Great and Good Friends: 200 Years of U.S.-Thai Friendship

Written by Glyn T. Davies, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand

Great and Good Friends pays tribute to the deep and enduring ties between the people of the United States and Thailand, and represents a vibrant tradition of gift giving. It is a way for the United States to demonstrate the importance we place on this friendship.

When Captain Stephen Williams steered his sailing ship “Persia” up the Chao Phraya River in the sultry early summer of June 1818, he could little imagine the dramatic events that would follow in his wake. The Massachusetts-born merchant, the first recorded American to visit Thailand, came seeking sugar. He left with a full hold and a letter proposing continued trade addressed to President James Monroe from Dit Bunnag, Foreign Minister to His Majesty King Rama II.

That letter, dated August 15, 1818, is the oldest of a dramatic collection of royal and presidential gifts, artifacts and documents presented in this first-ever international exhibition celebrating the friendship between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America. It is fitting that we opened this exhibition in 2018, the bicentennial of our first bilateral contact.

The objects tell a remarkable story -- a story of visionary actors whose imagination and effort propelled a relationship between two distant, vastly different countries and cultures. Those actors – kings and presidents, merchants and ministers, ordinary people – shared kindred desires: to protect their freedom and independence; to improve their well-being; to learn about the world and its people beyond their borders. The Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej – Rama IX – put it best in his 1960 address to the U.S. Congress: “Friendship of one government for another is an important thing. But it is friendship of one people for another that assuredly guarantees peace and progress.”

“Great and Good Friend” is the salutation President Abraham Lincoln used to address His Majesty King Mongkut – Rama IV – in February 1862 when he wrote to thank the King for sending “rich presents … as tokens of goodwill and friendship for the American people.” America’s most famous president chose his words with care. That is why we choose them to convey our desire that this exhibition serve as a token of goodwill and friendship from the people of the United States of America to the people of the Kingdom of Thailand.

The exhibit is a celebration of the events and ideas that bind our two nations – our shared values as much as our shared achievements.
When we embarked on a plan to commemorate the bicentennial of U.S.-Thai friendship by bringing a modest collection of official gifts to Thailand, we could not imagine the plans, collaborations—indeed, the true friendships—that we would form through the project. The Great and Good Friends exhibition represents unprecedented collaboration between the U.S. Government and our partner and lending institutions: The Bureau of the Royal Household; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Meridian International Center; International Cultural Promotions; the National Museum Bangkok; King Prajadhipok Institute; Smithsonian Institution; the Library of Congress; the National Archives and Records Administration, representing 10 U.S. presidential libraries; and, our generous corporate sponsors. We are grateful to our superb venue host, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, on the grounds of the Grand Palace. Our partners and sponsors helped to bring to life the story of how our relationship began and why it has flourished. By showing a new generation of Thais and Americans the exquisite tokens of esteem exchanged between our leaders, we hope to not only convey the rich history of our alliance, but to ensure that it remains just as strong for the next ten generations.

I hope that in ten generations to come, historians look back with appreciation for what we have been able to accomplish together in this era, including the assembly of this exhibition. I have no doubt that they will chronicle another two centuries of productive U.S.-Thai friendship.

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