82. Summary Paper in Response to National Security Study Memorandum 511


[Omitted here is Part I, Introduction.]

Part II

Analysis of Issues

(1) U.S. Interests in Thailand, the Threats to Thailand, and Alternative U.S. Commitments to Thailand.

U.S. Interests in Thailand. In his February 18, 1970 message to the Congress the President prescribed the following relationship between U.S. interests and U.S. commitments: “Our interests must shape our commitments rather than the other way around.”

U.S. strategic, foreign policy, military, political, and economic interests are involved in Thailand.

U.S. Strategic and Military Interests in Thailand—The U.S. has made extensive use of air bases and support facilities in Thailand for wartime bombing and intelligence operations in Vietnam. The bases, however, remain under nominal Thai control. Thailand is in an ideal position for staging operations in Laos and for support efforts to help Cambodia. Thailand has also made a contribution to the war effort in Vietnam as a Troop Contributing Country.

In the event of a Sino-U.S. war, the U.S. would mount attacks from its East Asian bases e.g. Japan, Philippines, Korea, etc., because they are close to China’s industrial and population centers. Bases in Southeast Asia would be an asset but not of critical importance. Therefore, Thailand is not of great strategic value vis-à-vis China. However, Thailand is and will remain an important intelligence base for the monitoring of Chinese activities. Thai-based installations are useful for monitoring Chinese missile developments and potential military preparations, particularly for attacks on Southeast Asia. However, with [Page 163] satellite air and seaborne capability, the loss of Thailand as an intelligence base would deal a severe blow to U.S. interests only with regard to our ability to have the necessary warning to defend Thailand itself. Therefore, in the absence of other U.S. interests, the intelligence value of Thailand alone would not justify a U.S. commitment to defend Thailand.

As the major industrial power in Asia, Japan’s security interests are important to the U.S. However, unlike its attitude toward Korea, Japan does not view its security to be closely linked to Thailand.

With regard to Southeast Asia, although the U.S. has stated that it does not seek permanent bases in Thailand after the Vietnam war, it is conceivable that U.S. interests in preserving the outcome in Laos or Vietnam may require U.S. access to bases in Thailand. A U.S. presence in Southeast Asia maintained by the U.S. SEATO commitment to Thailand, may also provide a security umbrella against an overt Chinese or other threats for nascent Southeast Asian regionalism or for individual nations (e.g. Cambodia) where the U.S. has interests but no commitments.

In relation to East Asia and the Pacific Area. To the South, Singapore possesses in the form of one of the largest and most modern non-American naval bases in the world—airfields, and ship and aircraft maintenance facilities—assets that could be used to support military forces in East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

A continued British and Australian presence in Singapore would probably preclude the hostile use of these naval facilities as well as provide a barrier to aggression across the Straits of Malacca. If Thailand were neutral or under Communist control, the U.S. would have the option of basing its own forces at Singapore in addition to the British and Australian presence.

About 800 Free World ships each month pass through the Straits of Malacca, but this route is of primary economic importance not to the U.S. but to Japan, which is the world’s largest importer of oil (90% of which comes through the Straits). Even Japanese interests would not be seriously endangered if the Straits were closed as oil tankers could pass south of Indonesia.

Indonesia itself constitutes a major U.S. security interest in East Asia, although it is doubtful that a neutral or hostile Thailand would significantly alter Indonesia’s2 determination and capability to remain non-Communist.

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In the Pacific area, as long as Indonesia remains independent, there is no direct link between the security of Thailand and the defense of Australia, New Zealand or other Pacific powers friendly to the U.S. Nor is there any direct link between Thailand’s security and the security of the U.S.

Foreign Policy Interests: SEATO and the Problem of U.S. Commitments— To the extent that other powers gauge U.S. intentions on the basis of the U.S.’s performance vis-à-vis Thailand—for example, our willingness to honor our commitment to Thailand—our actions in Thailand will have wider repercussions in Asia, particularly for those Asian nations such as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan that rely on the U.S. to balance the influence of China.

