9. Letter From the Ambassador to Thailand (Unger) to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Godley)1
Thanks very much for your March 28 letter.2 You have identified some of the really tough questions which are likely to face us in more or less direct fashion at the SEATO and TCC meetings in May, but whether or not there, then surely in increasingly active form later on. In this letter I’ll try to give you some first answers and perhaps we can fit in an exchange or two more3 before the meetings themselves.
You are quite right to raise questions about Thanat’s role and motivations in his rather excessive recourse recently to the press and public platforms. I have been troubled for some time by the apparent inconsistency between his deploring what he regards as serious waverings in American determination and resolve with regard to contributing to the defense of the Free World in Southeast Asia and his occasional insistence on a bilateral security treaty, no doubt motivated by these concerns; and on the other hand, his verbal approaches to Communist China and occasional expressions of reservations about a continued American military presence here. In a way I think we have to read this ambivalence as a product, at least in part, of our own current ambivalence in which we are on the one hand stoutly devoting great blood and treasure to the defense of Southeast Asia, which even Thanat cannot deny, but at the same time exhibiting to the world (no doubt in exaggerated form) a body politic, including much of the press, most of the youth, highly influential congressmen, and a preponderance of the articulate intellectual community, which condemns our involvement in Vietnam and which is obviously apprehensive even about our present degree of involvement in Thailand, which it tends to see as going the way of Vietnam. The Thai, to oversimplify somewhat, have increasingly [Page 16] based their national policy on collective security since 1954, and many of their own initiatives, and even more their agreement to actions of ours, including those on their territory, have been based on the continued availability of a protective cover from the US in case of trouble. Now Thanat and the Thai ask themselves to what extent that cover is still available and relate that question also to our readiness to see through the Vietnam process to the point where South Vietnam is going to be at least tolerably able to decide its own future without outside interference.
Most Thais don’t take seriously the threat of massive Communist invasion as a likelihood in present circumstances, although they would undoubtedly argue that if there is an obvious American disengagement from Southeast Asia, the deterrent to such an invasion will have been largely removed and the possibility increased that the Chinese might return to something like Korean War methods. The President’s recent message to the Prime Minister4 and the assurances provided by Marshall Green, together with what I presume Secretary Rogers will be saying in May, will probably keep those apprehensions in the background for most of the Thai leadership even though Thanat will probably not desist from carping comments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Thai don’t want our direct military involvement in their insurgency, although they certainly are counting on our continued contribution through MAP and AID to the support of their own counter-insurgency. There is, unfortunately, an ambiguous middle area between an invasion and the insurgency and I think it is here that our most difficult policy problems lie. This brings us to the Laos problem above all, and I’ll save further discussion of it for the next section.
Thanat has become increasingly over the past ten years, and particularly since Thanom has been Prime Minister, the architect of Thai foreign policy. In fields such as the promotion of regional activities, the position in the UN and dealing with the US on matters such as the Paris negotiations, he has, in my opinion, an almost completely free hand. He also has been one of the three or four most influential decision-makers on such matters as sending forces to South Vietnam and on relations with neighboring countries. However, I think it is questionable whether Thanat would have won out if, for example, he had opposed the sending of the Queen’s Cobras and Black Panthers to Vietnam, or if he had insisted on strong initiatives to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cambodia; the fundamental military leadership still controls these matters in the last analysis. Thanat has been able to play the role that he has because he has been basically in agreement with the military leadership on these matters. Similarly, on the question of future US military presence here, including in the post-Vietnam period, Thanat’s voice will probably not be [Page 17] decisive since prime matters of national security will be involved and the military leadership will make the final decisions.
In spite of this, however, Thanat is heavily depended upon by the military leadership and especially the Prime Minister, and his familiarity with the American scene makes him particularly important as an advisor about relations with us. Thus, Thanat could be very influential in convincing the leadership that a collective security policy based on US participation was no longer realistic for Thailand. If he should undertake this (and I do not believe he is presently doing so) and be successful, then the military leadership would have a much more negative attitude about Thai participation in Vietnam and the future US military presence in Thailand than they have today. At the present time I believe Thanat’s role with the military leadership is to raise some warning signals about the future American role and to stimulate some thinking about contingent actions in case the US should in fact disengage from Southeast Asia. The military leadership consists largely of simplistic thinkers in the foreign policy and military strategy fields; the subtleties of regional security organizations and Paris negotiations do not interest or concern them very much.
