8. Memorandum From Robert H. Johnson of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Rostow)0



Attached are the following papers relating to SEATO received during the last couple of weeks:

Bangkok telegram No. 2371 reporting the views of Pote Sarasin, SEATO Secretary General, on the moribund state of SEATO.
Bangkok telegrams 274 and 2752 containing Ambassador Young’s assessment of the present status of SEATO and his recommendations for action to strengthen it.
Messages from CINCPAC, London and Paris commenting negatively in varying degrees upon Ambassador Young’s views.3
A further Bangkok telegram4 proposing the strengthening of bilateral U.S.-Thai relations rather than the strengthening of SEATO.
Bangkok telegram No. 329 reporting the most recent views of Thanat on the subject of SEATO.5
A planning paper on SEATO prepared by Ed Rice of S/P and discussed at the planning luncheon on August 29.6

This memorandum will comment briefly on the above papers.

Ken Young’s telegram of August 227 proposes a rather grand concept for SEATO involving the development of plans to protect the entire Southeast Asian rim from Northeast India to South Viet Nam. However, his concrete suggestions in telegram No. 275 are most limited in scope. The major proposals in this telegram include: (a) the designation of a top-flight U.S. representative to serve on the experts committee on counter subversion recently established by SEATO (I have the telegrams bearing [Page 18] on this action if you have not seen them and are interested); (b) visit by a Presidential emissary to a meeting of SEATO Council representatives in September; (c) preparation for prompt action on a Thai/SEATO community development project; (d) acceleration of SEATO military planning, including reorganization of the SEATO military planning office, designation of U.S. military units in Thailand and joint development of new weapons and techniques; (f) eventually, establishment of a SEATO force in being in Thailand; and (g) various political measures.

This telegram from Young was received in the midst of work on a Southeast Asia Task Force report. No reply has, as yet, been sent. (Action is going forward on the weapons development center which Young proposed in an earlier telegram.)8 On September 2 Ambassador Young sent a very different kind of telegram suggesting that the urgent need is to “bilateralize” our relations with Thailand. To this end he has suggested the negotiation of a bilateral defense pact, stationing of U.S. troops in Thailand or rotational training of U.S. forces in Thailand and public earmarking of U.S. forces in Okinawa. Sentiment in the FE Bureau of State favors initiation of action to negotiate a bilateral defense agreement with Thailand. State is also prepared to explore the possibility of rotational training of U.S. troops in Thailand. CINCPAC favors such a proposal. We would, of course, have to ascertain whether, as Thanat’s recent comments suggest, Thailand’s opposition to the introduction of U.S. troops has now dissolved.

The series of Young telegrams on this subject demonstrates that it is very difficult for an ambassador concerned with the urgent problems of his own country to approach the problems of a multilateral institution like SEATO in a way which is divorced from those immediate country concerns. Ed Rice’s paper seems to me a good attempt to look at the problem in a more rounded way. It suggests two alternatives: (a) turning SEATO attention toward the counter-subversion problem, or (b) finding a wholly indigenous substitute for SEATO which would, however, be supported by various U.S. and international actions and undertakings.

Since the current disillusionment with SEATO arises from its failure to act in the Laos crisis, it is quite possible that the initiation of SEATO military action in Laos would prolong the life of the organization considerably. In view of all of the potentialities for difficulty in such action, however, it is also possible that the existing differences of view within SEATO would be exacerbated by such military action and that its breakup would be hastened.

In the absence of SEATO military action in Laos and in the absence of a thorough review of our objectives in SEATO, we are likely to attempt to continue to hold the organization together with chewing gum and baling [Page 19] wire until it comes completely apart. SEATO is very vulnerable to disintegration because of the fact that it has only one member on the Southeast Asia mainland. If the government in Thailand should change—or the policies of the existing government should change, as it shows some signs of doing—SEATO could be done in overnight. It is impossible to conceive of a meaningful organization with the Philippines and Pakistan as its sole non-white Asian members. In this sense Ken Young is right in thinking of changes in bilateral U.S. policies toward Thailand as being interchangeable with changes in SEATO. I think that we ought to give serious thought now to the possibility of an all-Asian organization of the sort Ed Rice suggests before SEATO disintegrates.

SEATO was conceived as a conventional alliance designed to protect the members against external aggression. But we now realize that the principal problem is one of subversion and guerrilla warfare rather than overt aggression. If we continue to view SEATO as a conventional alliance with a primary mission of resisting external attack—and there is some limited value in preserving it for that purpose—the questions of the British and French “veto” may be of some importance and perhaps, as Young and Thanat have suggested, we might attempt to revise SEATO arrangements, either through change in the treaty or otherwise, to eliminate this veto. The real question is not, of course, one of the formal treaty provisions or voting arrangements; it is the question of whether we are prepared to take military action in Southeast Asia in the face of unwillingness by the British and/or the French to support such military actions.

