57. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State 1
2101. Codel Johnson. From Ambassador Young. I believe the Vice President’s timely and gallant enterprise of purpose accomplished the missions originally conceived in Washington. He reached the politicos, the administrators, and the people. Saigon, Manila, Taipei, and Bangkok will never be quite the same again, for a new chapter has opened in US relations with Southeast Asia. The friendliness and sincerity of the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson were felt and returned. They came, saw, and won over. We must now work to sustain this wave of good feeling and not let it recede.
A sound personal relationship has begun with Diem, Chiang and Sarit. The words of assurance and earnestness of discussion established that personal bond between men of power and authority so essential for effective dealing with Asian leaders. As earnest of cooperation Sarit has agreed to increase Thai Defense budget by ten percent of our contribution, which Embassy considers symbolically [Page 144] significant. Meanwhile Diem issued his own communiqué and directed quick preparation of positive reply to President Kennedy’s letter,2 which is promising. I feel greatly heartened that we have at last opened a two-way channel of confidence at the highest level with these three men. Later might have been too late.
The “veep to the people program” also went over, notwithstanding the reserve and scepticism of the orthodox and the old timers Asians and Americans. What impressed me in all four capitals was the eagerness of the younger generation, particularly the school children to reach him. This was especially significant in Bangkok. Young people gathered everywhere to greet an American leader and spokesman for the President whose name was often sounded by voices among the crowds. The leaders of tomorrow and the people of the future were with the Vice President. He reached them in a new kind of dialogue despite the reserve of the receding generation. The Vice President dramatically carried the pedestal of power to the open places of the people far better than could long lectures or diplomatic notes. Witnessing an American Vice President mixing with the crowds and talking with them may serve to humanize political communications in Asia. It may jostle political leaders and their administrators out of their office sanctuaries, even if they are nettled by this typically American approach. Some officials felt challenged to go and do likewise; others betrayed their uneasiness over this intrusion into their supposedly well ordered and old-fashioned system of aristocratic aloofness.
This enterprise also succeeded psychologically. It boosted the badly-sagging morale of Asians and Americans out here. He pictured the new administration for Southeast Asians. It filled the newspapers and TV of America with Southeast Asia. Where our image has been blurred, the mission sharpened the focus. Where our dialogue had been garbled, the mission has corrected the pitch and spoken clearly as well as eloquently. However, we must not now just bask in the afterglow. The words of assurance must be followed by acts of support. Shrewd, tough leaders like Diem, Chiang, and particularly Sarit, are waiting to see if the US follows through quickly and vigorously with concrete actions. Owing to his deep concern over Laos and the vulnerability of his long frontier, Prime Minister Sarit is waiting to see what material steps we now take in Southeast Asia. Neither he nor Thai public opinion were pleased that the US could give no specific assurances on Laos. The visit exposed but could not fill our gaping silence on Laos for understandable reasons. If the visits to Bangkok and Saigon do not result in more real support, we will look terrible in Southeast Asia. Neutralism will spread; Geneva [Page 145] might then turn into a communist victory celebration. The follow-up of this visit is the heart of the matter now. Sarit, for example, wants some material benefit from the United States alliance to show his officers and people. In Viet-Nam will the government with our massive support take steps to ensure a political acceptability? In Thailand can we stimulate a political motivation among the armed forces and rural people to support a defense plan to secure the Mekong Valley?
A significant outcome of this enterprise was the parallelism of views expressed by the four leaders we met, particularly Diem, Chiang and Sarit.
- They felt Laos is most discouraging but still not lost. They are really apprehensive over US policies and the uncertainty and inaccuracy in their view of US attitudes on Laos. They say the Lao can and will fight if adequately trained and equipped, which they never have been. It is a mistake to write Laos off despite difficulties in dealing there. Diem, Chiang and Sarit stressed the urgency of maximum training for the FAL while there is a cease-fire to anticipate any breakdown of the Geneva Conference or any renewal of hostilities.
- For the time being these three leaders are allergic to putting US soldiers into the area. Diem showed no appetite for American combat troops mixing among the Vietnamese people. He told me privately that we should be extremely careful about such a proposal, and pleaded with me that American military personnel-and all Americans-exercise tact and restraint in Viet-Nam in this critical and delicate period. Sarit also quickly backed away from taking up any suggestion of putting US troops in Thailand either under SEATO or otherwise. He was not so reluctant over Laos where, if hostilities are resumed, he will wish to lend military support to RLG but only in company with US. I think we must be aware that this a sensitive internal issue for these leaders while there is no major provocation such as the outbreak of large scale hostilities or infiltration. What they want is adequate equipment and training rapidly and efficiently provided to assure them success in their military missions.
These leaders responded genuinely to the Vice President’s emphasis on economic progress and social justice to give the people a stake in the present and hope for the future. These famous figures even began to talk like “new frontiermen”.
Complimented by the Vice President’s notice of their social and economic efforts, they seemed to accept the philosophy that a politico-social program is the soundest way to increase their popularity and protect their country, provided they have the military capability to deal with communist guerillas or divisions. The Vice President’s private discussions, public speeches, and communiqués highlighted the administration’s emphasis on social justice. Southeast Asia needs this emphasis from Washington. The leaders and the people will now expect us to continue this dialogue on a two-way channel at all levels.
- Each in his own version implied a need for a new political departure of some kind in East Asia. While nebulous, their individual [Page 146] ideas seemed to spring from their disregard and even hostility for the French and British. While Chiang was most specific, his other Asian colleagues also wanted unhindered American leadership in Asia. Chiang proposed some new organization. Sarit thought this was a good idea. Diem, at least in my private discussions, again treated Southeast Asia as a whole and not piecemeal.
In conclusion, the next step is to capitalize the assets of this visit and disregard some of the minor liabilities or irritants that inevitably follow in the wake of such an ambitious enterprise: 1) First we must go all out to stamp out the Viet Cong in the Delta area of Vietnam. To implement a comprehensive politico-military program the President and his brother promised me that they would reply positively and in detail to President Kennedy’s letter as the Vice President suggested. I urged Secretary Thuan carry the letter to Washington, but I would not be surprised if he were kept in Saigon where he is so needed. 2) We must draft a supplemental military program for Thailand and reverse the cutback for FY 1962 USOM program which seems to contradict reality out here (a really good team of experts should be sent to help on fiscal planning and economic development). 3) We need to clarify our contingency thinking on Laos for the benefit of Diem and Sarit. 4) We must use the opportunities the visit gave us to mount military, economic, social, and psychological reinforcement of Thailand, Viet-Nam and as much of Laos as possible to strengthen our hand at Geneva. 5) In order to retain the value of this trip I would urge USIS to compile a booklet of the speeches, communiqués, pictures and schedules of this visit for circulation in this area to play up its progressive gains.
This enterprising visit did not help our adversaries. It will hurt them in this area if we follow through quickly. We should be ready for their counter actions at least in propaganda and political action somewhere.
So, trip’s results are summed up in comment volunteered by Bangkok taxi driver—“Your Vice President he good man. He talk people.”