Terrified of communism gaining a strong foothold in Asia, United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called eight nations to Manila in order to “stem the tide of communism in Asia.” During those years, the threat of a communist uprising in the region was most heavily concentrated in in the former French colony Vietnam, although Laos and Cambodia were also suspected to be privy to communist uprisings. When a revolution led by Ho Chi Minh resulted in the withdrawal of French forces, the United States responded by establishing SEATO and declaring South Vietnam under its protectorate.
Most member states of SEATO were not actually located in Southeast Asia, rather had interests in quelling the spread of communism in the region. Member states participated in annual joint military exercises and helped support the emerging economies of the countries in question. The organization believed that if the citizens in Southeast Asia experienced a high standard of living, their tendency to lean towards communism would not be as justified.
While SEATO held a military component, their military aspect never took off due to internal disagreements. They did not intervene in Laotian conflicts because France and Great Britain rejected military force, resulting in the United States providing unilateral military support after 1962. SEATO’s involvement in Vietnam also did not gain traction because of the European rejection of military intervention there.
Some of SEATO’s great successes came while improving member states’ social and economic issues overseen by the Committee of Information, Culture, Education and Labor activities. The group trained engineers in Thailand, created a teacher development center in Bangkok and a Thai military training school which offered programs for workers and technical supervisors.
By the time America became fully involved in Vietnam in 1965, only Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand offered assistance. France and Great Britain did not intend to fight another war in Southeast Asia, and Pakistan’s involvement was attributed to the military assistance granted my membership. SEATO quietly disbanded 22 years after its inception, as the Vietnam war fell to the communist North Vietnamese.