By Patricia H Kushlis
Not long after arriving in Bangkok in 1973 I heard the story of Jim Thompson’s strange disappearance in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands Easter Sunday 1967. This was the tragic tale of a prominent American businessman and former OSS officer who had founded the premier silk weaving company in Thailand at the end of WWII. His company had brought a dying cottage industry in that country’s impoverished northeast – not just back to life – but to prominence in Thailand as well as, ultimately, throughout the world.
By 1973, the mystery of Thompson’s disappearance was still unsolved. It remains thus today. Furthermore, it wasn’t until a few years later that his family decided to have him declared dead for legal and financial reasons. That was, of course, a difficult emotional decision.
Yet the Thai Silk Company lived and lives on run by its talented and able staff. Its designs and materials resulted in the most innovative and highest quality silk fabric sold in Thailand. Jim Thompson’s uniquely beautiful house – called the House on the Klong – which he had created from six traditional upcountry teak houses and set in a forest of tropical greenery next to one of Bangkok’s canals (klongs) was, and is, filled with antiques and artifacts he had collected during his decades living in Southeast Asia.(Above photos of Jim Thompson fabrics by PHKushlis, rose pillow cover, patterned dress, and four pillows, September 28, 2014 ).
An aside: This is not a travel post but, if you plan a trip to Bangkok, Jim Thompson’s beautiful house should be on your tour list as should the Thai Silk Company on Suriwong Rd.
Thompson himself, though, was a mystery and that contributes to questions surrounding his disappearance. Joshua Kurlantzick’s The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War (John Wiley and Sons, 2011) tries hard to solve that mystery but in the end the trail runs cold. The only thing we’re pretty sure of is that Thompson had a number of enemies as well as friends, was likely not eaten by wild tigers or other four legged predators then inhabiting the Cameron Highlands, did not commit suicide and would not have taken a fatal misstep and slipped into some ravine.
Instead, his body suddenly vanished without a trace.
So the question becomes and remains who “dunnit.” In short, until and unless the CIA opens its secret file on the Thompson case no one will ever know what the agency knew and the CIA itself will continue to be one of the suspects. There are also other potential non-US government culprits but the CIA’s continued stone-walling just raises suspicions of an intelligence service accountable only to itself at the height of the Vietnam War – perhaps even silencing one of its own.
I’m not sure that the book’s title isn’t a bit of a misnomer because Thompson was far from “ideal” although one could certainly have called him an Ideals or Idealistic man. I’m also not sure why the subtitle, “Jim Thompson and the American Way of War,” features so prominently except that Thompson, who had served in the OSS on the Thai border with Laos and Cambodia during World War II, had known, worked with and been largely sympathetic to the Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese nationalist leaders at that time and, unsurprisingly, disagreed vehemently with a post WWII US policy that sided with the then colonial powers thereafter ultimately thrusting the region into the fulcrum of an American led global militarily dominated anti-Communist crusade.
This costly war needn’t have happened if successive presidents had listened to people like Thompson, French journalist, Vietnam scholar and American academic Bernard Fall, Cornell University Professor George Kahin and State Department official Paul Kattenburg. Kattenburg, like Thompson, had also served in the OSS. Instead, these experts were shunted aside and ostracized as a result of their courage to speak out.
I had previously wondered if Thompson had been gay because he had been single so much of his life and kept his personal life to himself. This was, well, Bangkok, where sexual permissiveness and possibilities of all kinds were legion. Kurlantzick set me straight on this one. Not only was Thompson not gay but he had been briefly married and divorced to an American woman before his OSS assignment and perhaps more significantly while in Bangkok had become the lover of Irina Yost, Ambassador Charles Yost’s wife whom he had hoped to marry. She, however, decided to stay with the Ambassador and their four children. Later Thompson had short-term affairs with unnamed but apparently numerous diplomatic spouses including from the US Embassy.
US-Thai Relations too black and white
I am troubled by much of Kurlantzich’s characterizations of US-Thai relations during the 1950s and 1960s or that, in particular, the US should be so heavily blamed for causing successive military governments in Thailand to the detriment of promoting democratic governance. This criticism is simply too black and white and relying perhaps too heavily upon information from and about the businessman Willis Bird, a contemporary of Thompson’s who profited enormously from the US military build-up in Southeast Asia, and the Thai democracy leader Pridi Banonyong who was deposed in a military coup early on and spent the remainder of his life in exile.
