486. Letter From the Ambassador in Thailand (Johnson) to the Director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs (Kocher)1
Dear Eric: I regret the delay in replying to your letter of April 213 asking me to comment on the internal security program in Thailand, and referring in particular to Ambassador Bishop’s letter of December 12, 1957,4 on this subject. However, it is a subject of such fundamental importance that I Wanted fully to discuss it with all those concerned in the Embassy, as well as carefully to formulate my own thinking on the subject.
With some updating, which is done in the enclosed paper,5 I generally agree with the Status Report enclosed with Ambassador Bishop’s letter of December 12, except for the important and fundamental paragraph D 5 on Page 7 to which Max’s letter also largely addresses itself.6
I entirely agree that the Thai Armed Forces, as set forth in the paragraph, are not prepared to handle paramilitary activity on the scale and model that has been witnessed in Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Malaya. However, I question whether that is the type problem it is now realistic to envisage in Thailand. In each of those countries, the genesis of those movements were bodies of men who had been trained and armed during and after World War II, and who were originally motivated by the desire to expel the foreigner within their borders. The Communists succeeded in capturing the movements and turning them to their own purposes. The point is that even in those countries thousands of armed and trained guerrillas led by Communists simply did not appear overnight to confront the forces of law and order.
While there may well remain in Thailand some small caches of usable arms from the Free Thai movement, there is no reason to believe the amount is large, or that any considerable group of men [Page 1022] could be quickly armed and trained from resources within the country other than those of the armed forces and police. There is certainly not now within Thailand any group comparable to the nucleus out of which the movements in Vietnam, Laos, Malaya and Burma grew.
An additional important factor is the difference in terrain. The Northeast is usually considered the area in which a dissident movement is most likely, both by reason of its economic and political situation and proximity to Laos. In contrast to other areas where guerrilla operations have been most successful, the Northeast is for the most part a flat and relatively open plain with only a few small areas offering any considerable concealment or unobservable lines of movement.
While thus deprecating the possibility of the development of insurgent paramilitary activity in the pattern and on the relative scope of Vietnam, etc., I do not desire to give the impression that I feel there is no possibility whatever of some type of such activity. My point is simply that unless there is a complete collapse of Thai government machinery, it is not reasonable to presume that it can or would develop on the scale of that in Vietnam, Malaya, or even the Huks in the Philippines. In any event, it would take considerable time to develop.
What are the realistic possibilities? There is first the presently Communist dominated group of Vietnamese refugees scattered through the Northeast border area numbering some 50,000. I have no information upon which to base an estimate of what portion of that number could be considered guerrilla material. However, it well could number several thousand. Even though the Communist cadres among them are now able to obtain immunity for their present activities by various forms of bribery of local Thai officials, it is difficult for me to believe that they could be successful in obtaining sufficient arms and engaging in sufficient training to make themselves an effective force without the matter coming to the attention of the Bangkok authorities. Certainly, some of the local Thai authorities could not but themselves become alarmed at evidence of military activity among this foreign group, and, at the least, report the matter. In any event, in the absence of widespread popular support within the Northeast for this essentially foreign group, it is difficult for me to conceive of they themselves being able to build their capability beyond that of the capacity of the police, including the Elite Guard Battalion, to handle. However, in the event of generalized disorder in the Northeast, this vigorous group could be a very considerable asset to the other side.
It appears to me that the most likely possibility in this field is that a Communist or crypto-Communist Laos playing on the discontent and even some separatist sentiment in the Northeast, would attempt to foment an insurrection in that area. The apparent potentialities are considerable. There is the long border virtually indefensible against [Page 1023] determined infiltration, the close similarity and even identity between the peoples on the two sides of the border, the capable and energetic Vietnamese Communist cadres already in the Northeast and the Pathet Lao cadres that could be introduced. Against this the area is well covered by small settlements and scattered farms so that “strangers” cannot long go unnoticed. That the Thais are not entirely unaware of this danger is demonstrated by the interest Sarit and Thanom are now showing in the economic development of the area. (As a sidelight in this connection, Sukit told me that historically Bangkok had deliberately refrained from any development in the area so as to discourage further French inroads.)
