The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War by Joshua Kurlantzick (Hardcover edition John Wiley, November 2011). ISBN: 978-0-470-08621-6. US$25.95. 272 pages.
Reviewed by The Isaan Record.
In Graham Greene’s prescient anti-war classic The Quiet American, OSS operative Alden Pyle espouses an alternative to communism and colonialism in early 1950s Vietnam. With a little help from the United States, Pyle argues, a stable, democratically elected government should be able to emerge. The title character in Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest book, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, would not disagree.
Though Jim Thompson, who is perhaps best known for his Thai silk, his exquisite teak wood Bangkok mansion, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, is hardly the doe-eyed, violent operative that Pyle is, he’s cut from the same ideological cloth. But where Greene punished Pyle for his naivete, Kurlantzick is undoubtedly enamored with his central character; Thompson is, indeed, Kurlantzick’s ideal man. The Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations has found in Thompson a tragic figure of conviction, principle, and Old World charm. A man who jump-started a flagging traditional industry, who saw what could have happened in Southeast Asia after the Second World War, and whose rise and fall charts the trajectory of America’s squandered international good standing.
And whereas Pyle died long before he could see the end result of his government’s fool-hardy interventions in a region it barely understood, Jim Thompson had the misfortune of living to see his adopted home become consumed and remade by a neo-colonialism he had fought so hard to oppose.
Born in 1906 to a blue-blooded Delaware family of considerable social standing, Jim Thompson’s early years had all the trappings of a wealthy East Coast Republican upbringing. He went from St. Paul’s to Princeton and then, with the help of a family friend, to a swanky New York architectural firm. His time in New York high-society, however, took a toll and after 12 years, he wanted for something more. He began defending Roosevelt’s liberalism to his staunchly isolationist parents and in October of 1940, he joined the Delaware National Guard. After three years as a desk jockey, Thompson was accepted by the fledgling, elite boy’s club of Ivy Leaguers and adventure-seekers that was the Office of Strategic Services, the United States’ wartime intelligence agency.
Following a heroic stint with the OSS in the Mediterranean, Thompson was reassigned to a post in Bangkok just one month after the Japanese surrender. “Jim was an idealist, a romantic, an anti-imperialist and there was no more idealistic time than after the war,” a Bangkok colleague of Thomspon’s remembered, and it was here that Thompson would finally get a chance to put his ideals into action.
While Thompson’s post kept him trapped in a stifling and hectic consular office during the week, on weekends he would make frequent trips to the Thai Northeast for reconnaissance. There, Thompson would meet with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian nationalists to understand their cause and advise them in their fight against French forces eager to reclaim their pre-War territories. These committed militants “brought together all of Thompson’s beliefs all at once: his anti-imperialism, his desire to help the most alienated and hopeless of men, his need to have a mission that was his alone, and his paternalism,” Kurlantzick writes. Though the many strong ties he forged with these guerrillas would later be held against Thompson as evidence of his communist sympathies, the Post-War era was an optimistic time and, “many believed the United States would stand by Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter, which had promised a new era of self-determination for all men.” Yet despite that promise, only a few years later, partisan American politics, the rise of McCarthyism, the fall of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in China, France’s slow unraveling in Vietnam, and growing communist militias in Burma, Malaya, and the Philippines would put an end to all that optimism.
Though this shift in American foreign policy, from a pro-nationalist agenda to a rabid anti-communist witch-hunt, caused many American diplomats great despair (Thompson not least among them), there were more than a few business-savvy, power-hungry expatriates in Southeast Asia looking to cash in. With Willis Bird, easily one of the most hard-nosed and successful in this class of cynical, ambitious foreigners, Kurlantzick locates a near perfect foil to Jim Thompson’s stubborn idealism. Also a latecomer to military service (he too had grown bored of American domestic life), Willis Bird was a well-connected, former OSS operative who chose to stick around in Bangkok after the War. But where Thompson sought to improve the quality of life for the residents of a much-impoverished nation, Bird was first and foremost a self-interested capitalist. “And unlike Thompson,” Kurlantzick writes, “Bill Bird was adaptable… If American policy changed… Bill Bird, unlike Jim Thompson, could change, too, if it was necessary to survive.”
