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What the obituaries overlooked about Gerald Ford

4 January 2007

By Clive Baldwin, MRG

Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Gerald Ford. Three former Presidents whose recent deaths have made for rich pickings in the obituary columns. After Pinochet’s death, the media set out in detail the crimes against humanity that he authorised. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein received the same treatment, with thorough descriptions of the horrific genocide of which he was accused. The obituaries provided a final chance to bear witness to their actions whilst in power, a last word on how they should be remembered. The fitting verdict: as criminals. But for Gerald Ford, who died on Tuesday, the writers seem to have got bored of bad guys. For America’s 34th President, who served a truncated term, there was only praise. Even the British media referred to him as a ‘healer.’ It’s a curious epitaph for the man who was deeply involved in one of the worst genocides of the last 50 years: East Timor.

On 7 December 1975, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Suharto of Indonesia ordered the invasion of East Timor. In the 24 year occupation that followed, almost 200 000 people, a third of the island’s population, died. On the scale of human tragedy, East Timor ranks with the massacres of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

So far away in distance and time, perhaps, although we must remember that East Timor’s liberation from occupation in 1999 only came at the cost of thousands more being displaced and 70% of infrastructure being destroyed. But who was President of America when Suharto attacked? Gerald Ford. In the last few years, documents have been released showing his involvement in the invasion. Last year, an official Commission found that US “political and military support were fundamental to the invasion and occupation of East Timor”. Suharto was considered a valuable US Cold War ally (and had come to power through the killing of thousands of supposed Communists). This was key to the relationship between the two men. The US’s own National Security Archives has released transcripts of a meeting that took place in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta on 6 December 1975 – the day before the invasion – whose three main participants were Ford, his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Suharto. Suharto informed Ford about his plans to attack. Ford’s reply was “we will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem you have and the intentions you have.” Kissinger emphasised they would prefer Suharto to wait till after the US President returned home, then carry on with his plans.

This endorsement of the invasion remains one of the most significant acts of Ford’s brief Presidency, and with the appalling consequences mentioned above. Yet in the British media, only the Daily Mirror thought it worthy of mention. The Guardian, on the other hand, devoted a leader “In Praise Of … President Ford” in which it stated that he was an “internationalist … a moderate … who did not flinch from necessary decisions”.

Did the obituary writers just forget about East Timor, or have so much else to say that this crime did not make the final edit? Why is this forgetfulness applied to Ford, and not to Pinochet or Hussein? It seems a selective amnesia; the fact is that many people in Europe and North America, and particularly our mainstream media, are still reluctant to acknowledge even the smallest involvement of our own leaders and officials in the most serious crimes. Instead, the American/European “problem” with genocide is so often described as one of failing to take action to stop the crime rather than any direct implication in it. Samantha Power has recently written an influential (and Pulitzer prize-winning) book on the United States and genocide. But even in this book East Timor warrants only one sentence with the description that the United States “looked away” during the genocide. It was rather more than that.

A leading expert on genocide, Greg Stanton, has described eight stages of the crime. The final stage is denial, and in this, our media colludes. We can only hope to prevent this crime of crimes against minorities when we understand how genocides begin, and the responsibility of those involved.

No doubt the obituaries of the ageing Kissinger and Suharto, the two other participants in the meeting on 6 December 1975, have already been penned. It remains to be seen whether either will be finally held to account for one of the worst acts in our lifetimes, or if the media will describe them as great statesmen as they pass into history.