The Mayaguez Crisis by Christopher J. Lamb

In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

This understanding of presidential perspective is central to The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations (Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 284 pp., $66) by Christopher Lamb, who is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

In his book Lamb examines what U.S. leaders hoped to accomplish in their response to the Mayaguez crisis, and how those motivations influenced the manner in which the ensuing drama unfolded. He believes the motives for U.S. behavior have been widely mis-characterized and their significance misunderstood.

Often cited as the last battle of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Crisis began on May 12, 1975, less than two weeks after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, when Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant container ship carrying a crew of forty en route to Thailand, in international waters off the Cambodian coast.

In the first part of his book, Lamb lucidly provides details about the four-day crisis, highlighting the words and actions of the four principle players in the crisis: President Gerald Ford, in office nine months when the crisis started; Henry Kissinger, Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser; Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the only such international incident managed through the National Security Council, the reaction was swift. The U.S. bombed the Cambodian coast, sank several vessels leaving the Koh Tang island, and used Marines to invade that island where we believed the crew was being held. Twenty-three Air Force police and crew were killed in a helicopter crash in Thailand, fifteen Marines died in action on Tang, and three were listed as missing in action.

After that military action, the Cambodians returned the ship and crew returned safely, and the Ford Administration demonstrated resolve in the wake of the unsatisfying end of the Vietnam War. The action was widely seen as successful.

Lamb’s historical account is both gripping in its prose and masterful, as is his command of the information. However, his primary motivation is not documenting the events in the White House, but understanding why they unfolded in the manner that they did. Lamb is uniquely qualified to undertake this assignment as he is the author of Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaguez Crisis (1989), as well as many journal articles on the subject.

This analysis is accessible and thorough. The relatively brief text is backed up by more than fifty pages of notes. Lamb systematically reviews the potential motivations of the policy makers, which included:

  • a rescue mission, a use of coercive diplomacy against the Khmer Rouge
  • a use of military force to avoid a USS Pueblo-type prolonged hostage negotiation
  • an emotional catharsis in response to Vietnam, and
  • an effort to use the crisis to boost Ford’s reelection prospects.

Lamb shows that these reasons—even the rescue of the crew—all were secondary to the primary objective of Ford Administration policymakers: using overwhelming and rapid force to signal to North Korea and the international community the resolve of the United States.

Despite the agreement among leaders, the implementation of the policy was strained by a bureaucracy in which Kissinger exerted undue influence, and Schlesinger—who was chiefly responsible for saving the crew and preventing more deaths of Marines on Tang—was unfairly scapegoated for the loss of life.

Lamb suggests that this book is aimed primarily for the national security community, but I humbly disagree. This is an exemplary case study of crisis management that will be valuable for historians, analysts, political scientists, and anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

I give it my highest recommendation.

For more info and to order, go to bookstore.gpo.gov/products/mayaguez

–Daniel R. Hart