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Cutting the US Out of SEATO

What's the Congress Waiting For?

Continuing American participation in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) militates against prospects for any effective reassertion by Congress of its foreign policy role in Southeast Asia. Yet the Senate still displays a remarkable complacency toward the survival of SEATO. Though recently dormant, that old treaty is still alive, operative and available as an instrument for further presidentially initiated intervention. Indeed it provides an assertive President with one of his strongest cards in dealing with Congress, should he wish to create a new or expanded military role in Indochina, Thailand or the Philippines.

In the euphoria that surrounded repeal of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, many seemed to forget that Tonkin provided the principal rationale for the Johnson administration's Vietnam intervention for only a year. By early March 1966, in the face of mounting Senate criticism, the administration felt the need for greater authority if its Indochina venture was to be continued and escalated. Thereupon it shifted its emphasis from Tonkin Gulf to SEATO as the major public justification for our Vietnam policy, with Arthur Krock noting in his column of March 6, 1966 that Dean Rusk had moved to cite that treaty as "the fundamental source of President Johnson's authority to commit the United States to whatever expenditure of manpower and treasure he deems necessary to sustain the war in Vietnam."

As endorsed by the Senate 18 years ago, SEATO did not authorize US military intervention in situations such as the one that developed in South Vietnam; nevertheless later Congresses permitted Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to use SEATO as authority for our intervention. They did so by acquiescing to White House assertions that the Vietnam conflict was an instance of outside aggression, rather than a locally rooted insurgency and civil war.

To understand how this happened and to appreciate why the survival of SEATO makes it difficult for Congress to restrain further presidentially initiated military adventures in Southeast Asia, it is necessary to look carefully at the actual nature of our SEATO commitment. The treaty's two principal prongs are addressed to outside aggression and to internal insurrection, or "subversion" as it was originally termed. Only in cases of outside aggression can its language be construed as providing scope for anything like a direct and unilateral response by a signatory. With respect to insurrection, the treaty is susceptible to no such interpretation. In such instances it stipulates only that the "parties shall consult immediately in order to agree on the measures which should be taken for the common defense." Consultation among the SEATO signatories, then, and not action—either collective or unilateral—is all that it provides for in cases of insurgency. If this consultation should lead to a sufficient consensus, recommendations to the several signatory governments might result.

Indeed the Senate agreed to SEATO on the clear understanding that in situations other than open and armed attack from outside the treaty area, there would be no obligation to act. Despite an unqualified statement to this effect from Secretary Dulles during the hearings, several senators remained apprehensive over the insurgency or "subversion" clause in the treaty (Paragraph 2 of Article 4). They wanted to be sure that it could not be employed to draw the United States into the support of unpopular governments against broadly based political opposition, pointing out that this would hardly be compatible with America's own revolutionary heritage. To assure them on this point Dulles pledged: "If there is a revolutionary movement in Vietnam or Thailand we [the SEATO] allies would consult together as to what to do about it… but we have no undertaking to put it down; all we have is an undertaking to consult together as to what to do about it."

But the senators had not reckoned with the power of a President to define insurgency as outside aggression. In case of outside aggression the clause of SEATO that could be invoked (Paragraph 1 of Article 4) called not for mere consultation but for action on the part of the United States or any other party to the treaty, albeit action in accordance with the country's "constitutional processes." Although this clause could not legitimately be construed as authorizing American intervention against insurgencies, it could be so utilized by a President willing to certify that the insurgency in question is in fact basically outside aggression. For such casuistry to succeed all that is required is an apathetic and poorly informed Congress. As the history of our Indochina involvement so eloquently testifies, the means of making an on-the-ground determination are almost exclusively in the hands of the President. It is for him as well as to him—not Congress—that the Foreign Service and CIA report, and it is unusual for them to provide him with reports that do not justify a course of action they know he is already determined to take. Unless Congress secures considerably greater help from outside sources than is normally the case (or provides itself with much more substantial means of its own) it will always find it difficult to contest assessments made by the executive branch.

President Nixon's recent statements warning Hanoi to refrain from aggressive military activity in Cambodia or else court "appropriate action" by the United States are, of course, addressed to an American as well as Vietnamese audience and must be regarded as an attempt to keep that option open.

It is not clear whether in order to shift public attention away from Watergate Mr. Nixon would welcome a well publicized confrontation with Congress over an issue of foreign policy such as would be presented by renewed bombing of Cambodia. But the fact remains that his own prestige in the conduct of international affairs is probably more immediately at hazard over Cambodia than with regard to any other country. Although Congress has hamstrung the President by denying him funds for any renewal of American bombing or ground action in Cambodia, it has not deprived him of whatever legitimacy SEATO can bestow on such a venture. The fact that he has not yet invoked the rationale of SEATO in Cambodia does not mean that he is not keeping it in reserve.

