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

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

kurlantzick nov17 p.jpg
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.'"

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.


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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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).