The University Record, March 13, 2000

Files from Ford presidency declassified; available April 7

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Twenty-five years ago this month, a Secret/Sensitive memo, “Ominous Developments in Vietnam,” went to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Over the next few weeks, edgy cables shot between Washington and U.S. embassies in Cambodia and South Vietnam. Initially concerned about diplomacy and combat, the cables eventually gave way to arguments over when, how and who to evacuate from South Vietnam’s encircled capital.

In time, Kissinger ordered Ambassador John Gunther Dean in Phnom Penh “to evacuate without delay. . . You should not—repeat not—call for Eagle Pull Phase III [the most drastic evacuation option] unless in your judgment there is no other way to protect American lives.” Within hours, Dean did in fact call for Eagle Pull III, “at first light Saturday, April 12.”

Two weeks later, April 30, 1975, a reluctant Ambassador Graham Martin was plucked by helicopter from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. America’s long and tumultuous involvement in Indochina was at an end. For Gerald Ford, it was “the saddest day of my presidency.”

A quarter century later, the Ford Presidential Library will release these cables and nearly 30,000 other pages of newly declassified material on April 7—the same day Ford hosts a conference titled “After the Fall: Vietnam Plus Twenty-Five,” co-sponsored by the Ford Library and the U-M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Most of the documents to be made available April 7 are from the White House offices of national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft or from the files of National Security Council staff. Included are President Ford’s “Country Files” for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; a “Backchannel” collection of especially sensitive messages; and “Memcons,” transcript-like memoranda of high-level conversations. In addition, the Ford Library will open a large collection of political and military intelligence field reports dating to 1967.

The declassified documents also carry forward the Indochina story. Within months of war’s end, a memo to Kissinger noted a surprising regional stability: “What is most noteworthy is that countries like Malaysia, Australia, and Singapore seem to be turning to us more than before. . . . I suppose one might term it the ‘reverse domino’ effect as countries that felt safe now begin to wonder.”

On the other hand, not all the news from Southeast Asia was positive. A full year after the evacuations, Ford received a chilling 28-page report on “Life Inside Cambodia,” based on refugee interviews and intelligence sources.

The document release, a boon to scholars, journalists and others interested in America’s Indochina policies, was made possible by new rules on declassification and major assistance from agencies including the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency (which controls the classification of an estimated 30 percent of the Library’s Vietnam documents) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA has declassified radio messages from helicopter pilots shuttling to and from the Saigon embassy.

“Twenty-five years after the fact, I still regard April 1975 as the cruelest month indeed,” Ford says. “Painful as this chapter in our history may be, we must never forget it, or its long-range meaning for future policymakers. I am delighted that the Ford Library has made such a concerted effort to share its documentary treasures with the public, and I am grateful to all those in Washington and elsewhere who have expedited the release of this vital historical information.”

The Gerald R. Ford Library is part of the presidential libraries system administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. It is located at 1000 Beal Ave. on North Campus, and open 8:45 a.m.–4:45 p.m., Monday–Friday. It is closed on weekends and federal holidays. For more information, visit the Web at www.ford.utexas.edu.