285. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Meeting with the Secretary
[Page 634]

PARTICIPANTS

  • Singapore
  • His Excellency Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore
  • His Excellency Professor Wong Lin Ken, Ambassador of Singapore
  • United States
  • The Honorable Dean Rusk, Secretary of State
  • The Honorable Francis J. Galbraith, Ambassador to Singapore
  • Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William P. Bundy
1.
In response to the Secretary’s opening question about what he thought British intentions in Singapore were, Lee said that barring catastrophe to the British pound, the British position would hold until April 1971. They would, however, be gone from Malaysia, and the die would be cast for their eventual complete withdrawal from the ground in Southeast Asia. Lee indicated that he gave little credence to the British defense commitment once that withdrawal took place. The danger would be internal, not external, and there was little that a mobile force, afloat or in the air, could do to help on that. It was important that someone fill the vacuum. Lee said he was disturbed at the prospect of New Zealand’s expected movement of troops out of Malaysia to Viet-Nam. The Communists along the Malaysia-Thai border would be watching these developments carefully. Lee said it had been the British and Australians who had convinced the Communists they couldn’t win the insurgency in Malaya. They might, in the absence of replacement for the British troops withdrawn, be emboldened to try again.
2.
The Secretary asked Lee what he would do if he were in our shoes in Viet-Nam. Lee said he would put the alternatives before his political opponents and make them choose. He thought a bombing pause might be tried but there was danger if it failed, that the hands of those political opponents who favored escalation would be strengthened. Lee thought the most important thing to do was to find “digits” strong enough to put backbone into the South Vietnamese and to provide the government there with the required credibility. He spoke critically of General Thieu and Marshal Ky and he questioned whether the United States would continue to show the necessary stamina in the face of the lack of productivity of the war effort under their leadership.
3.
Lee also deprecated the U.S. record in Asia. As examples, he cited our alleged failure to come to the aid of the Kuomintang Government in China (giving our support, instead, to Europe in the form of the Marshall Plan) and other (unspecified) actions in the 1950’s which he called “imperialistic, selfish and cynical.” He said he would not commit himself to the side of the United States unless and until he could be assured that we would stand firm in Asia and that we would stand back of him. He implied that this would require proof on our part erasing his doubts. Lee went into some diatribe alleging that the [Page 635]American motives, leading it to favor its European at the expense of its Asian commitments were basically attributable to racial feelings against Asians. The Secretary said he could not accept that interpretation of our record in Asia or our motivations. He added that unless the Prime Minister could find the assurances he was seeking of the kind of people we are from our record in Asia since World War II, there was no form of words that would provide such assurance.
4.
Lee talked at length about his suspicions that American “Eurocentrism” made it unlikely that we would do what will be necessary to preserve a balance of power in favor of the free countries of Asia. He seemed to be trying to draw the Secretary into a statement about the willingness of the United States to make a commitment to Singapore as a quid pro quo for more explicit support of the U.S. position in Asia by Singapore. Toward the end of the meeting, the Prime Minister’s voice took on an urgent, almost desperate note as he pictured the United States and Singapore in partnership in Southeast Asia. The Secretary, however, made no commitment.2 Lee then said they might not have another chance to talk as he didn’t know when or whether he would be able to come to the United States again.3
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL SINGAPORE–US. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Galbraith and approved in S on November 2. The meeting was held at Blair House.
  2. In a November 15 memorandum to Rostow, Galbraith stated that for reasons not clear to him, the Lee-Rusk conversation was “less felicitous than most others.” Galbraith thought Lee’s expressions were “overdrawn and he sounded less reasonable and attractive than he was on most other occasions.” Lee “seemed to be drawing the Secretary into a statement of commitment, or of a willingness to consider a commitment, to Singapore as a quid pro quo for more explicit Singapore support for the United States in Vietnam.” Galbraith reiterated that Lee’s argument was urgent, almost desperate, which he attributed to Lee’s tension about his first meeting with Johnson, the long day, and his encounters with the American press corps. (Ibid., POL 7 SINGAPORE)
  3. In a meeting with William Bundy the morning of October 18, Lee expressed his desire to maintain a British military presence in Singapore and his hope the United States would use Singapore’s repair and maintenance facilities more in the future. Lee warned against allowing the Malays and Indonesians to expect U.S. support if there was any discord with their Chinese populations. Bundy assured Lee of U.S. impartiality, but Lee remained suspicious of “the Generals” in Indonesia and “the young Turks” in Malaysia. Lee stated he wanted to arm Singapore sufficiently to “give anybody a bloody nose who is going to rob the house and take my jade pieces.” Bundy promised the sale to Singapore of light weapons, but thought heavy weapons a mistake. Lee hoped that the word could be dropped that the Seventh Fleet would prevent Indonesian or Malaysian incursion into Singapore. Bundy and Lee then discussed Vietnam. (Memorandum of conversation, October 18, and memorandum from Galbraith to Rostow, November 15; ibid., POL SINGAPORE–US and POL 7 SINGAPORE)