9. Memorandum From the SEATO Adviser, Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs (Peters) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson)0

SUBJECT

  • Memorandum to the President on SEATO

Attached is a copy of the memorandum which Mr. Steeves took for the Secretary’s signature last night.

John called this morning. The Secretary has reservations about the action but thinks that the memorandum is an excellent presentation of the problem. He wants to postpone decision on it until he has seen Foreign [Page 22] Minister Thanat at 12:30 today.1 (The Secretary’s appointments on Far East matters are shown on the attached sheet.)2 His strongest reaction, according to John, was that Senator Fulbright will not be amenable. John reports that laughingly the Secretary appended to that observation the comment that the difficulty is that the move is insincere since the basic question of U.S. military action itself has not been decided.

RBP

Attachment3

MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT

Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman is expected in Washington for discussion of substantive issues affecting Thailand within the next two weeks. He will meet with you and with me. To cope with his assertions that SEATO is not effective as presently constituted and needs to be changed, I believe it may be desirable to explore with him a change in the organization’s voting formula.

In substitution for the present rule of unanimity, under which any member of SEATO can prevent action by the organization, we might propose an arrangement similar to that applying under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Pact).4 Major decisions would then be taken by vote of a majority of the members, but no member would be required to use its armed forces without its consent. Whether to favor a majority vote (5 of the 8 members) or a three-fourths vote (6 of the 8 members) is a matter for further discussion.

The Government of Thailand is concerned that France and the United Kingdom may prevent SEATO military action which other members of the organization would be ready to undertake, and wants assurance that this will not occur. This sentiment underlies Thailand’s desire for a bilateral defense treaty with the United States. Foreign Minister [Page 23] Thanat has already warned that his government is prepared to request that one of two changes in SEATO be made not later than the next Council meeting of foreign ministers in April 1962. These are: (1) withdrawal of “those countries unwilling to defend Southeast Asia”, or (2) a change in the rule of unanimity.

Although there are indications of some exaggeration by the Foreign Minister, our assessment is that Thailand is genuinely concerned, in the light of developments in Laos, that if the need arises, SEATO would be paralyzed by French and British unwillingness to take military action in defense of Thailand. This concern will be heightened if the HarrimanSouvanna Phouma talks result in a decision by the United States to accept Souvanna Phouma as Prime Minister of Laos—a move about which Thailand has expressed grave reservations and which it has consistently opposed. Although our immediate problem is with Thailand, Pakistan and the Philippines have also openly criticized British and French restraints in SEATO. Even the Australians have informed us privately of their concern with British policy in the organization.

If Thanat should feel that we are unwilling to consider any change in SEATO, he will probably take his case against the British and French to the press, and increase his pressure upon us for a bilateral defense treaty. Failing satisfaction in these moves, I foresee that Thailand will withdraw from SEATO in favor of a neutralist policy. Strong pressures toward this are already being exerted by the USSR through its Ambassador in Bangkok. If Thailand withdraws, we will be confronted with the dissolution of SEATO, which could only be interpreted as a major defeat for the United States at a critical juncture in history, and the possible negotiation of some new treaty arrangement in the Pacific area.

On balance, therefore, I conclude that the change in the voting formula is the least troublesome of the prospective developments before us. It would lessen Thai pressure for a bilateral treaty by otherwise providing Thailand the security assurances it seeks in a form to which it could refer publicly as it cannot do with our highly classified unilateral assurances. It would allow the British and the French a means to avoid involvement of their forces in Southeast Asia without preventing action by other members of SEATO in the name of the organization. Finally, Senate action would not be required since the voting procedure is governed by Terms of Reference adapted by the Council of Foreign Ministers and is not stipulated in the treaty itself.

I must emphasize, however, that if British and French restraint were thus eliminated, the burden of responsibility for decision in respect of military action will fall almost entirely upon the United States. We know, at the same time, that we have the staunch support of Australia.

We distinguish between the SEATO policies of France and the United Kingdom. Although the United Kingdom SEATO policy is [Page 24] undoubtedly one of restraint, we believe that it would ultimately commit its forces if the United States were going to do so in any event—at least under conditions consonant with our bilateral discussions. DeGaulle, however, has made it clear to you that France has no intention of committing any French forces in Southeast Asia no matter what the circumstances. In any event, it seems unreasonable that either should insist upon the right to oppose military action by SEATO which others are prepared to take if they should decide not to commit forces and are free from obligation to do so.

Before discussing this solution with Foreign Minister Thanat, we believe it proper to consult with the Australians, the British, and the French. Because the rule of unanimity was discussed at some length in the Senate hearings when the treaty was adopted, we also believe it essential to inform the foreign affairs committees of the Congress in advance of our discussions with the Thai Foreign Minister.

In summary, we propose to acquiesce in a Thai initiative to change the rule of unanimity proposing instead that decisions be taken by majority vote with no member obligated to use its armed forces without its consent. If this is agreed, in preparation for Foreign Minister Thanat’s visit here within the next week or two, we will proceed immediately to talk with the Australians, the British, the French, and the foreign affairs committees of the Congress.

Dean Rusk 5
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 790.5/9–1861. Secret.
  2. Rusk’s discussion with Thanat concerned Chinese representation at the United Nations and Laos. (Memoranda of conversation, September 18, 12:30 p.m.; ibid., Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330)
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. Secret. Drafted by Peters on September 17.
  5. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, signed September 2, 1947; for text, see American Foreign Policy: Basic Documents, 1950–1955, pp. 789–795.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.