48. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • U.S. Commitment and U.S. Congressional Attitudes

PARTICIPANTS

  • Thanat Khoman, Foreign Minister of Thailand
  • Ambassador Sunthorn, Thai Embassy, Washington
  • Ambassador Anand, Thai Permanent Representative to the United Nations
  • The Secretary
  • John B. Dexter, Country Director for Thailand and Burma

After a few opening remarks, the Secretary asked Thanat about conditions in Thailand, remarking that he gathered the Thai are “worried” about their security. Thanat confirmed this, indicating that they were worried mainly about U.S. congressional attitudes which, they fear, might limit the Administration’s ability to fulfill U.S. commitments.

The Secretary assured him that congressional actions and attitudes would have no effect on U.S. treaty commitments. Even the Church Amendment was not a restriction, the Secretary explained, because the Executive would in any case seek congressional concurrence if it wanted to use combat troops abroad. Thanat asked why in that case the Church Amendment was necessary. The Secretary explained that it was inspired by concern on the Hill about the war in Vietnam and a feeling that President Johnson and Secretary Rusk had misled the Congress as we became involved in that conflict, specifically in their presentation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Now he said they want to be sure that they are properly informed and consulted.

The Secretary then recalled that the SEATO Treaty contains a provision that in taking action the signatories will follow their “constitutional processes,” to which Thanat commented bitterly, “Yes, an escape clause.” The Secretary continued that the Church Amendment merely [Page 109]reiterates the Senate’s expectation that constitutional processes will be followed.2

Thanat observed that the Church Amendment refers to introducing “ground combat troops” and noted that the U.S. already has “troops” in Thailand. He wondered if those troops had the right to defend themselves. The Secretary explained that from our viewpoint the Church Amendment had no effect on the activities of U.S. military personnel now in Thailand who will naturally be expected to defend themselves if attacked. He said the amendment deals with a possible land war in Asia and the possibility that we might become involved in such a war without congressional approval. However, he repeated we would seek congressional approval in any case, just as had been done in Korea and as President Johnson thought he had done in Vietnam through the Tonkin Gulf resolution.

Thanat remarked that the Thai do not doubt the Administration’s words in offering such reassurances but that the words of Congress raise doubts. He said he understands there is a struggle going on between Congress and the Executive for the control of foreign policy. He thought this was exemplified in congressional questioning about U.S. activities in Laos, adding that he thought attacks on U.S. policy in Laos were really intended indirectly for Thailand.

The Secretary responded that the real target is the Administration, that congressional attacks represent a feeling that Congress has not been adequately consulted and their determination that in the future they will be consulted. He repeated the point that the Executive would, under any circumstances, feel obliged to consult Congress on any measures that might involve armed combat.

Thanat asked about the “secret agreement” (Plan Taksin) and the RuskThanat communiqué. What is the Administration’s view on these? With regard to the latter, the Secretary recalled that when he was in Bangkok last year he reaffirmed the RuskThanat communiqué and added that subsequent events had not in any way altered that position. As for the “secret agreement”, he repeated the by-now-standard [Page 110]explanation that we regard this as a contingency military plan which clearly provides that both governments must approve before it can be put into effect. He said Congress had been concerned because it thought it was a “secret treaty” but it is really no more than a plan. (Thanat then muttered, “Yes, like an executive agreement.”) The Secretary repeated that the plan required agreement between the two governments before it could be put into effect and that we thought of it as coming under the SEATO Treaty with its provision for constitutional processes.

Later in the conversation, after other subjects had been discussed, Thanat reverted to his concern about Congress, stating that his Prime Minister follows events on Capitol Hill closely and is worried. He mentioned that Ambassador Unger had given him (Thanat) shortly before he left Bangkok a useful memorandum on congressional developments but said the RTG is not happy. He said, “We want to establish squarely where responsibility lies.”

The Secretary explained that from our viewpoint there is no problem at this time. He said that when he was in Bangkok last year there had been a problem because of strong sentiment in the United States against our Vietnam war policy, but that the situation was now quite different. He cited a recent Gallup poll indicating that 64 percent of the people favored the President’s policy in Vietnam as compared with only 24 percent opposed. Previously he said there had been a problem of congressional pressure on our Vietnam policy but this was no longer serious except to the extent that it caused the Thai to be disturbed and fearful that we might disengage from the region. He elaborated on the point by comparing U.S. sentiment which had compelled President Johnson to decide against seeking reelection with the relative lack of interest in Vietnam today.

The Secretary expressed confidence that there is general public acceptance today of the President’s policy, of which key elements are that we will not disengage from our responsibilities in Asia but will phase down our presence at a rate geared to the ability of local governments to take over. He mentioned as an example that we now have many troops in Korea but that, in due course, we will probably want to reduce them gradually, though not to withdraw them entirely. In any case, he said, we will not disengage or renege on our treaty commitments.

Thanat commented that the Thai for their part would also keep their promise not to call on outside manpower to help them with their internal insurgency problem, though they will appreciate continuing U.S. assistance.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL US. Secret. Drafted by Dexter; approved by Moore (EA) and Okun (S) on March 12. The memorandum is part 1 of 4; part 2 is Document 49; part 3, entitled “Thanat Views on Relations with China,” and part 4, entitled “SEATO Council Meeting,” are not printed. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL US) The meeting was held in the Secretary’s office.
  2. Telegram 19972 to Bangkok, February 10, complimented Unger on the “lucidity” of his response to Thanat’s concerns as reported in telegram 1333 from Bangkok (see footnotes 2 and 3, Document 47). It noted that if “Thanat and others remain uneasy despite repeated assurances and explanations by the most authoritative U.S. Govt. spokesmen, then we have little hope that we could put their fears to rest by prefabricating new forensic ammunition. On the contrary we conclude that Thai concern is based largely upon their interpretation of the facts and we cannot deny that the facts of their situation do indeed give them reason for concern.” It continued that “we see no profit for either ourselves or Thai in trying to gloss over the problem by proffering unrealistic and inflated reassurrances. We cannot rid SEA of all conditions potentially threatening Thai security and we cannot expand our commitment to help them beyond what is stated in the SEATO treaty.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 1 THAI–US)