284. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Johnson 1


  • Your Meeting with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore

General Lee’s visit is in many ways similar in tone and objectives to that of Ne Win a year ago. Although Lee has come out strongly in basic defense of our actions in Viet-Nam, and is deeply engaged in Southeast Asian regional cooperation, he remains basically independent and non-aligned. What he really wants to do is to discuss the future of Southeast Asia frankly with you and to assess American policy there.

Lee is a highly intelligent and able man, educated in the law in England, and deeply familiar with the British and particularly the current Labour Government. He now realizes that the British are in the process of disengaging from Southeast Asia, and this leads him to two related beliefs: (a) that a continuing American role in Viet-Nam and in support of individual and regional economic development is vitally important; but (b) at the same time, that the nations of the area must use the time we have bought for them in Viet-Nam (his own phrase) to strengthen themselves and to cooperate much more strongly. What he wants to know, not only from talking with you but from a wide schedule of contacts in the rest of his trip, is whether the United States has the stamina to see Viet-Nam through, and the subtlety and will to play the important but over time diminishing role that he envisages for us in the area.

Lee is Singapore, and would probably appreciate it particularly if your conversation with him was largely private and without staff. He may be tense at first in a new setting, but we believe you will find him direct, frank, [Page 630]and very much worth talking to. He has no significant requests to make, and no desire whatever even to mention the frictions we had with him two years ago [1 line of source text not declassified]. For him, the past is dead, and the important thing is to plot his future in a new type of Southeast Asia, with an American role along lines very similar to those we ourselves would visualize.

If you wish to get a capsule picture of his thoughts and intentions, we enclose major excerpts from a television interview that he gave in late September.2

Specific Topics:

1. Viet-Nam

Lee has no doubt of the basic importance of our seeing it through. He has made a number of strong and helpful statements in the past nine months, the latest being at the British Labour Party conference in Scarborough. He does not expect to be thanked for these, but a quiet expression of appreciation for his understanding would not be amiss.

You might consider asking him what he would do at this point in your shoes. He has no very special knowledge of Hanoi, but he does know Communists from long experience, and he considers himself something of an expert on China. His response could be interesting and would probably be along the lines of a middle course—doing all we can in the South, keeping up the pressure and the bombing unless we get something very concrete in return for stopping, but not appearing to threaten China or the existence of North Viet-Nam. Although Lee has signed on to one “stop the bombing” communiqué with the Indians, it seems pretty clear that—like the Indonesians—he did so for the sake of his non-aligned image and not out of deep belief. He would be deeply interested if you gave him your personal views on the strength of dissent and opposition in this country, and how you are handling the situation. He and the inner circle of his government are highly discreet, and we have no reason to believe that any confidence you share with him would be violated.

2. Southeast Asian Regional Cooperation

Lee’s conversion to this was due much to the highly successful visit of Eugene Black during his trip last fall. He became convinced that our quiet general support made sense, and he then went to work with the other nations to form what is now the ASEAN grouping of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Lee would have liked to see ASEAN bite off more concrete economic projects, but he accepts it as a good first step. You might wish to draw him out on this, [Page 631]not only on the economic possibilities but on whether he sees ASEAN making an indirect security contribution over time. We ourselves believe that ASEAN could reduce the chances of further difficulty between Indonesia and its neighbors, and that—even though it has no express security provisions—it could develop a useful morale and authenticating function against future aggression directed at any of its members or countries in the area.

3. Indonesia

Singapore’s economy could be enormously benefited by the revival of Indonesia, and Lee is totally in favor of our policy of multilateral aid. He is not all that sure that Indonesia can maintain its stability, but he has no doubt that this is essential in the future picture of the area.

4. Malaysia

Lee and the Tunku are oil and water, and there are continuing suspicions and criticisms. Basically, Lee is a bright Chinese who thinks that Malays are pretty sloppy people. Occasionally, he gets into destructive and unhelpful comment on this, although we doubt very much that he would do so with you. Nonetheless, he knows that the two have to get along, and will not demur to being told so in quiet but firm tones, as we are making clear that this is something the two have to handle for themselves. In the past, he has been concerned that we were going to step into the British shoes in Malaysia and give Malaysia extensive military support; this fear has now been allayed by our low-key policy in Malaysia and by our willingness to sell modest military equipment to Singapore itself.

5. Implications of British Withdrawal

Lee fought last spring’s fight with the British, shoulder to shoulder with us, the Australians, and the New Zealanders, and may well have been the most effective of any of us. He is deeply concerned that the British at least adhere to their present timetable, and he will be joining with the Malaysians, Australians, New Zealanders, and hopefully the British to review the situation in early 1968 and see what can be done. His comments on the current British situation would be worth hearing, as he has just come from England. His comments on the future will probably be general, except for point 6 below.

