144. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Under Secretary Johnson’s Visit with NEC Leaders

PARTICIPANTS

  • Thai—Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn
  • General Praphat Charusathien
  • Pote Sarasin
  • ACM Dawee Chullasap
  • American—Under Secretary U. Alexis Johnson
  • Ambassador Leonard Unger
  • John Getz, Special Asst. to Under Secretary Johnson
  • George F. Muller, Politico-Military Counselor
  • Laurence G. Pickering, Political Counselor
  • Harlan Y. M. Lee, Political Officer

The American contingent arrived at Government House at 9:30 a.m.

Pote Sarasin first came in alone to talk to the Under Secretary and Ambassador Unger. Pote said that there was no coup but simply a change. He said that doing business through the Parliament had become “in fact impossible,” and they felt there was no other way but to change the structure of the government.

He spoke of three things that he believed were most important in bringing about the decision to change the government. First was that the economic plan would be impossible to implement under the existing system. (Parliament obstructed international loan policy by refusing to make their funds available). Second, problems within the government party itself could not be resolved. Third, there was the problem of the Chinese in Thailand and the possibility of subversion of the Chinese community.

In response to Ambassador Johnson’s question, Pote said there would be no problem of political prisoners as in the Sarit days, although he had earlier spoken of stern measures to be taken against any opposition. He said, “the people were dissatisfied and something had to be done.” He hopes that the new government will be decisive. His greatest fear is not that Thanom will be too harsh but that he will not be firm enough and then the change will be for naught.

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The meeting then shifted to the main conference room where the Thai side comprised Field Marshal Thanom, General Praphat, Air Marshal Dawee and Pote.

Under Secretary Johnson opened the conversation by saying that he had been to Laos yesterday and had visited Long Tieng and the Plain of Jars and a battery of Thai volunteers. He said the Thai were doing a good job.

Pote asked about the Cambodian situation. Under Secretary Johnson said that on the whole he felt that Cambodia in the last 18 months had done very well. General Praphat expressed concern about the morale of FANK and commented that the Cambodians changed leaders or commanders too often. Under Secretary Johnson said that at the top there had been little change and that Lon Nol’s health continued to improve; he was impressed by their strong sense of nationalism. Field Marshal Thanom said that last night he had invited the Ambassador and Under Secretary Johnson to meet with him. Regrettably the Under Secretary was not available but the Field Marshal assumed that the Ambassador had briefed Mr. Johnson. He said the Revolutionary Group had had a note sent to all Embassies explaining the reasons for the takeover. He said there was no change in Thai foreign policy.

Under Secretary Johnson said it was naturally up to the Thai Government to decide what must be done, but they should be aware that their action will have unfortunate effects abroad, especially in the United States. He expressed particular concern about its effect on the debate on economic and military assistance at this particularly critical time.

Field Marshal Thanom said that one of the reasons they under-took the change of government was that they felt they could then more effectively proceed with programs the U.S. has advocated, such as providing the counterpart funds necessary to AAT. The government had set aside this money, but the Assembly would not have agreed to its being spent for defense. He agreed that this should not be cited in public as a reason.

Under Secretary Johnson referred to the strong opposition in the U.S. Senate to the foreign aid bill and to assistance to Thailand in particular. This latest move will strengthen the hand of opponents of such assistance and the immediate question is what can be done to reduce the damage to the Thai program. He said that realistically the Thai must anticipate some reduction in U.S. aid in any case. He expressed the fear that riders will now be attached to the bill aimed specifically at the Thai program. He made clear that the Administration did not want this but it could well happen.

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Reiterating that the Thai must make their own decisions, the Under Secretary ventured certain suggestions. First, he said that the phrase coup d’état creates an extremely bad impression and brings to mind soldiers shooting up the government and this obviously is not what had happened. But the phrase had been used and would be picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Star. He emphasized the press aspect in the U.S.

Field Marshal Thanom said that there were not only military but also civilian leaders in the new government and he hoped that the foreign press would pick up the local press coverage. Under Secretary Johnson noted that the local English-language Nation headlines had been “coup d’état” and that was what would be picked up in the foreign press.

The Under Secretary then said that a statement as soon as possible to the effect that the intention of the group is to return to a constitutional government would help. If it contained dates as to when this would be done, that would be even better. Field Marshal Thanom said they were considering what type of constitution would be suitable for a permanent constitution for Thailand. Pote said that they would make a public announcement regarding the constitution, but he did not know when this would be done.

Under Secretary Johnson said that the change will be made that a military dictatorship has taken over, with all the bad connotation that has in the United States, recalling events in Greece and Brazil.

General Praphat said that the people of the United States do not understand what “military dictatorship” means in Thailand, and that we think of it in terms of Latin American governments. He said the Americans in Thailand should help to make it clearer to Americans in the U.S. that what is called “military dictatorship” here is greatly different from the Latin American type. The Prime Minister said that the Thai preserve the institution of the Crown, for example, and do not attempt to set themselves up as Chiefs of State. He said the leadership after announcing their takeover met with the King, and the King gave his blessing to the change.

General Praphat said that perhaps the Thai should invite newspaper men and politicians to Thailand to see for themselves what the situation is like. Under Secretary Johnson said that would be helpful in the longer run but the immediate problem was what statements were to be made.

Air Marshal Dawee said that they had to terminate the power of the MP’s, that MP’s were promoting student riots and inciting labor and others, which led to the present situation. If nothing were done, the situation would become so bad that even if the U.S. gave a billion dollars in aid to Thailand there would be no country left to defend.

