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