I’d like to see State Department documents and Embassy reporting cables for additional parts of the story – documents Kurlantzich did not research. What were the options? Was Thailand yet ready for multiparty government? And where did the royal family fit into all of this? Strangely, Kurlantzich hardly mentions the Thai royal family at all – yet it was clear to me that the palace held important political strings as it operated from behind a veil of secrecy before, during and after my tenure in Bangkok – although that veil may not be as opaque today and the counsel as wise as during my time there from 1973-1975.
True, I wasn’t in Thailand during Jim Thompson’s years there but neither was Kurlantzich. Yet when I worked at the US Embassy – in a traditional Thai compound on Sathorn Tai as a member of the US Information Service staff – the US troop build-up was near or at its peak and the US military relationship with the Thai government rested on a handshake (or wai).
I would argue that the massive October 1973 student demonstration that sent the military leaders into exile which Kurlantzich mentions briefly in his concluding chapter that resulted in over 100 dead demonstrators (he writes that this happened summer 1973 and ended in fewer than 100 dead – but neither are correct) did not arise out of thin air. Student discontent had been building for months. Much of that discontent was concentrated at Thammasat University but it was not just Thammasat students who participated and the demonstrations did not begin and were not organized there.
The university’s political science department faculty supposedly known for “leftist” leanings was, in my estimation, foremost politically centrist, pro-democracy and I know, contained several PhDs from top American universities. Although they supported and sympathized with the demonstrators they were not the spearhead.
Smaller student demonstrations had begun before I arrived in February 1973 and continued throughout my two and one half years there. They targeted the US military presence as well as Japan’s corporate economic “invasion” whose companies were building large factories in the capital area upon which much of Thai economic growth would rest. The sentiment being expressed by the student activists rested foremost on Thai nationalism – or Thailand for the Thai.
In early October 1973, students from various universities and colleges began with peaceful demonstrations for the promulgation of a permanent Constitution. They blocked major streets and filled the Pramane grounds in front of the university near the Chao Praya River and the Temple Complex and then marched to the Democracy Monument and the Royal Palace before the military stepped in and, using violence, broke up the demonstration killing more than 100 demonstrators. It was pretty clear that the King of Thailand, King Bhumipol Adulyadej – revered as near Godlike by many Thai – quietly helped engineer the sidelining of the military leadership after the bloody response. He also helped to bring about a transition of power – first to an interim cabinet of judges then followed by democratic elections. (Photo by PHKushlis Bangkok Temple Complex 1974)
Nevertheless, the long term problem – which still plagues the country today – was that although the population of Bangkok was ready for democratic government, the political parties themselves were weak, personality driven and the military too comfortable with the perks of governing to give it up willingly. Yet the countryside, where most of the population still lived as rice farmers, had had no experience with the workings of democracy.
Finally, I question Kurlantzich’s criticism that Bangkok had become excessively “Americanized” because of its high rise concrete and glass office buildings, excessive US military presence and the paving over of too many of the city’s klongs. Anyone who has visited or lived in other Asian cities – from Singapore to Hong Kong, Manila, Shanghai and Tokyo – would recognize the same urban phenomenon. These Asian mega-cities have been exploding economically for decades and, as a consequence, have experienced the same kinds of controversial urban growth. Singapore has been the most successful in handling it – but it’s also the smallest and not because it has had a democratic government – quite the opposite. (Photo above right by PHKushlis: Bangkok night sky looking west from near Wittayu Road, 1975. The tall building is the Dusit Thani Hotel – now dwarfed and flanked by higher rise commercial buildings.)
Today to see what remains of the “old Southeast Asia,” in contrast, far better to visit Laos (especially Luang Prabang), Cambodia and Vietnam.
Book jackets should be visual guides to their contents. They should make the potential reader reach to take the book off the shelf, open the cover and begin to read.
The cover on this book – a pensive photograph of Thompson in dull shades of gray – doesn’t do him or the author justice. In contrast, Thompson was the epitome of color and design. The cover on Brian Brake and William Warren’s House on the Klong: The Bangkok Home and Asian Art Collection of Jim Thompson which was privately printed in 1968 and featured a picture of the weaving process is far more representative and also enticing.
Nevertheless, Kurlantzick’s well written book deserves better: the story inside is compelling and a readable piece of Thai and American history. In short, he has woven this work of nonfiction around numerous pieces of information about a remarkable man living a remarkable life, in a remarkable time and in a remarkable place. This biography is well worth the read.
Joshua Kurlantzick, The Ideal Man: the Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2011. 264pp.