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Ford Era Represented Important Transition Period for US Africa Policy

Former US President Gerald Ford, who will be buried today in his home state of Michigan, led Americans through an important transition period in US Africa foreign policy. His administration’s approach to Southern Africa, especially toward the apartheid regime in South Africa and the long civil war in Angola, produced a sharp debate in the US Congress, particularly as Americans started abandoning the notion of viewing foreign policy towards the developing world in strictly Cold War terms. Veteran Angola-watcher Gerald Bender is Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Southern California. He says that President Ford’s role in all of this, although well-intentioned, was overshadowed by his highly active Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

“He was an extremely decent person, and according to my friends who attended meetings that he had in the White House with Africans, African leaders were very responsive and positive about him as a person. The problem was the US policy, and that was not him. That was Henry Kissinger, who was a true cold warrior in Africa.”

Congressman and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, who was appointed Vice President in 1973, became America’s 38th President in August of 1974, after the resignation of Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation. Ford was the only US Chief Executive never elected to the Presidency. He retained Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State as Kissinger was deeply involved in negotiations on the Middle East and on ending the Vietnam War. Professor Bender says that President Ford and his Secretary of State continued to view meeting the dangers of African trouble spots as opportunities to contain Soviet and Communist advancement.

“In Angola, Kissinger was backing the FNLA and UNITA and I don’t think Ford knew very much about it, but he took a strong position. They did not see the South African intervention into Angola as a problem because they (the South Africans) were ‘Africans’ and the Cubans were outside. But the fact was that the entire world saw the Cubans coming in to stop the white racists’ incursion, and as a result, the Cubans prevailed. The great irony was that the US administration thought that a country like Cuba could dominate. But it was another misperception about Africa that an outside power could come in and dominate. Neither the Russians, nor the Americans, nor the Cubans were ever able to dominate,” says Bender.

Bender argues that the Ford Administration’s resolve in viewing Angola’s civil war in Cold War terms provoked Congress to raise tough questions about US involvement in the war. He recalls that CIA director William Colby testified it did not matter one way or another to US interests in the region who won the Angola fight. The Angola debate also resulted in passage in 1976 of the so-called Clark Amendment, in which Congress voted to curb US participation in arming warring sides in Angola.

“Lots of members of Congress, both in the Senate and in the Congress, asked themselves, ‘So why are we involved in the war?’ The problem was that the US never knew what to do about South Africa, and it tended to go along with the South African apartheid administration, speaking words that sounded good but had no policies that made any difference,” Bender said.

With US hopes still strong today that developing countries abandoning their colonial pasts will adopt democratic systems of government, the passing of Gerald Ford provided an interesting opportunity to inquire if African leaders during the Ford Administration were concerned about US credibility in dealing with an American President who had not been elected into office.

“At the time, Kissinger dominated the foreign policy so much that I don’t think many Africans looked to Ford as an elected or non-elected President as something important…until today. I think that that’s the way that era has to be viewed,” he said.