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Series Two: Vietnam, 1959-1975

Part 4: SEATO, South East Asia General and Thailand, 1959-1963

Publisher's Note

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. SEATO was created as a defensive alliance to oppose further communist gains in South East Asia. It was supplemented by a Pacific Charter, affirming the rights of Asian and Pacific peoples to equality and self-determination, and setting forth goals of economic, social and cultural co-operation between the member countries. 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.

The documents provide good source material to form an overview of British, American and French policy in terms of the perceived communist threat to different regions throughout Asia, from Pakistan and Ceylon, to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and also the Philippines and Indonesia.

There is much material on communist infiltration and insurgency, the training of forces for jungle warfare, the conflict in Vietnam and Laos, briefs and discussion papers for the UK delegation, tripartite discussions with the French, Anglo-American policy differences, as well as the perspectives of Australian and New Zealand representatives.

A significant section of the documents cover SEATO forces in Thailand, military planning and SEATO amphibious exercises. The member countries: Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States were supposed to provide military forces. However, France and Pakistan withheld support for the US presence in Vietnam. Of the eight original signatories to the Manila Treaty, only three, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, actually ever put combat troops into the field in South East Asia.

This project allows researchers to look at the successes and failures of SEATO during these complex and tumultuous years. How useful was SEATO as an instrument of American and British policy? How frequently did differences between the British and the Americans surface and threaten to complicate deliberations with SEATO allies? How useful were the tripartite discussions with the French? What impact did meetings with Australian and New Zealand representatives have on policy in South East Asia? What role did SEATO play as the Vietnam conflict intensified?

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 communiqué 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 communiqué 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."

There is significant information in these documents on Indonesia during this period. The Draft Brief on Indonesia prepared for the SEATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, 28 September 1959, (see FO 371/143745) states:

“Indonesia is determined to avoid being drawn into either the Eastern or Western camp politically, or into military alliances eg: SEATO. She deliberately accepts aid and buys arms from both sides and in her international alignment takes the stock Afro-Asian attitude. The campaign against the Dutch and the claim to West New Guinea are likely to be maintained, but a resort to force seems improbable. In Indonesia President Sukarno’s authority is still unchallenged after ten years of independence. He embodies the spirit of the Nationalist struggle and, despite his failings, there is little likelihood of his being replaced as a political leader for the time being. He has recently introduced sweeping constitutional changes and a currency reform… The other main focal points of power are the Army and the Communists. The Army’s prestige has grown since the military action started last year against the dissidents and they have a say in every aspect of civilian life; General Nasution, the Army Commander-in-Chief, is now in practice the second most - although he does not enjoy the undivided support of all the senior officers - powerful man in the land. But it has not been thought so far that he would seek to supersede Sukarno; both appear inter-dependent. Sukarno...uses the Communists - despite his left wing tendencies, he does not regard himself as a Communist, and evidently thinks he can avoid becoming their tool - and he leans on the support of the Army, maintaining an uneasy balance between the two...”

Leslie Fry, at the British Embassy in Djakarta, reports on Indonesian views on SEATO (see FO 371/143746) in a despatch to DF MacDermott in the South East Asia Department in the Foreign Office, dated 28 September 1959. He remarks on the Indonesian desire “that SEATO if possible demonstrate that its aim is not ‘to perpetuate colonialism’.”

British Foreign Office telegram No. 2015 about the SEATO Ministerial Meeting on 28 September 1959 highlights British anxieties about Laos:

“I hope that it will be possible to avoid going very deeply into the Laos question at the SEATO meeting on September 28. Until we have reached agreement with the Americans about what is to be done, there is a danger that discussions of this kind will reveal our differences and give the appearance to our SEATO allies that we are less solidly determined to honour our obligations than are the Americans. In the circumstances I must leave you to decide how much of our thinking it is necessary to reveal. I hope that it may be sufficient for you to say something on the lines of the following.
If Laos goes Communist all will be lost. We must have plans ready to deal with the possibility that the North Vietnamese will step up their covert support for the rebels to the point where this might become an immediate danger to the survival of the Laotian Government or that they might even intervene openly; but we should be against military intervention by SEATO except as a last resort and as a purely defensive measure. We do not consider that the point where outside military help to the Laotian Government is necessary has nearly been reached. It is certain that the reports of the Laotian Government have to some extent exaggerated the size of the threat...”

FO 371/166355 documents fears about the intensification of the conflict. There is a map showing the expansion of US Military Aggression in South East Asia and an address by Senator Mike Mansfield at MSU on interests and policies in South East Asia. He argues that the US should review and reappraise its policies. Dick Ledward reports from South Vietnam on Anglo-American relations: “...In Saigon there are special problems arising out of the massive American aid to Vietnam and the peculiar British position as an ally of the United States while retaining responsibilities as co-chairman of the Geneva Conference. So far as the local Americans are concerned, I would judge that the good sense and experience of the British Advisory Mission has helped to keep our stock high. Our two ambassadors are clearly deep in each other’s confidence, and it is largely the danger of precipitate action by the US military, without adequate advance consultation, that we have to look out for. The establishment of a separate US command in Vietnam without advance warning earlier this year, is generally accepted to have been a mistake. Nevertheless it is not going to be easy to guarantee, when so much American military and political capital has been sunk in support of President Diem, that there will not be similar American moves without adequate warning in the future...”

FO 371/143771 includes material on investment in Cambodia as well as draft briefs for the UK Delegation on the Philippines and on Singapore.

FO 371/159737 features good material with illustrations on the SEATO amphibious exercise. Two files, FO 371/166353-4, provide excellent documents on UK policy in South East Asia, with good coverage on Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia and Cambodia.

FO 371/166359 covers the Eden Hall Conference. There is much material on Vietnam and the activities of the Viet Cong. There is also the debate on SEATO voting procedures. The Thai insistence on a two-thirds majority for SEATO decisions was aimed at dropping the reluctant trio (France, UK and New Zealand) and with US support to pursue a much more “forward policy”. Britain had strong reservations about this “dangerous possibility”.

The Brief for the Eighth Meeting of the SEATO Council in Paris, 8-10 April 1963 (see FO 371/170046) reviews the attitudes of different member nations towards the organisation. For instance:

“Australia is a staunch supporter and generous contributor. In her eyes the chief merits of the Organisation are that it provides a framework for collective military arrangements in an area vital to Australia’s interests, and that it commits the United States to the defence of the mainland of South East Asia. In their desire to confirm the Americans in this commitment the Australians have identified their line in SEATO with that of the United States, sometimes to the extent of showing themselves ostentatiously independent of the United Kingdom. Moreover, the Australian military regard us as far too cautious and have doubted whether we would honour our obligations to SEATO if they were to involve actual fighting.”

“The United States is a strong supporter of SEATO, which is important to her in relation to Congress and the United Nations as a cover under which she could take military action in South East Asia if she thought the situation demanded. The Americans, however, probably have little real confidence in the Organisation as such and attach more importance to their own national and bilateral planning than to the likelihood of collective action. There is however slight but increasing evidence that they may now wish to identify SEATO more closely with their policy in South Vietnam...”

FO 371/170634 contains the papers on the Expert Working Group on the Far East (April 1963) with the UK draft submissions on South Vietnam and Indonesia.

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.



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