After operating for 22 years, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization concludes its final military exercise and quietly shuts down. SEATO had been one of the bulwarks of America’s Cold War policies in Asia, but the Vietnam War did much to destroy its cohesiveness and question its effectiveness.
SEATO was formed in 1954 during a meeting in Manila called by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Eight nations—the United States, France, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan—joined together in the regional defense organization to “stem the tide of communism in Asia.” At the time, that “tide” was most threatening in Southeast Asia, particularly in the former-French colony of Vietnam. There, a revolution led by the communist Ho Chi Minh resulted, in 1954, in an agreement for the withdrawal of French forces, the temporary division of Vietnam (with Ho’s forces in control in the north), and nationwide elections two years hence to reunify the nation and select a president. The United States, believing that Ho was merely a pawn for international communism, reacted by establishing SEATO and including “South Vietnam” (which was not technically an independent nation) under its umbrella of protection.
When the United States became fully committed to the Vietnam War in 1965, it called upon its SEATO allies for assistance. Only Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand responded with a few thousand troops and other aid. This made clear that the driving force behind SEATO was the United States. Despite their anticommunist rhetoric, Great Britain and France wanted no part of another Asian war and Pakistan simply wanted the military assistance that membership in SEATO granted. As the war in Vietnam became increasingly frustrating and unpopular, SEATO began to crack. By the time the conflict in Vietnam ended in 1975—with South Vietnam’s fall to the communist North Vietnamese—only five nations were left to carry out the final SEATO military exercise in February 1976. A mere 188 troops from the United States, Great Britain, the Philippines, Thailand, and New Zealand showed up in the Philippines to conduct what was basically a civic action operation. Roads, schools, and a dam were built by the troops in the Philippine countryside. Afterwards, while “Auld Lang Syne” was played, closing ceremonies marked the end of SEATO.