncio Pinto and Matthew Jardine, East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance, Boston: South End Press, 1997: xiii-xiv.

(7) See Brad Simpson, “‘Illegally and Beautifully’: The United States, the Indonesian Invasion of East Timor and the International Community, 1974-76,” Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 3, August 2005: 281-315; available online at

(8) Daniel Moynihan (with Suzanne Weaver), A Dangerous Place, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978: 247. In the same statement, Moynihan boasts of blocking U.N. action to end Morocco’s illegal (and ongoing) occupation of the Western Sahara.

(9) See “President Gerald Ford Dies at 93; Supported Indonesian Invasion of East Timor that Killed 1/3 of Population,” Democracy Now!, December 27, 2007; transcript available at

(10) J. Modvig et al., “Torture and Trauma in Post-Conflict East Timor,” The Lancet, Vol. 356, Nov. 18, 2000: 1763.