The same is true, although to a lesser extent, world-wide. While Thailand may not be considered an area of vital U.S. interest, and the Thai may be able to deal with their internal security problems on their own (or at least without U.S. combat troops), the U.S. has an interest in demonstrating fidelity to its international commitments. As the only mainland Asian subscriber to SEATO, Thailand ranks with South Korea and Taiwan as an area where the credibility of the U.S. commitment in Asia could be put to the test.

Thus, the U.S. commitment and involvement in Thailand are an element of the Asian balance of power. The size and nature of our role can vary significantly in relation to alternative estimates of the extent of U.S. involvement required to maintain regional stability in the face of the likely threats. While the present equilibrium in SEA may be acceptable to U.S. interests, other stable arrangements could also be compatible with U.S. goals. For example, in the post-Vietnam period a Thailand less dependent on the U.S. either as a result of increased Thai military capability, diminished threats, or diplomatic realignment or some combination of these three would not necessarily threaten the balance of power in Asia and thereby U.S. interests.

Political Interests—In addition to the SEATO relationship, informal or implied U.S. commitments to Thailand stem from communications and contingency plans relating to the formal commitment, implicit understandings regarding U.S. programs in Thailand, and from Thai cooperation in collective security actions in Asia, particularly in Vietnam.

The net effect of these informal obligations, over a period of twenty years, has been a considerable deepening of the intimacy of U.S.-Thai relations.

Therefore, while there are no historic U.S. ties of friendship with Thailand, there is a measure of intimacy that has resulted from a past close U.S.-Thai relationship, particularly through the Vietnam war.

Economic Interests—The U.S. does not have major economic interests in Thailand. U.S. investments amount to about $200 million. Thailand [Page 165] is not an important trading partner of the United States; total U.S.-Thai trade in 1968 was $267 million. Thailand is not an indispensable source of scarce resources for the U.S. It is not a major market for U.S. industry. However, U.S. access to Thai airspace and U.S. landing rights in Thailand are a decided convenience for the U.S.

Conclusion—Thailand is not of vital interest to the United States. Our greatest interest in Thailand derives from our foreign policy objective of bringing the Vietnam war to a successful conclusion.3

Beyond this, however, U.S. interests are not inconsistent with a new equilibrium in Southeast Asia resulting from either a change in the military balance or from diplomatic realignment. Whether U.S. interests would be served by such developments depends largely on how the new situation is arrived at. That is, if the U.S. acted precipitously in rejecting its alliance with Thailand, U.S. foreign policy interests in Asia and world wide could be seriously harmed.

On the other hand, if the threats to Thailand diminished as a result of action by China, the Soviet Union or North Vietnam, or if Thai actions increased Thailand’s defense capabilities or improved its relations with Peking or Hanoi and thereby lessened Thailand’s dependence on the U.S., such developments would not threaten U.S. interests.

The issue then is not whether U.S. interests can tolerate a Thailand less intimately linked to the U.S., but whether ways can be found to diminish Thailand’s dependence and scale down the U.S. commitment to Thailand without: (a) jeopardizing our immediate goals in Southeast Asia, or (b) abandoning the Thai in a precipitous manner that would jeopardize U.S. foreign policy goals.

[Omitted here is Part III, Issues for Decision.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, PM/ISP Files: Lot 72 D 504, Subject Files, Box 2. Top Secret. According to a September 16 memorandum from Jeanne W. Davis to the Secretaries of State and Defense, the response to NSSM 51 was not completed, but instead was incorporated into NSSM 99, Southeast Asia. (National Archives, RG 59, NSC Files: 80 D 212, General Files on NSC Matters, Box 1, NSC Admin. Matters, January 1970)
  2. A notation next to this underlined passage (from ‘doubtful’ through ‘Indonesia’s’) reads “nuts! Heartland of SE Asia.”
  3. A notation next to this sentence reads: “more a non-commie SE Asia.”