Boat against the current
The disillusionment of a man of charm
The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. By Joshua Kurlantzick. Wiley; 253 pages; $25.95 and ￡17.99.
HE WAS the Jay Gatsby of Bangkok: rich, charming, glamorous and endlessly hospitable, but with something mysterious in his background. The mystery only deepened with his death. On Easter Sunday in 1967 Jim Thompson left the cottage where he was on holiday in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, apparently for an afternoon walk. He vanished. Despite a huge conventional search operation (followed by more exotic efforts involving psychics and a Gurkha parachuted into Cambodia), no trace was ever found of him. A library’s-worth of conspiracy theories has never explained his disappearance.
The secret in Thompson’s background—and source of many of the conspiracy theories—was of the spooky variety. He was an agent for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, posted to South-East Asia at the end of the second world war. He befriended anti-colonial forces in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. This was both a personal inclination and his mandate as a spy. The organisation, according to Richard Harris Smith, its biographer, had some “recurrent themes: democratic, social, progressive reform”.
Thompson felt betrayed by America’s rejection of these ideals in favour of alliances with anti-communist forces, however corrupt and undemocratic. Joshua Kurlantzick, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, portrays him as on the losing side in a battle in post-war Washington, as McCarthyite frenzy turned American foreign policy into a “with-us-or-against-us” crusade against communism. As a result, in Indochina, and in Thailand itself, America usually found it was on the side of the bad guys. Complex nations were grotesquely simplified for the voters back home and the boys sent to fight abroad. President Kennedy deliberately mispronounced Laos as “Lay-os”, lest Americans think he wanted to go to war with a small bug.
After government service, Thompson built up the Thai silk business that bears his name and collected artefacts to adorn the Bangkok house which is still on the tourist itinerary. He became a fierce critic of America’s policy in the region. This mattered since he was, in the 1960s, “the best-known private citizen in South-East Asia”. The Kennedys, the Eisenhowers, Truman Capote, Somerset Maugham and “nearly every prominent royal or heiress in Europe”; they all came to dinner chez Jim when they graced Bangkok.
Perhaps Thompson was subject to a contract killing by business rivals in Bangkok. He ended up betrayed both by his own country, America, from whose east coast upper classes he hailed and whose ideals he cherished, and by his adopted home, Thailand, to whose welfare and culture he had devoted himself.
The book fails, though, to explain why Thompson was so fascinating. It tells of his talents, knowledge, contacts, wit and urbanity, but it does not convince. He remains an elusive, insubstantial figure, if a very sad one, summed up by a journalist who knew him: “At the end, these foreigners realise they have no home.”
hospitable adj. 好客的 conspiracy n. 同谋 undemocratic adj.非民主的 prominent adj. 卓越的 elusive adj. 难懂的