One post-script from last night’s show: You may have noticed that during our first segment on the Vietnam War – and the efforts by President Gerald Ford to get U.S. troops back into the Vietnam War in 1975 – we featured some images from what was a nearly unprecedented meeting inside the White House Cabinet Room.
In April 1975, President Ford – with South Vietnam about to fall – asked the United States Congress for $722 million in military aid to essentially continue that war, to prop up South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese communists threatened to overrun Saigon. When President Ford asked for that funding in April 1975, the U.S. combat mission in Vietnam had already been over for about two years. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, facing the prospect of re-opening that war, demanded a face-to-face discussion with President Ford at the White House. That hastily arranged meeting took place on April 14, 1975. It was the first time that a U.S. President had met with the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee since Woodrow Wilson did it in 1919. Part of what we know about what happened there that day comes from minutes of the meeting published by the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Those minutes include the dramatic moment when New York Senator Jacob Javits tells President Ford, “I will give you large sums for evacuation, but not one nickel for military aid.”
The Ford Library and Museum has also published extraordinary photographs from inside that meeting. The images unfold in a series of four photo contact sheets (1, 2, 3, 4) from the film shot by Gerald Ford’s White House photographers.
The pictures show members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rising to their feet as President Ford enters the room, as well as Ford and his advisers, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fielding questions from the committee’s members, including a first-term Democratic senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.
One of the other members of the committee sitting around the table in the Cabinet Room that day was Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who led the effort in Congress to end the Vietnam War. McGovern died in October 2012, and in delivering his eulogy, Vice President Biden recounted that meeting inside the White House. In the hours before that confrontation, Biden said, the White House sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger up to Capitol Hill to meet with an executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to talk about the Administration’s plans for Vietnam. That meeting with Henry Kissinger led the Foreign Relations Committee to demand to see the President face-to-face that same day. Biden told the memorial service about entering the Cabinet Room with Senator McGovern:
As we were walking in, your father turned to me and said, “I like you.”
The irony of all ironies – and I’m taking too much of your time, I apologize – the irony of all ironies is the chair I sit in now as Vice President of the United States is the chair that’s directly across from the President. The President sits in the middle of that conference table facing inward, and I sit in the middle facing towards the Rose Garden. But based on seniority, you get seated when you attend a Cabinet meeting – if it’s not the Cabinet itself – and the most junior member sits where the Vice President sits.
So I was sitting there. And everyone asked their questions, and again your dad was so fed up, he didn’t really ask anything, he didn’t, he just, everybody knew. And it got to me and I remember – and I’ll never forget how nervous I was – and I looked at President Ford and I said, trying to be very proper, I said, “Begging the President’s pardon, but I’m sure if the President were in my position, the President would ask the President the following question.” I swear to God, it’s in the transcript. And Ford looked at me very graciously and he said, “Yeah?” I said, “With all due respect, Mr. President, you haven’t told us anything.”
They were talking about Sector 1, Sector 2, Sector 3, and with that the President turned and said, “Henry, tell them.” And that was the first time it was decided that we were not going to try to sustain our presence.
You can watch the full video on C-SPAN. The part from Biden starts at about 13:20.