By David Kurlander
President Trump on Monday fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper over Twitter, following months of tensions over the Secretary’s public disagreement with Trump’s calls to send active-duty military troops to protests this past summer. Political commentators, sensing a larger score-settling, are speculating that FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel could be next. Trump’s axing of Esper is reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s dismissal of his first Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger. As with Trump, Ford’s move was a politicized attempt to reassert control over the national security community during a moment of particular weakness.
In 1979, political consultant Bob Shrum reflected on James Schlesinger’s decade as “one of the most rapid bureaucratic fast breaks in the history of government.” Schlesinger, a prickly Harvard-educated, pipe-smoking Doctor in Economics, had gone from a post at the Bureau of the Budget, to the Chairmanship at the Atomic Energy Commission, to the Director of the CIA, and, in 1973, to Nixon’s final Secretary of Defense. He stayed on after Nixon’s resignation, despite reservations from President Ford. “I respected his intellect, but I wasn’t sure how effective he would be in dealing with the Congress,” Ford wrote in his memoirs. “People on Capitol Hill often found him patronizing or arrogant.”
Ford’s first formal run-in with Schlesinger concerned the Secretary of Defense’s characterization of Nixon’s downfall. Shortly after Ford’s inauguration in August 1974, newspapers reported that Schlesinger had ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wary of coup-like moves by the disgraced Nixon during his final presidential moments, to double-check any presidential order with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Ford, suspicious that Schlesinger had self-servingly leaked the exaggerated narrative, chastised him: “‘Jim, I’m damn disturbed by these rumors about what was done in the Pentagon during the last days of the Nixon Administration. Obviously, they come from the top, and I want the situation straightened out right away.” When the leaks stopped, Ford was all-but-certain that Schlesinger had indeed been the source.
Tension built over the next six months as Schlesinger developed an open rivalry with Kissinger for Ford’s affections. “Schlesinger behaved as if he were the leader of the opposition to me in a parliamentary system,” Kissinger wrote in Years of Renewal, his memoir of the administration. Schlesinger’s condescending affect grated on Ford, who told Kissinger: “‘Jim’s fight is not with you but with me. He thinks I am stupid, and he believes you are running me, which he resents. This conflict will not end until I either fire Jim or make him believe he is running me.’”
Two foreign policy crises brought Ford to the brink. In April 1975, the Ford administration evacuated Americans from Saigon, effectively signaling the formal end of the Vietnam War and the tacit acceptance—after two brutal decades—of Communist victory. Ford asked Schlesinger to use American planes to ferry out South Vietnamese allies before the arrival of the Communist North. Schlesinger, wary of creating more chaos, instead, according to Ford, “ordered the flight of empty or near-empty planes in and out of Saigon—just to establish for the record, I suspected, that it would not be his fault if we failed to remove all our people.”
Days after the Fall of Saigon, the Communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. The next month, Khmer Navy gunboats took hostage 39 American seamen on the merchant ship Mayaguez. Ford—eager to show “proof of our resolve” in the midst of the Vietnam evacuation—ordered nearby forces, including aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea, to race toward Koh Tang, a heavily-patrolled Island where the Pentagon incorrectly believed the Khmer Navy was keeping the hostages. At the height of the incident, Ford ordered Schlesinger to approve four airstrikes from the carrier to the Cambodian mainland to push the government’s hand. Schlesinger told Ford that he had carried out the first strike, but never followed through on any of them.
Schlesinger’s passive-aggressive refusal was somewhat validated in retrospect. The hostages weren’t on the Island at all—they emerged on a Thai fishing boat nearby, having been released by the Khmer Rouge right as the American assault began. And using the ships that were providing cover to American forces on the island to deliver the strikes may have led to a far larger loss of life for the exposed soldiers. Still, the insubordination deeply stung Ford, who wrote, “It was a deliberate case, as I understand it, of not carrying out the order of the commander in chief.”
Ford didn’t fire Schlesinger, however, until two young aides, Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and his Deputy Dick Cheney, delivered to him a dramatic October 1975 memo. Cheney and Rumsfeld raised the specter that Ford could lose the 1976 Republican presidential primary to the ascendant former California Governor Ronald Reagan unless he addressed the “anarchy” in his administration. Cheney and Rumsfeld included a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” One of the “do’s”: “Fire someone visibly.” To show how serious they were about the recommendations, Cheney and Rumsfeld attached their own resignations in the event that Ford rejected their ideas out of hand.
Rumsfeld and Cheney’s gambit paid off. Within days, Ford—in what is colloquially known as the “Halloween Massacre”—asked for the resignation of CIA Director William Colby, pushed the too-liberal Vice President Nelson Rockefeller off of his reelection ticket, put Brent Scowcroft in as National Security Advisor (Kissinger had held the position in addition to Secretary of State), and, on November 2nd, 1975, fired Schlesinger and replaced him with none other than Donald Rumsfeld.
Bob Woodward eventually got the inside scoop on what transpired in the Oval Office during Schlesinger’s firing: “‘Jim,’ Ford said, ‘I’m anxious to get my own cabinet. I’d like to make some changes and it involves you.’ ‘Are you firing me?’ Schlesinger asked directly. ‘If you put it that way, yes,’ the president replied. Schlesinger got up and walked out before the president had a chance to make his case.”
In his own Ford book, When the Center Held, Rumsfeld suggested that the firings reinvigorated Ford for the primary contest with Reagan: “With a passion I had not seen before, [Ford] boomed, “I’m running. It will be a tough race, but I’m not going to pull a [Lyndon] Johnson and bow out. It will be bloody right down to the last gong if Reagan runs.’”
Trump’s purging of Esper (and the likely further firings to come) seem to be satisfying the same desire for control that pushed Ford to sack Schlesinger and reconfigure his national security team. But unlike Ford, Trump no longer has an election for which to prepare—he’s simply exercising power for power’s sake.
For more on the “Halloween Massacre,” check out historian Gilbert King’s excellent 2012 Smithsonian write-up. And for more on the various dynamics of the Ford administration, go directly to the source with the remarkable digital archives on the Gerald Ford Library site.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: