273. Memorandum for the Record1

[Here follows discussion of South Vietnam and Laos.]

C. Thailand


Political situation and attitudes:

Ambassador Martin expressed the judgment that the Thanom regime in Thailand has smoothly consolidated its power and is operating well. It is operating more as a collegial institution than the personally authoritarian regime of Sarit2 ever did. There has been considerable decentralization, and delegations to the Ministeries have noticeably speeded up the decision making process.

Contrary to general expectations in December, Thanom seems to be clearly in charge and is publicly deferred to by General Praphat. The personal and family relationships between these two permit an intimate behind-the-scene which is obviously effective.

The cabinet is still basically unchanged since the original appointment of Pote Sarasin to the vital post of Minister of National Development. His public position, his integrity and his ability are a definite asset.

Ambassador Martin believes that Praphat has persuaded Thanom to make two changes in the Cabinet before Praphat departs for the U.S. in mid-June for an eye operation at Walter Reed. One will be the elevation of General Chitti to the post of Minister of Agriculture and the other will be the replacement of the present Minister of Industry. Praphat has concentrated the major portion of his time and energies on restoring his position and power in the Royal Thai Army from whose councils he had been systematically excluded by Sarit. In the Embassyʼs judgment, he has had a fair amount of success. Dawee, as Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff Supreme Command, is playing an increasingly important and useful role in over-all coordination of military affairs.

While coup rumors are endemic, the frequency of their circulation has been greatly reduced. Ambassador Martin does not expect this sort of trouble in the foreseeable future. The most significant substantiation of this estimate is the confidence displayed by Thanom and Praphat in [Page 590] permitting the latter to be absent 4 to 6 weeks in June and July. It is therefore expected that the present regime, with occasional changes in Cabinet portfolio, will continue in control. It is probable that Thanom will retire in the next two or three years, perhaps after the promulgation of a new constitution, and that he will be succeeded by Praphat.

The principal internal emphasis of this new regime is on the economic and social development of Thailand. Although it is concerned over the increasing amount of domestic resources being absorbed in these programs, it will continue this emphasis.

For the present, the principal ingredient of Thai foreign policy is its reliance on the Rusk-Thanat communiqué3 as constituting a virtual defense alliance with the U.S. Ambassador Martin has had recent occasion, as have his predecessors, to remind Washington that this policy—this degree of commitment—is a very great variant from the whole sweep of Thai history, of Thai traditions, and basic Thai instincts. In their relations with world powers they are quite conscious that they were almost the prototype of the non-aligned, non-committed nations. While they had to deliver large parts of modern Laos and Cambodia to the French and parts of modern Malaysia and Burma to the British, they nevertheless maintained their independence. They have a certain confidence that their old skills are still present and that if required, they would be able to repeat the process again.

They would vastly prefer to continue to maintain their reliance on the U.S. Yet it is now quite clear that certain questions are being posed concerning the effect on Thailandʼs vital interests on the totality of Thailandʼs open commitment to the U.S.

These questions do not involve qualms about our military capacity. Through many channels they are sure not only that our nuclear power is overwhelming, but also that our conventional military power has been greatly strengthened over the past three years. They know it is now a multi-faceted, flexible, pliant instrument of U.S. National Policy permitting the U.S. to use it if desired in a coldly pin-pointed way, in an almost surgically precise way, to achieve any specific objective within a vast spectrum.

They recognize that our conventional military power has only recently provided us with this new and flexible capacity. On the matter of our military capacity, they seem to have two basic questions: (1) whether we have yet developed an effective common doctrine on its use, and (2) whether the Communist Chinese believe we have the will to use it. Both of these questions depend on their analysis of our present basic attitudes towards Southeast Asia. This analysis is not yet completed. They are not [Page 591] yet certain whether we are really prepared to use force to achieve our policy aims in Southeast Asia. They are concerned whether we will merely threaten to do so, while our real intent is to seek only the best political solution we are able to negotiate. If they become convinced that we will use force if necessary as the underlying sanction of our policy, Ambassador Martin has no doubt of their complete cooperation and their willingness to go with us all the way. But until they are certain that we have the will to use such force as appears appropriate, they will wait to see how the situation unfolds. They will not this time be willing to use their real estate as an American base without a clear view of the end of the road. They will demand advanced consultation, and if this is not forthcoming, the very large degree of cooperation which now exists will be seriously jeopardized.


