On Political Books

January/February 2012 The Spy Who Came In from the Heat

How an idealistic spy in Asia challenged the American way of war, and what his tragedy teaches us about finding allies today.

By Geoffrey Cain

The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War
by Joshua Kurlantzick
Wiley, 272 pp.

Hours after World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, the Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh referenced an unlikely charter when he announced his country’s independence from the latest of its long line of imperial masters, Japan and France. “All men are created equal,” proclaimed this communist admirer of George Washington, standing before a crowd in Hanoi. “They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is now hard to imagine this, but in 1941 it was with American support that Ho led his guerrilla coalition, the Viet Minh, against the Japanese military, who had acquired control of Indochina in a power-sharing deal with Vichy France. Ho saw the United States as an ally that would help him rid his people of the French colonial rule that had degraded them for eighty years. Viet Minh soldiers also worked alongside spies from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, to rescue downed American pilots.

That same year, an OSS spy named Jim Thompson was sent to Bangkok, where he immediately saw the value of cultivating popular rebels like Ho Chi Minh. He began wooing the Viet Minh, Cambodian, and Laotian nationalist fighters—sometimes operating with the tacit approval of his superiors at OSS, but sometimes working completely off the grid. Thompson was convinced that these partisans, who saw themselves primarily as nationalists, would someday become well-placed allies in what was shaping up to be a protracted struggle for influence in Indochina between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. Thompson also believed that the United States could become a great force for good in the impoverished countries of Southeast Asia.

But Thompson, like Ho, had not factored in the fervid anticommunism that would grip the United States for nearly three decades after the end of World War II. The result, writes Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, was that the U.S. turned against those anti-colonial insurgents.

By the late 1940s, the U.S. was no longer seen as a harbinger of democracy. In 1950, Washington gave diplomatic recognition to the corrupt anticommunist fief known as the Republic of Vietnam, which had been set up a year earlier by the French government. In Thailand from the 1940s to ’60s, the U.S. backed a lineup of military dictators who, over time, turned the country into a decrepit forward base for American soldiers fighting in Indochina. And in Indonesia in 1965, the State Department threw its weight behind Suharto, a general whose underlings exterminated Southeast Asia’s largest communist party when they massacred at least 500,000 alleged leftists.

What’s more, Thompson’s outspokenness had alienated his superiors in the Truman administration, many of whom considered him something of a loose cannon. To no one’s surprise, Thompson’s OSS career didn’t last long. Four years after his resignation in 1946, the U.S. government investigated him for trafficking arms to the Vietnamese and Laotian nationalist fighters during his OSS tenure. In 1953, at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI investigated him for “un-American” activities, although they never specified what those activities were. He was later cleared of the charges, but his sympathies cost him the support of fellow diplomats when he most needed political allies.

Fed up with Cold War politics, the left-leaning Thompson chose to settle down to a life of relative languor in Thailand, abandoning his failed marriage and his privileged family in Delaware. In Bangkok, he sought out high-society contacts, forging a friendship with reformist Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong. In 1948, Thompson cofounded the Thai Silk Company, an enterprise that later earned him far more celebrity than espionage ever did. Within the next decade, Thompson had revitalized the country’s dying tradition of hand-woven silk, and was bringing jobs to the country’s poor northeast.

Quickly labeled the “Silk King” by the Western press, Thompson was making fabrics that were featured in Vogue and Time, and were used to make royal Thai costumes in the classic 1951 musical The King and I. Over the next two decades, Thompson hosted regular dinners at his Bangkok home—today a museum about his life—for guests such as Truman S. Capote and Eleanor Roosevelt, showing off his well-known collection of Asian art.

Under this veneer of glamour in the 1960s, writes Kurlantzick, the retired spook felt more like a lonely prophet, without any real friendships and also weary from watching the American entanglement that he had once foreseen wrecking Southeast Asia. CIA officers in Bangkok were furious that Thompson wouldn’t help them, even though the agency considered him a subversive. As thousands of American servicemen flew in and out of Bangkok, Thompson witnessed his prelapsarian city deteriorate into a burg of prostitution and drug trafficking. Military regimes backed by the U.S. had purged many of his old Thai friends, including the democratic reformer Pridi.

Thompson was also angry that Washington had secretly turned his beloved Laos into the world’s most heavily bombed country—per capita. The U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance there well into 1973. And in Vietnam, he lamented that a small-scale operation against the U.S.’s former allies had escalated into a ruinous imbroglio that would later leave 50,000 American servicemen dead. “They attacked so hard,” Colonel Tu Cang, a former commander of an elite Viet Cong spy ring, told me in Ho Chi Minh City. “But they didn’t understand that we have a big tradition of struggling against aggressors for centuries.”

In addition to the U.S. government, Thompson attracted the hostility of a second powerful clique: Thai businesspeople who were furious that a foreigner was making money using their centuries-old silk arts. By the early 1960s, his competitors (including a prime minister’s wife) began marketing cheap knockoffs, and the Thai Silk Company began losing customers. One Thai prince recalled that some in the royal family began calling Thompson a traitor, and the Silk King became paranoid that he was being followed. In a brazen political attack in 1962, the government seized some of Thompson’s cherished trove of Thai art—a collection he had spent a decade carefully gathering to help preserve the country’s heritage.

