18. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn
  • Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman
  • President Richard M. Nixon
  • Mr. Henry A. Kissinger

Thanom said that the communiqué of the 9th Party Congress shows that Peking has reaffirmed its intention to carry on war with its neighbors. Thailand will be under pressure. Many countries in Southeast Asia are not strong enough to resist.

Thailand does not want ground forces—but not having an industrial base, it does need assistance with matériel. It would need help with ground forces in a general war. As long as it is an unconventional revolutionary type war, however, the Thais want to depend on their own ground forces. The Thai government wants to pursue a vast program of civic action. The Thai government wants, (1) to work to create a viable grouping of non-Communist nations, (2) to receive matériel assistance, (3) to repel force with force—but with its own men, and (4) to continue to pursue economic reforms to supplement other means of defense.

So far the Communist intruders have chosen remote spots where economic development has not reached. They promise a paradise. The President said, “like China.” Thanat responded that in rural areas of Thailand, nothing is known of China. The President said he wanted the Prime Minister to know his own thinking. In case of overt aggression, we would expect to react. Where major powers act, they must expect reaction from other major powers. If the Communist Chinese were to try that, there will be a very strong reaction from the U.S. But this is not likely.

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Thanom said he fully agreed about the unlikelihood of overt aggression. From the pattern we have been seeing, we can expect that Peking and Hanoi will continue to rely on war by proxy.

The President noted Thanom’s statement that the Thai wish to rely on their own manpower. There is a difficult political problem in the U.S., he continued, but the U.S. public will endorse matériel support.2

Thanom said that in meeting subversion, the Thais will meet force with force, using a combination of military personnel, police and civic action. They are increasing security measures for all areas, with a three-pronged program. Attention will be given to getting produce to market.

The President noted that one can’t deal with subversion by force alone—the causes must be removed. But he doesn’t agree with soft-heads who think that you can solve every problem with another bowl of rice. Thus he was glad that Thanom referred to his determination to use force.

The President said he wanted to ask a critical question, and asked that Thanom not spare our feelings. He referred to our handling of Vietnam. How the war is ended will be critical for peace and freedom in the Pacific. Is there concern that the U.S. may move too fast in withdrawing its forces? Is there a feeling that regardless of what he says publicly, we will let the GVN go down the drain gracefully? He asked for an honest answer.

Thanom smiled and said that since the President asked him to be frank, he wanted to recall the views of leaders of previous Administrations. If a decisive step had been taken, the will of the enemy would now be broken. Because of the importance of public opinion, one must take measures to meet its demands. He hoped the other side would respond. If the other side does respond, the war can end. But so far the other side has not responded. What does the U.S. intend? If concessions are made by only one side, we have cause for concern. He hoped the U.S. wouldn’t go too far.

The President responded that nothing substantial has happened on their side. If after a year the enemy refuses to talk, we can’t [Page 38]continue to talk in Paris and fight in Vietnam with one hand tied behind our back. U.S. opinion won’t tolerate this. What did the Prime Minister think of that?

Thanom said that other government leaders understand our motivation and our desire to meet public opinion. In certain quarters in this part of the world and in Vietnam, there is fear that the U.S. may appease the enemy too much.

The Thai government understands that the Vietnamese forces are to be trained. Thus it is not overly worried by U.S. withdrawal. If the enemy does not respond public opinion in the U.S. will recognize that the U.S. has no other choice but to end the war satisfactorily. Thus, if after the withdrawal of another 50,000 troops, there is no response, the U.S. will have no choice but to take these measures.

The President turned to the views on Peking and Moscow in Indonesia, noting that some people there think we have a condominium with the USSR. Others see too much significance in the easing of restrictions with China. With respect to Moscow, a condominium is out of the question. Moscow’s objectives are the same as Peking’s but their tactics differ. With respect to China, we took some tactical steps. But we play an even-handed game—depending on how each country conducts its policy. There is no sign of a Chinese change in this regard. Until this happens, no major alterations are possible.

Thanom thanked the President for this insight into U.S. policy. He expressed deep faith in the policy of the U.S., which has never known defeat in its history and, he was sure, had no intention to do so now. The Prime Minister hoped that some measure of assurance could be extended to other countries which have troops in Vietnam.

The President asked for Thanom’s view on Laos. What should be done, other than our sending troops?

Thanom passed on information he said was provided by the Laotian government: The Lao capital is encircled by enemy forces. Enemy forces are coming closer to Vientiane. Laotians have asked for help from Thailand. The Prime Minister is reluctant to do so—although willing to help Laos with volunteers. They must get material assistance from outside. If the need is urgent, the Laos government should talk to the U.S. Thanom is willing to send volunteers provided he gets U.S. support.

The President returned to his previous point: the Thai contingent in Vietnam is extremely helpful with U.S. public opinion. Though our withdrawals will continue on a major basis as South Vietnamese troops are trained, the President hopes the Thai troops will stay.

