260. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Southeast Asia
- Prime Minister Wilson
- Foreign Secretary Stewart
- Defense Secretary Healey
- Sir Burke Trend
- Michael Halls
- Michael Paliser
- Secretary Rusk
- Ambassador Bruce
- Minister Kaiser
- Ronald I. Spiers
The Secretary said President Johnson sent his warm regards and his appreciation for the way in which Wilson has kept in close touch with us on questions in Southeast Asia. There was one specific problem he wished to raise and that was the question of how Britain sees its relationship to SEATO. As Confrontation ends and the British move to bring substantial forces back from Southeast Asia, this question becomes significant. He recognized the special political problems assistance in Vietnam raised for Britain but wondered whether these were applicable in the case of Thailand. The Thais have been pressing us for [Page 536] U.S. manned helicopters and this is a need which the U.K. might fill, one relatively small in scale.
The Prime Minister said this involved deep domestic problems. Last year, he got away pretty well with a tough line on Vietnam but the situation was now changing. The Vietnamese lobby was no longer standing alone and a big fight was brewing not only with the pacificists but with the sophisticated Europeanists. The East of Suez policy was coming under heavy attack and a much more dangerous line-up against the British policy was coming about. Both factions were afraid of Britain getting dug in in Southeast Asia in a policy of containment of China. If these suspicions were to be fed by the extension of small aid of the type the Secretary had suggested in Thailand, the result would be a strengthening of the anti-Vietnam forces in Britain which are now showing more and more overtones of anti-Americanism.
Minister Healey noted that the U.K. is now giving a good deal of help, such as in training Vietnamese in Malaysia and in airfield construction in North Thailand. This could be jeopardized if the British gratuitously added to their burdens by expanding assistance in Thailand. He noted also that the British were in particularly short supply of helicopters and helicopter crews. They have had to rob their European inventory seriously and there are only 9 left in Europe. While there are many helicopters in Southeast Asia, they are still over-extended in the area. This was the last type of assistance which the British would be able to handle.
The Secretary returned to the question of how to interpret our obligations under SEATO. The treaty2 could be liquidated under conditions of peace, but these conditions did not exist. The fact is there is a treaty and the question is how does the U.K. interpret its obligations under it. Defense Minister Healey interjected that SEATO involved no commitment to help the Thais with internal security problems. The Secretary wondered whether it could be extended under SEATO contingency planning. The Prime Minister said that anything which appeared to be “reactivating” SEATO would create problems. Minister Healey observed that the very thing which the United States is trying to obtain, namely a commitment of U.K. power further north, was just the thing which would make the moves suggested most difficult to sell. New physical steps of this character would look to many like the U.K. was beginning along the same path that the U.S. took in Vietnam.
The Secretary observed that there were two different views of the SEATO commitment. The French and Pakistanis have taken one view. [Page 537] The U.S., the Thais, the Filipinos and others have taken another. Where does the U.K. stand? The Prime Minister said that the only way the U.K. could make its commitments in Singapore credible was to terminate confrontation. Defense Minister Healey noted that the U.K. was planning now to bring home only those “Confrontation reinforcements” sent out after 1963. If everything were to go perfectly in ending Confrontation, the U.K. could start withdrawals to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong beginning next year. Thereafter, they could start redeploying forces as, for example, returning borrowed troops to the BAOR. At most, their forces in the area would go down to 3/4 of the maximum confrontation force. It was still not clear, however, that things would go perfectly on ending Confrontation.
The Prime Minister noted that it was not only the pacifists and Europeanists who opposed the East of Suez policy, but the economists, who felt that more foreign exchange was seeping away than was justified by British interest in the area. Nevertheless, the U.K. would give “prayerful consideration” to the Secretary’s words, but the problems could not be overstated. Last year, the Vietnam policy opponents were pressing for a cessation of bombing. Now they were pressing for U.S. withdrawal. He asked how the U.S. felt about the situation in Vietnam at this juncture.
The Secretary said that on the military side, some of the Viet Cong battalions had come out in the open in the last few days. When they come out in the open, they cannot stand up. The U.S. now has enormous firepower on the ground. By mid-summer, there will be more than was expended in any month of World War II. The problem was, however, in fighting an enemy you could not find. On the political side, the impasse continued. As he had told the Norwegians, they could tell their critics that if they could produce Hanoi, Norway could produce the U.S. Secretary of State. It was necessary to remember, however, that Hanoi had never said that a willingness to negotiate with the Viet Cong would solve anything. There was no reason to believe that Hanoi had any change in policy since the bombing pause, which had lasted twice as long as even the Soviets had suggested without producing a single result. Nevertheless, we are interested in getting some political process underway. That is why we believe we should try to make something out of Sihanouk’s request to get the ICC going. He had urged the Russians to respond to this request. If the two co-chairmen could meet in Geneva, or the three ICC countries could get together, we would have something going for us. He had even scraped the bottom of the barrel and considered whether as many of us who would, could just go to Geneva and issue a standing invitation to do business, leaving empty chairs for the rest. However, the U.S. just cannot give up in Vietnam. What is at stake is the value of our word and this is more important [Page 538] than 14 million South Vietnamese or even all of Southeast Asia in the present context.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Conference Files: Lot 67 D 305, CF 30. Secret; Limited Distribution. Drafted by Spiers and approved in S on June 20. The memorandum is Part II of III; memoranda of the conversation dealing with NATO and Southern Rhodesia are ibid. The meeting was held at 10 Downing Street. Rusk visited London June 9-10.↩
- Reference is to the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, signed at Manila on September 8, 1954, which established SEATO. (6 UST 81)↩