Last week, Thanat Khoman, the longtime politician and former foreign minister of Thailand, died of natural causes in Bangkok. He was 102, and one of the last surviving leaders who played a central role in the Indochina Wars of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Thanat was foreign minister between 1959 and 1971, when the spread of communism through Indochina—communist forces had nearly encircled Luang Prabang during the First Indochina War, and communist forces obviously were making gains in Laos and South Vietnam during Thanat’s tenure—terrified the conservative Thai military regime. Thailand supposedly prided itself on neutrality and working with all nations, a foundation of Thai diplomacy for centuries, yet it already had been moving closer toward a security partnership with the United States even before Thanat’s tenure as foreign minister.
In March 1962, Thanat and U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed a bilateral communiqué in which Washington promised to come to Thailand’s aid if it faced aggression by neighboring nations. The communiqué built upon an already-close U.S.-Thai relationship that had been forged in the 19th century, with the bilateral Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833. The communiqué solidified Thailand’s role as a crucial U.S. ally.
During the Vietnam War years that followed the communiqué, the United States would dramatically build up Thailand’s armed forces, and Thai troops would become deeply involved in the wars in Laos and South Vietnam. (For an excellent, English-language account of Thai soldiers in the Vietnam War, see Richard Ruth’s In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War). In addition to their contributions in Vietnam, Thai troops helped a conservative Laotian general defeat a neutralist/leftist force in Laos in civil conflict in Vientiane in 1960. In later years, Thai troops repeatedly reinforced Hmong irregulars in Laos when the army of Hmong and other hill tribes, led by Vang Pao, faced disaster in Laos’ highlands. Overall, the United States lavished security and economic assistance on Thailand between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, rapidly modernizing the kingdom’s physical infrastructure.
Washington gained as well. The U.S. Air Force based much of its Indochina campaigns in Thailand, and bases in Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani swelled into virtual mini-Americas in the midst of the drought-ridden, baking-hot Thai Northeast. (I am in the final stages of editing my next book, which will examine the secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, and how the Laos war turned the CIA into a military organization. Many of the key actors involved in the U.S. effort in Laos were based at the CIA’s station on the Udon Thani facility.)
At the time of the Thanat-Rusk communiqué, the U.S-Thailand alliance was built on real mutual needs. Although, in retrospect, the communist threat to Thailand was limited—the actual Communist Party of Thailand never gained significant traction in the kingdom, for one—it seemed reasonable to believe that Thailand might be threatened by the political upheaval in Southeast Asia. And Thai leaders needed U.S. protection, U.S. diplomatic support despite the Thai generals’ abuses, and massive U.S. economic and security aid. The United States needed a stable and friendly Thailand for its bases, its leadership among non-communist countries in Asia, its example of economic development via free market economics, and its ability to make the defense of South Vietnam seem, at least superficially, like a multinational endeavor.
Later in his career, Thanat became less supportive of the U.S.-Thailand relationship he had helped forge. He played a significant role in the founding of ASEAN, which he saw as an organization that could help Asians solve their own problems. He later advocated closer Thai relations with China, as the Vietnam War wound down in the 1970s, in part to reduce Bangkok’s dependence on Washington. By the 1980s, a time when he was still deeply involved in Thai politics, Thanat had become publicly critical of Thailand’s dependence on the United States for its security.
But the reality is that, today, even before the May 2014 coup in Thailand, the bilateral relationship is significantly diminished—a far cry from what it was in Thanat’s day. The hard truth is that the United States needs much less from Thailand than it did, putting the Thais in a weaker position in the relationship, and making it easier for U.S. governments to criticize Thai leaders for rights abuses. The United States no longer relies on Thailand as a security partner the way it once did; there is no major war in Southeast Asia, and the United States has built close partnerships with Vietnam and Singapore, partnerships that are taking the place of many aspects of the U.S.-Thai security relationship. The alliance is frayed and weaker, and probably never will recover its vitality.