CHIANGRAITIMES – Forty-five years after vanishing into a jungle without a trace, “Silk King” Jim Thompson remains a daily presence in Thailand: Shoppers crowd his elegant stores and the American expatriate’s antique-rich residence is one of the capital’s top tourist attractions.
Credited with the revival of a now booming silk industry, Thompson attained legendary status, enhanced by a bon vivant lifestyle at a time when Thailand was still truly exotic — and by his mysterious death. But little has been known about Thompson’s intensely political, darker side — his freelance backing of Asia’s insurgencies, clashes with Washington’s Cold War warriors and his connections to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which to this day reportedly refuses to release his complete file.
It’s the cloak and dagger stuff, rather than the glitz and glamour, that’s the focus of “The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War” by Joshua Kurlantzick, an author on Asian affairs with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The book provides no new clues about Thompson’s vacation walk into a Malaysian jungle in 1967 from which he never returned. Numerous theories range from his having been eaten by a tiger to abduction by U.S. intelligence agents.
But Kurlantzick says he uncovered a trove of other information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, departments of Defense and State and other U.S. government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act as well as unclassified material available, but mostly untapped, in the National Archives.
From this, emerges a portrait of Thompson as a U.S Army officer in the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, who stood ardently behind America’s immediate post-World War II policy of championing democracy and ridding the world of colonialism. He believed Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist who should be supported, and almost worshipped Pridi Banomyong, Thailand’s pro-democracy statesman.
But Washington executed an about-turn and began to back assorted Asian strongmen and the French in colonial Indochina — “a scurvy race” he called them — on grounds that it was fighting the greater menace of Communism. Thompson became disillusioned and angry.
He was devastated when Pridi was ousted in a coup followed by the killings of many of his followers and a succession of thuggish leaders from the military, which remains a powerful force in Thai politics to this day.
“I wanted to use Jim to broaden the story to Thailand’s relations with the United States, and to explore this whole generation of those who had come out of the OSS in World War II and then were pushed out by the Cold War,” Kurlantzick said in an interview.
Scion of a wealthy East Coast establishment family, educated at Princeton University, James H. W. Thompson dabbled in architecture and partied in New York before volunteering for the army. A wartime marriage ended in divorce. Serving with distinction in North Africa and Europe, he was about to parachute into Thailand with an OSS team when the war ended.