Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Special Relationship

A Special Relationship: The United States and Military Government in Thailand, 1947-1958

Daniel Fineman
Copyright Date: 1997
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqvw9
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Special Relationship
    Book Description:

    The development of the Thai-American alliance from 1947 to 1958 dramatically transformed both countries' involvement in Southeast Asia. Bounded by two important political events in Thailand, an army coup in 1947 and the military's assumption of complete control of government in 1958, the period witnessed both the entrenchment of authoritarian military government in Thailand and a revolution in U.S.-Thai relations. During these years the modern Thai political system emerged, and the United States established its interest and influence in mainland Southeast Asian affairs. The developments of the period made possible American's later, more extensive, involvement in Indochina. A Special Relationship provides the most comprehensive analysis of this critical founding period of the Thai-American alliance. It reveals surprising new information on joint covert operations in Indochina, American support for suppression of government opponents, and CIA involvement in Thai domestic politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6441-5
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. NOTE ON TRANSLITERATION AND THAI NAMES
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-10)

    President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger faced a troubling dilemma in May 1975. The new Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia had just captured an American merchant vessel, theMayaguez,in international waters, and fears ran high as to the fate of the ship’s crew in the hands of the unpredictable Khmer Rouge leadership. Ford and Kissinger wanted to recapture theMayaguezby force, but the only American military bases close enough to launch an attack were in neighboring Thailand, and that country’s fragile, two-year-old civilian government had refused the Americans permission to mount the operation from Thai...

  7. PART ONE: LEARNING TO LIVE WITH PHIBUN, 1947–1948

    • [PART ONE: Introduction]
      (pp. 12-14)

      The return to power of Thailand’s wartime strongman, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, in a coup overthrowing the elected government in November 1947 could not have more exasperated the United States. During the war, Plaek—known in the West as “Phibun”—had assumed dictatorial powers, established social and political institutions modeled on those in fascist countries, and struck an alliance with Japan against the United States and Great Britain. As a State Department release at the time put it, this “man who had declared war on the allies” was “extremely unpopular” with the U.S. government.¹ But the Americans found it hard...

    • Chapter One PRELUDE TO THE COUP, JANUARY 1947–NOVEMBER 1947
      (pp. 15-36)

      As it had for fifteen years, the struggle for power between soldiers and civilians in Thailand in 1947 revolved around a personal contest between Phibun, champion of the army, and Pridi Phanomyong, leader of the main civilian faction. Controversial figures, largely because of the mutual recriminations surrounding their rivalry, Pridi and Phibun defy easy description. The length of time each was involved in politics renders simple characterizations of their careers impossible. As complex and contradictory as their political legacies are, however, their importance to twentieth-century Thai history is undeniable. Either together or separately, they dominated the Thai political scene continuously...

    • Chapter Two KHUANG AND THE COUP, NOVEMBER 1947–APRIL 1948
      (pp. 37-53)

      The November 9, 1947, coup was a coup of the army. The Coup Group(khana ratthaprahan),as it came to be known, consisted of about forty junior army officers led by a small number of commanding officers.¹ Officers Pridi had forced into retirement after the war—men with little other than conspiracy to keep themselves occupied—were most prominent. Several had served during World War II in the Shan States of Burma, where they were left after the war largely to fend for themselves. The hardships they experienced in their retreat to Thailand left them embittered at the man they...

    • Chapter Three PHIBUN’S RETURN, APRIL–JUNE 1948
      (pp. 54-64)

      The Coup Group allowed Khuang to enjoy his position as fully recognized prime minister for only a month. Throughout the winter, Khuang had annoyed the Coup Group, and, with votes of confidence from the powers and the Parliament, he threatened to prove more irritating in the spring. Reports that he planned to slash military spending in the next budget circulated freely in March. No longer worried about foreign recognition, the Coup Group therefore decided that Khuang had to go. On April 6, four high-ranking members of the Coup Group called on Khuang and demanded that he resign within twenty-four hours....

  8. PART TWO: U.S. MILITARY AID AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF THAI FOREIGN POLICY, 1948–1950

    • [PART TWO: Introduction]
      (pp. 66-68)

      From the end of World War II to 1950, Thai foreign policy was based on the principle that one should make as many friends as possible, but get too cozy with no one. In the immediate postwar years, the Thais worked intimately with Britain in the commercial sphere but resisted London’s proposals for closer military cooperation. They courted French favor but played host to thousands of Indochinese insurgents. And though the Thais sought out American aid and diplomatic support, they maintained proper relations with the Soviet Union. Thai policy toward the Western attempt to contain communism in Southeast Asia, as...

    • Chapter Four MAKING THE CASE FOR MILITARY AID, APRIL 1948–JUNE 1949
      (pp. 69-88)

      Almost from the moment Phibun returned to the Thai political scene with the November 1947 coup, he made the acquisition of foreign military assistance one of his primary foreign-policy goals. Over the previous several months, the United States had initiated large armsassistance programs for Greece and Turkey and had begun planning for even more substantial Marshall Plan aid for western Europe. In the wake of these decisions, Phibun—like many Americans—believed that the United States would be willing to provide assistance to countries elsewhere, such as Thailand. At the same time, Phibun had compelling political reasons, as had Pridi,...

    • Chapter Five U.S. MILITARY AID AND THAILAND’S COMMITMENT TO THE WEST, JUNE 1949–DECEMBER 1950
      (pp. 89-126)

      As late as July 1949, Phibun’s foreign and domestic policies toward communism remained unchanged. He still proclaimed his commitment to fighting communism, but when the subject turned to actions, he equivocated. When a member of Parliament asked in February what he was doing to protect against communism, he responded that “there is now no communist unrest in Thailand,” and, in June, he told a British newsman that Thailand would support a Western-led security pact in Southeast Asia but dismissed the need for the government to take any defensive measures. He explained in the interview that, “for our country, there is...

