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Series Two: Vietnam, 1959-1975
(Public Record Office Classes FO 371 and FCO 15:
South East Asia Department)

Part 4: SEATO, S E Asia General and Thailand, 1959-1963: Complete files on the Vietnam Conflict
(PRO Class FO 371/143721-143725, 143727-143747, 143769-143774, 143782, 144293, 144296-144297, 150381, 152136-152181, 152639-152642, 152644, 152646-152647, 152671, 158379-158380, 159701-159702, 159712-159713, 159715, 159722, 159728-159747, 159756-159758, 160069-160076, 160079-160080, 160083, 164871, 166353-166355, 166359-166360, 166363, 166616-166619, 166622, 166629-166634, 166644-166663, 169678-169679, 169681, 169684, 169686, 169689, 169728-169729, 170016-170020, 170022, 170031-170032, 170038, 170042-170056 and 170634)

Part 4 provides complete coverage of the SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) files for 1959-1963; and all relevant files on the Vietnam Conflict from FO 371 South East Asia General files and Thailand files.
The South East Asia Treaty Organisation was formed on 8 September 1954 following the conclusion of the Geneva Conference on Indo China. Having agreed in principle to the withdrawal of the French from the region, the Western powers were keen to put in place mechanisms to help prevent communist expansion and to uphold the agreements reached at Geneva. As a result, a compromise of sorts was reached, resulting in an organisation that was not a binding military alliance, yet was more than just a political treaty.
Lacking a clearly defined role, it instead propounded broad principles, declaring the signatories' aim of upholding "the principle of equal rights and self determination of peoples, and declaring that they will earnestly strive by every peaceful means to promote self-government and to secure the independence of all countries whose people desire it..."

If such peaceful means failed, however, the treaty made provision for military assistance:
"Each party recognises that aggression by means of armed attack in the treaty area against any of the Parties or against any state or territory which the Parties by unanimous agreement may hereafter designate, would endanger its own peace and safety, and agrees that it will in that event act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes..."

Another serious flaw with the treaty was the exclusion of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the three countries most at risk from subversion and outside interference. The agreements reached at Geneva, aiming to keep Indo China neutral, forbade these countries from joining in any military alliances. Nevertheless, an ambiguous protocol to the SEATO agreement did "designate for the purpose of Article IV of the Treaty the States of Cambodia and Laos and ...Vietnam" as special areas that if threatened, would endanger the "peace and security" of the signatories, thus justifying SEATO intervention in certain circumstances.

Such open ended sanctions were regarded by many countries as little more than a carte blanche for Western intervention in South East Asia. The Chinese and North Vietnamese were particularly opposed to SEATO, believing, not entirely without justification, that it was little more than an American instrument to thwart the neutrality imposed by the Geneva Accords and to legitimise the establishment of an independent, pro-western, southern Vietnamese republic.

Despite these problems, SEATO was still an important development in the affairs of South East Asia, as the British Foreign Office files in this collection illustrate. As well as providing a framework for regional security within a Cold War scenario, SEATO was concerned with creating a sense of political and military co-operation amongst the nations of the region. The involvement of British Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand was of particular interest and importance to the United Kingdom, who was at that time scaling down her military commitments 'east of Suez' and trying to encourage former colonies and dominions to take on regional security roles.

Files for 1959-1963 focus on:

  • Political situation in South East Asia
  • Communism in South East Asia
  • Political relations between SEATO countries and the Soviet Union
  • SEATO military exercises and military planning
  • The Vietnam Conflict
  • Training US and Commonwealth forces for jungle warfare and sabotage
  • Future of the International Control Commissions in Indo China
  • Co-operation between countries of South East Asia under South East Asian
  • Friendship and Economic Treaty
  • SEATO Council Meetings and Conferences
  • Anglo-American policies in South East Asia
  • The situation in South Vietnam
  • Threat of communist subversion in SEATO area
  • Vietnamese refugees fleeing to Thailand
  • Sarrano's attitude over Laos
  • Thanat-Rusk communiqu of March 1962

The few extracts below give a flavour of the material:
The first of these concerns Soviet attitudes towards SEATO (see FO 371/143721) and comes from the Briefs on South East Asia, dated 12 February 1959, prepared for the British Prime Minister's visit to Moscow:
"The Russians appear to pay no special attention to SEATO although it is included in frequent denunciations of the Western military blocs. However, at the time of the last meeting of the Council in Manila in March 1958, which the Foreign Secretary attended, there was a considerable increase in Communist publicity about SEATO. It is a matter of conjecture whether this was at Chinese or Soviet instigation. But the increase in volume may indicate that the Soviet Union recognises SEATO as being something more than the "paper tiger" which they represent it to be..."

