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

Six years after Thompson vanished, the American military bowed out of its failed campaigns in Indochina, unable to put down its fierce insurrections. Many Americans saw this debacle as a bad dream to be forgotten, pushing Southeast Asia to the fringes of U.S. foreign policy. But after almost forty years of neglect, an ascendant China, flanked by a crescent of pro- American client states, is winning over allies and natural resources across this sphere. Busy managing forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington has responded sluggishly, although its diplomats are finally making inroads. Last year, they carefully orchestrated a series of cooperative military and trade deals among China’s neighbors, including a plan to station 2,500 Marines in northern Australia within five years, giving Washington the leverage to counteract Chinese expansionism throughout Southeast Asia. Soon after that, Hillary Clinton became the first secretary of state since 1955 to visit Burma, going on a factfinding mission to see whether its military regime is serious about reform.

Despite good trade ties with Vietnam, Washington still hasn’t won over the goodwill of the largely conservative and China-appeasing Communist Party, even though many regular Vietnamese hold favorable views toward American influences. One reason the government distrusts Washington is because, even today, U.S. leaders have neglected to sew up old war wounds, such as by reimbursing those suffering from the spraying of Agent Orange in central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta.

Unlike in the Cold War, our Southeast Asian alliances today are bound more by commerce than ideology, and thus the timing is good to build alliances with those countries trying to bolster their economies. If America wants to be a Pacific power to be reckoned with, it would be wise to listen to the whispers of its former foes, whether their political beliefs are popular in Washington circles or not. Thompson would doubtless have approved.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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?