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54
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A Y 2 0 1 2
B
O O K S
eventually, because of the enmity of
Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., it also
cost him confirmation as assistant sec-
retary for Inter-American affairs.
From visits to El Salvador in recent
years, Negroponte concludes that, de-
spite spotty initial implementation
and rising transnational crime in
much of the region, the peace agree-
ments have transformed the country.
The culture and spirit of democracy
may still be weak, she observes, but
“the authoritarian tendencies of the
past have not reappeared, and a re-
markable lack of bitterness allows for-
mer enemies to engage in political
dialogue.”
The once-feared Salvadoran army,
now trimmed by two-thirds, is sought
after for disaster assistance and law
enforcement functions. And, remark-
ably, an FMLN presidential candi-
date, Mauricio Funes, won election in
2009 and still serves today.
Negroponte’s study of the peace
process and its aftermath is exhaus-
tively footnoted and may well become
the authoritative English-language
study on the subject. Initially pre-
pared as her doctoral thesis at George-
town University and then substantially
expanded, her account draws on
unique primary sources: interviews
with virtually all of the principal par-
ticipants in the negotiations, as well as
a range of supporting actors. She also
makes extensive use of State Depart-
ment archives throughout.
To her other accomplishments as a
lawyer, professor and mother of five
adopted children, Diana Negroponte
can now add this thoroughly research-
ed yet readable history.
Ted Wilkinson, an FSO from 1961 to
1996, chaired the FSJ Editorial Board
from 2005 to 2011.
Man of Mystery
The Ideal Man: The Tragedy
of Jim Thompson and the
American Way of War
Joshua Kurlantzick, John Wiley &
Sons, 2011, $25.95, hardcover,
264 pages.
R
EVIEWED BY
J
OSH
G
LAZEROFF
Many of us have stopped in
Bangkok on one of our trips across
Asia, even if we’ve never served there.
Of all of those who have seen the
place, how many have bought Jim
Thompson ties? Hands up, now —
looks like most of us.
So who was Thompson? In a nut-
shell, a famous spy turned tremen-
dously successful businessman, who
disappeared and left a legend behind
(as well as a beautiful home filled with
Thai treasures).
In this book, Joshua Kurlantzick
takes a hard look at his background
and what he became to extract deeper
lessons about our country and its Asian
adventures, including the cost of fight-
ing a war that “must be won” but is lost
from the start.
A socialite and dilettante from a
wealthy Delaware family, Thompson
tried a variety of pursuits before Bill
Donovan, director of the Office of
Strategic Services (precursor to the
Central Intelligence Agency), re-
cruited him during World War II. He
quickly became a star operative, who
enjoyed great success in North Africa
and Europe before moving on to Thai-
land in 1945.
There he was an essential contact
for Indochinese freedom fighters
using Bangkok as an outpost.
Whether from Laos, Cambodia or
Vietnam, they all saw him as a link to
the rising American power in the re-
gion. And Thompson saw them as the
region’s future, reasoning that the
United States was bound to support
those working for self-government
against colonial rule. Why not get on
the side of these popular fighters, even
if they were communists?
Such views were neither prudent
nor popular as the Cold War began to
intensify, of course. Instead of heeding
Thompson’s advice, Washington fol-
lowed the French into Vietnam— and
we all know how that story turned out.
As Kurlantzick observes, “Thomp-
son had fought to rid the world of im-
perialism [but] actually midwifed a new
era of American imperialism.”
Disillusioned and marginalized,
Thompson left government service in
1946 to build contacts with local
weavers. From small beginnings, he
turned Thai silk into a world-famous
fashion accessory, launching an entire
industry. A fixture on the Bangkok so-
cial scene, he came to know Thailand
as well as any expatriate can.
But the country was rapidly chang-
ing, as an escalating American pres-
ence brought money and modernity to
the country. Coups and countercoups
left Thompson without friends in high
places, and after so many years away
from home, he grew tired and lonely.
On a holiday trip to the hills in
Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk
after attending Easter services on
March 26, 1967, then vanished.
Despite massive searches, no one
ever found a trace of him — not even
a telepath. Was he still a U.S. agent?
Was the Thai government after him?
Were business rivals eager to eliminate
him? Nearly half a century later, in-
depth research and CIA archives both
still leave questions unanswered.
A dedicated government profes-