Joshua Kurlantzick, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War
Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2011. Pp. viii, 264; notes, index.
Reviewed by Michael Montesano.
Australians may take for granted the serious and regular attention of their country’s media to Southeast Asia. Americans are less fortunate. Robert Shaplen died twenty-five years ago last week, and one wonders whether, in these times, he would in any case have found the outlets for his writing and comment on the region that he enjoyed for nearly four decades.
Perhaps no currently active American journalist has worked harder to remedy this sad state of affairs than Joshua Kurlantzick, who currently serves as Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Along with two books—Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (2007) and the recent Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (2013)—he has used articles in a remarkable range of periodicals in an effort to bring a serious understanding of the region to contemporary American readers.
Kurlantzick’s 2011 biography of Jim Thompson, The Ideal Man, serves this same effort. The book is the product of remarkable research. We learn of Thompson’s roots in Delaware’s high society, of his idle years with a New York architecture firm following his graduation from Princeton in 1928, of his admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a time when the rest of his family considered the president a traitor to his—and their—class, and finally of his by any measure bizarre decision to become an enlisted man in the Delaware National Guard in 1940. The Ideal Man details Thompson’s success, eventually, in joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s war-time foreign intelligence agency, where he found his first true calling in life and played a role in the Allies’ invasion of southern France in late 1944. Having tracked down a former aide to the OSS buddy of Thompson’s who by 1967 ranked among the most senior American military officers in Thailand, Kurlantzick passes on that aide’s recollections of the two old friends’ deep disagreement over American policy toward Southeast Asia. He also describes the resentment among some segments of the Thai elite aroused by Thompson’s success in the silk business.
The Ideal Man would draw on this formidable research to use Thompson’s life as a vehicle to illustrate the way in which Washington lost its way in Cold War Southeast Asia and opted to “support stability and development, even if that meant picking conservative dictators rather than gambling on left-leaning men who might be Democrats [sic]” (page vii).
Thompson’s story does indeed seem like a useful vehicle for carrying such a message to a broad, non-specialist readership. Between his arrival in Bangkok with the OSS in 1945 and his disappearance in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands twenty-two years later, Jim Thompson first participated in and then witnessed at close hand the events that set Mainland Southeast Asia on a course that vitiated prospects for more progressive post-colonial social and political orders across the region. His Thai Silk Company, established in the early 1950s, became a spectacularly successful and internationally renowned firm. He made both himself and his house on Soi Kasemsan 2 in Bangkok’s Pathuwan district—today one of Thailand’s most impressive museums—into two of the leading attractions for foreign celebrities and others visiting Thailand. And the tragedy that overcame Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the years after his disappearance makes his bitterness over developments in the region that he had made his home appear both prescient and wise.
Early and often, The Ideal Man signals its goal of taking its message about post-1945 Southeast Asia and the place of the United States in events there to a rather broader set of readers than those who ordinarily read Kurlantzick’s work. We read in its first chapter that from Jim Thompson’s canal-side home in Bangkok one could in the 1960s “see families of Thai Muslims eating dinners of chicken biryani and roti murtabak in their houses, the men in white skullcap and robes and the women in straight long frocks” (page 6). Later, we learn that, during his early post-war stint in the temporary U.S. legation in Thailand, “Thompson could smell in the morning air a mixture of freshly cut orchids, dirty canal water, pork bones soaking in broth hawked by roadside vendors, and rotting durian, the giant, spiky Thai fruit whose insides smell like old tennis shoes” (page 43). “Outside the legation, men waiting for Thompson squatted on their haunches while chewing on snacks of sour mango slices and dried pork skins” (page 44), and at mid-day Thompson would have “a lunch of noodles quick-fried with fresh basil and the tiny chilies that Thais called ‘rat shit’, since they looked like mouse droppings” (page 47). Vietnamese refugees from the First Indochina War who had taken shelter in Thailand set up “stalls serving bowls of pho (sticky rice [sic]) and charred pieces of gamy grilled chicken” (page 57). And, in the country’s Northeast, “Thai silk cultivators ate a breakfast of khao tom, rice soup maybe flavored with a few bits of pork” (page 83).
These culinary references in The Ideal Man are arresting. For, even as their specificity and vividness may enhance the book’s appeal to many in its target readership, they invite inevitable comparison with the book’s vagueness in an area crucially related to its central argument.
Kurlantzick begins the development of that argument with his reference to Jim Thompson’s early embrace of FDR’s “social policies and liberal internationalism” (page 16). He notes that the OSS of William Donovan, in which Thompson instantly “felt at home” (page 29), was “a very left-wing and informal organization” (page 24), one that “stood out in wartime for its intense idealism and anticolonialism” (page 25). Arrived in Thailand, still a member of the OSS, and serving in the U.S. legation at the end of the war, Thompson “came to worship” (page 34) Pridi Phanomyong, Kurlantzick tells us. The two would enjoy “long, leisurely meal[s], and their conversation could range from plans for the next Thai election to hard-nosed bargaining about U.S. support for Thailand against Britain and France” (page 47). At the same time, Kurlantzick tells us, Thompson soon emerged as the man on whom a range of Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian nationalists depended “to plead their cause with Washington and with the Thai government” (page 49). These contacts seem to have continued after Thompson left government service in 1947, but remained in Thailand.
Indeed, The Ideal Man tells us, even after he had founded the Thai Silk Company and begun to turn it into the storied firm that it very quickly became, American “embassy and CIA officers still met with Thompson, realizing that he knew more about Thai and regional politics than virtually anyone else” (page 122). By this time, however, the course of regional events, the fate of his friend Pridi, and American support not for anti-colonial forces in the region but rather for those who convinced Washington that they were anti-Communist had given rise to the disillusionment in Thompson that would fester for the rest of his life.
