The Next Page: The man who vanished

What happened to Jim Thompson? Former Pittsburgher George Fetherling revisits the disappearance of a silk merchant and one-time spy


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Jim Thompson was the best known Western businessman in Thailand, arguably the best known in all of Southeast Asia. Then, on Easter 1967, during a brief holiday in the highlands of Malaysia, he simply vanished -- and became famous round the world for his mysterious disappearance.

The military and civil authorities of Malaysia, Thailand and the United States carried out extensive searches and investigations. They were aided or hindered by Thompson's family and friends, professional trackers, helicopter pilots, local tribal people, a squad of Gurkhas, an assortment of soothsayers and mystics (one of them a Jesuit) and the usual crowd of busybodies and reward hunters -- all of them egged on by such powerful forces as Time magazine.

Almost as soon as he went missing, crackpots and publicity-seekers would report sighting Thompson in bizarre locations, just as people would do with Elvis Presley a decade later.

No one ever proved what happened to Thompson, who was declared legally dead in 1974. Right from the beginning, however, there have been many competing theories, which continue to be reflected in the ongoing stream of literature on the subject.

Some believe that Thompson, who was known as the Thai Silk King for the way he made a fortune invigorating the country's silk industry beginning in the late 1940s, was kidnapped by Chinese bandits, even though no ransom demand ever was received. Still others argue that he was kidnapped, and presumably killed, by one or another Thai political faction, for he was deeply involved in the inner-workings of that coup-prone nation.

In his 1970 book "Bangkok: The Story of a City," the English author Alec Waugh (elder brother of the more prominent Evelyn) summarized the numerous theories without voting for any, though between the lines he seemed to express sympathy with Time's view that communists were behind it all. The most prolific writer on the subject, and in stylistic terms the most pleasing, has been William Warren, the elder statesman of the conspicuously large community of expat English-language authors in Thailand.

Mr. Warren first met Thompson on arriving in Bangkok in 1959 and has written about him in such works as "The Jim Thompson House" (1999) and "At the Table of Jim Thompson" (2004). The first concerns one of Bangkok's most visited landmarks, the extraordinary canal-side residence that Thompson constructed for himself and his collection of Asian art by joining together five traditional teak houses taken from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. The other deals with the chain of three high-end Bangkok restaurants that strives to re-create the cuisine that Thompson, a compulsive and convivial host, served to guests.

But those works are mere footnotes to Mr. Warren's "Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery," published in 1969 and revised several times since. In it, Warren recalls his friendship with the book's subject and weighs the numerous theories. He concludes that Thompson perished in some accident or committed suicide (for his personal and professional lives often were at hazard with the sunny urbane face he showed the public).

Warren doesn't dignify the pet theory of another often-reprinted work, "Solved! The 'Mysterious' Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King" (2004) by Edward Roy De Souza, who believes that Thompson was murdered because he was using his internationally regarded Thai Silk Co. as a front for drug trafficking.

Of course, that's not to dismiss the suggestion that Thompson had what might be called interesting friends. That was no secret.

It is only recently that we have a book that soberly assembles pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, including many not previously known to us -- "The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War" (2011) by Joshua Kurlantzick.

Mr. Kurlantzick suggests that Thompson's political views, such as his support for Ho Chi Minh, made him a liability.

James Harrison Wilson Thompson, born in 1906 and trained as an architect, was an American aristocrat who grew up in Delaware with people named du Pont. His maternal grandfather was a Union general in the Civil War who entertained members of Siam's royal family when they visited the United States. During World War II, Jim Thompson was recruited into the Office of the Strategic Services by its aptly named leader, "Wild Bill" Donovan, the father of U.S. intelligence.

Thompson served first in Europe, once parachuting into France behind the German lines to blow up bridges. Later, he was sent to Thailand, where he helped organize the Free Thai resistance movement against the Japanese, who had been welcomed by Thailand's ruler, Field Marshal Phibun (that is, Phibun Songkhram). After V-J Day, Thompson remained in Bangkok, spying for the U.S. government despite his evolving sympathy for those whom Washington, for all its anti-colonialist rhetoric, most feared: the nationalist insurgents not only in Thailand but also in the French territories of Laos, Cambodia and the three other colonies that made up what's now Vietnam.

