The May 12-15, 1975, Mayaguez incident was the “last chapter of the United States’ military involvement in Indochina,” Robert J. Mahoney notes in The Mayaguez Incident: Testing America’s Resolve in the Post-Vietnam Era (Texas Tech, 336 pp., $39.95). The book is a detailed, multifaceted, and creditable account of what happened off the coast of Cambodia just days after the end of the Vietnam War.
What happened was that Khmer Rouge forces, using captured American swift boats, seized the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship, in international waters. That left President Gerald Ford with a very difficult choice: Use force or negotiate?
Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, never one to shy away from putting U.S. troops in harm’s way, leaned toward force. As Kissinger put it in the first high-level meeting after the seizure: “I know you damned well cannot let Cambodia capture a ship a hundred miles at sea and do nothing.”
Mahoney, a retired Army colonel who is dean of academics and deputy director of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia, looks at what the Ford administration did during the four-day crisis in almost hour-by-hour detail. Mahoney examines the strategic and tactical aspects of the military action that President Ford and his advisers undertook, as well as the international implications and domestic political ramifications of sending in the Marines (backed up by Navy and Air Force units).
Two conclusions: “It was largely due to good fortune that the crew of the Mayaguez was rescued at all and not unwittingly killed by U.S. forces. In addition, the Marine force that landed on Koh Tang [Island, where the crew was believed to have been held] came dangerously close to being overrun and annihilated.”
The author’s website is www.mayaguezincident.com