Thanom replied that his government has faith in its ability to resist pressures from MP’s who want to withdraw forces from Vietnam and reserve them for combatting subversion here in Thailand. From [Page 39]his standpoint the priority is clear: Thai forces should join in the struggle against Communist aggression in Vietnam. The presence of Thai forces there is justified. He will resist pressures to withdraw.

In response to the President’s questions, Thanom said there are 45,000–50,000 Americans in Thailand. The majority conduct the air war in Vietnam and Laos. In addition, there are engineer troops.

The President asked if it would cause concern if we reduced some support forces related to bombing of North Vietnam, but not engineers working with Thai support forces.3 Thanom said it was up to the President.

The President asked if the troops are behaving themselves. Thanom replied there are very few incidents. He would like to make a suggestion, he said, with respect to B–52’s. Laotians have indicated eagerness for their use. The Prime Minister recalled having asked our headquarters for B–52 strikes: he welcomes B–52’s here. As for frictions, he has talked to the military authorities regarding arrangements for a Status of Forces agreement similar to Korea and Taiwan.

The President asked what he believes the Chinese Communists will do after Vietnam.

Thanom replied that it depends on the Vietnam settlement. If the settlement is satisfactory for the Communists, China may have less opportunity for pressure. But whatever the outcome, the countries of Southeast Asia will be subject to pressure. There is roadbuilding toward Thailand from China and then from Burma to Thailand. China has not given up the possibility of interference. They are using proxies, influencing attitudes by means of these roads.

The President noted the Chinese Communists have their own problems. The Sino-Soviet disagreement may produce its own premises. Thanom replied that the Chinese are not losing their own men— they are losing others.

The President stated that we must bring the war to an end in a way that contains a message to China and USSR to discourage other aggression of this type. This should have been done three years ago.

Thanat asked if the Soviets have shown any indication of helping. The President replied that they have on procedural points— and in some oral comments. But he has been disappointed. There is a chance the Soviets might find a way. Until Vietnam is out of the [Page 40]way, we will not talk to them on other issues such as the Middle East, trade, etc.

Thanom noted that the USSR is not more liberal, as was shown in the case of Czechoslovakia. The President replied that we must avoid armed conflict. Self-survival requires that. On the other hand, Soviet policy is not soft. The Brezhnev doctrine completely discourages independence. We are therefore approaching them in a hardheaded way.

Thanom asked how about Romania. The President said he had visited Romania in 1967. He was invited by Ceausescu shortly after the inauguration. His visit is not an affront to Russia or a move toward China. What we are saying is that any country not threatening its neighbors can have good relations with us. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to recognize the Soviet doctrine of limited sovereignty. Some believe we should have an immediate conference with the Soviets and control of arms. We have not done so—not because the President doesn’t want these things, but because U.S. power is essential to protect the free world. We will not tolerate Soviet superiority.

Thanom turned to the Middle East and asked about the balance of forces between Egypt and Israel. The President said that Israel is stronger than its neighbors not because of better equipment but because it is more capable, and will be for 3–5 years. The Soviets are continuing to send arms into Egypt and also for other Arab forces. In the long run, the balance may change because the Arabs have more people. Therefore we try to work for a peaceful solution and to prevent a change in the balance. Until there is a settlement, no change in the arms balance can be tolerated. Thanom drew a comparison between Israel and Thailand—a small country can resist outside pressure only with outside help. The President agreed this was a good analogy.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 105, Geopolitical File, Asian Trips, July–Aug. 1969. Another copy is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1048, Staff Files, Tony Lake Chron File, [June 1969–May 1970], [4 of 6]. Secret; Sensitive. According to President Nixon’s Daily Diary, the participants included Nixon, Thanom, Thanat, Kissinger, and Dawee. Presumably, Lake was also present. The meeting was held in the Conference Room of the Government House in Bangkok. The closing time of the meeting is also from the President’s Daily Diary. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The President’s ideas, only very briefly outlined here, became known as the Nixon or Guam doctrine.
  2. En route to the Far East on July 25, President Nixon held a press backgrounder on Guam. The President believed that, following the conclusion of the Vietnam war, there should be no U.S. withdrawal from Asia: “the way to avoid becoming involved in another war in Asia,” he said, “is for the United States to continue to play a significant role.” But at the same time, he said, the United States should avoid policies that would make countries in Asia so dependent that it would be dragged into conflicts such as that in Vietnam. Later, the President added that the United States was determined to keep its treaty commitments, for example with Thailand under SEATO, but that it would encourage Asian countries to solve their own internal security problems. (Public Papers: Nixon , 1969, pp. 546, 549)
  3. Concerning the question of possible reductions in U.S. troop strength in Thailand, the President said in his July 25 background briefing that this would be discussed with the Thai in light of a general U.S. review of military and civilian personnel abroad. (Ibid., p. 552)