298. Memorandum of a Conversation, White House1


  • U Thant on Southeast Asia


  • The President
  • Secretary General U Thant
  • Under Secretary of UN Dr. Ralph Bunche
  • Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson
  • Special Assistant to the President McGeorge Bundy
  • Assistant Secretary of State Harlan Cleveland
  • Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke

The President and the Secretary General had been together alone for about twenty minutes. The other members of the party joined them in the President’s office a little after 12:00 Noon. The Secretary General said they had been discussing Southeast Asia and asked about the recent reports of an impending coup in Saigon. Mr. Bundy said there had been about 200 of these rumors over the past couple of years; that obviously the situation was somewhat unstable in view of the previous coups and the fact that “many of the opposition had not been purged and still were in a position to maneuver for power.”

The Secretary General then spoke of Ho Chi Minh. He said that when he and then Prime Minister U Nu of Burma visited Hanoi and Peking in 1954, their assessment was that Ho Chi Minh was deeply influenced by French culture and traditions, that he was not a Communist or even a pro-Communist—at that time. While conceding that this assessment was more than nine years old, he thought it might be worth pursuing a private probe with Ho. The best channel for such a probe, he thought, would be the Pakistani,2 who had indicated to him some interest in such a role. He said Burma and Cambodia were also natural possible channels, but under present conditions Cambodia was not sufficiently reliable, and that as far as Burma was concerned, he had discussed the matter with General Ne Win on his (U Thant) recent [Page 644] visit to Rangoon and found Ne Win negative on the subject. Ne Win, said the Secretary General, “does not want to be involved in any foreign implications” for the time being.

Mr. Bundy said that some signal had been sent through the Pakistani to Peking. On Hanoi, we have made some effort to get through but it seems to be a blank wall.

The Secretary General said that he thought Ho was probably pro-Moscow rather than pro-Peking now—and added that this was also true of the leadership of the Indonesian Communists and Burmese Communists. Many of the rank and file leaders in Burma, however, were oriented toward Peking. But in Burma, he said with emphasis, the backbone of the Communist Party has been broken.

Continuing on Southeast Asia, the Secretary General referred to talk of a UN role. If there were a consensus, including North Viet-Nam but not necessarily Peking, he felt the UN could come in to take some responsibility for administering the agreed arrangements.

The President asked Mr. Bundy whether Ayub had not let it be known he was acting as an intermediary between us and the Chinese Communists. Mr. Bundy said that apparently there was a leak in Paris but was not clear that Ayub was personally involved. The President thought that maybe they had blown up the Secretary of State 1s suggestion, adding that if they were going to take credit for being a channel perhaps they are not the best channel.

Mr. Bundy added that in any event it doesn’t look to us as though the North Vietnamese are ready for political discussion.

The Secretary General reverted to his previous experience in Burma with the Chinese Communists. In 1947, he said, the Chinese Communists told the Burmese Government that they would not subvert the Burmese Government, and not aid the Burmese Communists, if Burma did not have any “Western bases”. “They even gave us the names of political refugees seeking asylum in Communist China,” U Thant said. For 17 years, he added, the Chinese Communists have not helped the Burmese Communists inside Burma. He had checked on this during his recent visit to Rangoon, he said, and reamed that there had been “no single instance of material aid”. But the other side of the Chinese position was a threat: if Burma did the way Pakistan, the Philippines, Laos and other countries were doing and accepted “foreign installations” in their country, the Chinese Communists would have to “destroy” them.

Even in Laos, the Secretary General said, while it was “definitely established” that North Viet-Nam has taken a hand in helping the Pathet-Lao, he was not sure about the role of the Chinese Communists.

[Page 645]

The Secretary General then repeated that the Pakistanis had hinted that they are available for soundings in Peking and said he had reported this to Ambassador Stevenson.

Mr. Bundy said it was somewhat hard to use the Pakistanis because of the relationship with India. Mr. Bundy added that if what the Secretary General was saying, in effect, was that the Chinese Communists thought that the problem of Southeast Asia was getting the Americans out, on this at least we could agree with them, since nothing was clearer than our desire to leave Southeast Asia under proper conditions.

The President reinforced this in the following words: “We are ready to get out tomorrow if they (the Communists) will behave.”

The Secretary General, again reverting to earlier history, said there had been a chance in 1954 to implement the Geneva Accords. Of course, there had been damaging flaws in the Geneva Accords, notably the troika concept of peacekeeping machinery established under those Accords. (Mr. Bundy interjected that the idea of early elections was also a flaw, and the Secretary General agreed.)

The Secretary General said he had talked to John Foster Dulles at the time about possible arrangements for internationally-sponsored neutrality of Southeast Asian countries, but “he didn’t believe in neutrality”. The Secretary General said he still felt that some internationally-guaranteed neutrality was the best answer for Southeast Asia, and repeated that it was not too late to probe Ho Chi Minh’s private feelings.

At this point in the discussion, Mrs. Johnson, who had joined the group a few minutes before, took the Secretary General out into the Rose Garden for the scheduled walk around the garden.

  1. Source: Department of State, President’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 66 D 149. Confidential. Drafted by Cleveland and approved in the White House on August 17. U Thant held a similar conversation with Rusk at 1:15 p.m. during a working luncheon at the Department of State. (Ibid., Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330)
  2. Reference is to Mohammed Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan