How the West's greatest spy in Asia tried to stop the new American way of war—and the steep price he paid for failing
Jim Thompson landed in Thailand at the end of World War II, a former American society dilettante who became an Asian legend as a spy and silk magnate with access to Thai worlds outsiders never saw. As the Cold War reached Thailand, America had a choice: Should it, as Thompson believed, help other nations build democracies from their traditional cultures or, as his ex-OSS friend Willis Bird argued, remake the world through deception and self-serving alliances? In a story rich with insights and intrigue, this book explores a key Cold War episode that is still playing out today.
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In the 1950s, U.S. foreign policy makers and intelligence agencies faced a momentous choice: Should America, as former OSS officer Jim Thompson believed, fight the Cold War by helping other nations build democratic, capitalistic futures while preserving and strengthening their traditional cultures? Or would it be more practical, as Thompson's old OSS buddy Bill Bird argued, to help local strongmen seize power and prop them up with financial and military aid in return for their staunch anticommunism and the establishment of American military bases on their soil? History makes two things perfectly clear—America chose the latter course, and anyone who disagreed with that choice, including Jim Thompson, was in serious danger.
In The Ideal Man, journalist and Southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick tells the compelling and tragic story of an OSS officer posted to Thailand in 1945 who fell in love with that then-remote nation and made it his home. Through this powerful lens, Kurlantzick offers insight into a pivotal moment in Cold War history that set a course for American foreign policy that is still being followed today.
Kurlantzick reveals that, as a civilian, Thompson epitomized all that was best about postwar America. This former society dilettante quickly discovered the disappearing Thai cottage industry of silk farming and weaving and rebuilt it into a vast new source of wealth for the nation and thousands of its workers. But Jim Thompson was leading a double life.
Thanks to his growing business, his passion for his new home, and his innate curiosity, Thompson had access to people and places that no other American could equal. He quickly became the go-to man for agents of the newly formed CIA. But he made no secret of his support for nationalist fighters in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, or his opposition to America's increasing military presence and support of Thai generals. Soon, he and Bill Bird found themselves on opposite sides in coups, congressional investigations, and what was, at the time, America's largest-ever covert operation.
Thompson's very public opposition to what had become established American policy earned him plenty of enemies, especially among Thai generals. His disappearance in 1967 became an international mystery that has fostered decades of speculation.
Bristling with thorny insider tales of OSS and CIA exploits, political gamesmanship, and international intrigue, The Ideal Man is ideal reading for anyone who loves history, spy stories, and behind-the-scenes accounts of how diplomatic policy decisions are made—for better or worse.From the Back Cover:
Praise for The Ideal Man
"Joshua Kurlantzick has written a sad, evocative tale of an American voyager who conquers a strange land only to be lost in it, caught between cultures and his own demons. The Ideal Man will appeal to readers of Graham Greene and The Ugly American, but it's also a timeless story of innocence and knowing too much."
—Evan Thomas, author of Sea of Thunder and The War Lovers
"Here is a more troubled and troubling Jim Thompson than we have previously encountered: the silk king enters the heart of darkness. After narrating the ultimate Asia hand's unrequited love affair with Thailand, this remarkable book makes Thompson's legendary and still unsolved disappearance at the height of the Cold War seem almost inevitable."
—Duncan McCargo, author of Tearing Apart the Land
"Woven throughout Kurlantzick's biography of Our Man in Thailand is an essential question for our times: When Washington goes on ideological rampages overseas, running wars that trample on the aspirations of the local people, no matter how hard those aspirations may be for outsiders to discern, don't these wars tend to boomerang? Doesn't cultural clumsiness undercut military power every time? Kurlantzick's glamorous protagonist, the 'silk king' Jim Thompson, saw American anticommunism wreak such havoc in Southeast Asia that it helped give rise to a later communist victory. This fascinating book will leave you wondering how often this pattern is going to be repeated, on large and small scales, in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and beyond."
—Roger Warner, author of Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos
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