When—and Why—U.S. Foreign Policy Stopped Being About Democracy

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Roosevelt's democracy-promotion plan saw some of its greatest success in the same place where it would later die in a power struggle between American diplomats, spies, and policy-makers: Southeast Asia

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U.S. diplomats from across East Asia meet to discuss U.S. policy in Bangkok, then the capital of Siam, on February 13, 1950. Ambassador to Siam Edrin Stanton is seated far left. / AP

When Jim Thompson arrived in Thailand, in 1945, the United States' global prestige had never been higher. "They Love us in Siam," boasted one article in the Saturday Evening Post. It was true. While average people in Bangkok filled up any container they could find when water from bombed-out pumping stations actually flowed, Thais held massive parties for the Americans arriving in Bangkok after the Japanese surrendered. One American working in Thailand after the war remembered "a dinner which will live long in my memory" at the house of one Thai prince: turtle soup in fresh coconuts, lobster thermidor, goose, Thai curries, shrimp soufflé, and ice cream made from steamed bananas.

From his corner of Bangkok's Suan Kularb Palace, where we worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, Jim Thompson, who was quickly gaining a reputation as the most knowledgeable foreigner about Indochina and the man with the unbeatable web of contacts, could easily see this love and respect for America. Or at least, love for the image of America in Thais' minds. Thais he'd met once would come in and ask him to mediate in internecine family feuds or start a business with them; if he went to every party to which he got invited, he'd have to attend three or four functions every night. Thais came into the palace to drag the OSS men to local schools, where the children all wanted to see and touch them; even the teachers just wanted to grab them, to touch an American. Ann Donaldson, Thompson's niece, remembered, "When people asked him whether he'd come back to the United States, Jim would always say, 'No, there is too much to do here [in Thailand,] this is where I can make a difference.'"

"This has developed into the most tragic week I have ever spent in my life"

Shortly after the war, the United States' popularity in developing regions like Southeast Asia rested primarily on the idea that America, unlike the old colonial powers like Britain and France, and the new powers like Japan and the Soviet Union, was committed to the end of imperialism and the beginning of new democracies. In the Atlantic Charter of 1941, Franklin Roosevelt had promised "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live," interpreted by many around the world as a call for the end of colonial rule after the war was over. And indeed, in the mid-1940s Washington seemed to be living up to those goals. The Truman administration asked Britain and the Netherlands to take U.S. markings off of the military supplies they were using to regain control of colonies like Indonesia, and it refused to allow American military ships to transport troops, arms, or equipment to Indochina or Indonesia. Given these signals, many nationalist leaders throughout Asia believed the United States would stand by Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter, which had promised a new era of self-determination for all men. In Thailand, the post-war leader, a democrat named Pridi Banomyong who had led the U.S.-allied underground during Japan's occupation of Thailand, tried to bring this idealism to his own people. In the post-World War II elections, Pridi, a close friend of Thompson's, oversaw the largest expansion of the franchise in Thai history, the first truly democratic vote in the country.

Even Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh believed they could count on help from the United States. OSS men had worked with Ho during the war, and possibly saved his life when he contracted malaria; in return, Ho offered them their choice of women from local brothels. After World War II, Bangkok became a hub for the Viet Minh's spying, arms trafficking, and fund-raising -- with Thompson fully supportive of the efforts. "Bangkok has become a home away from home for revolutionary elements from various Southeast Asian colonial areas," reported one Asian newspaper. "The Vietnamese, partisans of Ho Chi Minh's rebel government, regularly steal back across the Indochinese border." In operations not approved by headquarters, Thompson would even help move weapons to the Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodians, according to an internal U.S. government report. Thompson alone, with his left-leaning sympathies and clear love for Indochina, could arrange meets with the top Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian leaders.

In the OSS, men like Jim Thompson fully shared these liberal goals. The OSS was perhaps the most left-leaning intelligence organization in the world, and certainly in American history. Its founder during WWII, William "Wild Bill" Donovan, had sought out American elites - Ivy League graduates, leaders of big finance houses, academics, and then encouraged the men to create a freewheeling organization with little traditional authority. Men grew beards, called their superiors by their first names, and took decisions collectively, hardly the kind of practice welcomed by traditional generals like Douglas MacArthur, who had tried (and failed) to ban the OSS from the Pacific. Being a communist was hardly a disqualifier; some OSS men recalled singing the communist Internationale at their office.

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Thompson made little effort to conceal his sympathies for these Southeast Asian militants, men like Ho. He quietly met regularly with the prime minister of the Free Lao movement, who was living secretly in Bangkok, brought the leaders of the Free Cambodian groups to meet with other American officials, and even got a clandestine rendezvous with Prince Suphanouvong, a leftist member of the Lao royal family who, during the Vietnam War, allied himself with the communists and would become known as the Red Prince. Thompson assured the Indochinese insurgent leaders that they would eventually get their independence, with America's backing -- a bold promise he would not be able to back up.

The more time Thompson spent watching French colonialism, the more bitter he seemed to become. France feels locals "must be browbeaten and kept in place," he complained in one secret report. "The sooner the European suckups of the State Department realize that the days of colonies are over, the better. ... I see a great deal of the Laos, the Vietnamese, and the Indonesians here and they are a very intelligent bunch and not ones to be fooled."

Instead, Thompson told his OSS bosses back in Washington, the U.S. should support self-determination, and democracy, for these new nations, even if that meant they would be led by men like Ho Chi Minh -- a policy, he believed, that would ensure goodwill toward America indefinitely. Still, Thompson recognized, even when some of his bosses did not, that with the Soviet Union growing more powerful, these contested countries would soon become critical -- and the U.S. could still beat the Soviets, he believed, by siding with men like Ho, who desired a relationship with the U.S. above all. Ho Chi Minh, Thompson wrote, "stated several times since 1946 that he will have to count mainly on the United States. The Viet Minh fighters, like the Cambodians and the Laotians, were nationalists first, Thompson wrote -- they might embrace communism to force out the French and get their country back, but only if the United States shunned them. Thompson's niece reported that her uncle called Ho the "George Washington of Vietnam" and could have been a buffer against China -- exactly the type of relationship Washington is pursuing with Vietnam today.

Some of Thompson's predictions would come true: The American legation in Bangkok, understaffed, only slowly began to realize that the entire region around it could be descending into war. "Thompson was an idealist, maybe the extreme, but a lot of people in OSS thought like him ... and he did see the future," said Rolland Bushner, who worked in the American embassy in Bangkok.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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