420. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Official Call of Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman on the President to Discuss Situation in Southeast Asia


  • Thailand Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman
  • Thailand Ambassador Visutr Arthayukti
  • The President
  • U. Alexis Johnson, Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • W. W. Rostow, Special Assistant to the President
  • Walter P. McConaughy, Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs

After greetings had been exchanged, the Thai Foreign Minister expressed his appreciation for the opportunity and honor of meeting [Page 890] with the President. He presented a letter, dated September 11, from Prime Minister Sarit to the President.1

The President told Foreign Minister Thanat that our concern at the security situation in Southeast Asia was equal to our concern over Berlin. The issues and the actual circumstances seemed less precise in Southeast Asia, and therefore, in some ways more difficult to deal with; we were anxious that the attention to Berlin not lead to any weakening of the position in Southeast Asia.

U.S. interest in the security and welfare of the area had been reaffirmed through Vice President Johnson’s trip. We have been continuously pressing to bring about an acceptable security situation which would make military intervention unnecessary. The present outlook is not entirely unsatisfactory and certainly we should continue to search for a peaceful solution. Military action at best would be uncertain in its result, and hazardous. The lines of communication would be very long and overland routes would be difficult. There are not enough suitable air bases. Military intervention should be thought of only as a last resort.

Upon reading the letter, the President remarked that the Prime Minister had dwelt at some length on the problem of SEATO and had expressed the feeling that the present SEATO structure is unsatisfactory.

The Foreign Minister said that the effectiveness of SEATO had an important bearing on the security of all Southeast Asia. The weakness of SEATO had been shown by its failure to act in the Laotian crisis. Developments in Laos had proved that SEATO was not quite capable of filling its expected role. Doubt was widespread as to whether SEATO as now constituted can ever fulfill its security responsibilities as planned. If SEATO cannot meet the hopes and needs of the people of Southeast Asia, it is not only an ineffectual organization, but it is dangerous. Its charter must be revised or reformed, or else we must “do away” with the organization. If this should prove impossible, the Thai Government might feel that it could no longer give “false hopes” regarding SEATO to the Thai people.

In answer to a question from the President as to what alternatives he envisaged, the Foreign Minister said that not all the members of SEATO had similar interests in SEATO or in Southeast Asia. Some have declared frankly that they should not be asked for contributions to SEATO. The Thai Government could not understand why any country should belong to SEATO if it is not willing to assume the responsibilities of membership.

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They should not be allowed to belong just to gain the prestige that goes with membership.

The President thought that even though some members might not wish to participate in SEATO action, the way was still open for other members who were prepared to do their part. Unanimity was not required. Each member could decide for itself on the basis of its own national point of view.

The Foreign Minister agreed that this was a possible way out, but he still thought it was unacceptable that some members repudiated their obligations under the treaty. It was regrettable that they only wanted the advantages they could get out of membership.

The President said that he did not consider that the SEATO pact should be renegotiated; that would be complicated and might not be a useful exercise to undertake.

The Foreign Minister wondered if reforms short of renegotiation might not be undertaken before the next Council meeting in March, 1962. He felt that the structure of the organization should not “delude the people”.

The President observed that in case of an overt Communist attack on the treaty area, with for instance five SEATO members in favor of military action and two against, there was nothing in the Charter to prevent the five from coming to the defense of Southeast Asia. The U.S. would not feel that it was inhibited by the abstention of the two members. The President also recalled that in our case, there was a supplementary bilateral understanding with Thailand which might be considered as equally important, or more so. The President said he did not want to have to submit any changes in the SEATO Treaty to Congress. A reorganization presumably would amount to a different treaty arrangement, which would have to be submitted to the Senate.

Mr. Johnson confirmed that there was nothing in the Treaty itself which required unanimity for military action. The first SEATO Council meeting had adopted a rule which called for unanimity. In the case of aggression against Thailand, the U.S. would act in any event, as the Secretary had informed the Thai Government, and as confirmed by a U.S. aide-mémoire.