There are others on the Thai scene who play some role in the foreign affairs field, notably Pote Sarasin who undoubtedly does advise the Prime Minister in a somewhat conservative and definitely pro-US vein. While Pote has on occasion made some dubious comment about some of Thanat’s more unbridled statements, he has shown no disposition to challenge Thanat’s leading role in the foreign affairs field. A possible future figure of importance is Bunchana Atthakorn and in this regard I call your attention to the enclosed press article on a recent speech of his. As time goes on, there possibly will also be new members of the military leadership who will have some more sophistication about foreign policy and military strategy, including emerging leaders like General Kriangsak. Today, however, the field is left very largely to the Prime Minister, Praphat, Dawee and Thanat for the basic decisions.
Another factor of increasing importance in Thanat’s thinking, I believe, is his growing concern as a somewhat over-sensitive Thai nationalist about the impact of the presence here of 50,000 American military. Thanat, and most other Thais for that matter, are enough aware of what South Vietnam looks like today from the inside to know that they do not want American ground forces participating in fighting in Thailand. Thanat, and even more some members of the new Parliament and younger, semi-intellectual Thais, are increasingly disturbed about what happens to Thai communities under heavy GI influence and they are also vaguely uneasy about the effect on Thailand’s freedom of decision in an increasingly tricky and uncertain period. Thanat is also over-sensitive at the twitting he no doubt gets occasionally from his colleagues in neighboring countries (although I would guess this [Page 18] is less true than in the past) and in international forums such as the UN about Thailand’s having become so closely tied to the US. None of these things, in my opinion, will lead Thanat to begin to press for the pullout of American forces here, or even a substantial reduction, as long as the Vietnam war requires their presence. He does not like to have it assumed, however, that once that is past Thailand can be taken for granted as a home for indefinite US deployments in the future. You have noted, I am sure, however, that Thanat has carefully left a loophole in all of his statements about US withdrawal from Thailand which makes it clear that the Thais might find that there were compelling reasons why some US forces should remain here. I believe that in the absence of a virtually utopian settlement of Southeast Asia’s security problems, Thanat will in fact, along with the military leadership, wish to have some continued US presence unless we seem to have gone the total disengagement route.
You are undoubtedly right in suspecting, too, that Thanat is in part addressing the American public. He bitterly resents the references which occasionally (and a good deal less frequently than he alleges) appear in the American press about Thailand’s sending “mercenaries” to Vietnam and about Thailand’s being a US puppet and one of “our boys”, ready slavishly to do the US bidding as long as we continue to throw a few bones its way. Thanat is also acutely conscious of the “Thailand: the next Vietnam” theme. For all of these reasons he is intent on conveying to the American public the sense of an independent RTG posture, even some reservations about or hostility to the US, and removing the black and white image of Thailand as a single-minded, anti-Communist US ally. In my mind this is surely one of his reasons for making such repeated loud noises about a willingness to talk with Communist China. Thanat, not unjustifiably in my opinion, has identified the peculiar American syndrome of denigrating and scorning its close and loyal allies and being attracted to those who kick us in the teeth from time to time; I think he is carrying out what is largely a one-man campaign to move Thailand toward the second category.
Finally, a last little intriguing twist. You will see from Bangkok’s 42995 that Thanat probably is going to make a bid for the ICJ seat in 1970. Could it be that he has been working on his image and trying to be sure that he is regarded as an international statesman of broad views and not tied to the US kite, so that he does not lose the votes on which he must depend for election?
This first answer has gone on for so long that I will send it off by itself and proceed to the questions of post-Vietnam planning and Vietnam and Paris prospects as soon as I can turn to them.
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 THAI. Secret; Eyes Only. A notation on the letter indicates Godley saw it. Copies were sent to Johnson, Ambassador Marshall Green, and Spear.↩
- Not found.↩
- Copies of this and follow-up letters from Unger to Godley, April 15 and 17, were forwarded by Unger to Kissinger along with a May 9 covering letter. Kissinger replied in a June 2 letter to Unger that: “Your discussion of issues in Thailand as well as your views on Laos and Vietnam are directly relevant to our NSSM 51 study of Thailand and provide valuable assistance to us.” (All in National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 560, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. I)↩
- See Document 7.↩
- Not found.↩