Client must lock shared mutable containers
The SGI implementation of STL is thread-safe only in the sense that simultaneous accesses to distinct containers are safe, and simultaneous read accesses to to shared containers are safe. If multiple threads access a single container, and at least one thread may potentially write, then the user is responsible for ensuring mutual exclusion between the threads during the container accesses.
This is the only way to ensure full performance for containers that do not need concurrent access. Locking or other forms of synchronization are typically expensive and should be avoided when not necessary.
It is easy for the client or another library to provide the necessary locking by wrapping the underlying container operations with a lock acquisition and release. For example, it would be possible to provide a locked_queue container adapter that provided a container with atomic queue operations.
For most clients, it would be insufficient to simply make container operations atomic; larger grain atomic actions are needed. If a user's code needs to increment the third element in a vector of counters, it would be insuffcient to guarantee that fetching the third element and storing the third element is atomic; it is also necessary to guarantee that no other updates occur in the middle. Thus it would be useless for vector operations to acquire the lock; the user code must provide for locking in any case.
This decision is different from that made by the Java designers. There are two reasons for that. First, for security reasons Java must guarantee that even in the presence of unprotected concurrent accesses to a container, the integrity of the virtual machine cannot be violated. Such safety constraints were clearly not a driving force behind either C++ or STL. Secondly, performance was a more important design goal for STL then it was for the Java standard library.
On the other hand, this notion of thread-safety is stronger than that provided by reference-counted string implementations that try to follow the CD2 version of the draft standard. Such implementations require locking between multiple readers of a shared string.