And as the tide started to turn in the late 1940s, adapt he did. Whereas Thompson “never quite recovered” from the 1947 coup that saw the intellectual, popularly elected Pridi Banomyong replaced by the authoritarian, war criminal Phibun Songkhram, Bird saw a business opportunity. He began to expand his import-export business into private intelligence and finance. He made enormous loans to prominent politicians and arranged weapon deals for army and police officers. And then “in late 1949, Bird made his position as the key foreign aide to Thai leaders official, establishing a group called the Narasuan Committee… [which] would turn into a kind of shadow government” that allowed, among other things, the execution of the CIA’s secret war in Laos. It was Bird’s company, Sea Supply, that laid the groundwork for Air America, the notorious CIA-run airline whose planes would leave with food and weapons for Hmong militants in Laos and sometimes return with cargo holds full of opium.
While Bird grew to prominence among Bangkok and Washington’s leaders, Thompson began to withdraw, finding himself under official investigation, increasingly vocal and critical of his country’s turnaround, and shunned by a governmental apparatus that had once made him essential.
Determined to effect change in Thailand nonetheless, Thompson set about creating a silk business that signified his hopes for the country and embraced the largely exploited laborers and artisans of the Northeast. Whereas the middlemen who ran the silk industry of the past had forced “growers in the Northeast to sell them raw silk almost at a loss,” Thompson proposed a business model that would empower weavers, provide a reasonable income, and teach business management all at once.
At a time when the U.S. military presence was rapidly growing in Northeast Thailand, brothels, beer bars, and flocks of American soldiers brought greater income to Bangkok and the Northeast. But they also brought a fear “that Americanization would destroy Thailand’s traditions and culture.” Thompson grew only more disdainful of the way in which the United States was modernizing Thailand and turning a blind eye to dictatorial tendencies. And according to Thompson’s friends, he saw his “company as a kind of template for how America could have helped Thailand if it had listened more.”
As Thompson’s silk empire expanded over the years, the now-famous Silk King accrued scores of competitors. He had faith in his personal method and aesthetic, however, and continued combing through Thai museums and ancient artwork in search of designs for new silk patterns. In his hunt for inspiration, he slowly acquired an impressive collection of traditional Asian art and antiques. Ultimately, it was this fascination with Thai art that invited his public decline. Though Thompson felt it was better he preserve Thai antiques than let them deteriorate in the countryside, a friend recognized the enmity that Thompson inspired, noting that Thais “resented him presenting himself as the expert on their country.”
In 1962, authorities from the Department of Fine Arts finally found a bone they could pick. After accusing Thompson of stealing certain Northern sculptures, the department sent policemen to break into Thompson’s house and collect the pieces. They brought along with them a pack of journalists to publicize the confrontation, too. In one brusque encounter, Thompson learned the hard truth about his place in society. The Bangkok elites would no longer let Thompson believe that he was a guardian of Thai culture.
Here, Kurlantzick introduces a theme that he explores towards the end of his book. As Thompson grapples with his newfound ostracism, his isolation speaks to the common struggles of expatriates in strange lands. “Can you ever really fit into a foreign place and a foreign culture?,” Kurlantzick asks. Confused and forlorn, Thompson watched a society he once tried to embrace leave him behind and move far beyond his grasp.
As the book comes to a close, Kurlantzick explores in detail the mystery surrounding Thompson’s sudden disappearance in 1967. On vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, Thompson went out for a short stroll and never returned. The mystery of his disappearance made international headlines and launched years of investigations by police forces, jungle hunters, and even psychics. Even today no one knows who is to blame.
What Kurlantzick has shown in The Ideal Man, however, is that the personal and political tragedies of Thompson’s life prove far more captivating than the intrigue of his disappearance and death. Though Kurlantzick has little choice but to address the various murder conspiracies that continue to bring fame to Thompson’s name, his detailed recounting reads more like a narrative obligation than a dramatic finale.
With The Ideal Man, Kurlantzick succeeds in tackling the character Jim Thompson as a fascinating means to explore the American way of war and the missed opportunities in post-War Southeast Asia. Kurlantzick’s humble, journalistic prose invites readers of all backgrounds to find interest in Thompson’s story woven through a tale of the shifting roles of the OSS and CIA. For scholars of the region, the book offers an insightful and refreshing look at this underside of Thai history and the Thai-American political relationship.