102. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Ambassador Leonard Unger
- Henry A. Kissinger
- John H. Holdridge
- Dr. Kissinger’s Conversation With Ambassador Unger on US-Thai Relations
Dr. Kissinger expressed his pleasure in seeing Ambassador Unger. He went on to say that he had developed a number of obsessions about Thailand. One of these involved the use of Thai troops in Cambodia. After he had sent his letter to Ambassador Unger 2 he had come to believe that they both were on the same track;3 on the other hand, for many months he had the strong impression that Unger’s colleagues wanted the Thai troops to stay in Thailand, especially in the Northeast, and not get in trouble in Cambodia. Somehow, by hook or crook, Thai units intended for Cambodia would disappear. Because Ambassador Unger probably didn’t know the origins of the interest here in having the Thai prepared to go into Cambodia, he, Dr. Kissinger, wanted to provide some of the background. He had to deal with the President, who would repeatedly telephone about this. One evening the President had called about the two regiments of Thai regulars which were supposed to be a strategic reserve, and said that he wanted them in Cambodia. Dr. Kissinger noted that he had then gone back to the WSAG to say that these regiments should be sent in.[Page 207]
He happened to be a member of the school of thought, Dr. Kissinger continued, which believed that a Presidential order should be carried out. He referred to the complicated sequence of events involving the two regiments of Thai regulars which were supposed to go into Cambodia, the forces which were to be sent from Thailand to Vietnam to free units of the Thai forces in Vietnam for service in Cambodia, and then the plan to train two regiments of Thai/Khmer volunteers. We had ended up with no Thai regulars in Cambodia, no units sent to Vietnam, and no Thai/Khmer regiments. Ultimately, the Thai decision was to pull out from Vietnam, leaving nothing in reserve. This had not looked like the most enthusiastic compliance with the President’s orders.
Dr. Kissinger observed that Thai military planning now appeared to be coming along satisfactorily. However, if the occasion ever arose for the Thai to move, we should give the impression that we were really behind them rather than engaging in discussions over the details of our aid. This would give them the wrong impression. Ambassador Unger said that he felt our negotiations with the Thai on support were now proceeding satisfactorily, and that if we could carry these negotiations through we would have Thai units prepared and in place ready to move out for operations in Cambodia this dry season. Nevertheless, if the Thai went into Cambodia we would have a big financial problem in paying for the ordnance (bombs and ammunition), POL, and other supplies which the Thai would need. Ambassador Unger added that nobody had told him where these funds were to come from. He assumed that Dr. Kissinger probably remembered the last frank message from Bangkok in which he had pointed out these difficulties. Dr. Kissinger asked if Ambassador Unger had suggested any solutions, and Ambassador Unger replied that he hadn’t offered any because he had been knocked down on using Thai MASF, and had also been informed that Cambodian MAP was unavailable because it was overcommitted. Dr. Kissinger noted that the situation as to Cambodia MAP was now remedied by the supplemental appropriation.
Ambassador Unger stated that he wanted Dr. Kissinger to know his, Unger’s, thinking. When the question of the Thai operating in Cambodia through South Vietnam had arisen, he had thought this was a great solution. However, it had been knocked down somewhere in Washington. The question was apparently how deeply into Cambodia the Thai should operate. The Thai had been ready to go, but somebody back here had killed the idea. He understood that it had been knocked out as a practicable possibility over the issue of how funds could be used, and also because of the possibility of Congressional flak. With respect to the Thai/Khmer idea the question was where the money would come from when the troops moved into Cambodia. Funds couldn’t come from Thai MASF, or from Cambodia MAP either (although this might now be changed).[Page 208]
Ambassador Unger explained that the situation he had just described was why he had jumped on the SGU idea for using trained people—the two SGU battalions formed out of the Thai/Khmer volunteers—against the Ho Chi Minh trail. He understood that these units had just taken off from Korat for commitment to the Bolovens. Dr. Kissinger asked Ambassador Unger’s opinion of the capability of these troops, to which Ambassador Unger replied that the units ought to be good because they had been well-trained. Because of this, the judgment had been made to put them into the Bolovens area, but we wouldn’t know until later how well they would do. Thai troops were good on the defensive, although not so good on the offensive. Ambassador Unger cited Thai regulars in North Laos as an example of effective Thai performance on the defensive, noting that although they had recently been hit very hard and had suffered substantial casualties, they had held very well. He believed that the situation in the Bolovens was also one in which the Thai would do well. SGUs were a better kind of unit than the regulars, since they were more mobile. He hoped to see all the Thai troops in Laos eventually put into the SGU mode, with the RCT pulled back. It could also help defend Long Tieng and Sam Thong. Going back to the South Laos picture, if all went well and the situation didn’t get out of hand, we would work out a smooth transition for putting in SGUs.
Dr. Kissinger declared that he was willing to go along with this since we had an assessment that the SGUs were as good as the RCT. The Joint Chiefs did not think so. Ambassador Unger remarked that the test would come soon in the South.