The protocol of the SEATO treaty covers Cambodia quite as much as it ever covered the southern half of Vietnam, and there is nothing to prevent the present Phnompenh regime from repudiating Sihanouk's renunciation of SEATO's protection for Cambodia and requesting US intervention. If President Nixon chose to grant the request he would need only to interpret the situation in Cambodia as one of "outside aggression" by the North Vietnamese in order to invoke SEATO. Would Congress then insist, as it has never done previously, that SEATO's stipulation that this be done by the United States "in accordance with its constitutional processes" obliges the President to secure the approval of a majority of the Senate, or would it simply, as in the past, be content with his consulting some of its members?

Because of the mounting strength of the Cambodian insurgents, President Nixon might well prefer to avoid a showdown with Congress over a resumption of bombing. For he must realize that whatever he does, there is a strong likelihood that the Phnompenh regime will fall by the end of the next dry season. Thus unless it should appear that divisions among the insurgents or other unforeseen factors seriously impair the rebels' effectiveness and prospects, he may conclude that resumption of the bombing would be quite as futile as it was before. He might then prefer to sit back and accuse Congress of "losing Cambodia." But if factors internal to Cambodia should incline him to gamble upon a reentry of US military power, Congress is encouraging such a move by leaving the SEATO rationale available to him as justification. This danger should be reason enough for Congress to take prompt action to end our participation in that treaty.

Less minatory in an immediate sense, but equally worrisome in the longer term, is the possibility of the United States' being drawn via SEATO into a military intervention against an insurgency in Thailand. The US has been committed much more deeply to Thailand's defense against both outside powers and internal insurgency than many congressmen and the general public are aware. This commitment is ultimately tied to and crucially dependent upon a special reinterpretation of SEATO by executive action in the Kennedy administration that was never submitted to Congress for approval and that considerably increases the possibility for triggering American involvement. A joint communiqué by Secretary of State Rusk and Thailand's Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman on March 6, 1962, in effect "bilateralized" the SEATO agreement, asserting that there was an American obligation to come to Thailand's support, even if other SEATO signatories refused to go along.

The Nixon administration has been quite aware that Congress would probably balk at any attempt to conclude a normal bilateral defense treaty with Thailand. But so long as the United States remains in SEATO, the issue does not have to be so raised. Indeed it is in order to have in hand advance authorization for American assistance to Thailand against both external attack and local insurgency that the present administration is primarily interested in hanging on to SEATO.

Whether, as Nixon administration spokesmen have argued, the Rusk-Thanat agreement did not depart from the SEATO accord as originally understood, Bangkok clearly thinks it did and regards it as having added significantly to the American commitment. Thus early in the Nixon administration (May 21, 1969) Thanat Khoman, still Thailand's foreign minister, explained to his Thai audience that although according to the original SEATO charter "all decisions must be taken by unanimity," under his 1962 understanding with Secretary Rusk "even if the decision is not endorsed by all, any individual country or countries may take action even though there is no consensus…."

If one yields to the administration's claim that a bilateralization of SEATO is not inconsistent with its actual terms, then it must be emphasized that this separate American-Thai interpretation could conceivably apply only to the section of the treaty pertaining to outside aggression. The SEATO language dealing with insurgency and subversion is too explicit to permit any such interpretation, for there the parties are called upon simply to consult "in order to agree on the measures which should be taken for the common defense." One would assume that anything so clearly collective could not be bilateralized. Yet the Rusk-Thanat communiqué of March 6, 1962 employs language, apparently lost on all but a few members of Congress, that Thai leaders believe does provide the basis for active US military support against any major insurgency in Thailand, as well as against outside aggression. The communiqué cites the case of Vietnam as an appropriate example of how under SEATO Thailand could rely on United States support against the threat of insurgency. This was certainly the interpretation of the Thai prime minister, Field Marshal Sarit, who announced just after the communiqué was signed that the United States had pledged aid to Thailand against indirect aggression —subversion or infiltration —"the same way it is doing in South Vietnam now." If members of Congress are confused by the seeming ambiguity of the American defense commitment to Thailand, that country's leaders are not.

Bangkok's initial anxiety after the President's enunciation of the Nixon Doctrine was quickly put to rest by his public statement in Bangkok on July 28, 1969. Pledging to maintain all existing American commitments to Thailand, Mr. Nixon went on to say, "The United States will stand proudly with Thailand against all of those who might threaten it from abroad, or from within." The Thai leaders were delighted. Their sentiments were echoed by the Bangkok World which promptly observed: "The inclusion of threats from 'within' is seen as a startling vote of confidence to a Thai nation cautious over the prospects of American involvement in future Southeast Asian problems," and later concluded in its lead editorial: "Mr. Nixon's statement… came as a surprise to Thai leaders fearing that his mission here was only to prepare the nation for the eventuality of the American disengagement. . . The Thai-US relationship is . . . stronger now than at any time in days past." As was made evident by Vice President Agnew during his visit to Bangkok on May 17, 1972, the Nixon administration indicated no subsequent reservations about this pledge. By emphasizing that the United States "reaffirmed its willingness to honor its commitments" to Thailand under SEATO and under the Rusk-Thanat communiqué "as well as the assurances given by President Nixon," Agnew reinforced the Thai leadership's conviction that if any of their insurgencies become a serious threat they can count upon the United States to come to their rescue.