6. U.S. Use of Singapore Bases

Lee has now said publicly that he would be perfectly willing to have our naval vessels and aircraft use the facilities in Singapore on a commercial basis. Privately, he may well urge us to do so. DOD and JCS have gone over the possibilities, and are reluctant to change present arrangements at least in the short term. We suggest you tell him simply that we have had a hard look at this, and that he should discuss it [Page 632]with Secretary McNamara.3 He does not expect any firm undertaking from us, and any decision on our part will probably have to come gradually and over a period of time, if at all.

7. Economic Matters

We doubt if Lee will raise anything on this score with you. We have a reasonably satisfactory cotton textile agreement, and his main concern is to get more American private investment. If he should even mention the cotton textile situation, on which certain minor matters are pending, we suggest you refer him to Secretary Rusk.

8. Overseas Chinese

Lee is deeply convinced that the future of the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia lies in their individual countries, and that Singapore can serve as an independent model and influence in the area. At one time, he had the suspicion that Americans were convinced that the overseas Chinese were a Chinese Communist fifth column. If he gets on to this topic, you should leave him in no doubt we have no such belief today, and that we fully share his basic view.

9. Singapore Itself

Lee and his government have done an outstanding job of making Singapore work. The living standard is the second highest in Asia, and his housing and other programs are models. So are his civil service and lack of corruption. At the moment, his political troubles seem minimal, with the more chauvinist Chinese put at a disadvantage by the disorder on the mainland.

He would doubtless appreciate your expressing a word of congratulations on his domestic performance and asking for his comment.

10. Developments in Communist China

Lee is as uncertain as the rest of us of what is going to develop there, but probably sees it as a gradual unraveling unless Mao calls off the cultural revolution. His main concern is that when Communist China pulls itself together—2, 5, or 10 years from now—Southeast Asia should have been strengthened to the point where the Chinese will let it alone. He is entirely clear that the Communist Chinese do not plan [Page 633]military aggression, but equally clear that they will inevitably exert great pressure and build up subversive assets if Communist China is again united and determined and Southeast Asia has not become a lot stronger and more cooperative.

Public Statements

We have drafted a very simple joint statement to be issued on the afternoon of the second day of the visit.4 We expect to have this worked out fully before Lee arrives, and at the latest on the first afternoon. In Washington, Lee is not appearing in public, but is making an off-the-record speech to the Overseas Writers and seeing the House and Senate committees. Thus, there should be no real competing publicity during his Washington stay, unless the Congressional committees should leak.

On the rest of his trip, he has several public speeches and will appear on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, October 22. He knows how to handle himself, and we think the net results could be very favorable. You might wish to indicate your awareness that he is doing these public appearances, but we strongly urge that you give him no substantive advice unless he asks for it—and then only in low key. He is an articulate and tough politician who will have already figured out what he wants to say.

Dean Rusk 5
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 SINGAPORE. Secret. Drafted by William Bundy and cleared by Maurice D. Bean, Country Director for Malaysia-Singapore. A typewritten note reads: “Original sent to WH in Briefing Book.” In an attached covering memorandum to Rusk, Bundy noted that this memorandum was lengthier and in a different format than the normal practice, but Bundy felt that since Lee was such “an exceptional individual” and since he and Johnson had never met, it would be of greater use to the President. Johnson met Lee alone in the White House on October 17 from 12:03 to 1:22 p.m. (Johnson Library, Daily Diary) No record of their conversation was made. While Galbraith did not know what Lee and Johnson spoke of, he concluded from subsequent meetings with Lee that “the meeting left Lee with a deeply favorable impression of the President and a desire to be helpful to him.” (Memorandum from Galbraith to Rostow, November 15; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 SINGAPORE)
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. McNamara met with Lee on the evening of October 18. They discussed prospects of continued British military use of Singapore’s facilities in face of the Wilson government’s plans to withdraw east of Suez. Lee was confident Singapore’s repair and maintenance facilities and its military airfield would keep the British Navy there. Lee hoped that the United States would also consider using Singapore, and McNamara agreed to look into that possibility. Lee and McNamara then had a long discussion on Vietnam in which Lee argued that the United States was placing military considerations before political ones. (Memorandum of conversation, October 18; Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 72 A 2468, Singapore 1967 (Singapore 09.1.112) and memorandum from Galbraith to Rostow, November 15; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 7 SINGAPORE)
  4. The joint statement, October 18, is printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 806–807.
  5. Printed from a copy that indicates Rusk signed the original.