It is on this disillusionment that both Kurlantzick’s narrative of Thompson’s live and his claim for Thompson’s significance pivot. But this emphasis raises as many questions as it answers. Who, for example, were these Indochinese leaders with whom Thompson was in such close contact? With a single exception, that of the Lao Issara leader Oun Sananikone, Kurlantzick does not identify them. Neither does he give us any sense of Thompson’s understanding of these leaders’ programs, of the inevitable rivalries among them, or for that matter of the language in which he communicated with them and with Pridi, though this was presumably French. And what was the nature of Thompson’s alleged mastery of Mainland Southeast Asian affairs? What was his vision of the future of the societies and the polities of the region? How much sophistication as a political thinker did he in fact bring to his contact with Pridi and others? What was the fit between the ideals that Thompson brought to Southeast Asia from the America of the New Deal and from the OSS on the one hand and Southeast Asian realities on the other? The reader of The Ideal Man never learns the answers to such questions. Kurlantzick appears to be at pains not to pass judgement on Thompson’s understanding of the events in which he seems to have played a role, even as he quotes Thompson’s “old friend” Philippe Baude noting that Thompson clung to “a kind of idealized image of Thailand” (p. 138) that may or may not have corresponded to reality.
None of this is to call into question the emotional and mental turmoil that the emergence of military rule in Thailand or the beginnings of the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos caused Thompson. And one may argue that the intended readership of The Ideal Man makes these criticisms unfair, that a book that took its readers so deep into the weeds of post-1945 Southeast Asia would have little appeal to non-specialists. But Kurlantzick’s decision to eschew rigorous scrutiny of Thompson’s ideals, of the relevance of those ideals to Southeast Asian realities, of his understanding of the region, and of his relationships with progressive figures in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam brings risks of its own. For it is all too easy to read The Ideal Man as a somewhat wistful encomium for a mid-twentieth-century Princetonian from a moneyed background who admired the New Deal and served in the OSS. Surely Kurlantzick cannot really mean to suggest, pace David Halberstam, that, if only Americans with such backgrounds had had their way, events in Southeast Asia would not have taken their disappointing Cold War course. Yet, in the absence of detailed treatment of Thompson’s thinking on and relationships in the region, that is the message that remains implicit in his book.
This concern leads, in turn, to a broader concern about the fit between the message of The Ideal Man and the biographical vehicle used to convey that message. In his book’s preface, Kurlantzick relates his disappointment on reaching Bangkok in the late 1990s to encounter what he took to be its mundane familiarity—“glass-and-steel towers, shopping malls, chain restaurants, and yuppies sipping five-dollar lattes at Starbucks” (page v). He found himself more and more focused on the era of the high Cold War, when “monks still wandered the streets of Bangkok in the morning . . . [c]anals still crisscrossed the city” (page vii), and Southeast Asia was of central importance to world affairs. This focus gave rise, among Kurlantzick and his friends, to a deep fascination with Jim Thompson and his story. That fascination and the meaning that Kurlantzick attached to it led, the preface to The Ideal Man makes clear, to this book.
One can hardly take issue with the implicit contention of The Ideal Man that the early post-1945 period saw Southeast Asia at a political and social fork in the trail and that the path that it followed—a path from which there was no turning back by the time that five states that fundamentally mistrusted their own societies came together in the year of Thompson’s disappearance to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—proved in many respects unfortunate. While one may question the ultimate significance of the agency of the United States—as opposed to that of Southeast Asians themselves—in determining this outcome, it is clear that Washington did little to make the outcome less likely.
But one must also ask whether the time of Jim Thompson has not by the second decade of the twenty-first century receded so far into the past that the import that The Ideal Man would attach to his story will not mystify most readers confronted with the very same “globalized”, increasingly Anglophone urban Southeast Asia that so turned Joshua Kurlantzick off a decade and a half ago. With a dozen shops for its silk products in Bangkok, six in Phuket, five in other parts of Thailand, and stores outside the country that include one in the Cameron Highlands; with a “wine bar”—may the gods help us all—in Thompson’s house on Soi Kasemsan 2; and with restaurants in Singapore and in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro, Akasaka, and Ginza neighborhoods, “Jim Thompson” has become a brand that has more in common with Starbucks than with the principled anti-colonialism and progressive ideals of the late 1940s.
Let me make this point another way, with a culinary anecdote of my own.
A month or so, I conned a pal into riding the BTS to Talat Phlu with me one evening in search of dinner. We ended up eating khao mu daeng (phiset) on the side of the road. The woman who served us asked us what we wanted to drink, and, when we requested water, she asked if we meant “nam polarit”. “Polaris” was the name under which the North Star Company founded by Maxine North, the widow of a CIA agent whom she had accompanied to Thailand, bottled water starting in the late 1950s. But it had been decades since either my pal or I had heard the name used as a generic term for bottled water in Thailand. It may give comfort to reminisce about that Thailand. We may believe that our recollections inform our understandings of the country. But arguing convincingly for the significance of such quaint memories is another undertaking entirely. And, this difficulty notwithstanding, The Ideal Man certainly does deliver the “great story” (page viii) that its author promises.
Michael Montesano is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and the managing editor of SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia.
David Halberstam. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.
Joshua Kurlantzick. Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008. A New Republic book.
Joshua Kurlantzick. Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2013. A Council on Foreign Relations book.
“Wife of CIA agent launched business career”. The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 18 October 2003 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/wife-of-cia-agent-launched-business-career/article1047352/ , accessed 15 May 2013).