Monday, Mar. 07, 1955

Convincing Man

While Siamese sparrows cheeped in the louvers and winged overhead among the gilded arabesques, statesmen from eight nations sat down in Bangkok's Ananda Samakom palace last week and, in the words of John Foster Dulles, set about making SEATO "a going, living thing." The nervous little states that have already felt the fiery breath of the Chinese dragon listened intently. "SEATO must convince us that we will really be defended," said Laos' Premier Katay Sasorith. "Unless we are so convinced, we must succumb."

Before the session was minutes old, Prince Wan of Thailand observed that the foreign ministers might be more comfortable with their coats off. Off came the coats. Dulles rolled up his sleeves and began.

Intertwined Fates. Quickly Dulles made clear that the U.S. sees the defense of the SEATO area as only a part of the defense of the whole Pacific. Thailand's Premier Phibun Songgram, pointing out nervously that 20,000 "Free Thai" troops were mobilized across the Chinese border, wanted the U.S. to put troops right in Thailand where everybody could see them. The Communist threat, Dulles replied, is not a local problem but a coordinated assault on the free world by a unified power controlling 800 million people. No nation could keep enough power within its borders to combat that concerted power.

Thus, in Dulles' view, the safety of Southeast Asia depends not only on SEATO, but also on the intertwined fate of such non-SEATO countries as Japan, South Korea and Formosa. If Japan's industrial power were allied to Communist China, the free world's position in all Asia would become precarious. The chief deterrent to Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia, he went on, is the Communist fear that such an attack would bring counterattacks from South Korea on the north and Formosa in the center. When the U.S. helps maintain an army of 20 divisions in South Korea and the 300,000 men of the Nationalist Chinese in Formosa, it is contributing mightily to the defense of SEATO. He knew, said Dulles tartly, that some think it would help if Chiang's and Rhee's governments were liquidated. But nothing could be more catastrophic for SEATO itself.

For those who had begun to doubt U.S. capabilities since the Tachen evacuation, Dulles listed matter-of-factly the forces which the U.S. maintains in the Western Pacific—a Navy of 400 ships and 350,000 men, Army forces totaling five divisions and about 300,000 men, an air force of 30 squadrons. Taking into account the power of modern weapons, said Dulles, it is a striking force substantially bigger than that deployed by the U.S. at the height of the war with Japan.

Yet if this power should be segregated and chopped up, and allocated to various threatened countries, there would not be enough to go around. Kept mobile, it can be shifted to any spot when required. Dulles reiterated that the U.S. regards the SEATO treaty as a clear and definite promise to come to the aid of any member who suffers aggression.

Skill & Tenacity. Dulles left little for the others to say. Thailand and the Philippines, who had been urging a NATO-like joint force, subsided before Dulles' logic. Quickly, the conferees established a permanent council and secretariat, chose Bangkok as its headquarters, and set up a military committee, which promptly went to work in an adjoining room. Thailand, Pakistan and the Philippines had hoped that SEATO might mean dollar aid for them. But Britain was anxious that SEATO countries should not get something that Colombo powers (India, Ceylon, Burma) did not, and the U.S. did not want any overlaps with its existing bilateral aid programs. A little sadly, the three Asian members—Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan—accepted an advisory committee, which would recommend economic aid only when SEATO military commitments had a direct result on the country's economy.

At week's end Dulles climbed into his Constellation and took off for a rapid swing through the capitals of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Said one Commonwealth observer: "Your Mr. Dulles is a statesman of skill and tenacity. He knows how to have his own way and make you almost think it's yours."