The increasingly weary and frustrated Thompson, who by then was regularly checking into hospitals with bouts of depression and the flu, felt a country he had helped and loved had once again betrayed him—a fitting prelude to his somber end. It’s a sad story for a visionary who, perhaps naively, thought he could protect his adopted country from the shameful realities of business and politics in a war-torn region. In 1967, while spending Easter Sunday in Malaysia, the depressed mogul went for a walk in the highlands and disappeared without a trace. Kurlantzick suggests that a business competitor arranged to kidnap him, while other investigators have concluded that he was mauled by a wild animal or ran away to start a new life. Thompson’s remains have never been found and the mystery never solved.

Geoffrey Cain covers North and South Korea for Time magazine.


  • theAmericanist on February 06, 2012 8:28 AM:

    There's also the spectacularly named "Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross", which is about Archimedes Patti, the OSS colonel who was in Indochina for Japan's surrender. That includes two telling details:

    1) Ho Chi Minh's quote in 1945, when he favored the French, not the Chinese taking Japan's surrender: "I'd rather smell French farts for a decade than eat Chinese shit for a century." Kinda pithy, that -- not to mention prescient.

    2) The edition I have has pictures of Viet Minh posters calling for Vietnamese independence.... in English.

  • Robert Abbott on February 06, 2012 12:28 PM:

    The American Way of War!!! The US didn't start WWII in Asia. We didn't interfere in the Chinese civil war after Japan surrendered. We didn't invade Korea. The French decided to reconstitute their empire. The notion that the US chooses war as foreign policy is way over drawn.

  • Rick B on February 06, 2012 3:55 PM:

    I have long thought that Vietnam suffered from American anti-Communism much as did Cuba's Castro. Castro ran a revolution against one of the nastiest dictators in the world, Batista. Batista was supported by the American Italian Mafia because the CIA had in effect given the casinos of Havana to Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky after WW II.

    When Castro ran Batista and the Mafia out and took over he carefully did not claim to be a Communist for well over a year, but the propaganda effort in America painted him as such anyway. He also got no support for Cuba from the American government, so finally to survive in power Castro was forced to ally himself with the USSR.

    Can I prove that? No, but read the Wikipedia articles on Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, as well as the history of and remember that the CIA used Mafia assets to try to assassinate Castro for years. It was common knowledge among reporters after JFK's assassination that the CIA worked closely with the Mafia for off-the-books operations.

    Thompson's story is just more in the same vein. But it would take a very good RICO prosecutor, a lot of money and the political will to go up against the American right wing to prove it.

  • dalloway on February 06, 2012 6:16 PM:

    Two other relevant facts: the French appropriated almost the entire Vietnamese rice harvest in 1943-45 to feed their troops, leaving many Vietnamese to starve. And after World War II, John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State (never known for his smarts -- the joke was Dull, Duller, Dulles) believed that it was in the national interest of the U.S. to help France preserve its colonial empire, which, of course, was already crumbling. And we wondered why the Vietnamese didn't greet us as "liberators!"

  • theAmericanist on February 07, 2012 1:20 PM:

    Did you ever ask WHY Dulles figured it was in America's national interest to support France in Indochina?

    For one thing, American support for restoring the French started long before Dulles -- under Truman (that's the point of Patti's book), when Indochina was the butt-side of a backwater concern. So was Korea. The big deal at the time was finishing off Germany and Japan, and managing the transition to peace: not exactly a small job. People weren't paying much attention to tertiary matters, like who took Japan's surrender in Saigon or Hanoi.

    Fercryingout loud, the 38th parallel was drawn by then utterly obscure Lt. Colonel Dean Rusk in the Pentagon, because when the order came from Potsdam that this is how Truman was going to negotiate the Soviet entry into the war (without letting them participate in the occupation of Japan, which was the big deal), nobody who knew anything about Korea would do it. It was left to people who didn't know or care anything about the countries involved -- like Rusk -- to make those decisions: which was very, very good for their careers.

    Just so with Vietnam. Patti parachuted in to watch the hand-off, took photographs of the Viet Minh trying to get the Americans to recognize they were more important to the future than the French; passed his report up the chain -- and that was that.

    Why did the US support the French in Indochina? To get the French to accept an alliance with Germany -- you know, the country that had defeated them twice in 40 years, that had just occupied France for four years, and yet which now, the Americans insisted (against considerable opposition among French public opinion) needed to be an ally against the Communists?

    There's no big secret. You just have to look, to see what happened.

  • DocAmazing on February 12, 2012 5:53 PM:

    Why did the US support the French in Indochina? To get the French to accept an alliance with Germany

    Worked like a charm. The French were in NATO for almost fifteen minutes.

  • Wally on February 17, 2012 4:43 PM:

    There is such a fascination with coming up with global financial and geo political reasons for the U.S.'s distrous post war and communist policies. But it is not really that complicated. Essentially Dalloway above gets is right: stupid, short sighted, ambitious, ideological men were in charge. Harry Hopkins and others were too stupid to understand the power of the Chinese communists. Dulles and Harriman were too stupid to understand the consequences of overthrowing Mossadeg and Arbenz. Kissinger and North were too hubristic or stupid to understand the problems of relying on death squads to implement foreign policy.

    And given the return to this distrous approach by the invade and occupy neo cons and their wealthy supporters in the Republican party, did Dulles,Rusk, Harriman and the other "wise men" need anything other than hubristic stupidity to act?