During the 11 years since the Rusk-Thanat communiqué was signed, Bangkok has been given abundant evidence of Washington's willingness to meet the expectations that it raised among the Thai leadership; even that part of the record disclosed in the heavily expurgated published hearings of the 1969 Symington committee makes this clear. Shortly before the 1962 communiqué was announced, the Kennedy administration made a commitment to Thailand's air defense by stationing a detachment of interceptor aircraft at Bangkok's Don Muong airport. In the spring of 1962, at a time of growing Thai concern over the situation in Laos, President Kennedy established a Military Assistance Command for Thailand, MACTHAI, and sent 10,000 marines and other ground personnel to Thailand to ensure fulfillment of US obligations under SEATO and "to help ensure the territorial integrity of Thailand." (The move was also regarded by the Kennedy administration as useful in providing the US with additional bargaining power in the ongoing international negotiations over Laos.) In 1964 the US general commanding MACTHAI worked out contingency plans with the Bangkok government for American participation in Thailand's defense which were updated by further negotiations in August 1969. It has never been publicly divulged whether these plans center on countering a major insurgency, but presumably they do.

In any case, even the published parts of the Symington hearings disclose that by March 1966 the United States was directly involved in supporting Thai efforts to put down an insurgency. Though this dissident activity in northeastern Thailand was actually modest in scale, Bangkok appeared to be having difficulty in coping with it, and US Ambassador Graham Martin requested Washington to send in helicopters. According to him, the 25 helicopters of the US 606th Air Commando Squadron were under orders not to fire at the insurgents; but they were certainly intimately involved in Bangkok's efforts to suppress the rebels— ferrying Thai military personnel right up to the combat areas. This operation went on until late January 1967, at which time, Ambassador Martin states, Thai pilots took over the operation.

There have been no new Senate hearings on US military support to Thailand comparable to those held by Senator Symington's subcommittee in November 1969, and thus relatively little has been made public concerning the Nixon administration's activities there. US military advisers are now reported to total around 1000, and US Special Forces and CIA personnel (numbers not disclosed) are still engaged in helping the Thai army and police cope with insurgent activities, apparently with limited success.

As during Johnson's term, there has been a continuing campaign to depict all kinds of insurgent activities—even cattle rustling—as part of a Communist campaign directed and nourished by Hanoi, the Pathet Lao or Peking. But it remains clear that outside support is of marginal importance, and that the insurgencies are basically locally rooted and locally fueled. The minority peoples have real and serious grievances, and it has been Bangkok's discriminatory and often heavy-handed treatment of them that has been primarily responsible for provoking them into resistance. During the last few years insurgent activity among the Meo in the north and the Malays in the south has apparently become stronger, considerably greater than the older movement mounted in Northeast Thailand by dissident Thai. Bangkok has not been effective in its efforts to deal militarily with the insurgencies among the Meo and Malays, nor has it taken the political and economic measures necessary to placate these people. (Repeated military defeats in the north at the hands of the Meo and other minority tribal groups brought Bangkok in the fall of 1970 to turn over the policing and administration of extensive hill areas there to Chinese nationalist [Kuomintang] troops—remnants and offspring of forces that fled China two decades ago. This arrangement, endorsed by the United States government, has not been very effective. Most of the Chinese troops have been more interested in the opium trade than fighting the Meo, and when they have chosen to fight have usually fared poorly.)

In the meantime the United States during the past three administrations has built up a substantial vested interest in a massive complex of air bases in Thailand—an investment which ran to over $800 million in 1969 and probably totals well over $1 billion today. Despite an announced token withdrawal of United States personnel from Thailand, some 30,000 to 40,000 still remain.

Thus far insurgents in Thailand—though increasing in power and in the size of the areas they control—do not endanger the Bangkok government, nor have they yet seriously threatened our air bases or our personnel stationed in Thailand. But what if either or both of these situations should arise? On the basis of his past record what should one expect Richard Nixon to do? Will he assert that we have a clear-cut case of outside aggression and invoke the SEATO pact as justification for American intervention—at first presumably with the less controversial dimension of additional military advisers and special forces along with tactical air power? Or will he simply repair to that formula that served him so well during the last years of United States military intervention in Vietnam—the duty of the President to protect American military personnel abroad? Or to strengthen his case in the face of probable congressional opposition will he do both?

SEATO, especially as permissive Congresses have allowed the executive branch to interpret that treaty, leaves the gate open for the President to launch military interventions in Thailand and Cambodia, and even in the Philippines. If Congress is serious about reasserting its responsibilities in foreign policy it must take preemptive action to deny the President scope for such initiatives by bringing American participation in SEATO to an end.

George McT. Kahin is co-author of The United States in Vietnam and the editor of Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia.

This article originally ran in the October 13, 1973, issue of the magazine.