The Ideal Man

Title:                      The Ideal Man

Author:                 Joshua Kurlantzick

Kurlantzick, Joshua (2011). The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson And The American Way of War. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

LCCN:    2011034994

HD9926.T52 K87 2011

Summary

  • “How the West’s greatest spy in Asia tried to stop the new American way of war–and the steep price he paid for failing. Jim Thompson landed in Thailand at the end of World War II, a former American society dilettante who became an Asian legend as a spy and silk magnate with access to Thai worlds outsiders never saw. As the Cold War reached Thailand, America had a choice: Should it, as Thompson believed, help other nations build democracies from their traditional cultures or, as his ex-OSS friend Willis Bird argued, remake the world through deception and self-serving alliances? In a story rich with insights and intrigue, this book explores a key Cold War episode that is still playing out today. Highlights a pivotal moment in Cold War history that set a course for American foreign policy that is still being followed today Explores the dynamics that put Thailand at the center of the Cold War and the fighting in neighboring Laos that escalated from sideshow to the largest covert operation America had ever engaged in Draws on personal recollections and includes atmospheric details that bring the people, events–and the Thailand of the time–to life Written by a journalist with extensive experience in Asian affairs who has spent years investigating every aspect of this story, including Thompson’s tragic disappearance “– Provided by publisher.

Subjects

Date Posted:      February 24, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

After World War II ended in Europe, Major James Harrison Wilson Thompson was assigned to Thailand by William Donovan himself. He arrived during the final weeks of the war and never went home. In 1967, over the Easter weekend, he went to visit friends in Malaysia. One afternoon he left their cottage to go for a walk alone in the jungle. Thompson was never seen again. The 2010 book SOLVED! claimed that his disappearance had indeed been explained.[2] But alas it had not; the book only presented speculation. The Ideal Man does not solve the mystery, either, but in it, journalist Joshua Kurlantzick offers the best account yet published, with new details from interviews with former OSS colleagues, CIA contacts, and Thai friends.

Kurlantzick covers Thompson’s early life in an affluent family in Delaware, his education at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and his subsequent career as an architect in New York. Thompson lived well and traveled often to Europe. In 1940, at the age of 34, he enlisted in the National Guard as a private to be ready for war. Fluent in French, he was commissioned after Pearl Harbor and by late 1943 had found his way into the OSS. Following service in North Africa and France, he was transferred to Asia. He reached Thailand just after the Japanese surrender and was assigned to the OSS element in the US embassy. After the demise of the OSS, Thompson served as military attaché until late 1946, when he left the military and began a life in Bangkok business and politics. The postwar business atmosphere was positive, and Thompson formed what would become the very successful Thai Silk Company—still in existence—that would supply the silk for the costumes in the movie The King and I. Interestingly, the wife of Thompson’s OSS colleague Kenneth Landon had written Anna and the King of Siam, on which the movie was based.

The success of the silk company caused problems locally for Thompson, but it was his politics that were a source of concern to the Thai government. Kurlantzick dwells on this aspect of his life in detail. Thompson was a liberal, not procommunist but certainly anti-imperialist, and he eventually came into conflict with the State Department and the FBI. At one point he was put on the do-not-contact list at the US embassy, but when William Donovan became ambassador to Thailand, Thompson met with him frequently, and the two enjoyed a good personal relationship. One can only guess at the extent to which these issues contributed to his disappearance, and Kurlantzick attempts to do so. Jim Thompson has become a legendary figure in today’s Thailand. His silk-decorated home, where he started his business, is a museum and restaurant. The Ideal Man is the story of a complex, patriotic idealist who at times cooperated with the local CIA representative but opposed the Thai military governments and US policies in Asia. Moreover, his business flourished even though his partners-mostly former OSS colleagues-held differing political views and sometimes opposed his positions on social welfare. Still, the real Jim Thompson remains a mystery in more ways than in his disappearance.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, p. 116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia.gov.

[2] DeSouza, Edward Roy (2004, 2010). Solved: The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson, The Legendary Thai Silk King. Tarentum, PA: Word Association Publishers [LCCN: 2004101795]

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