As Thompson traveled through Indochina, predicting the coming of a major war between the U.S. and communists there, he laid plans to set up new information-gathering stations that would feed intelligence back to Washington, with Thompson at the hub of the network -- even if he had to use his own personal money to get the intelligence operation started. The network, he planned, would recruit official U.S. government staff, freelancers working as businesspeople throughout Asia, and local Southeast Asians who could be trusted--it would be a whole network of agents, the kind of peacetime intelligence operation the United States had never tried before. In another cable, Thompson boasted that the Southeast Asian militants would bare their souls to him, as they would to no other foreigner.
"It was like having your own brother killed"
But it was not to be. By the early 1950s, Jim Thompson and the OSS ideal -- of decolonization, promoting democracy, and working even with militants like Ho Chi Minh -- was gone, erased for a more black and white American policy. And by the 1960s Jim Thompson would be gone as well.
Since coming to Thailand in 1945, Thompson had spent almost no time back in Washington. But at the State Department, a new breed of diplomats, more attuned to Washington politics and less willing to give embassy staff on the ground a free hand, were rising up the ranks of the postwar Foreign Service, the kind of company men needed as the American policy-making apparatus grew to fit the demands of a new superpower.
And with the Republican Right hammering the Truman administration for not doing enough to save China and for generally being soft on communism, the White House believed that Southeast Asia could be the place to make a definitive stand against Soviet and Chinese power.
By the late 1940s, the Truman administration had become convinced that Moscow was paying more attention to Southeast Asia, even though reports from operatives on the ground like Jim Thompson noted that the Soviet presence in places like Thailand remained skeletal. Contrary to rumors that Moscow had hundreds of agents in Thailand, the Soviet delegation in Bangkok contained only six diplomats by the end of 1948. Truman's secretary of defense, Louis Johnson, who had been publicly contemptuous of his own administration for being soft on Chinese communism, pushed the National Security Council, in a memo that would become known as NSC-48, to launch a broad plan to contain communism in Asia and support noncommunist forces in the region. Perhaps feeling this pressure from above, Pentagon and State Department staffers, few of whom had lived in Asia, began noticing what they saw as Moscow's expansionary intentions. Not only Jim Thompson but also other American intelligence operatives tried to make the case to Washington that any struggle in Southeast Asia was more complex than it seemed, more nuanced, and that the United States should not alienate Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Indonesian fighters trying to push out the colonial powers. "I have been in continuous touch with the Lao and Vietnamese delegates here [in Thailand]. They are still very friendly and give the attitude that they would prefer us to the Russians, but their patience is getting sorely tried," Thompson wrote. "The communists [in Thailand] don't seem to give a whoop about liberation," he wrote in another cable. "They are just interested in their own petty squabbles." In fact, there were virtually no organized communist groups in Thailand that could seriously challenge the Thai government. In one intelligence report in 1948, the U.S. embassy in Bangkok concluded, "It was generally believed that the number of Siamese communists was insignificant."
But Washington was not looking for nuance, and what mattered in this policy debate, in the end, was not an understanding of Asia's politics but an understanding of U.S. politics. Sour and destructive after more than fourteen years out of power, the Republicans had hit on an issue that could hurt Truman's party, and they were going to ride that issue as far as possible. Republican charges of communist influence at the State Department led, in 1947 and 1948 and subsequent years, to investigations of virtually anyone who'd spent time in China or Vietnam and to purges of men and women who'd once advocated an American relationship with anticolonial fighters like Ho Chi Minh. The White House began requiring government officials to sign loyalty oaths, and State and Pentagon employees soon learned that you didn't advance your career by pushing friendships with any foreign leader who could even be considered a leftist.
Even Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh believed they could count on help from the United States
Kenneth Landon, the most distinguished expert on Thailand in the U.S. government in the 1940s, was grilled by the FBI about his views toward Ho Chi Minh and had the files in his office and his basement at home ransacked numerous times, the papers left scattered and the cabinets overturned. When China finally fell to Mao in 1949, and in 1950 unprepared and undermanned American forces scrambled onto the Korean Peninsula to prevent North Korea and China from overwhelming the South, the call for a total purge of communists from the U.S. government got louder and more dangerous, the demands to hold the line against communism in Southeast Asia grew fiercer, and the embarrassed Truman administration had no choice but to respond. As Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated the State Department, anyone who had even spent time in China or Russia was fired, while in the CIA, the directors staved off a complete probe by McCarthy by pre-emptively firing leftists.
By the middle of 1950, America's first military aid for French forces had arrived in Saigon, and the shift to Southeast Asia as a center of U.S. foreign policy was complete. "The American containment policy in Southeast Asia arose from the ashes of its failed policy in China," concluded one comprehensive assessment of U.S. Southeast Asia strategy. "In a brief few months (in the late 1940s) this policy transformed an area [Southeast Asia] that most Americans barely knew existed into one deemed so vital its defense justified a major effort to keep it from falling into the Soviet orbit."