7. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State0
274. Geneva for FECON. SEATO. Reference: Deptel 181;1 CA–49,2 and Embtel 275.3 This message contains my general assessment of SEATO’s status as requested of me by Dept. I submit it in advance of hearing FonMin Thanat’s detailed views since at last meeting he avoided my cues to discuss subject and in any event I believe major trends of Thai current thinking already revealed by Thanat (my 172)4 and Pote Sarasin (my 237).5 Specific recommendations for reviving SEATO are being submitted separately in my 275.[Page 14]
- But for Berlin and Lao crisis during coming months, I would recommend either fundamental reorganization of SEATO or substitute replacement. Since inception, in which I participated, SEATO has been unnatural hybrid organization. Its internal inconsistencies and basic antagonism, particularly between French and Asian members, have finally erupted over Laos. Even if organization and treaty obligations applied only to member countries, there still would be great doubt in my mind whether this organization is best feasible security arrangement for this area of world. I question value of its mil plans on paper and believe it has become engaged in a wide variety of peripheral and marginal activities not all of demonstrated value. It has been downgraded by inaction and contempt to point of sterility and futility. In Thai view it also presents obstacle to growth of more organic regional association, such as now seen in embryo as ASA.
- However, with Soviets threatening hostilities in Europe and with strong possibility of their resumption in Laos, in view of impasse at Geneva and mil buildup in South China, North Viet-Nam and Laos, this is no time to throw SEATO away or talk it to death. Despite SEATO’s many and obvious short-comings, I can see no immediate alternative which would not entail unacceptable risk of future serious decline in US prestige and increased weakening of Southeast Asia. Besides, changing or disturbing SEATO might have serious repercussions on our whole collective security structure, particularly in the vital Western Alliance, which we certainly cannot afford at this time. Rather we should grasp what assets SEATO has—mainly legal framework of US commitment to def of SEA and relatively cooperative attitudes of Asian and Pacific members—to brace ourselves for upcoming threats.
- Therefore I concur in Dept’s gen pol stated in CA–49 and Deptel 181 that we are not proposing, for time being at least, to undertake major change in SEATO or drop it in favor some alternative. However, I fear we cannot leave it at that. Mere statements of US support for SEATO are not enough, at least in Bangkok.
- Present state of affairs is reflected accurately and without exaggeration in Pote Sarasin’s remarks reported my 237. I have been struck by lifeless immobile meetings of Council Reps. Disillusionment and apathy in SEATO have become self-generating and threaten to lead to organization’s disintegration unless strong and positive action is taken to stop the decline. We cannot expect any other country to take this action. Australia’s current efforts alone (to strengthen SEATO in countersubversion field) cannot be expected to have noticeable effect. In Asian eyes US prestige is closely associated with SEATO. Whereas much of blame for its present plight might ostensibly be heaped on British and French reluctance to risk major engagements in SEA, SEATO is viewed as reflection of US, its successes as direct result of US effort, its failures as result US indecision [Page 15] or weakness. It possibly of interest to note that as of moment our efforts on bilateral plane to strengthen Thailand have not as yet had major impact in terms revived confidence in US. I fear that as long as we neglect actual and inferred US commitments in SEATO, value of these bilateral efforts will be diluted.
- If SEATO to remain “effective instrument of US and free world policy,” even for time being, and if we to get full value from other US efforts, it is essential that US promptly take initiative. Current state of SEATO understandably makes us reluctant to commit US more deeply and it possibly already too late to pump real life and nerve into organization. However I believe we must try. We cannot continue to drift in manner of past months since Bangkok Council meeting. We cannot afford delay for months in making decisions on such matters as pol consultation, countersubversion, agricultural research, etc. But even more than doing our routine work promptly, we must take vigorous and imaginative initiative to salvage and if possible enhance value of few assets SEATO offers. I believe next six months of crucial importance and thus US should act promptly for short-term as well as long-term gains.
- Attempt to put some nerve into SEATO must deal with at least four major related issues: new action program, French schism, defensibility Southeast Asian rim, and Laos.
Inherent basic weakness in Alliance is French membership. Without recounting intense Thai distrust and dislike for French participation, which other Asian members also reflect, I feel we must deal with this issue to make SEATO viable. Question is whether French would tactfully disengage from SEATO as some French officials seem to be getting at.
Otherwise we must have explicit understanding French will not veto operations even if they cannot join them. Some such arrangement would help restore some Thai confidence in depending on SEATO alliance for Thailand’s security.
