In the first council meeting of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declares the United States is committed to defending the region from communist aggression. The meeting, and American participation in SEATO, set the stage for the U.S. to take a more active role in Vietnam.
SEATO had been established in Manila in 1954, at a meeting called by Secretary Dulles. The United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines became the member states of the regional defense organization. The U.S. established SEATO primarily in response to what it viewed as a deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia. Earlier in 1954, the French, who had been fighting to regain control of their former colony since 1946, agreed to withdraw from Vietnam. The country was divided, and the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh took control in North Vietnam pending nationwide elections for reunification in two years. U.S. policymakers believed that North Vietnam was the first “domino” to fall to communism in Southeast Asia, and that other nations in the region would also soon come under threat of communist control. Dulles pointed to communist China as the main threat to peace and security in the region. Communist China responded by claiming that SEATO was another part of “United States aggression against Asian nations.”
SEATO became more important to the United States as the situation in Vietnam eventually resulted in the commitment of U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam in 1965. Unfortunately for U.S. officials, only a few of the SEATO member countries actively supported the U.S. action. Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines sent troops or other assistance, but Great Britain, France, and Pakistan refused to become involved. Eventually, France, Pakistan, and Australia withdrew from the organization. SEATO faded away as a component of U.S. policy in Asia during the 1970s. It formally ceased operations in 1976.