The Foreign Minister acknowledged this, but felt that this would not be a SEATO action. He inquired what was the meaning of SEATO membership in the case of those countries which refused to act. The Foreign Minister agreed that the abstaining countries could not stop action by the other members but they could prevent the use of the SEATO label by the intervening countries. The action would not be on behalf of SEATO, or under the SEATO flag.

The President said the U.S. membership in SEATO has the advantage of committing us by means of a treaty obligation. It gives the U.S.

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Government a freer hand. He felt that it would be better to avoid submitting any revision of the SEATO Treaty to the Congress. The unanimity rule had been adopted by mere Council action and could be changed by Council action. Perhaps a two-thirds majority rule could be applied.

The Foreign Minister thought there were two alternatives:

A clause might be added which would provide that, regardless of unanimity, any defense action in the Treaty area by a SEATO member would still be a SEATO action.
If it should be found that the Organization is not serving its original purpose, a different form of organization could be established.

The Communists had opposed SEATO from the outset and would continue to do so, but this did not matter. The Foreign Minister did believe that propaganda to the effect that SEATO had brought the cold war to Southeast Asia, had done some harm. It tended to complicate relations with some countries. This could be offset if the organization played a useful deterrent role but if SEATO did not increase security what was the advantage of the Organization for members such as Thailand? Perhaps Thailand should look about for some other arrangement which would afford collective security.

The President thought that SEATO would serve as a satisfactory guarantee against outright invasion. It had effect as a deterrent against that. But it does not prevent the sort of infiltration and subversion now going on in Laos and Vietnam. Maybe there is no full answer to the latter problem yet. Some sort of an action program is needed which would control the movement of unauthorized groups and individuals across the borders. The only answer developed so far is to support the local governments in expanded defense and economic development programs. The President agreed that the SEATO members ought to consider and discuss action by less than unanimous consent. If a given country objects, it can stay out but the action by the others would still be a SEATO action.

The unanimity interpretation does not limit our action or remove our obligation under the Treaty. We would not be inhibited even if the action could not be under the SEATO flag. The President agreed that abstention by some would have an unfortunate psychological effect on others. But this would not diminish the right or obligation of the countries who wanted to act.

Mr. Johnson agreed that no one could prevent a SEATO flag or label from being used. But he thought some parties would contend that it was not a SEATO action.

The President thought we could perhaps redefine the rights and obligations of SEATO members but without, any amendment of the actual Treaty, or resubmission to the U.S. Congress.

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Foreign Minister Thanat said the American Ambassador in Bangkok had inquired about the Thai view of the desirability of a bilateral defense pact. The Foreign Minister said the view of his government was that the time was not ripe for a bilateral security treaty.

Mr. Johnson observed that the difficulty was that with a bilateral security treaty, there was danger of leaving out such important and valuable allies as Australia. Australia is active, vitally concerned and essential. Australian participation was useful to all. It would be unfortunate to lose the contribution of Australia, which could best be utilized through a multilateral arrangement rather than through a bilateral arrangement.

The Foreign Minister reiterated that he was not making any formal proposal for a bilateral pact. He was not pressing the matter at all.

The President asked if the Foreign Minister thought that area security on balance was increased or lessened by bilateral pacts.

The Foreign Minister thought security might be increased with use of interlocking. In the case of Australia, there could be a link-up through Australia’s membership in ANZUS.

The Foreign Minister reverted to SEATO, saying that even if the operational rules of the Council were revised, this would not remove the basic weakness. The trouble was that some members wanted to assume rights without obligations.

The President thought there should be further correspondence on the matter before the spring meeting of the SEATO Council. Perhaps the discussion of the whole problem should be expanded. Perhaps there should also be a restatement of bilateral assurances and understandings.

[Here follows discussion of Laos in which the President asked for the Foreign Minister’s judgment on the situation. Thanat expounded at length on Laos and then the President and some of his advisers joined the discussion.]

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 033.9211/10–1661. Secret. Drafted by McConaughy and approved by the White House on October 19. The meeting was held in the White House.
  2. The substantive text of the letter, which expressed concern over trends in Southeast Asia, the lack of decisive “Free World” action in Laos, and problems with the SEATO organization and structure, is in telegram 474 to Bangkok, October 6. (Ibid., 660.90/10–661)