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
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.'"