If we view SEATO as having potentially important countersubversion functions, other problems emerge. The fact that Thailand was the only SEATO member on the Southeast Asian mainland was partially remedied under the Treaty by the concept of the “Protocol Area” which brought non-members under the umbrella of SEATO protection. However, when the task becomes one of dealing with subversion, the fact that Thailand is the only SEA mainland member poses serious difficulties for, as we know, to deal with subversion and guerrilla warfare requires the cooperation of other states such as Cambodia, Malaya, South Viet Nam and Burma well in advance of any immediate threat to them. The limited membership of the organization inhibits joint planning on this problem. The fact that Thailand is a SEATO member makes cooperation between it and the neutrals very difficult. The membership of the Philippines and Pakistan contributes little or nothing to the solution of the SEA mainland problems.

Moreover, countersubversive programs often turn out to be variations on military and economic aid and OISP programs in which we are already involved. To give SEATO responsibilities for countersubversive activities will inevitably be viewed by the members primarily as a device [Page 20] for obtaining increased U.S. aid. Since the U.S. can generally deal with aid problems most effectively within the context of its total relations with each country and its over-all programs in the country, we have been, and are likely to continue to be, very reluctant to make available any large amount of aid for specifically SEATO programs. In the absence of such aid, the countersubversive exercise may, in the long run, be viewed as rather futile by the other members.

The possibility that a new, wholly Asian, organization may be established can be viewed from either one of two perspectives: (a) as a rather likely development and one that, in any event, is to be preferred to no regional security organization; or (b) as a positively desirable development offering a better answer than SEATO to the problems that these countries face.

Such an organization would permit the U.S. to preserve flexibility in its aid programs and, if successful, would provide a framework within which meaningful assistance for countersubversive, counterguerrilla purposes could be provided. The most obvious advantage of such an organization would be its comprehensiveness. But the most serious doubt about it also arises from this comprehensiveness. That is the doubt as to whether such a grouping would possess enough community of purpose among its members to permit effective cooperation. Our bilateral arrangements with the SEATO countries are the present source of much of the strength that SEATO possesses. The strength and resources of any new organization are also going to have to come from outside in some large measure—and that means basically from the United States. At the present time in history Indian and Japanese support (par. 18) will be viewed, at best, as a mixed blessing by the Asian states and may, in fact, be rejected by them. The idea, for example, that India has a leading role to play in this part of the world, though increasingly popular in the West, has yet to be accepted in the area. This is not to say that an effort should not be made to associate India with such a project.

The question of the political vulnerability of a neutral bloc in Southeast Asia needs careful consideration. In the short run it is simply the question of whether Thailand will be less vulnerable outside the SEATO alliance than within it. The Thai leadership is clearly beginning to think that it might be less vulnerable out of SEATO.

The weaknesses of an all-Asian grouping must be weighed against the weaknesses of SEATO. If SEATO had more potential than it now appears to have, I would be somewhat reluctant to abandon it. But because it seems such a weak reed I think we need to give serious consideration to an all-Asian alternative of the kind proposed by Rice. Moreover, if real pressure begins to develop from the Thai leadership for such an organization, it will be important that we not be dragged along by the heels but that we exercise sufficient leadership so that the organization [Page 21] will be shaped in a way that is compatible with our interests. One of the most difficult problems that we shall have to solve if we go this way will be how to extend, as Rice proposes (par. 18(a)), unilateral guarantees to the countries which are presently within the protocol area of the SEATO treaty.

What is the next step? I would like to see the Southeast Asia Task Force consider the Rice paper. I think it would be most difficult, however, to get serious consideration until we are sure that SEATO is not going to be the instrument of military intervention in Laos. I don’t see quite how you can trade SEATO off for a Laos settlement as Rice suggests. I would, therefore, favor a look at this proposal at the point when we have at least an interim resolution of the Laos problem. You will note that Ambassador Young suggested to Thanat (No. 329 of September 1) that he discuss this subject when he meets with the President this month. I don’t see how we can have a view of the matter at that time. I would think that our posture then would be to encourage Thailand to think concretely about the problems involved in an all-Asian grouping, but not to initiate any action until the Laos situation clarifies.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Regional Security Series, SEATO, General, 1961. Secret. Initialed by Rostow.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 7.
  3. See Document 7 and footnote 3 thereto.
  4. Not further identified.
  5. Telegram 333 from Bangkok, September 2. (Department of State, Central Files, 379/9–261)
  6. In telegram 329, September 1, Young reported that Thanat considered SEATO “useless and inoperative,” feared for Thailand’s security if Laos fell to the Communists, but stated that Thailand did not want to throw SEATO away without making one more effort to reorganize the structure. (Ibid., 379/9–161)
  7. Rice’s planning paper and the discussion of it have not been found.
  8. Telegram 274, Document 7.
  9. Not further identified.