145. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Bowles) to the Secretary of State1


  • The Situation in Southeast Asia

Averell Harriman is striving with great patience and skill to negotiate a settlement for “neutral and independent Laos.”

Yet even if an agreement is reached on this difficult question, our position throughout Southeast Asia may grow steadily more precarious with a deteriorating military situation in Viet-Nam and a highly volatile political position in Thailand.

We should, therefore, look beyond whatever agreements may be achieved in Geneva to the broader implications of the rapidly deteriorating Southeast Asia power balance.

A direct military response to increased Communist pressure has the supreme disadvantage of involving our prestige and power in a remote area under the most adverse circumstances. There is no reason to assume that the Communists would limit their efforts to what we could contain with whatever conventional forces could be spared from other areas.

Therefore, we need an alternative political approach which may save us from having to choose between diplomatic humiliation or a major military operation,…

Let us briefly consider the existing situation.

In Viet-Nam the government position is steadily weakening. An effective political base appears to be lacking and the Communists are in a position rapidly to increase their military pressure with every prospect for success.

As the situation in Viet-Nam deteriorates, we face the probability of a sharp reorientation of Thai policy and the strong possibility of a sudden switch in governments.

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Such a development is strictly in the Thai tradition. For centuries successive generations of Thais have prided themselves on their ability to assure their security by skilled negotiation. Each powerful new Chinese dynasty in its turn has brought pressure to bear on Thailand, and on each occasion the Thais have managed to preserve their sovereignty by paying some form of political tribute.

In the last part of the 19th Century and the early part of this one, the Thais played the French against the British. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Thai response was promptly to declare war on the United States the following day.

In view of the power position of their Chinese neighbor, the weakness of SEATO, and the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, it would be sheer folly to assume that history will not repeat itself.

Under present circumstances an upset in Thailand would be viewed as a major American defeat with grave implications both overseas and at home for our position in Germany and elsewhere.

In this complex situation I believe we should urgently consider what may be the only feasible political alternative: to expand the concept of a “neutral and independent Laos” to a proposal for an independent belt in Southeast Asia to include Laos, Burma, Thailand, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaya. Such an arrangement might ultimately be guaranteed by the U.S.S.R., Communist China, India, Japan, and the SEATO powers minus Thailand.

It may already be too late in the day to achieve agreement on a proposal of this magnitude and complexity. In view of the situation in Vietnam, the Vietminh and the Chinese Communists may now feel themselves strong enough to reject any agreement, de jure or de facto, which does not leave Laos and Viet-Nam and ultimately Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaya, ripe for takeover.

However, it is not inconceivable that the Soviet Union may be prepared to accept and to impose on its allies a neutral Southeast Asian belt with a cease fire in Vietnam. In the absence of a stabilizing development of this kind, a massive Chinese intrusion into this area is likely sooner or later with the strong possibility of a major war into which the Soviet Union might be drawn.

It will be argued persuasively that the Communists would simply use such an arrangement as a screen behind which to maneuver a takeover of the whole area from within. No one can deny this possibility.

However, if the worst occurs and the Communists should proceed with their infiltration program in the face of an agreement for a neutral area, the responsibility would be squarely on their shoulders. We could then take whatever steps were indicated with the reasonable prospect not only of United Nations, but, even more important, of Indian and Japanese support.

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Moreover, there is some comfort in the fact that Burma for the last fifteen years, with a weak government, a wobbly economy, and a thousand miles of border with Communist China has maintained an extraordinary degree of independence while refusing to align herself with either side.

The approach might be along the following lines:


Averell Harriman is already in touch with Pushkin at Geneva on matters implicating Vietnam. He has already broached to Pushkin the question of U.S.S.R. taking responsibility for preventing North Viet-Nam infiltration through Laos into South Vietnam.

These preliminary probes should be pursued. If they seem productive, Ambassador Harriman could be authorized, through fairly general instructions, to explore the possibility with Pushkin of reaching an over-all negotiated settlement involving the entire Southeast Asian area.

It has been suggested that the divided situation in Viet-Nam might be compared in general terms to that in Germany. We and the Soviets recognize that unification under present circumstances is not feasible. Our joint objective, therefore, should be to eliminate the fighting which could quickly spread and involve not only the United States and Viet-Nam but ultimately the U.S.S.R. and Peking.

Under the circumstances our common interest may best be served by looking beyond not only Laos but Viet-Nam and to the possibility of a neutral and independent Southeast Asia.

An alternative may be for you to open the subject in its broad implications in your next discussion with Gromyko.2


As soon as our negotiations or our planning have advanced to the appropriate stage, we should begin preliminary consultation with interested governments. This will not be easy. A United States policy for an independent and neutral Southeast Asia launched without careful preparation would deeply disturb our relations with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan (although most Thais might secretly welcome it, their public protests would be vigorous).

Yet in view of the ugly nature of the alternatives, I believe that this risk should be run, since the likely course of events under present circumstances may lead them and us into a setback with the gravest world-wide implications. If this setback should coincide with an intensification of the Berlin crisis, the impact on American public opinion and on our relations with the world would be grave indeed.


There is a very real possibility that the situation will deteriorate too fast to permit these negotiations to be brought to a conclusion. If this occurs, a political contingency plan should be available which would enable us to move publicly for an independent neutral belt in Southeast Asia. The contingency planning should also study the ways in which the United Nations might be quickly involved if the situation begins to come apart precipitately.

I believe that time is of the essence. I suggest, therefore, that we meet with George Ball, Averell Harriman, and Alexis Johnson as soon as possible to discuss the implications of this approach.3

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Schlesinger Papers, Chester Bowles. Secret. A copy of this memorandum was sent by Bowles to Schlesinger under cover of a memorandum of October 7, in which Bowles wrote that the memorandum had so far produced “a relatively negative reaction” at the Department of State and was only a summary of his private views. Bowles told Schlesinger that unless a political settlement was worked out early enough, he thought the United States might be forced to choose between “a major commitment of U.S. troops, with a rapid and disadvantageous escalation, or a precipitous retreat.” (Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/ 10-761) The same day Bowles also sent a copy of the memorandum and a similar covering memorandum to Adlai Stevenson, in which he wrote that the general response to his proposal, “as might be assumed, was a negative one, although George Ball and Averell were in agreement with me.” (Ibid.)
  2. Rusk met in Washington on October 6 with Gromyko, who was in the United States to attend the 16th Session of the U.N. General Assembly. A memorandum of this conversation is ibid., Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330 October 1961. There is no indication that Rusk broached the idea of a neutral and independent Southeast Asia.
  3. No reply to this memorandum has been found.