The American freighter Mayaguez is captured by communist government forces in Cambodia, setting off an international incident. The U.S. response to the affair indicated that the wounds of the Vietnam War still ran deep.
On May 12, 1975, the U.S. freighter Mayaguez and its 39-man crew was captured by gunboats of the Cambodian navy. Cambodia had fallen to communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge, in April 1975. The Cambodian authorities imprisoned the American crew, pending an investigation of the ship and why it had sailed into waters claimed by Cambodia. The response of the United States government was quick. President Gerald Ford called the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez an “act of piracy” and promised swift action to rescue the captured Americans.
In part, Ford’s aggressive attitude to the incident was a by-product of the American failure in Vietnam. In January 1973, U.S. forces had withdrawn from South Vietnam, ending years of a bloody and inconclusive attempt to forestall communist rule of that nation. In the time since the U.S. withdrawal, a number of conservative politicians and intellectuals in the United States had begun to question America’s “credibility” in the international field, suggesting that the country’s loss of will in Vietnam now encouraged enemies around the world to challenge America with seeming impunity. The Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez appeared to be just such a challenge.
On May 14, President Ford ordered the bombing of the Cambodian port where the gunboats had come from and sent Marines to attack the island of Koh Tang, where the prisoners were being held. Unfortunately, the military action was probably unnecessary. The Cambodian government was already in the process of releasing the crew of the Mayaguez and the ship. Forty-one Americans died, most of them in an accidental explosion during the attack. Most Americans, however, cheered the action as evidence that the United States was once again willing to use military might to slap down potential enemies.