20. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1
- U.S.–Thai Relations
The following is a preliminary draft prepared by CIA analysts in response to a request for an objective unbiased view of current U.S./Thai relations. An updated and more in-depth analysis will be provided early next week.
The analysis makes the following points:
- —Thai/U.S. relations have been severely strained in past weeks by the public dispute over the contingency plan.
- —The Thais are looking for assurance that Secretary Laird’s remarks2 are not meant as U.S. reneging on a commitment made by the Johnson Administration.
- —Bangkok will almost certainly conclude that:
- Domestic forces tending to undermine the U.S. commitment are becoming stronger.
- The U.S. government may be powerless to uphold its commitments even if it chooses to do so.
- —The impact on U.S.-Thai interests will depend on assurances given the Thais and actions taken in Vietnam and Laos.
- The events of the past several weeks have not only largely dissipated the good will and the sense of congruent interests that President Nixon engendered during his short visit in Bangkok, but they have also placed Thai-U.S. relations under the greatest strain since the Laotian crisis in 1961 and 1962. Much of the difficulty involves Thai sensitivity to being treated as something less than a full partner in the struggle for Southeast Asia, and displeasure that its contribution to the Vietnam effort has not been fully appreciated. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the current unpleasantness as nothing more than a display of the ephemeral of the Thai psychology. We are witnessing the surface manifestations of underlying problems that have plagued U.S.-Thai relations since the 1961 Laotian crisis, and which have grown worse as a consequence of the Vietnam war.
The principle cause of the current difficulties has been the public dispute over Project 22, the so-called Taksin Military Contingency Plan for the defense of the Mekong Valley. The Thai have been upset over the way the U.S. has managed the controversy. Caught in a crossfire between the U.S. Senate and the ill-conceived remarks of Thai leaders regarding the juridical basis for the plan (Air Chief Marshal Dawee asserting at one point that the plan was a SEATO document and could not be shown to anybody without the consent of the SEATO partners), U.S. spokesmen have labored to set the record straight.3 In so doing, they have bruised Thai sensitivities. In a recent talk with Ambassador Unger, Foreign Minister Thanat made a special point of protesting what the Thai regard as the unseemly alacrity with which State Department spokesmen have challenged Thai statements on Taksin. The Thai not only regard coordination on the Taksin affair as insufficient, but they are also opposed to showing the plan to Senator Fulbright (we would guess that this was the real message that Dawee was trying to get across), and his Senate Foreign Relations colleagues.
Opposition on this score not only reflects Thai misconceptions of how the U.S. constitutional system works, but much more important, reflects their belief that Senator Fulbright is nothing less than a sworn enemy of Thailand. (“Why is it”, Thanat has asked rhetorically, “that of all of the many military contingency plans, Fulbright has picked on [Page 43] this one.”) Turning the Taksin Plan over to the Senator then, is in Thai eyes, tantamount to giving the plan to the enemy. The fact that Senator Fulbright could pressure the Administration into showing him the document was a vivid—to the Thai at least—display of power on the part of those who are opposed to the U.S.-Thai alliance.
- As upsetting as the Taksin imbroglio was up to this point, it still involved little more than strengthening the Thai belief that they had been once again misunderstood and pilloried for no other reason other than that they have been a strong supporter of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. In order to get this monkey off their back, Thanat suggested to Ambassador Unger that the two countries publicly announce that they would soon open talks on reducing the number of U.S. military personnel based in Thailand. Thanat asserted that only in this way could Bangkok demonstrate that U.S. forces were in Thailand for the sole purpose of supporting the war in South Vietnam and that the Thai had no need nor desire for direct U.S. support in fighting their insurgency. Thanat argued that this would undercut the position of those elements in the U.S. who were warning against additional commitments to Thailand. It also seems likely that Thanat had other purposes in getting troop withdrawal talks. What better way to demonstrate to the U.S., the contribution Thailand has made to the war effort, and at the same time, that such support could not necessarily be taken for granted.
- From the Thai point of view, the Taksin affair took a much more ominous turn when Secretary of Defense Laird made reference to the lack of support in the plan on the part of himself and President Nixon. Prime Minister Thanat lost no time in making it clear to Ambassador Unger that they regard the Secretary of Defense’s statement not only as a disavowal of a joint contingency plan, but a reneging on a commitment that has been made by the Johnson Administration. The Thai are clearly looking for some assurance that this is not what Secretary Laird or the government had in mind.
- Even if such reassurances are forthcoming, the Taksin affair will probably leave a long-standing mark on U.S.-Thai relations.
- How much Taksin effects U.S.-Thai interests will depend not only on what assurances we give the Thai, but also on what action we take with respect to Vietnam and, much more important, Laos. Vietnam is important to the Thai insofar as it is a bellwether of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Bangkok has been concerned over U.S. troop withdrawals, but once we made clear that the withdrawals would be something a good deal less than an indecent bug-out, Thai concern has centered on what they regard as their prerogatives as a troop contributor to the Vietnam war effort. They want the U.S. to truly consult with them before firm decisions are made on withdrawals. In the present [Page 44] atmosphere, such consultations are likely to loom even larger in Thai thinking than they have in the past.
- The question of Laos is much more difficult. For the Thai, Laos cuts a good deal closer to the bone than Vietnam, and Bangkok will take a long hard look at how the U.S. meets the current threat on the other side of the Mekong. Whether this becomes a major testing ground in the coming weeks and months depends, in the final analysis, on what the Communists do. The Taksin affair and its aftermath, however, will serve to further exaggerate the importance the Thai attach to the Laotian problem and the willingness of the U.S. to stabilize the situation there.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 560, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. I. Secret; Noforn; Nodis. A note to Kissinger on the first page in Nixon’s hand reads: “Urgent. K—Give me a brief statement as to [how to] handle this issue if Fulbright raises it Tuesday A.M.” According to an attached September 15 memorandum from Ken Cole to Kissinger, the President was referring to a September 16 meeting with Fulbright. A notation on the memorandum indicates it was of high priority.↩
- Secretary of Defense Laird had held a press conference on August 21 during which he elaborated on Rogers’ theme that the present administration was neither involved in nor responsible for formulation of the contingency plan. Rogers had called it “an appendage that is a hangover from bygone days” in his August 20 news conference. (Department of State Bulletin, September 8, 1969, pp. 205–208) Speaking of the contingency plan, Laird said that it “does not have my approval and does not have the approval of the Administration.” Respecting Rogers’ allusion to consultation with Congress on use of troops, Laird said, “I don’t agree with the plan, I don’t agree with using American troops without proper consultation and advice by the Congress of the United States, and I can assure you that this Administration would follow the procedures that were outlined by the Secretary of State yesterday.” A verbatim transcript of Laird’s news conference is in Annex 11 of the Department of State Historical Office’s study entitled “The Reexamination of the United States Commitment to Thailand, June 5–August 31, 1969,” Research Project No. 978, November 1969. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 560, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. II)↩
- See Documents 14 and 15.↩