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The Under Secretary said talking about executive-legislative relations would not help much in the U.S. Pote said that the press and Congress will always interpret things the way they want to and that Fulbright and Mansfield will never be won over. Most important to Thailand is what the leadership does in the months to come to bring about stability, security, and to assure the people’s welfare. If the people are satisfied, this will vindicate the action. He said they know the problems caused by their action and know that they must live with these problems.

Under Secretary Johnson agreed that what the leaders did would be important but said again that his immediate worry is the short term. He himself must go before Congress soon to defend the aid program for Thailand. Pote asked the Under Secretary to help explain to Congress and the people in the U.S. that the situation in Thailand is different from that in the U.S.

Ambassador Unger said that the immediate problem to be addressed now is that certain things must be said regarding the change and that it is important that they be said in the right way. He suggested that it should be emphasized that this was not a bloody coup but a peaceful takeover by the same men who led the previous government, and that they are looking to the day when they can return to constitutional processes.

Air Marshal Dawee said the leaders will not keep power forever and that they also want to work toward democracy. He said that the Under Secretary could explain that he saw himself the takeover was quiet and there was no bloodshed.

Field Marshal Thanom said that he believed actions in the next few weeks and months were more important than statements that could be made now. Ambassador Unger said there was no reason why the leadership could not do both. Pote said they would do that. They would have to consider what could be said. They were not saying “no” to the suggestion.

Under Secretary Johnson returned to the comment concerning those such as Fulbright who would always be opposed to assistance to Thailand. He said he was really concerned about the middle group that would be prepared to shift depending on how this matter was handled in the next few days.

Thanom said that it was fortunate that Under Secretary Johnson was here at this time and could explain what had happened and say there was no bloodshed. Dawee observed that children went to school as usual, and there were the usual traffic jams and most everything was proceeding as if nothing happened. Pote also said that Under Secretary Johnson could help Thailand by stating that things were normal; he had confidence that Johnson’s words had great weight. The Under [Page 317] Unger said all U.S. official statements will lack in persuasiveness.

Under Secretary Johnson said that when the coup of 1958 occurred, Thailand was not in the public focus, but because of what has happened in Southeast Asia in the intervening years Thailand was much more in the news and that people in the U.S. were more interested in Thai affairs.

The Under Secretary made the additional suggestion that it would be helpful if the Thai would emphasize the civilian and non-military aspects of the government. The press will seize on the fact that General Prasert is to be the administrator for the civilian side. People will not notice that Prasert is now Police Director General but only that he is a General. Field Marshal Thanom said that civilian Under Secretaries are not acting in place of ministers in all except the Ministry of Defense.

Under Secretary Johnson said that to an American having a Parliament is good and abolishing Parliament is bad, that nothing can really change this attitude. However, the way the press is handled can help, and the RTG cannot afford to ignore press relations, or expect the Americans to do the job for them. He suggested that the Thai, if they have not already done so, should consider hiring a full-time public relations man, a Thai, to handle press relations for them. Pote then said to the Under Secretary, “You find such a public relations man for us and we will hire him.” Ambassador Unger said that in the U.S. we usually use newsmen or those familiar with and acceptable to the working press to deal with this type of thing. Pote asked who there is in Thailand who can do this for the group. Ambassador Unger answered that the Americans can’t name anyone but that he should look for someone, perhaps working in the English-language press, who has good foreign connections as well as being effective in Thailand. Under Secretary Johnson said that they should have a first-class press man in the Prime Minister’s office and who would be responsible for all statements issued by the Revolutionary Group.

The Under Secretary asked whether the Thai leaders ever held press conferences. Pote said formerly the Prime Minister and he had weekly press conferences but the reporters “never printed what they said.” Under Secretary Johnson noted that Thanat’s speech last night was helpful.

The conversation again turned to Cambodia, the Under Secretary’s next destination. General Praphat said there were certainly more headaches there than in Thailand. Part of the problem in Cambodia was that a number of people were competing for the leadership. In Thailand, he said, there was no competition among the leaders of the Group, [Page 318]

Under Secretary Johnson asked the Thai if they had any advice they wanted to give us on Cambodia. General Praphat said the best thing the U.S. could do in Cambodia is to assist people who could bring stability to the country. Thanom and Praphat and the others agreed that the two who could do this were Lon Nol and Sirik Matak.

Under Secretary Johnson noted that at the time the Khmer Government had announced the dissolution of their Parliament, they had announced at the same time that they were establishing a Constituent Assembly. This had greatly dampened down reaction in the U.S. to the dissolution of the Parliament.

Field Marshal Thanom asked Under Secretary Johnson to convey to President Nixon his good wishes. He expressed the hope that the President will understand that the actions taken by the Revolutionary Group have been carefully considered and were taken to assure the security and well-being of the people. He stressed their attachment to the Constitutional Monarchy.

Under Secretary Johnson noted that there was in fact stability in Thailand, but it is up to the Thai Government to get this across to the public abroad. Pote asked again that Under Secretary Johnson help to get this point across to Congress.

The Prime Minister closed with the hope that the close relationships between our two countries would be maintained. The Under Secretary assured him that that was also his goal.

The meeting ended at 11:05 a.m.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 15 THAI. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Embassy Political Officer Harlan Y.M. Lee and approved in J on December 21. The meeting was held at Government House.