- Inherent basic deficiency in SEATO is its inability cover defensibility all Southeast Asian rim from NE India to free Viet-Nam. There are many cracks along that mountain belt which we cannot now plan for internationally. We must find comprehensive new social def system to hold back Chinese, as we discussed at New Delhi with Under Secy and Asst Secy Talbot. SEATO is only part of this overall problem, and may under present arrangements even be a handicap to coordinated planning and cooperative action in series of vulnerable border areas from NE India corner to Vietnamese high plateau. As SecGen Desai said to me in New Delhi, “Chinese chauvinism” is what endangers Asia and must be held back by one means or another. I believe new def system must include new strategy for linking rural development in depth, as well as mil forces across this belt. We are all groping for some suitable system out [Page 16] here in each Southeast Asian country, e.g. by new program for Thailand. What we need now is overall concepts, [garble] and tactics for combining these piecemeal efforts into integrated strategy for long-term defensibility Southeast Asia against inevitable Chinese push to Indonesia and Australia
- I opt now for prompt invigoration of SEATO not merely for sake of salvaging alliance to which US prestige deeply committed, although this reason enough under present conditions. More immediate and tangible purpose would be planning for mil def perimeter against Chinese extending from Viet-Nam westward through Lao panhandle and Mekong Valley to Burmese border and, for time being, indirectly through Burma and NE India to east Pakistan. Burmese and Indian sectors would be covered bilaterally by SEATO members such as UK, Australia and US. Believe clear delineation of and commitment to such line would serve bolster free world bargaining position in pol fencing with Chinese over Laos. Moreover, it would constitute basis we now lack for recourse if necessary to retention of southern and NW Laos along lines Pote Sarasin’s proposition reported my 254, and for recourse joint actions in critical India-Burma and Burma-Laos-Thai areas when necessary.
- I continue to believe that retention of our control over at least these areas of Laos is rightfully viewed as vital by Viet-Nam and Thailand. Thais derive no comfort from assurances of US or SEATO support for def of Thailand without mention of Laos. They are strongly affected and frightened by traumatic experience, should their long and vulnerable NE frontier become front line against historic Chinese enemy in East-West conflict. Without insurance of some Lao buffer area, Thailand is tending lose faith in free world security arrangements and may take out some insurance with Communist bloc. Stemming this tendency quickly before it goes beyond point of no return and protection of Viet-Nam are in my opinion strongest specific reasons for immediate US action to revive SEATO. Laos is crucial now for SEATO. If Communists take country, SEATO will wither out.
- Recommendations in fol Embtel 275 are addressed directly to immediate new action program for salvaging SEATO within next six months.
- Would appreciate reaction from Dept and other addressees to foregoing assessment and recommendations which follow.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 379/8–2261. Top Secret. Repeated to Canberra, Paris, Wellington, Karachi, Manila, London, New Delhi, Rangoon, Saigon, Vientiane, Geneva, CINCPAC, and CINCPACPOLAD.↩
- In telegram 181, August 10, the Department requested the Embassy’s views on the future of SEATO, authorized Young to exchange ideas with Thai Foreign Minister Thanat, and expressed its own serious concern about SEATO’s future. (Ibid., 379/8–561)↩
- In this circular telegram, July 20, the Department requested the recipients to try to counteract among officials of their host countries the “widespread expression disillusionment with SEATO which has led in some cases to disparagement of the organization as an effective instrument.” The Department provided lines of arguments to demonstrate that SEATO, despite its reverses in Laos and inherent shortcomings, was both effective and necessary. (Ibid., 379/7–2061)↩
- In telegram 275, August 22, the Embassy suggested immediate steps to revive and strengthen SEATO. Included in the recommendations were the selection of a U.S. official to serve on the Countersubversion Experts Committee, a visit by a Presidential emissary to the SEATO Council in September, reorganization and review of military planning and political consultation, and establishment of a command structure. (Ibid., 379/8–2261)↩
- In telegram 172, August 5, Young reported that Thanat stated that the Thai Government planned to make a fundamental decision about SEATO in the next 2 or 3 months, examining a range of possibilities including “scrapping” SEATO, changing its present set-up, leaving it as is, or some combination of these alternatives. (Ibid., 379/8–561)↩
- In telegram 237, August 16, Young reported that SEATO Secretary General Pote Sarasin told him that only a U.S. initiative could “salvage” SEATO, which had reached “rock bottom and could fall no further.” Unless something was done quickly, Pote Sarasin thought SEATO would “crumble.” (Ibid., 379/8–1661)↩