124. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Irwin) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Visit to Southeast Asia, May 19 through May 27

My trip to Southeast Asia strengthened my belief in the value of the Nixon Doctrine, not only as the best means of pursuing U.S. policy objectives in Asia, but also as a formula for developing self-reliance and determination in the Southeast Asian nations.

Those themes emerged again and again in conversations with government leaders in Viet-Nam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. They all emphasize the continuing need for U.S. military and economic assistance, but most seem prepared and even anxious to do more for their own defense and development. They also seem somewhat more willing to face the internal and international implications of drugs and corruption, particularly as those issues bear on the willingness and the ability of our government to sustain its effort in their behalf.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam and Laos.]

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Thailand

Thailand has a special importance in the security of Southeast Asia, both for its own sake and for the assistance the Thai are providing and may be able to provide to the defense of Laos and Cambodia.

As you know, Thai regular army troops have all been replaced in northern Laos by Thai Special Guerrilla Units (SGU’s). Vang Pao speaks of the effectiveness of these SGU’s primarily in a defensive or consolidating role, thus freeing Meo and Lao SGU’s for offensive operations. The Thai, along with U.S. air power, have been a key factor in resisting North Vietnamese attacks on Long Tieng. There are at present 10 Thai SGU battalions (approximately 3,500 men) in northern Laos with 4 more battalions now being trained.

Although the Lao need and want the help of the Thai, they show some concern about the long-term objectives of Thailand regarding those areas of Laos which once were Thai. We heard occasional comments to the effect that the Thai may be eventually almost as difficult to evacuate from the country as the North Vietnamese.

The Cambodians too view the prospect of Thai troops in their western provinces (which also once were under Thai rule) with some apprehension. At the same time, they have welcomed the limited air support provided by the Thai.

In both Laos and Cambodia, the Thai appear to be concerned about the risks of direct confrontation with Hanoi. While desiring to avoid direct confrontation, they are hoping that the use of their SGU’s in northern Laos and their limited air sorties in Cambodia will signal to the North Vietnamese the seriousness with which Thailand views Hanoi’s approach to Thai borders. During my meeting with Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn, General Surakit Mayalap, Chief of Staff of the Royal Thai Army, gave a briefing on the military situation in which he stressed the serious Thai concern over Hanoi’s approach to Thai borders.

While the Thai need encouragement to continue their support to Laos and Cambodia, we should be alert to avoid the development of a situation vis-à-vis the North Vietnamese that might prompt the Thai to invoke our SEATO commitment at a time when public and Congressional attitudes inevitably raise a question as to our ability effectively to meet that commitment.

The Thai and North Vietnamese have been engaging in negotiations in Bangkok for some months, ostensibly with respect to the repatriation of Vietnamese who have settled in northeastern Thailand, but undoubtedly touching on wider issues. Foreign Minister Thanat told us frankly that the Thai have been trying to feel out both Hanoi and Peking, and acknowledged that Thai actions in Laos and Cambodia [Page 261]have been designed in part as a tacit negotiating process in which the Thai have been attempting to signal Hanoi. Although the repatriation talks have now been broken off and the North Vietnamese delegation has returned home, it would seem that the Thai, in traditional fashion, remain willing to cover their bets by talking with North Viet-Nam or China when an opportunity arises.

Heroin

In all conversations with government officials in Viet-Nam, Laos and Thailand, I stressed the deep concern of the U.S. Government over heroin and its impact on U.S. troops and the imperative need for action by the governments of the three countries. In Viet-Nam and Laos, the groups involved in the heroin trade seem to have high level protection and often to be more or less immune from local police enforcement. On the other hand, the leaders with whom we met gave the appearance of understanding the seriousness of the drug traffic and evidenced a desire to act to suppress it.

In Viet-Nam, President Thieu has taken initial steps toward better enforcement in response to representations made by Ambassador Bunker. In Laos, after Ambassador Godley and I spoke to Souvanna Phouma, he assured us that new legislation aimed at controlling the trade in opium and its derivatives would be passed by the National Assembly in the near future. In Thailand, at the instigation of our Embassy, a joint U.S.-Thai planning group is to be formed to develop plans to control the drug traffic in that country.

In spite of the attitude expressed by Thieu, Souvanna Phouma and Thanom, it seems unlikely, given the high level involvement in the drug traffic in both South Viet-Nam and Laos, that domestic forces alone will be sufficient. If some external police authority, perhaps under the cover of an international body such as the United Nations or Interpol were feasible, it might offer additional hope for positive action. The Department will explore this idea. In selected cases, the United States might also consider encouraging the use of guerrilla forces against identified processing facilities.

[Omitted here is discussion of China and Japan.]

John N. Irwin II
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Conference Files, 1966–1972: Lot 73 D 323, Folder 943. Secret.