  9. PART THREE: FORMING THE ALLIANCE, 1950–1954

    • [PART THREE: Introduction]
      (pp. 128-130)

      Despite Phibun’s Bao Dai and Korea decisions and the initiation of U.S. military assistance, Thailand remained in 1950 a distant place in Washington policymakers’ minds. Washington had yet to accord Southeast Asia the geopolitical importance it later gave the region, and even policymakers concerned directly with Southeast Asia did not know what role they should assign Thailand in their regional strategy. As late as 1952, John M. Allison, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, claimed after a trip to Southeast Asia that Burma mattered more to the United States than Thailand. “I came away with the general feeling...

    • Chapter Six THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AN AMERICAN MILITARY PRESENCE, JUNE 1950–DECEMBER 1951
      (pp. 131-146)

      Despite the initiation of military assistance to Phibun’s regime, U.S. military involvement in Thailand in 1950 remained limited and uncertain. The $10 million the United States granted the Thais was significant but modest, and little heavy equipment was involved. At the time Truman approved it, most considered the program a one-shot deal.¹ The three service attachés maintained the only U.S. military presence in the country, and no one was sure whether a permanent military advisory mission would be established to administer the aid. This being the case, the Americans at that time never hoped for more from the Thai government...

    • Chapter Seven THE UNITED STATES AND THE MILITARY’S CONSOLIDATION OF POWER, JUNE 1951–DECEMBER 1952
      (pp. 147-168)

      Although military aid and Operation Paper had increased U.S. interest in Thailand, the Americans still felt too uncertain about the military government’s stability to risk a much greater investment in the country. While Phibun had come a long way toward taming conservatives in Parliament and the bureaucracy, the military government’s fundamental political problems remained unsolved. Opposition to the Coup Group within the military itself stayed strong, and official corruption seemed to be eating away whatever popular support the government enjoyed. Even the conservative politicians Phibun had largely subdued retained enough influence to inflict political damage on the government. Most worrisome...

    • Chapter Eight BUILDING THE BASTION, JANUARY 1953–SEPTEMBER 1954
      (pp. 169-200)

      In 1953, American policy toward Thailand changed fundamentally. Until then, the United States viewed Thailand as just another Southeast Asian domino, more stable than the others, but ready to topple at any moment due to internal strife or willingness to compromise with Communists. Policymakers primarily hoped up to that time to protect Thailand itself from communism. No one considered more than a limited projection of Thai military power beyond its own borders possible. But the Americans felt new confidence in Thailand after 1952. Operation Paper had provided the framework for more extensive covert activities, the Manhattan Rebellion and Silent Coup...

  10. PART FOUR: DEMOCRACY, DICTATORSHIP, AND THE NEW ALLIANCE, 1955–1958

    • [PART FOUR: Introduction]
      (pp. 202-204)

      As much as the United States had contributed to the extension of military rule in Thailand, many policymakers remained committed in 1954 to encouraging democratic institutions there. Despite the cia’s cooperation with the right-wing Phao Siyanon and the moral and material support supplied the military, Americans in Bangkok and Washington continued to try to temper the military’s excesses in the first half of the decade. The State Department and maag strongly protested the Silent Coup in 1951, Stanton sought until his departure in mid-1953 to restrain Phao and strengthen the more moderate Phibun, and the embassy maintained close contacts with...

    • Chapter Nine DEMOCRATIZATION AND DETERIORATION, JANUARY 1955–SEPTEMBER 1957
      (pp. 205-242)

      As the Thais and Americans moved into their fifth year of military cooperation after the signing of the Manila Pact in September 1954, the friendship between the United States and the Thai military government remained strong. The halcyon days of the previous May when Dulles met a Thai representative almost weekly to discuss air bases, bilateral security pacts, and massive aid increases had passed, but the Thais still had much to praise about American policy. The Manila Pact demonstrated the Americans’ commitment to protecting and aiding Thailand, and military cooperation continued undiminished. U.S.-Thai relations were poised for further growth.

      The...

    • Chapter Ten DICTATORSHIP AND RESTORATION, SEPTEMBER 1957–DECEMBER 1958
      (pp. 243-258)

      Despite the tensions surrounding the 1957 coup, Sarit and the United States needed each other badly. Although the Americans had by then created a second client state in Diem’s Republic of Vietnam, Thailand, because of its greater size, wealth, and stability, remained the United States’ most important ally on the Southeast Asian mainland. A National Security Council paper in November called Thailand “the hub of U.S. security efforts in Southeast Asia.”¹ Likewise, the United States remained crucial to Thai regional strategy. Sarit, even more than Phibun and Phao, wanted U.S. help in expanding Thai influence in Laos. Raised by an...

  11. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 259-264)

    Military government and the relationship with the United States had progressed in unison in Thailand from 1947 to 1958. When Phibun made his dramatic policy shift in favor of the United States with the Bao Dai and Korea decisions in 1950, civilians in the press, the cabinet, Parliament, and the Foreign Ministry also saw their influence over policymaking drastically reduced. Over the following four years, as the Coup Group consolidated power with the Manhattan Rebellion and the Silent Coup and increased political repression after the late-1952 crackdown, the United States transformed Thailand into an anti-Communist, pro-U.S. bastion. When Phibun’s democratic...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 265-326)
  13. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 327-340)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 341-358)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 359-359)