534. Despatch From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State1

No. 235


  • CA–1333, August 11, 19592


  • Role of the Military in Less Developed Countries

The referenced instruction, along with its two enclosures, has been read and commented on by members of the Country Team. I have drawn on these comments in preparing the following assessment with which the Country Team generally concurs.

There can be no quarrel with the basic proposition, posed in the papers circulated with CA–1333, that the US Government must work with authoritarian military governments in the less developed countries of Free Asia and Africa. As the Department has pointed out, “authoritarianism will remain the norm in Free Asia for a long period.” This being the case, the problem of explaining to the American people and to friendly nations which are not sympathetic toward an authoritarian form of government why we support such governments becomes a matter of public relations, not of policy. We need not, for example, feel self-conscious about our support of an authoritarian government in Thailand based almost entirely on military strength. In addition to the generalized guide lines advocated in paragraph 7, pp. 23–4 of the study “Political Implications of Afro-Asian Military Takeovers”3 and aside from the practical matter of Thailand’s not being ready for a truly democratic form of government, it can be pointed out that the United States derives political support from the Thai Government to an extent and degree which it would be hard to match elsewhere. Furthermore, the generally conservative nature of Thai military and governmental leaders and of long-established institutions (monarchy, Buddhism) furnish a strong barrier against the spread of Communist influence. Moreover, the Thai military rule does not weigh onerously on the people. Many of the individual liberties which we commonly associate with our form of government and find denied [Page 1097] under authoritarian regimes, such as freedom of speech and religion, the right to own property, etc., flourish in Thailand to a remarkable degree; and Marshal Sarit shows his sensitivity to what he believes is public opinion in many ways.
The papers circulated by the Department show concern over the possibility that military dictatorships will place undue emphasis on security to the detriment of economic and social development. This concern, it seems to me, is not a very real one or at least not one of lasting significance in Southeast Asia. A more realistic concern would appear to be that a newly-formed government will attempt too rapid an economic development based on poorly prepared ground. The need for security and the demands for military hardware will be made, but except perhaps initially, they will be made in addition to demands for economic assistance. Generally speaking, any authoritarian form of government can naturally be expected to make its own security a matter of primary concern. Thus, if the United States intends to support such governments, it can expect them initially to make large demands in the field of military hardware. And we must meet these demands or the government concerned will turn elsewhere to satisfy them. It will obviously be in our interest to see that the government we are supporting achieves stability, and security based on firm military control will contribute greatly to political stability if there are also present (as there are in Thailand) vigorous programs for economic and social improvement.
As the study on Thailand submitted by the Department points out, Thailand, thanks to its historical background, is an exception to most of the generalizations on the role of the military in less developed countries.4 Nevertheless, Thailand does to an admirable degree meet the criteria for US support laid down by the Department’s study “Political Implications of Afro-Asian Military Take-Overs.” This paper states that “the essential test from our point of view should be whether a particular military regime responsibly confronts the problems facing it—security and developmental progress—and, in so doing, successfully resists Communist techniques.” The Department cites recent military take-overs in Burma, Pakistan and the Sudan as meeting this test but it might easily have chosen Marshal Sarit’s “revolution” of October 1958 as another good example.

The Department’s concern over “second stage revolutions,” stemming from disregard for economic development and the stifling of opposition groups, would also appear inapplicable at the present stage to Thailand. Sarit’s interest in and appetite for economic development [Page 1098] needs to be constantly damped down rather than whetted. Opposition groups of the type described by the Department—labor, students, intelligentsia, dissident younger officer groups—are, with the exception of the last-named, of no immediate significance as potential leaders of “secondary revolutions;” and any revolution staged at this time by dissident officers in Thailand would follow tradition and produce only surface change.

One note of warning needs to be sounded with regard to the Department’s assertion—with which I agree—that “the complexity of the developmental process requires that a military regime utilize civilian competence to the utmost. …”5 In Thailand Sarit appears to be well aware of this necessity and has mustered in one grouping or another the best civilian brains the country has to offer. Furthermore, the civilian bureaucracy remains intact. Nevertheless, Sarit’s reliance on these civilian advisers has been a major irritant in his relations with his military cohorts who, having supported Sarit in his drive to supreme power, resent his reliance on civilian advisers in furthering the economic development of Thailand.

It is not my purpose here to whitewash Marshal Sarit, to ascribe to him virtues he does not possess or to make the obviously false claim that graft and corruption have been eliminated in Thailand never to return. I believe, however, that it is fair to say that Sarit’s concepts and actions as we perceive them approach the Department’s definition of the “happy medium” from the standpoint of US interests as a situation which encompasses “a military regime ‘civilianized’ to the greatest extent possible and headed by a military leader who saw security and development in perspective and thereby evidenced political leadership of the type required in a developing society.”

The Department’s concern over the correlation between political authoritarianism and economic authoritarianism in underdeveloped countries is well-taken. Again recognizing that Thailand is an exceptional case, there is in Thailand a discernible trend away from government ownership and control of such industrial plant as exists. This trend could easily be reversed, however, if current Thai efforts to attract private foreign investment, together with foreign economic assistance such as Thailand now receives from the US, fail to produce a rate of economic growth consonant with the aspirations of Thailand’s leaders.
As for the Department’s well-justified concern that US support of military regimes may create a false image of the US, which I have defined as a public relations problem, I concur in the thesis that we can help remedy this false image by setting a good example of liberal [Page 1099] democracy at work. However, I wonder whether we could not, also, use Thailand as an example of successful cooperation between the US and an authoritarian military regime.

The principal disadvantages we face in Thailand are precisely those which the Department foresees as the possible long range concomitant of authoritarian government—a stifling of democratic values and parliamentary procedures. Sarit’s “revolution” of October 1958 and its aftermath unquestionably constitute a setback for the trend, however faint, toward a more democratic form of government which had its origins in the 1932 coup d’etat. Nevertheless, as the Department’s paper in Thailand correctly points out, there is growing in Thailand a political consciousness among urban Thai and, I venture to add, elsewhere in the countryside as well. The various components of this mission—USOM, JUSMAG and USIS as well as the Embassy proper—have all played a part in the furthering of this process. As communications and educational facilities continue to improve in Thailand and as increasing numbers of Thai military personnel, government and business leaders and technicians are exposed to the US and to US habits of thinking, political consciousness in Thailand will continue to develop. That the Thai system of government will ever resemble the US system very closely is questionable but an increasing responsiveness to public opinion appears inevitable if basic current trends continue. The US is in a unique position to encourage these trends, the while it supports a country very favorably disposed toward the US and its policies and one which does not present us with many of the problems with which the Department’s instruction is concerned.

(I regret the delay in replying to the Department’s instruction, but with other recent developments in this area during the period it was entirely impossible to do so in the allotted time.)

U. Alexis Johnson
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.90/10–2059. Secret.
  2. In this instruction, the Department forwarded to 42 posts material relating to the role of the military in less developed countries. An assessment of the material was requested from each post by October 1, 1959. (Ibid., 611.90/8–1159)
  3. This paper was one of the enclosures to CA–1333. It consisted of an oral presentation made before the NSC on June 18, 1959, a summary of conclusions, the text of the paper itself, and annexes A and B dealing with implications of recent military coups and takeovers in the Middle and Far East, prepared respectively in NEA and FE.
  4. Reference is to the section on Thailand in Annex B to the paper on “Political Implications of Afro-Asian Military Take-overs.” The paper noted that the use of force by the military to effect a change in government in Thailand constituted a continuation of past practice.
  5. Ellipsis in the source text.