It’s said Gerald Ford lost a presidential debate in 1976 when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” The conventional wisdom is that Ford mistakenly believed the USSR did not have those countries under its thumb. That’s not what I heard Ford saying.
Well, OK, he did say it. Look at the video and there he is, saying, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” in what has been described as a pivotal moment in the Oct. 5, 1976, debate.
I do remember moderator Max Frankel speaking for all of us when he interjected, paraphrasing now, “What the bejeebers …?”
But I also remember nodding in agreement with what Mr. Ford said in clarification:
“I don’t believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy, and their freedom.”
One might argue that Ford was on to something. It was only four short years later, for example, that the Solidarity trade union broke the communist stranglehold on the labor movement in Poland. It was only 13 years later that the Berlin wall fell, signaling the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union altogether.
Eastern Europe governments were indeed dominated by the Soviet Union, a brutal thug among nations, but Ford turned it around and pointed out that the people are not the government. Governments and politicos can bully and brutalize all they want, but justice is not achieved by brute force, and violence does not change minds.
Like all forms of tyranny, the Soviet government eventually collapsed because it could not keep the chains wrapped tightly enough around everyone, and the ideas of independence, autonomy and freedom are too big to be held back forever. In that sense, Ford’s words may have been a source of hope for the people of eastern Europe if his political adversaries weren’t so busy laughing at him.