15. Memorandum From the President’s Military Representative (Taylor) to President Kennedy0


Thailand has become the focal point for growing dissatisfaction with SEATO. The other Far East members share this concern in varying measure, but the proximity of Communist-backed insurgency in Laos and SVN gives the matter a more immediate flavor for the Thais. A prime source of anxiety has been the failure of SEATO to act strongly in Laos in early 1961, a fact that has been aggravated in the Thai view by the subsequent U.S. policy to establish a “neutral” Laos. The Thais and South Vietnamese are convinced the latter task is not practicable, particularly when based on a government led by Souvanna. The Thais have been subjected to Soviet political pressure in the past few months which has focussed in their minds the need for an unambiguous countervailing power which they see as SEATO or, bilaterally, the U.S. Underlying the entire complex of tendencies is the genuine fear of Communist China.

The Thai search for protection has concentrated naturally on the existing SEATO formula. In the Thai view, the main weakness of this organization is an imbalance of member interest when the Treaty area is threatened. If there is a less than clear overt threat, Thai concern with their territorial integrity is not matched by the member states (particularly France and UK) whose national interest is in large part influenced by events and power relationships outside SEA. The Thai approach to the problem has been twofold: first, to modify voting procedures so that Treaty action is not pre-empted by a minority and, second, to expand organizational activity so that member interdependence is based on more than pure power parameters of resisting external aggression. Both objectives of the Thais would have the effect of placing greater emphasis on the Pact’s responsibilities towards threats “other than by armed attack ... which might endanger the peace of the area.”

The Thai voting proposal calls for a three-fourths majority vote of members within a specified time limit on all issues except procedural questions which would be decided by a simple majority; absence of reply [Page 35] by any member government by the target date would be considered as an abstention. The target date would be adopted on the basis of a simple majority in the Council Representatives. The proposal eliminates the unanimity rule (established as a U.S.-sponsored procedure as a matter of record in the 1955 Council meeting; it is not part of the Manila Pact text) for which there is broad support. A key question is whether those who cast a negative vote or abstain would be required to go along with the majority decision. The U.S., U.K., France, Australia, and New Zealand would insist on non-participation in any action for which they did not vote. The Thais have stated informally their concurrence with this principle.

The opposition to the Thai proposal, caused by the elimination of the unanimity procedure, is centered in France, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. The latter strongly opposes any discussion of the SEATO Pact because of fear of adverse consequences on the Laos negotiations. A U.S. consideration is the desirability of maintaining the unanimity principle in collective security arrangements wherever possible (the Rio Pact is an exception; majority vote is used on stipulated issues). A divergence in SEATO might have repercussions in CENTO and NATO. Legally, favorable SEATO action on the Thai proposal would not affect our Treaty obligations. The Treaty would not require amendment nor would we need secure the advice and consent of the Senate.

If we decided to support the Thai view, Australia and New Zealand would probably follow. The British and the French probably would not and the alternatives in a showdown might be:

Dissolution of SEATO, or
Withdrawal of the French and British.

While the latter possibility might clear the air as to the exercise of military power, it would strip SEATO of a large part of its non-military support. The dissolution of SEATO would leave us without a security arrangement in Thailand except through the UN; it would require reconsideration of a bilateral pact which might cause adverse reactions in the Congress. Further, the U.S. strategic position built up in Thailand (bases, storage, airfields, communications) would be in jeopardy pending some other political arrangement.

For these reasons, it seems desirable to seek an alternative to the Thai proposal. Such an alternative has been presented by the Australians. In this procedure, an important issue would carry if, by an agreed target date, there had been six affirmative votes and no negative votes. Countries which had not registered an expression would be considered to have abstained (precedent in the UN establishes the premise that an abstention is not a veto). No country would be obliged to participate in an approved action unless it had voted affirmatively or subsequently associated itself with the action. Target dates would be agreed on the [Page 36] basis of a three-fourths majority (this exception to unanimity is justified on the grounds that this is a procedural matter). The target date is intended to assure that issues are not postponed by “lack of instructions.” Whenever members agree to the establishment of a target date for voting, the issue becomes “important.”

The French have indicated support for the Australian abstention proposal; New Zealand concurrence is likely. If the U.S. decided to back this solution, some sort of prior mutual understanding with France and the U.K. would be required before negotiating the issue within SEATO.

Ambassador Young has suggested the possibility of the Thais dropping their proposal in favor of the Australian idea if the U.S. makes its preference clear. The Thais have indicated they want a decision on their proposal by 12 March; they have threatened non-attendance at the 26 April Council meeting in Paris if their concern is not met, and have implied serious thought to some sort of future “neutralism.” To allay Thai misgivings about SEATO viability, the U.S. has emphasized its willingness to act singly under the provisions of the SEATO Pact to defend Thailand against armed attack; in the case of ambiguous aggression we have pointed to SVN as an example of our intent. It is paradoxical that our unilateral action in SVN, as well as the policy in Laos, is the source of much of the Thai apprehension that SEATO is useless. The Australians, New Zealanders, and Filipinos share their concern. If Thailand, as the seat of the organization, continues to attract Communist abuse, it is possible that an inactive SEATO will appear to be a liability rather than an asset.

Thus the immediate problem is to find a solution to satisfy the Thai insistence on improved voting procedures. The problem beyond is to decide on whether to support SEATO strongly, find some other alternative security arrangement, or withdraw from regional commitments in that area.

  1. Source: National Defense University, Taylor Papers, NSC, T–624–71. Secret. Taylor sent this memorandum under a covering memorandum that informed the President that it summarized the current Thai attitude toward SEATO and suggested that the President might wish to look it over before his meeting with Harriman. Kennedy met with Harriman, Taylor, and McGeorge Bundy from 4:15 to 6:20 p.m. The meeting was described as “Off the Record,” and no substantive account of it has been found. (Kennedy Library, President’s Appointment Book)