Established only weeks after the end of the 1954 Geneva Conference, SEATO was created in the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina. The organization was the brainchild of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who hoped that the alliance would fill the void left by France's retreat and prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. SEATO also represented the first binding commitment by the United States to the defense of the region. Moreover, it came alongside expanded efforts by President Dwight Eisenhower's administration to build a viable regime in the southern half of Vietnam.
SEATO's structure and focus were problematic from the start. Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO had no standing military force, and its membership included only two Southeast Asian nations. Thus, the organization was not truly representative of the region as a whole. The exclusion of Indonesia, Burma, and Malaya—all facing significant communist insurgencies—was a glaring weakness. In addition, the inclusion of Pakistan stirred the anger of India, driving it farther away from the Western bloc. British and French participation was viewed as anachronistic by Asian members, an unwelcome remnant of European imperialism.
London and Paris viewed SEATO and its role quite differently than did Washington. The British did not fully share American convictions about the threat posed by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Southeast Asia. Nor did the British see the French defeat in Indochina as an absolute failure, as did U.S. officials. The British also hoped that SEATO would serve as the basis for a broader, regional nonaggression pact, perhaps eventually initiating détente with China. For their part, the French were never very interested in SEATO, especially given their humiliation in Indochina.
Equally troubling was Thailand's viewpoint. The Thais initially hoped that SEATO signaled a genuine commitment to fight communism on their doorstep, but they soon lost faith in it. Bangkok was chosen as SEATO headquarters, and in many ways Thailand, on the front lines of the communist advance, was the centerpiece of the organization. But against the backdrop of the worsening crisis in Laos, by the early 1960s Thai leaders saw SEATO as little more than a paper tiger.
The crux of the problem for Thailand, and often the United States, was the rule of unanimity incorporated into the SEATO voting structure. The Thais frequently proposed forceful SEATO action against communism in the region, including resolutions approving the deployment of military forces to Laos and Vietnam by member states. The French and British refused to endorse such actions, however. Despite their anticommunist rhetoric, Pakistan and the Philippines also eschewed such commitments. SEATO planning sessions, training exercises, and joint military maneuvers were held annually, but behind this façade of unity the organization was paralyzed by dissension.
Few American officials saw SEATO as anything more than a military alliance. Dulles and others hoped that SEATO provisions in the Geneva Agreements would circumvent the barring of aid to Indochina. With this in mind, the Americans insisted that SEATO declare the intention to maintain a "protective area" over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), Laos, and Cambodia. Problems soon arose with other members over how this should be fulfilled. For the United States, SEATO was the principal mechanism through which military support for South Vietnam could be justified.
By the early 1960s, U.S. policymakers had less ambitious plans for SEATO. Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy both hoped that SEATO would resolve its difficulties and represent a viable alternative to unilateral commitments in the region, but as its ineffectiveness became ever more apparent, the emphasis in Washington shifted to maintaining the alliance for symbolic purposes. It was believed that the organization would at least help combat defeatism among governments in the region.
SEATO was not, however, entirely ineffective. Under the auspices of its military planning and training exercises, the Americans developed a considerable array of covert and overt operations in Thailand for use in Indochina. Washington also later used the organization to solicit commitments from Australia and Thailand to send troops to Vietnam. Moreover, although member states knew SEATO to be generally ineffective, the specter of unified military intervention by SEATO signatories may have in fact prevented more significant PRC and Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) support for communist insurgencies in the region.
In Indochina, however, by the mid-1960s SEATO was obviously toothless. As U.S. troops began pouring into Vietnam after 1965, France and Pakistan refused to sanction American policy, openly signaling SEATO's grave limitations. As the war intensified and expanded, even the pretensions of SEATO cohesion evaporated. American commitments to Asian member states, and those in the so-called protective area, were governed almost exclusively by bilateral agreements rather than by SEATO itself.
As U.S. forces began their withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, SEATO fell apart. Embroiled in its continuing conflict with India, Pakistan formally withdrew in November 1973. France followed in June 1974. Following the communist victories in Indochina in early 1975, the remaining members decided to disband the organization in September 1975. SEATO was finally dissolved in February 1977.
Busczynski, Leszek. SEATO: The Failure of an Alliance Strategy. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983.; Daum, Andreas W., Lloyd C. Gardner, and Wilfried Mausbach, eds. America, the Vietnam War, and the World: Comparative and International Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.; McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.; Schoenl, William, ed. New Perspectives on the Vietnam War: Our Allies' Views. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002.