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

Jim Thompson, though, did not seem to understand that, by the early 1950s, his liberal, OSS vision of American power already had lost out -- and that it would no longer be welcome in the CIA or the State Department. He continued to advocate vigorously for the Southeast Asian militants, even though the U.S. and France now were at war against them. He maintained close personal ties with many of these militant leaders, and he soon came under investigation by the FBI for these ties -- and other suspected "un-American activities," though he was eventually cleared. As Thompson continued to advocate his line, the CIA issued a "burn notice," telling its agents not to have any contact with him, though many still privately sought out his advice since they knew he still had vast contacts in the region. Many of his older CIA contacts still saw him, but they warned him to stop mouthing off against the Agency, or touting a different line from the new American policy.

"Times have changed."

Even Kenneth Landon, the man who had been investigated by the FBI for touting the same policies toward Indochina as Thompson, changed his tune. "Dear Ed," Landon wrote in a letter to the ambassador to Thailand, according to Landon's memory of it. "Times have changed. ... It's a matter of recognizing who is in charge of the shop and who you have to do business with" -- and that is the Thai dictators. The United States, Landon told Ed Stanton, could not waste its breath on moralistic foreign policy, not at a time when China was falling to Mao and the Thai military could actually control the country, providing stability in a way that Pridi and his fractious democrats never could. The Thai army, after all, seemed to understand the changing global situation and were willing to embrace the us-or-them mentality the Truman administration coveted. On a trip to the United States, Thai dictator Phibul declared, "The Third World War is inevitable between communism and the Free World," though he offered little evidence to support his claim and admitted to one reporter, in an unguarded moment, "I don't think there are any real Siamese Communists."

In Thailand itself, his beloved country where he had now made his home, Thompson saw nothing but tragedy around him. Pridi, the democrat and ally of the U.S. in World War II, had been pushed out by autocratic generals eager to tout their anti-communism -- and supported now by the U.S. Thompson helped Pridi flee the country. America launched a massive aid program that would, by the mid-1960s, make Thailand the staging ground for the Vietnam War, home to U.S. bases for long bombing runs, tens of thousands of American GIs, and hundreds of millions in American aid. Eventually, Thailand and the U.S. would sign a formal treaty of alliance, cementing American support for Thailand's military leaders.

The new Thai government jailed Pridi's allies -- or worse. When the Thai security grabbed four politicians known for their leftist views, the men never made it out of police custody. When the police finally released the men's dead bodies, the corpses were riddled with bullet holes and replete with signs of torture, including swollen eyes and ears, burns that likely came from cigarette butts, and shattered legs. The police insisted that the men had been shot while trying to escape. No policemen were harmed in the incident. "This has developed into the most tragic week I have ever spent in my life," Thompson wrote to his sister Elinor after the first four men, all of whom he knew well, were murdered. "At this point I feel completely listless, let down, and useless." Thompson's nephew Henry happened to be with him when he learned his friends had been killed. "I'd never seen Jim so shaken," Henry said. "It was like having your own brother killed."

Thompson, a man who under Pridi had been treated almost like royalty in Thailand, now found himself under constant surveillance. Thompson told his sister Elinor that the police followed him everywhere, and he worried about even stopping at friends' houses for fear of casting suspicion on them, too.

Still, he thought himself invulnerable. "I don't think Jim ever considered, even after all his Thai friends were attacked and killed, that he could be hurt," said one close friend. "He just considered himself untouchable, like no one would ever try to hurt someone who'd been as rich and powerful as him."

Thompson continued to criticize the CIA and U.S. policy. As the Vietnam War heated up, with Thailand at the center, he gave interviews to reporters blasting America's actions, infuriating his old CIA bosses, and sometimes revealing CIA information. And then, in the spring of 1967, on a trip to Malaysia, Jim Thompson simply vanished, never to be seen again.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpgExcerpted from Joshua Kurlantzick's The Ideal Man (Wiley).

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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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