It seems to me that the danger in this situation lies not so much in military capabilities as political attitudes. That is, in its relaxed attitude toward Communism and events outside of Bangkok, the Thai Government may not take sufficient measures in time to prevent the growth of an insurrectionary movement to the point that it is able to challenge the military capabilities of the Government. This could well happen if the Government has been so paralyzed by leftist infiltration as to render it helpless. In this case, the capacity of the armed forces is meaningless. However, going back to the assumption that there is in Bangkok a reasonably capable government, it seems to me that while it may be very relaxed about many things, it will be very sensitive to any signs of paramilitary activity. This would be something readily understandable by the politically unsophisticated military group now in control, and something to which I believe we could expect them to react as vigorously as they are capable. The question is whether the other side could increase its military capabilities more rapidly than they could be dealt with by a determined and aroused Government using police and armed forces as presently equipped and constituted. I do not believe that they could.
As I previously said, there are not present here the same elements that went to make up the nucleus of the other Communist directed paramilitary activities in other countries of this region. These elements would have to be introduced. Even given the situation on the Lao border this could not be done overnight. First the political base would have to be laid, and the population of the area sufficiently terrorized or politically indoctrinated to give that cooperation and support which is essential to successful paramilitary operations. Next, to extend the activities beyond raids across the border by Pathet Lao, considerable numbers of Thais would have to be taken to Laos for training and equipping, and given sufficient political motivation to kill fellow Thais. I do not say that this could not be done, but it would not be easy, nor quickly done nor done without detection. It is quite a different thing from motivating the energetic and capable Vietnamese to expel the hated French. Also it seems to me that while the Northeast [Page 1024] and other Thais have their legitimate complaints and discontents, as a people the Thais are much less prone than most other peoples to be moved by ideological convictions, Communist or otherwise. Next, to constitute any threat to the Government comparable to that posed by the Vietminh or Pathet Lao, these groups would have to be concentrated at times, moved and supplied over a terrain that offers little in the way of concealment comparable to that enjoyed by other guerrilla movements in the area.
Against this, the government has the Gendarmérie Patrol Force and the Elite Guard Battalion of the police whose morale is now recovering from the low point reached following the September 16 coup. It also has the RTA Ranger Battalion which is an elite group specifically organized for guerrilla warfare, including the organization of additional guerrilla forces. Both of these organizations are highly mobile and well trained. However, their potential is presently greatly weakened by the lack of coordination between the two organizations. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that the other side would be able to organize and introduce major paramilitary groups beyond the capacity of these organizations to handle. However, if they did so, the Army and the Air Force, in spite of their gross deficiencies, are no inconsiderable assets. A major deficiency of the Army for this, or for that matter any other kind of action, is in marksmanship. However, if the Army was presented with a real threat of being called into action, I believe we could assume they would show considerably more interest than they have thus far demonstrated for work in this field. However, this does not lessen the vital importance, well realized by JUSMAG, of now doing much more work on this. JUSMAG assures me that the present divisional organization of the Army toward which they are working is as well if not better suited for the command of the small units required for counter-guerrilla operations than the former RCT or any other type of organization.
You will note that in the foregoing I have left out of consideration the conventional Thai civil police. I have done so as the effectiveness of this force is still very doubtful for the reasons set forth in paragraph D 2 of the Status Report. To my mind this is one of our most urgent problems for it is the relatively small-scale civil disorder that can spread if not quickly and effectively handled that is the most probable danger in the Northeast (or elsewhere in the country for that matter), rather than organized relatively large-scale paramilitary activity. I do not feel myself sufficiently informed in this field to have any personal opinions on what we might do beyond the obvious that we are already doing as set forth in the Status Report. However, I plan to look into the matter more carefully and, if I have any further thoughts, will submit them in proper form. In any event, I feel this organization is woefully and even critically weak.[Page 1025]
In his letter Ambassador Bishop questions the military justification for giving the Thai Armed Forces the “trappings of modern war” and raises the question of the desirability of reorienting the Thai Armed Forces “in the direction of fitting them primarily to meet a threat from guerrilla action rather than that posed by a war involving regular military in large numbers”.