Military Appraisal:

Secretary Rusk asked whether the Thai Government was prepared to put forces into Laos to counter a PL advance. Ambassador Martin said that this subject was currently under serious consideration in Bangkok. Five companies had already been deployed to the northern border area and plans for their augmentation are being prepared. There appears to be a new philosophy growing within the Thai Armed Forces to the effect that they can and should deploy their own forces to meet their own security requirements without necessarily waiting for the deployment of American troops in advance.

Secretary Rusk asked Adm Felt what he thought of the capability of the Thai forces to offer material help to Souvanna Phouma. Adm Felt said that this report that the Thaiʼs were considering putting forces across the Mekong was new to him. Personally he doubted that they would be prepared to go this far unless U.S. forces accompanied them. Secretary McNamara asked Adm Felt how many ground forces he thought would be required to give any meaningful support to Souvannaʼs government. Adm Felt replied that within the context of the present situation somewhere between 2 and 3 divisions would be needed.

Ambassador Martin explained that the Thai military do not believe that the mere crossing of the Mekong will bring them into extensive contact with the Pathet Lao. Their current thinking seems to be that they could make such a military move without obtaining prior U.S. concurrence and still be able to count on the over-all protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella should this action provoke a major Communist attack against Thailand. After discussing the time and space factor involved, the general conclusion was that while the Thai might occupy Lao towns on the Mekong, a major move of Thai forces deep into Laos was unlikely.

Adm Felt pointed out that it has always been Thai policy to hold a division in reserve to protect Bangkok. As far as Thailandʼs national interest in Laos goes, Adm Felt stated that his conversations with Thai military [Page 592] leaders indicated they were primarily concerned with re-occupying the former Thai territory lying in Laos to the west of the Mekong River. Ambassador Martin said both of these observations were undoubtedly true under Saritʼs regime, but that Thanom had different ideas.

Secretary McNamara suggested that we need closer joint U.S.-Thai planning for the movement of military forces into the key towns in the Mekong valley should such deployments become necessary. Ambassador Martin agreed and said he would take the matter up with Thanom when Washington indicated it was ready.

Secretary Rusk asked for an estimate of the fighting qualities of the Thai army. Adm Felt said that no one really knew how effective they would be in combat. Ambassador Martin drew attention to the fact that the Thai unit that fought in Korea under the UN flag acquitted itself very well in battle. Mr. Colby added that the Thai officers provided the leadership element for the Meo tribesmen fighting behind the Communist lines in Laos. In this capacity, they have shown high qualities of initiative and aggressive leadership. General Taylor indicated that the general estimate was that the Thais could handle the PL all right but there was some doubt as to whether they could face up to a trained North Vietnamese military force. Secretary McNamara stated that his impression was that the Thai have a very limited military capability to meet any major combined Communist attack. Adm Felt supported this conclusion. As to the combat air capability, he cited the low caliber of senior leadership in the Thai Air Force.

[Here follows discussion of North Vietnam.]

  1. Source: Department of Defense, JCS Official Records, 9510 (1 June 64). Top Secret. The meeting in Honolulu, June 1–2, was primarily to discuss Vietnam and was attended by 55 people including the top civilian and military advisers. This is a record of the Opening Plenary Session of the Honolulu meetings. Certain portions of the plenary session on Vietnam are printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. I, Document 187.
  2. Sarit Thanarat, Prime Minister of Thailand until his death on December 8, 1963.
  3. Joint statement issued in Washington on March 6, 1962. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1962, pp. 1091–1093.