Dr. Kissinger then asked Ambassador Unger why the Department of State was so interested in SGUs instead of Thai regulars. Ambassador Unger replied that General Praphat had told him that the Thai could not have their soldiers fighting side by side at different rates of pay, and that types of units and pay scales should be standardized. In addition, the Thai were hesitant to put in RCTs except in places where they could be covered up. This was so as to avoid the appearance of violating the Geneva Accords. Ambassador Unger observed that his own conclusion was that the SGUs were preferable because they cost less and were more suitable for the type of fighting involved. Did Washington feel that the cost was an important factor?
Dr. Kissinger stated that what the President wanted was success— he wouldn’t care about an additional $10 million if success was assured. There was a school here which interpreted the Nixon Doctrine as favoring a semi-neutralist Thailand. This was a brilliant theory, except for the fact that it didn’t meet the President’s ideas. The President did not want to encourage a semi-neutralist Thailand, or a defeat in Laos. When the chips were down, Thai regulars would be pulled in [Page 209]anyway. The President wanted reports on what Ambassador Unger believed, not reports on what Ambassador Unger believed conformed with the views of the White House. We then would proceed to give definite instructions. Dr. Kissinger suggested that every once in a while Ambassador Unger should sum up what he really thought for his, Dr. Kissinger’s, use.
Ambassador Unger reiterated the belief that over the long run SGUs were the better deal. Dr. Kissinger said that he had no brief for the SGUs over the RCTs except that we knew that the RCT had worked in North Laos. What we would do was to put the SGUs in when they were trained, which would be at the beginning of the rainy season. Ambassador Unger told Dr. Kissinger that he would so inform Praphat, who wouldn’t simply pull out the RCT but would keep it there in order to maintain his assets. Dr. Kissinger remarked that this was very important.
Ambassador Unger said that the Thai were not planning to put an RCT into South Laos, to which Dr. Kissinger commented that he did not see the need for an RCT where one was not already in place. In the Long Tieng situation we had waited a long time after being told the Thai regulars were needed before deciding to go ahead. The President had made the decision, which obviously had made all the difference. Ambassador Unger mentioned that he had no complaint over this decision, only over the fact that he had not been brought in on all of the preliminary communications. Dr. Kissinger explained that back channel messages had been used only because we had wanted to make sure before hand that the Thai were willing to go. There was no sense here that Ambassador Unger was doing anything but loyally carrying out his instructions. The difficulty was in making sure that the President’s policy and wishes filtered through.
Ambassador Unger noted that there were misunderstandings among the Thai, too. He was now speaking to them on an entirely different basis from what he had been saying two years ago. Nevertheless, the Thai understood the Congressional problem, and knew that what Congress said was not necessarily the President’s policy. Dr. Kissinger expressed understanding of the difficulties the Thai faced, recalling some of the problems which the President’s advance men had caused prior to the President’s trip last year.
Ambassador Unger declared that in our relations with the Thai we should not overlook small but important issues such as the Son Tay raid. The aircraft involved had all taken off from Thai bases, but he had been given absolutely nothing which he could pass along to the Thai about this. Dr. Kissinger stated that the problem here did not lie with Ambassador Unger or himself, but was due to the fact that when the decision had been made Secretary Rogers had not agreed to a [Page 210]suggestion from him that others in State such as Ambassador Johnson and Ambassador Green should be brought in. He personally had been prohibited from talking, and had called Ambassador Johnson over against orders to tell him about the raid while it was in progress. This was of course too late, and we should have had Ambassador Unger talking to the Thai about that same time. Ambassador Unger asserted that even an hour of advance notice would have been helpful. Only today, with the help of Secretary Rogers, he had gotten Secretary Laird to clear an anodyne message which could be given to the Thai.
In conclusion, Ambassador Unger mentioned that there were two issues which caused him considerable concern: first, the matter of close-in air support for the Thai if they went into Cambodia, and second the matter of our longer term commitment to Thailand under these circumstances and the relationship of the Thai actions to SEATO. Dr. Kissinger agreed that these were important issues, and instructed Mr. Holdridge to see that they would be put before the WSAG for consideration.
(Note: After the meeting Ambassador Unger elaborated on the close-in air support issue to Mr. Holdridge, saying that he believed the Thai air resources were inadequate to maintain the authorized sortie rate of 900 per month, and that in any event the Thai had no real experience in providing the kind of close-in support which might be necessary in Cambodia. There was also the related matter of how to provide logistical support.)
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 563, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. V. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Drafted by Holdridge and forwarded to Kissinger on December 17 for approval under cover of an attached memorandum with the notation: “Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, no further distribution appears warranted.” The meeting was held in Kissinger’s office.↩
- See Document 95.↩
- In a December 14 memorandum to Kissinger, however, Holdridge stated that Unger had only partly “gotten” the President’s desires with respect to the Thai helping out in Cambodia. Rather, he noted that Unger “has been inclined to push his own ideas first, notably in trying to focus upon the counterinsurgency requirements in Thailand as first priority. He probably shares the general State view that ‘Thai troops should serve in Thailand,’ as well as State’s concerns over possible U.S. military involvement along with the Thai via our SEATO relationship. Thai in addition favors direct U.S. military assistance to Thailand in support of Thai activities in Cambodia, even though this is legally not possible—he wants the laws changed.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 563, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. V)↩