Thursday, November 03, 2011

Spy Games and Rust Belt Shame: Politics in the Ford Era

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the revelation of CIA abuses by the Senate Church Committee and the economic suffering in the so-called “Rust Belt” during the Ford presidency.

The new heavily Democratic Congress, elected in the wake of Watergate in 1974, believed it had won a mandate to reform government, and it focused on limiting what it saw as presidential powers run amuck. The Congress had already passed the War Powers Act while President Richard Nixon was still in office. More directly addressing the abuses of Watergate, the 93rd Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 that, in an attempt to limit the influence of special interests, allowed for the first time public financing of presidential campaigns. The Congress also amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 that placed limits on the size of political contributions in federal elections, put in place stricter requirements on candidates to report the source of their campaign funds and the details of their expenditures, and created the Federal Election Commission which was given the job of enforcing campaign finance laws.

These reforms suffered fatal flaws. Over the years, the FEC has been reluctant to enforce rules, and the limits on corporate, union and personal donations simply inspired the creation of so-called “third party” groups that operated under no limitations in fundraising and spending as long as they supported “positions” – like support of free trade – and not particular candidates. The Republican Party became particularly adept at creating so-called “PACs” or political action committees in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) that raised record amounts of money from big business to support Ronald Reagan and other right-of-center candidates in presidential elections.

Even as they tried to prevent future corruptions of the political process, Democrats uncovered past misdeeds. Already accustomed, after the Lyndon Johnson and Nixon administrations, to distrusting the government, the public received another round of shocks with the Church Committee Hearings in 1975. In late 1974, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, the man who had revealed the My Lai Massacre, reported that the CIA had illegally spied on American citizens. This prompted the U.S. Senate in 1975 to empanel an 11-member committee chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church that would investigate past abuses by the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service. The committee interviewed 800 witnesses, conducted 250 closed door “executive sessions” and held 21 public hearings over the next nine months.

The hearings revealed the CIA’s numerous assassination attempts against leaders perceived as American enemies, such as Cuban President Fidel Castro. In some of the attempts on Castro’s life, the agency worked with Mafia bosses angered that the communist dictator had shut down mob-controlled casinos and prostitution rings in Havana when he took power in 1959. Some of the attempts bordered on the comic, such as when the agency decided that Castro’s beard was the key to his charisma and tried to poison his cigars to make his facial hair fall out.

The committee also exposed the existence of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) in which undercover agents infiltrated protest groups such as the Black Panthers, and attempted to disrupt them through spreading false rumors about leaders and encouraging members to violate the law so the agency could justify a crackdown. Investigators further discovered that in the 1950s, the CIA had experimented with the use of the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), first developed in 1938 as a truth serum that could be used to get information from Soviet and other communist prisoners. The agency gave LSD to 1,000 soldiers without their knowledge in the 1950s.

In one case, Dr. Frank Olson, a civilian employee of the U.S. Army, unknowingly drank a potion that contained LSD. Olson panicked when he started exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia and in 1953 jumped from a ten-story window while awaiting treatment. Responding to reports that American soldiers captured by the North Koreans during the Korean War from 1950-1953 had been “brainwashed” into defecting, the CIA launched Project BLUEBIRD, experimenting on mental patients, who had not given informed consent, subjecting them to isolation, sleep deprivation, and repeated electro-shock sessions to see how prisoners of war might respond to such treatment.

Because so much of the testimony was classified and was heard in secret, the Church hearings did not have the impact of the Watergate or the impeachment hearings of the previous two years. Conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey denounced the investigations as unpatriotic and as undermining national defense. The murder of a CIA station chief, Richard Welch, in Greece December 23, 1975 increased the negative public reaction to the Church Committee. The panel released a two-foot-thick report, without the endorsement of Republican committee members, in May 1976. The hearings resulted in the creation of the Senate’s permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, charged with monitoring the actions of intelligence agencies, and also added to the sense of many Americans that the government was out of control and often acted as an enemy rather than a protector of ordinary citizens.


Seen as an accidental occupant of the White House, President Gerald Ford could not even count on the loyalty of his cabinet, which included many leftovers from the Nixon administration. On May 12, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces seized control of the American merchant ship, the S.S. Mayaguez. The Cambodian government held the 39-person crew hostage for 65 hours before Ford ordered a military rescue mission. The crew was safely removed, but at the cost of 41 American military deaths. Ford ordered Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to launch four air strikes against the Cambodians in retaliation. Schlesinger opposed the strikes, then lied to Ford and falsely claimed the first strike had been completed. Only after the incident did Ford find out that none of the strikes had taken place. Ford’s approval ratings shot up 11 percent after the costly rescue, but this political gain quickly faded. Even though Schlesinger was soon fired, the military chain of command had clearly broken down, even at the highest levels.

More harmful to Ford’s long-term prospects was a sinking economy. By 1974, American automakers were losing sales because of the availability of cheaper Japanese cars that recorded better gas mileage. The auto industry laid off about half its workforce that year, and the unemployed found few replacement jobs to match their experience and skills. America’s industrial dominance in the world was crumbling. Factories with a high-paid union work force in so-called “rust belt” states in the Northeast and Midwest shut down so owners could take advantage of the low wages in the so-called “Sun Belt” – the stretch of states from Georgia to California – where so-called “right-to-work” laws and police harassment had kept union membership at a minimum. Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Youngstown, Ohio; and Detroit, already crippled by corrupt local governments, urban uprisings and bad race relations, experienced high unemployment even as prices for consumer goods skyrocketed through the 1970s.

As Yanek Mieczkowski notes, the 1970s were the first decade since the Great Depression in which Americans lost wealth. A low point in the Ford years came in 1974 when inflation cracked double digits, hitting a painful 12.2 percent, the highest level that Americans had experienced since 1946. Americans who had rarely experienced significant price increases in the 1950s and 1960s underwent sticker shock. “Things went up not just a few cents, or gradually,” one Seattle woman complained, “but whole dollars and seemingly all at once.”

After Nixon ended the gold standard, the value of the dollar dropped versus other currencies. European and Japanese customers could buy American food for less, which drove up the price tag for groceries in the United States. The Russians had a series of bad harvests, driving them to buy more American commodities. A shortage of fuel supplies in America meant that farmers here could not harvest a large portion of their crops. Together, these factors resulted in the price of farm and food products increasing almost 8 percent during just the first month of the Ford presidency.

As under Nixon, inflation combined with high unemployment to further stagger Americans. Unemployment soared from 5.3 percent when Ford first took office in August 1974 to 8.3 percent a year later. The raw numbers did not reveal the intense suffering felt by many workers even with advanced degrees in this period, as documented by Mieczkowski: the Medieval History Ph.D. in Kansas working at a low-pay job at a Kansas real estate firm; a house cleaner in Boston who graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe; the University of California at Los Angeles graduate spraying insecticide for a living. Industrial workers with or without high school diplomas suffered more in an economy in which American manufacturing increasingly became a thing of the past.

Ford tried to curb inflation by encouraging Americans to voluntarily cut back on consumption. In imitation of the “Blue Eagle” National Recovery Administration logo during the New Deal, the administration released “WIN!” (“Whip Inflation Now!”) buttons and other products. His formerly warm relationship with the Congress grew bitter as he set a modern mark for presidents in exercising the veto to stop Democratic job bills and other economic stimulus programs he saw as too expensive and inflationary. Ford vetoed 66 bills during his two-and-a-half years as president, the fourth highest per-year average in American history. Congress was able to override only 18 of the vetoes, meaning that the government was often in gridlock during the economic crisis.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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