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First Flex of America’s Post-Vietnam Muscle

The spring of 1975 was a confusing and discouraging period for many Americans. Only a few months had elapsed since President Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace. In April Americans witnessed the ignominious withdrawal of their last personnel from Vietnam and Cambodia. As a world power, the United States appeared to be in a decline.

Into the midst of the momentous events occurring in Southeast Asia steamed an obscure and innocuous U.S.-flagged container vessel, the SS Mayaguez. Originally constructed in 1944, the old merchant ship was operated by Sea-Land Service on its Far East shuttle route, transporting commercial cargo containers between Hong Kong, Sattahip, Thailand, and Singapore. On May 12, 1975, Mayaguez was hijacked by armed gunboats that had been left behind in Cambodia by the U.S. Navy, and were now crewed by the infamous Khmer Rouge. Although at the time the ship was 60 miles from the coast of Cambodia, it was only eight miles off Poulo Wai, a small island claimed by Cambodia. The ship and its 39 American crew members were forcibly diverted to Koh Tang, an island off the coast that was, in itself, the subject of a territorial dispute between Cambodia and Vietnam.

The capture of Mayaguez by the Khmer Rouge touched off a crisis in Washington and resulted in a dramatic rescue mission carried out by the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force. Although successful in that it resulted in the recovery of both ship and crew, the mission resulted in the deaths of 41 servicemen, the majority of whom were killed in the crash of a single transport helicopter, and 50 others wounded. Nevertheless, at a critical moment the Mayaguez incident demonstrated to the nations of Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world, that the United States was still not to be trifled with.

The author of nine previous books on American interventions in Vietnam and Cambodia, Robert J. Mahoney goes far beyond simply recounting the events of the seizure and rescue in The Mayaguez Incident. Much of the book is concerned with the process of decision making that went on behind closed doors in both the White House and the Pentagon. The dramatis personae included President Gerald R. Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Secretary of State and National Security Council Chairman Henry Kissinger, Secretary of Defense Arthur Schlesinger, Assistant Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, and Central Intelligence Agency chairman William Colby.

Although the Mayaguez incident has often been dismissed as a minor event, it had a significant effect on the way the White House, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the Armed Services interact in a crisis. It was the first occasion in which a president invoked the War Powers Act, which had only been passed two years before.

The rescue was a combined operation, carried out at short notice by several different branches of the military service. Those who planned the actual operation had only sketchy intelligence to work with, and it was carried out utilizing only the limited military resources that were immediately available in the region. The author carefully explains how the chain of command was set up during the mid-1970s, the ways in which it worked well, as well as those in which it broke down. He also describes the lessons that were learned from the Mayaguez ex­peri­ence, and the procedural changes that have been implemented since then. The Mayaguez Incident is a fascinating study of an episode that proved to be pivotal in the way that the executive branch of the government deals with sudden crises.

Texas Tech University Press, 2010