4. Editorial Note

On May 5, 1961, President Kennedy announced that Vice President Johnson would visit Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, and Pakistan May 9–24. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961, pages 354–362. Johnson was in Honolulu on May 9, Saigon on May 11, Manila on May 13, Taipei on May 15, Hong Kong on May 15, Bangkok on May 16, New Delhi on May 18, and Karachi on May 20. Briefing materials for the trip are in Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 366, CF 1875–1883; ibid., Central File 033.1100–JO; and Johnson Library, Vice President’s Security File, Vice President’s Travel, Visit to Southeast Asia.

On May 23, Vice President Johnson submitted to President Kennedy a report on his trip to Asia in the form of a memorandum, described as Johnson’s “personal conclusions.” The following portion relates to Southeast Asia in general:

“I took to Southeast Asia some basic convictions about the problems faced there. I have come away from the mission there—and to India and Pakistan—with many of those convictions sharpened and deepened by what I saw and learned. I have also reached certain other conclusions which I believe may be of value as guidance for those responsible in formulating policies.

“These conclusions are as follows:

  • “1. The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination to achieve success there—or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses in our own shores. Asian Communism is comprised and contained by the maintenance of free nations on the sub-continent. Without this inhibitory influence, the island outposts—Philippines, Japan, Taiwan—have no security and the vast Pacific becomes a Red Sea.
  • “2. The struggle is far from lost in Southeast Asia and it is by no means inevitable that it must be lost. In each country it is possible to build [Page 8] a sound structure capable of withstanding and turning the Communist surge. The will to resist—while now the target of subversive attack—is there. The key to what is done by Asians in defense of Southeast Asian freedom is confidence in the United States.
  • “3. There is no alternative to United States leadership in Southeast Asia. Leadership in individual countries—or the regional leadership and cooperation so appealing to Asians—rests on the knowledge and faith in United States power, will and understanding.
  • “4. SEATO is not now and probably never will be the answer because of British and French unwillingness to support decisive action. Asian distrust of the British and French is outspoken. Success at Geneva would prolong SEATO’s role. Failure at Geneva would terminate SEATO’s meaningfulness. In the latter event, we must be ready with a new approach to collective security in the area.

    “We should consider an alliance of all the free nations of the Pacific and Asia who are willing to join forces in defense of their freedom. Such an organization should:

    • “a) have a clear-cut command authority
    • “b) also devote attention to measures and programs of social justice, housing, land reform, etc.

  • “5. Asian leaders—at this time—do not want American troops involved in Southeast Asia other than on training missions. American combat troop involvement is not only not required, it is not desirable. Possibly Americans fail to appreciate fully the subtlety that recently-colonial peoples would not look with favor upon governments which invited or accepted the return this soon of Western troops. To the extent that fear of ground troop involvement dominates our political responses to Asia in Congress or elsewhere, it seems most desirable to me to allay those paralysing fears in confidence, on the strength of the individual statements made by leaders consulted on this trip. This does not minimize or disregard the probability that open attack would bring calls for U.S. combat troops. But the present probability of open attack seems scant, and we might gain much needed flexibility in our policies if the spectre of combat troop commitment could be lessened domestically.
  • “6. Any help—economic as well as military—we give less developed nations to secure and maintain their freedom must be a part of a mutual effort. These nations cannot be saved by United States help alone. To the extent the Southeast Asian nations are prepared to take the necessary measures to make our aid effective, we can be—and must be—unstinting in our assistance. It would be useful to enunciate more clearly than we have—for the guidance of these young and unsophisticated nations—what we expect or require of them.
  • “7. In large measure, the greatest danger Southeast Asia offers to nations like the United States is not the momentary threat of Communism [Page 9] itself, rather that danger stems from hunger, ignorance, poverty and disease. We must—whatever strategies we evolve—keep these enemies the point of our attack, and make imaginative use of our scientific and technological capability in such enterprises.
  • “8. Vietnam and Thailand are the immediate—and most important—trouble spots, critical to the U.S. These areas require the attention of our very best talents—under the very closest Washington direction—on matters economic, military and political.

“The basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a ‘Fortress America’ concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don’t live up to the treaties and don’t stand by our friends. This is not my concept. I recommend that we move forward promptly with a major effort to help these countries defend themselves. I consider the key here is to get our best MAAG people to control, plan, direct and exact results from our military aid program. In Vietnam and Thailand, we must move forward together.” (Memorandum from Johnson to Kennedy, May 23; Johnson Library, Vice President’s Security File, Nations and Regions, Southeast Asia)

The memorandum is printed in full in United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, Book 11, pages 159–166.