Like the Panay incident (1937) four decades earlier, the Mayaguez incident (1975) may be seen as a metaphor for the challenges facing American power at a certain time and place. The same amount of time now separates us from the Mayaguez as the Mayaguez was distant from the Panay. But in retrospect, just how distant?
Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, and a little less than a month after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, an American merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez, was seized in the South China Sea by Cambodian swift boats operating near the coast of Cambodia. The Mayaguez was neither transporting arms nor a spy ship; but the Cambodians laid claim to that portion of the South China Sea, and the Mayaguez and its crew were removed to a Cambodian offshore island.
In practical terms, this was not necessarily a significant event: The Mayaguez was a modest vessel with a crew of a few dozen merchant seamen, and American armed forces had already taken leave of Indochina. But the Ford administration had two compelling reasons to react swiftly and decisively. First, the Johnson administration had failed to respond in timely fashion when a naval vessel, the USS Pueblo, was seized in international waters by North Korea in early 1968, leading to a year-long hostage crisis. And second, from Gerald Ford's point of view, with the recent fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam--abetted, to some degree, by congressional refusal to assist the faltering Saigon government--American prestige was at stake. So the United States, drawing on its remaining military assets in the Pacific, proceeded to rescue the crewmen and their vessel, and succeeded, at the cost of 91 American servicemen killed or wounded.
Was the effort worth the price and trouble? By any reasonable measure it was, and Ford was correct to conclude that the illegal seizure of an American vessel, under such circumstances, was strategically intolerable. The New York Times and the Chinese government might have complained about American militarism--as, inevitably, they did--and congressional Democrats cited the new War Powers Act; but local residents (Japanese, Australian, South Korean, etc.) with some stake in American power were relieved and gratified. The recovery of the Mayaguez crew, and implicit punishment of the Khmer Rouge, was popular in the United States, and a shot in the arm to Ford's political fortunes. The upshot, however, was its revelation of a demoralized military establishment, tactical disorganization, and ambiguous chains of command in the White House and Pentagon. Ford lost confidence in his secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, and soon replaced him with 43-year-old Donald Rumsfeld.
It may also be said that the long journey toward rebuilding American armed forces, and American credibility in the wider world, after Vietnam began with the Mayaguez incident; and this authoritative study is a thorough and fair-minded assessment of the broad repercussions of that narrow episode. The United States appears to be at some kind of strategic crossroads today: invested reluctantly in Afghanistan and Iraq, unwilling to contemplate military action in an insurgent Middle East, debating the merits of defense spending. The Mayaguez Incident raises the question of whether some clarifying event--such as the Panay or Mayaguez--may be upon us.