In some ways, the Princeton-educated Thompson was the typical OSS operative. But he was unusual, dangerously so, in that his sympathies were with Pridi Banomyong, the leader of Thai's pro-democracy opposition, instead of Phibun, the near-fascist who nonetheless was pro-American and enjoyed U.S. support.

Still a patriotic American but increasingly at odds with the hard-line policies that gripped the United States after Mao Zedong's triumph in China, Thompson wanted to set up his own private intelligence network for feeding information back to Washington. In this, he would be competing with another American spy, Willis Bird, who is said to have been the inspiration for the title character in the William Lederer/Eugene Burdick novel "The Ugly American." Bird was also going rogue but in support of the pro-fascist forces inside the country, operating a gun-running ring for personal profit and advancement of his own beliefs.

Mr. Kurlantzick, a thorough, diligent and cautious reporter, will say only that "according to several sources, some of the Southeast Asian fighters depended on Jim Thompson [who] with his knowledge of arms stocks and his contacts among the Thai leadership, could arrange arms deals for insurgents more easily than any Thai broker."

Mr. Kurlantzick continues: "Because of his old OSS ties, Thompson knew where the United States had left arms caches in Southeast Asia after World War II, and he and other former OSS men, who enjoyed the immunity of working for the new world power, supposedly could get these weapons without having to wade through a thicket of Thai police and other officials asking for bribes."

It isn't clear who Thompson would have supplied arms to, but it could have been Vietnam or other left-wing rebel groups in the region.

In an interview with Mr. Kurlantzick, Rolland Bushner, a U.S. diplomat in Thailand from 1948 to 1952, damned Thompson as "kind of a romantic. He'd get carried away advocating for these people, like the Vietnamese, like Ho Chi Minh, who was a friend of his, but he didn't understand the politics of it, that he could get in trouble for what he said."

The U.S. became increasingly serious about Thailand, which it believed might become the only stable pro-American country in the region as French rule over neighboring Indochina weakened. One sign of such concern, and bad news for Thompson, came when "Wild Bill" Donovan became ambassador to Thailand in 1953.

Donovan was free to take the posting because the OSS had been disbanded not long after the war, supplanted by the new Central Intelligence Agency, which was even more hostile to people such as Thompson, whom it probably considered not even a respectable pro-American entrepreneur but only a freelancer of uncertain allegiance. CIA personnel were forbidden to meet or talk with Thompson, who at the time was being investigated by the FBI.

Thompson was still an anti-communist. He was alleged to keep cyanide tablets in his Bangkok bedroom should the communists stage a coup in that city of coups. But he felt that Ho and the others weren't communists, certainly not first and foremost, but socialists and, most of all, nationalists who wanted their countries back. As time went on, Thompson also lost much of his support among Thais as the country tumbled through a prolonged series of political and constitutional crises and Pridi, who served as prime minister only briefly during the 1940s, was driven into exile, first in China and eventually in France, where he died in 1983.

Mr. Kurlantzick is much too sophisticated a writer on politics to fall back on lame conspiracy theories. He is an excellent explainer and interpreter with a special grasp of the history of American foreign policy and the turmoil that Southeast Asia endured in the second half of the 20th century.

What he does conclude is that, given "America's staunch support for the conservative leadership in Thailand and in Vietnam, Thompson's views could [have] put him in danger. He openly questioned the Thai leadership and worried that America's policies were hindering democracy in Southeast Asia and turning the United States into a new type of colonialist." Lest we miss the importance of this sentence, he adds, as his book draws to a close, that Jim Thompson "had increasingly become a nuisance if not an outright danger to the Thais and their American allies ... ."

It that all there is to say? Perhaps not. The Thompson case has now engaged the considerable forensic skills of Charles Nicholl, the wonderful British literary historian (one almost might say literary detective) whose works include some of the most significant modern biographical studies of figures such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh. His "Traces Remain: Essays and Explorations" (2011) takes a hard look at the site of Jim Thompson's disappearance. It presents testimony from people in Malaysia suggesting that Thompson may have been killed in a highway accident by a panicky trucker who buried the body in the jungle -- from which it may later may have been recovered, thus accounting for the bones of a European male found in the storage area of a nearby hospital during its move to new premises.

Was there a plot? And if there was, has it thickened or thinned? Who's to say? But then, everybody loves a good spy story.

opinion_commentary

George Fetherling (georgefetherling@outlook.com) is an international novelist and poet and the author of several books on Southeast Asia.


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