It all began when an American sea captain named Stephen Williams arrived at the port of Bangkok on June 24, 1818 in search of sugar. He brought back something far more precious: a letter from Dit Bunnag, First Minister to His Majesty King Rama II, which was addressed to President James Monroe and conveyed the wishes of the King to establish trade between the United States and the Kingdom of Siam. That historic letter, dated August 15, 1818, initiated our historic friendship, and even though it was written 200 years ago, its impact still resonates today.
“2018 marks two centuries since the first contact between the Kings of Siam and Presidents of the United States of America,” said U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies. “It is fitting that the first recorded American to visit Thailand was a merchant. You see, it was a peaceful desire to trade that laid the foundation of the U.S.-Thai relationship. Today, trade, commerce and investment continue to play vital roles in this storied bilateral relationship. In fact, the U.S. is now Thailand’s third largest trading partner.”
It makes sense, then, that the bicentennial of the first trade links should be celebrated in grand style. That’s exactly what “Great and Good Friends: Historic Gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America, 1818-2018,” a new exhibit organized by the U.S. Government, does. While we are close partners today, way back in 1818 a great distance separated the two nations, both culturally and geographically. The United States was a young republic – just 42 years old – with little political experience beyond the Atlantic Ocean. The Chakri Dynasty was similarly learning to navigate a new world, full of strong European adversaries with colonial ambitions. Situated on opposite sides of the globe, they were not the most likely allies. Despite all of that, the letter sparked a long tradition of peaceful commerce, and an important economic relationship that is still vital to both countries was born.
Over the past two centuries, expeditions, treaties, and state visits became the chapters of the U.S. and Thailand’s shared history, and on each occasion official gifts were exchanged. These precious objects – many of them rarely exhibited in public – are the centerpieces of the display, which serves as the marquee event marking the birth of U.S.-Thai relations. “Thailand was one of the United States’ earliest friends, and the exhibit pays tribute to the deep and enduring ties between the people of the United States and Thailand,” said Ambassador Glyn Davies, who encouraged everyone to visit the exhibit (see page 20 for details).
THE HISTORIC TREATY OF AMITY
An American expedition to Siam in 1833 resulted in the drafting of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America, which laid the formal groundwork for trade. Fully ratified by King Nangklao, the U.S. Congress, and President Martin Van Buren, the treaty was the first agreement of its kind between the United States and an Asian nation. The landmark original scroll, which stretches more than three and a half meters long, will be on display at the exhibit.
Since the two countries did not fully understand each other’s language at the time, the document was also transcribed in Portuguese and Chinese “to serve as testimony to the contents of the Treaty.” The treaty promoted trade by establishing a system that regulated the import and export of goods by American merchants, and represented an important step for the United States and Siam in their development as world powers.
Thanks to this initial treaty and four subsequent treaties, including the current Treaty of Amity andEconomic Relations agreed upon in 1966, the commercial links between the U.S. and Thailand have grown steadily since those earliest sugar trading days, as evidenced by the current strength of The American Chamber Of Commerce In Thailand, which has grown from eight American companies in 1956 to more than 650 member companies today.
After the signing of the first Treaty of Amity and despite the months at sea that separated the two countries in the 1800s, Siam still managed to participate in several American world’s fairs, the first of which was the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876, which brought the Kingdom and its products to the United States’ doorstep. For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Thai government chartered a steamer to transport “about 100 glass jars containing all the fruits indigenous to this country from North to South, as well as giant bamboo, ten kinds of oilseeds, and pottery” from Thailand to Illinois. As technology advanced and the world was increasingly connected, exchanges between the twonations became more frequent and the relationship grew stronger.
THAI KINGS VISITED THE UNITED STATES, AND U.S. PRESIDENTS RECIPROCATED
The peace that began in 1833 survived the strain of the Second World War and produced unprecedented political, economic, and cultural collaborations through the second half of the twentieth century, when American businesses flourished here in Thailand. Under the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts while his father was studying medicine at Harvard University, this special connection grew even stronger. When His Majesty visited Washington, D.C. in 1960, he traded Thai noodle soup for ice cream recipes with President Eisenhower, and LIFE magazine ran glamorous photographs of the king playing the clarinet. He also addressed a joint session of Congress at the age of 32, and was perhaps the youngest leader ever to do so. Still, he proved wise beyond his years. “He said that while friendship between governments is important, the most important thing is friendship between people,” said Ambassador Davies. “He understood that, and when he later visited the doctor who had delivered him, he wrote on the gift: ‘To my first friend.’”
In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson became the first sitting U.S. chief executive to visit Thailand. Their Majesties King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit held a banquet at the Grand Palace in the president’s honor. The good will shared during the trip carried over into His Majesty’s second state visit to the United States in 1967, and during his opening statement at the White House, he remarked to President Johnson and the First Lady: “We meet you both not only as Head of State, but as old friends.”
Equally wise: the words of Ambassador Damrong Kraikruan, who was on hand during the press conference announcing the Great & Good Friends exhibit. He pointed out that the relationship between the U.S. and Thailand has outlasted any single individual, and has become something much larger than life. “There is a saying [of Hippocrates] that life is short and art is long…long in the sense of being a permanent depository of a historical past. And there is no better way to remember the past than to look at the objects of art and appreciate the stories behind them.”