In the first place, it seems to me we have and are, in fact, doing very little to give them the “trappings of modern war” in the present meaning of that term. Actually we are outfitting them largely on World War II standards. These are very modest by present standards and consist largely of motor transport, light tanks, conventional artillery and conventional small arms. With respect to the Air Force, it has consistently been supplied with obsolescent or obsolete aircraft which are, in fact, better suited for operations against paramilitary forces than the more modern very high performance aircraft. All of this is reasonably calculated to meet the political objectives of our program here, as well as enable them to have the military wherewithal to meet either a conventional overt armed attack or paramilitary activity. In other words, I feel that on the whole our MAP program here is reasonably well designed to meet its various objectives and does not at this time require any major shift of emphasis. I believe that any major shift of emphasis to reorient the Thai Armed Forces in the direction of fitting them primarily to meet a threat from guerrilla action or, as apparently implied in the penultimate sentence of the second paragraph of Ambassador Bishop’s letter of December 12, for they themselves to fight a guerrilla action against an invader while the United States directed its major effort towards the sources of invasion, would be catastrophic in its effects here. It would imply that our intention was to abandon them to the tender mercies of an overt invasion while we struck elsewhere. Perhaps we might be forced by circumstances to do this but we should certainly in no way ever indicate that this was our intention.
I entirely agree with Ambassador Bishop’s observations concerning the lack of competence of most high-ranking Thai Armed Forces officers. However, the question is what we can or should do about it. If we considered the situation hopeless the only logical conclusion would be to give them no military assistance. However, I certainly do not believe matters are at that stage. With our assistance the level of competence is slowly increasing, particularly that of the junior officers who will gradually assume higher ranks. That they can fight at least competently was, I believe, demonstrated in Korea. It is true they were a small group attached to American units, but it is also true that they had not at that time had the benefit of any considerable US training. I believe that the conclusion must be to continue with our program of attempting to improve the level of competence rather than abandoning it, or introducing a major shift of emphasis that could only be destructive [Page 1026] of morale and would be political dynamite. In short, I believe the present scale and pattern of our military investment in Thailand is generally sound and that we have a chance to build up a worthing military asset. However, to realize this asset will continue to require increasing work and effort on our part. Whether that asset would be used at all or used properly if and when the “chips are down” depends on the political leadership in Bangkok at that time, and the entire circumstances surrounding the situation. This cannot be predicted here with any more certainty than it can be with respect to many other countries in the world that we are assisting. In any event, this is largely a matter of the political attitudes and complexion of the Bangkok Government at the time, rather than of the present scope and pattern of our military aid, and thus entirely beyond the scope of this letter.
I perhaps have gone somewhat afield from the strict subject of internal security, but I Wanted to give you my somewhat broader views of the situation as I now view it. This letter has been written against the background of thorough discussion with all concerned elements of the Country Team and the Embassy staff. It has also been written against the background of my own recent trip through the Northeast. You should know that there is not unanimity of view among the Country Team or even the Embassy staff on this difficult and somewhat elusive subject. However, the differences are largely those of degree. For example, George Wilson and John Hart7 believe that the letter somewhat understates the paramilitary capability of the other side and overstates the capability of the Thais to meet the threat. On the other hand, General Partridge and Colonel Weld8 entirely concur with the views I have set forth.
All agree that we cannot be complacent about the situation here or in any way be satisfied with the little that has been achieved. The Thai Armed Forces are woefully deficient in training, morale and leadership and are by no means prepared for serious combat. The civil police are weak and throughout the government intelligence gathering and dissemination are poor. The differences of view are simply on how black (or grey) the picture is if the other side should turn from its present tactics to an attempt to carry out paramilitary activities here. Some think it fairly black, others, including myself, think it light grey viewed from the standpoint of relative military capabilities.[Page 1027]
I would welcome your thoughts. I am also sending a copy of this letter to John Steeves, asking that he also show it to Admiral Stump as I would welcome any thoughts that they might have.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 792.5/6–558. Top Secret; Official–Informal.↩
- A handwritten note on the source text reads: “Undated. Apparently sent June 5, 1958.” Another note states that a reply was sent on December 5, 1958, but no such letter has been found in Department of State files.↩
- Not found in Department of State files.↩
- Dated December 13; see Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XXII, pp. 944–946.↩
- Not printed. The enclosure was an update of the Status Report on the Internal Security Situation in Thailand, initialed by Johnson and dated June 1958.↩
- This paragraph concerns the ability of the regular Thai armed forces to back up the civil police, the Gendarmerie Patrol Force, and the Elite Guard. The paragraph noted that training and reorganization carried out under the Military Assistance Program were increasing their capabilities.↩
- Counselor of Embassy and Deputy Chief of Mission and First Secretary of the Embassy in Bangkok, respectively.↩
- Major General Richard C. Partridge, Chief of JUSMAG, Thailand, and Colonel Seth L. Weld, Jr., Army Attaché at the Embassy in Bangkok.↩