Two distinct stories, neither complete, sit uneasily between the covers of Joshua Kurlantzick’s The Ideal Man. The first is of Jim Thompson, the Bangkok-based OSS operative who became king of the Thai silk industry—and disappeared mysteriously in 1967. The second is of the expansion of the CIA into a war-fighting as well as an intelligence organization—a change he maintains occurred during the “secret war” that sought to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, mostly from bases in Thailand, during the Indochina conflict. On Thompson, Kurlantzick is thorough, informative, and even empathic. His approach to the CIA and matters of war, however, is problematic.
Jim Thompson was born in Delaware in 1906. Kurlantzick tells us he grew up among “du Ponts and Rockefellers,” attended St. Paul’s School and Princeton, and spoke with a “clipped boarding-school accent.” He worked as an architect in New York until the approach of World War II, a crisis that Kurlantzick believes stirred in him an idealism like that of the Americans “fighting the fascists in Spain.” First joining the National Guard, he was eventually swept up as a natural for the Office of Strategic Services, which sent him to Bangkok as liaison with the powerful anti-Japanese guerrilla movements active in formerly colonized Southeast Asia. Impressed by their idealism, and convinced that if they talked about Communism it was only because Washington was shunning them, he argued that the United States should continue to support them against the reimposition of colonial power. In 1947 Thompson officially resigned from intelligence work.
About the Author
Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.