The following extract concerning SEATO (see FO 371/170042) comes from the start of the summary section of the SEATO Annual Review for 1962 sent by D MacDermot of the British Embassy, Bangkok, to Lord Home at the Foreign Office in London, dated 14 January 1963:
"In 1962 SEATO took a turn for the better. The early months were something of a hangover from 1961 with the Thais making difficulties over the Geneva Agreements and the holding of a Council Meeting. Thanat's visit to Washington and the Thanat/Rusk communiqu issued in March, followed by the willingness of most members to send forces to Thailand which was demonstrated in May, improved relations... During the year Laos ceased to be a cause of friction. With the change of Foreign Minister in the Philippines SEATO was spared the harmful comments of Mr Sarrano: but balancing this Pakistan became troublesome and obstructive. Morale within the organisation was not high with the postponement of the Council Meeting and the by-passing of the Headquarters with bilateral arrangements for bringing forces to Thailand...."

The next text comes from a document headed Exchange of views on recent developments in the Far East, a Memorandum to the Committee of Political Advisers from the Chairman, R W J Hooper, 21 June 1963 (NATO Confidential). This is from FO 371/169678 - Files of the South East Asia Department: General:
"It is suggested that an exchange of views concerning the Far East be held on 2nd July 1963. The Committee may wish to discuss, inter alia, the following Far Eastern topics:
(i) Recent developments in Laos and prospects for the future.
(ii) The situation in South Vietnam with particular regard to Mr Diem's government and their problems.
(iii) Indonesia's foreign policy and its alleged evolution with regard to Malaysia.
(iv) The recent shift towards the Chinese side by the Communist parties of various Communist and non-Communist countries of the Far East.

The Thailand files cover the government of Sarit Thanarat, essentially a military regime, and its foreign policy in the region. The anti-communist policy continued and steps were taken militarily to deal with the growing threat of insurgency posed by communist-inspired activities in neighbouring countries. Sarit sought closer ties with Thailand's anti-communist neighbours and with the United States. In 1961 Thailand and another SEATO member, the Philippines, joined with newly independent Malaya to form the Association of Southeast Asia.

When the Pathet Lao moved into northwestern Laos in March 1962, Dean Rusk (US Secretary of State) and Thanat Khoman (Thai Foreign Minister) agreed that their countries would interpret the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty of 1954 as a bilateral as well as multilateral pact binding the United States to come to the aid of Thailand in time of need, with or without the agreement of the other signatories to the pact. Two months later, US troops were stationed in Thailand in response to the deteriorating situation in Laos. The arrival of these forces in May 1962 was seen by the Thai government as confirmation of the United States commitment to preserve Thailand's independence and integrity against communist expansion. On the other hand, despite continual pressure from the Americans, Sarit refused to entertain ideas of democratic reform.

Sarit gave ministers in his cabinet considerable independence in the affairs of their own ministries, but he made all major decisions himself. Work continued on a new draft constitution, but in the meantime Sarit took extensive powers for his own office of prime minister under the interim constitution. Military officers were frequently appointed as directors of state or quasi-governmental economic enterprises. Despite the regime's political shortcomings, some economic progress was made from 1961 onwards with a series of economic development schemes. Sarit welcomed foreign investment. Major electrification and irrigation projects were started with aid from the United States and international agencies. A major clean-up campaign tackled sanitation in the cities.

Sarit revived the motto "Nation-Religion-King" as a slogan for his regime. He aimed to combine the paternalism of the ancient Thai state with the benevolent ideals of Buddhism. He spoke of his intention to "restore" the king to active participation in national life - some royal tours were scheduled for the king and queen to represent Thailand abroad. The administration of monastic institutions was centralised under a superior patriarchate friendly to the regime. Monks were mobilised to support government programs. Critics protested that Sarit had demeaned religion by using it for political ends and that he had compromised the monarchy by using it to legitimise a military dictatorship. They asserted that the regime's policies had contributed to the growth of materialism and secularism and to the erosion of religious belief in Thailand.

When Sarit died in office in December 1963, his deputy, Thanom, took over. He decided to shorten the timetable for the country's transition from a military dominated leadership structure to a popularly elected government. The process still took another five years.

Thailand allied itself closely to the United States in the Vietnam conflict. It permitted bases in Thailand to be used for raids on both North Vietnam and Cambodia. These missions were not officially acknowledged for fear of possible communist retaliation against Thailand. Sarit also committed a division of Thai army troops to the war in South Vietnam.

This microfilm edition provides a thorough overview of the complex problems of the region. The next two parts will cover material on Vietnam for the period 1964-1968.

Vietnam War

Digital Guide
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