It occurs to me that you might care to have a rambling letter from me on the subject that is most prominent in our minds in this country—the situation in South-East Asia and the area generally to the north of Australia. As I think you probably realise, the South-East Asian trouble area is our main overseas preoccupation.
Until a year or so ago it was uncertain whether any potential war effort would be in the Middle East or in South-East Asia. The events of recent times have crystallised our concern in South-East Asia.
The background and the broad facts about South-East Asia are, of course, well known to you and I won't clutter up this letter with unnecessary preamble.
The forthcoming Manila Treaty signatories conference at Bangkok (which opens on 23rd February)1 points up the whole problem so far as we are concerned. The proposed Afro-Asian conference at Djakarta in late April2 is also a bit on our minds. We greatly regret the holding of this conference, which is the first attempted large-scale line-up of non-Europeans against Europeans. It promises to be a propaganda exercise, which it would be most embarrassing for us to attend, ever if we were invited, which we have not been.
I am leaving Australia about February 7th to do a series of two-day visits to each of North Borneo, Singapore, Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane, prior to reaching Bangkok a day or so before the Bangkok conference. This should give me an up to date appreciation of the attitude of mind of the head people in these places.
There have been several conferences between the service people in Singapore and here in recent months, about which they have worked out a lot of stuff about the defence of Malaya. However, to my mind, this is only part of the problem, and between ourselves, I'm not very happy about the scope of the discussions so far. There is all the rest of South-East Asia to be considered, as well as Indonesia, which isn't a notably secure country. However, this is only my personal view.
The main geographical sources of our anxiety are the countries of Indo-China and Indonesia. In addition there is Thailand which is all right now, but it is not too strong and reliable on the long view.
The principal anomaly in the whole of this consideration of the defence of South-East Asia lies in the fact that there has been no frank and intimate discussion of the problem between the British and the Americans. The Americans are holding their cards very close to their chest. The Pentagon just won't talk. They show clear signs of wanting not to be inhibited by what anybody else thinks or does. The only statements of any consequence that have been made on the subject have been those made by the President and Secretary of State—about 'massive retaliation'—strategic reserves in the Island chain that can hit back with strength on aggression wherever arising. This is all very well—and possibly contains a good deal of logic—but it does not give much comfort to Malaya�or, for that matter, to Siam. They want some promise of help to stop their countries being overrun by communism—not the pledge of retaliations against their assassins.
So far as the Manila Treaty signatories conference in Bangkok is concerned�there are three main subjects that might be discussed—(1) military planning—(2) the countering of communist subversion—and (3) the coordination of economic aid.
So far as (1) (military planning) is concerned—there is not likely to be very much positive and constructive discussion of this, by reason of the widely divergent countries that will be represented (you can only do realist military planning with people in whom you have every possible confidence). So that this item is likely to be concerned with the minor aspects of planning—logistics, directions from which aggression may come—exchange of intelligence and the like—all second-level stuff. There may be some realist discussion on (2) (countering of subversion)—although even this is likely to be on a bilateral basis—i.e. talks between the U.S.A. and Siam—Australia and Cambodia and the like. Maybe (3) (coordination of economic aid) offers more promise of something constructive.
For ourselves (Australia) we are putting our economic aid into the countries of South-East Asia through the machinery of the Colombo Plan—and I have been trying to ensure that we cut the cackle and get down to business quickly. We already have appreciable aid on the water towards the Indo-China countries.
I have the impression that we are implementing our Colombo Plan aid to the countries of South and South-East Asia in a rather different way to you—in that I have the impression that you give a relatively small number of very large items of aid to these countries—whereas we spread ourselves over many more individual items, each one of which is very much less in value than yours. So far as South Viet Nam is concerned we are in course of giving them—transport, earthmoving equipment (to help refugee resettlement) and livestock, valued at �132,000. Initial shipments will be made early in February and most of the items will be shipped before June. So far as Cambodia is concerned we are giving them aid to the value of about �200,000, including earthmoving equipment for municipal works (�69,800), rolling stock (25 railway wagons costing �61,000), together with equipment for a railway apprentices school (�50,000) and for a service station (�10,000). Laos has now requested earthmoving equipment worth �150,000 and is shortly to submit requests for further equipment, mainly agricultural. As regards Burma, a Burmese Mission of 5 senior officials recently inspected Australia's manufacturing capacity and supply position. As a direct result the Burmese Government will receive transport and earthmoving equipment valued at about �190,000, and education training equipment worth �40,000. Livestock valued at �25,000 has already been despatched. Thailand has not yet asked us for much, if anything. Our aid to them has been on the technical assistance side through the training of some of their people in Australia.
In the last month or two we have been giving a good deal of thought here to what we might be able to contribute on the Cold War side. I put a memorandum up to our Cabinet ten days ago recommending that my Department (External Affairs) should be the executive and coordinating agency for the prosecution of the Cold War so far as Australia is concerned—which was agreed upon. We are now in course of working on how we can improve and increase the impact of our Radio Australia programme to South-East Asia. We have been broadcasting for a number of years in French, Indonesia[n]3, Thai, and, or course, English. Shortly we will add a series of sessions in Mandarin Chinese—and we are also engaged in working out how we can improve and increase the political content of our Radio Australia programmes generally. We have the natural advantage of broadcasting from South to North which technically makes for much better reception than broadcasting East and West—and our Radio Australia programmes are well received and popular in S.E. Asia.
Again on the Cold War side, we are bringing back from overseas our present. Australian Ambassador at Bonn (John Hood) and are making him into a senior back room thinking boy on Cold War. He is a fellow with the sort of mind who might be good at this. We will aim to evolve some constructive and practical ideas as to how we can help the U.K. and U.S.A. in combating Communist subversion in S.E. Asia.
I do not know if all this may not be too geographically remote from you to interest you at all. My senior officers and I are very much immersed in the sort of thing that I have been talking about—and I could go on talking to you for a week. However, I will regard this as a first instalment—and. if you show any signs of real interest in the subject I will only be too glad to write you again about it.
[NAA: A1838, TS383/1/1/1 part 1]