Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Book review: The Ideal Man, Joshua Kurlantzick (2011)

It's difficult to know where to start talking about this book because it integrates so intimately the personal and the political. It's got a catchy subtitle - 'The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War' - but you do really need a whole book to tell this story because Jim Thompson, the book's hero, was such a large man in the history of Thailand after WWII.

A resourceful and intelligent man, Thompson seems to have had three careers. Born to a wealthy Delaware family in 1906, Thompson rattled about in New York working as an architect until the outbreak of hostilities in Europe made him resent the non-intervention policy of the US government. He volunteered for the National Guard but his postings there were less than inspiring and when an opportunity came up to enlist in the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA) he jumped at the chance. He ended up in Thailand, a country where the government had allied itself to the Japanese during the war. Never a colony, Thailand (then called Siam) nevertheless was surrounded by countries that had been colonised, most notably by the French. Thompson had no sympathy for the French colonisers and in his professional life had dealings with resistance fighters, like Ho Chi Minh, who sought independence from France. He encouraged his superiors back in Washington to support such groups, to no avail. The Cold War was under way - the Communist Chinese had chased the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 and in 1950 the Korean War started - and not for the last time US domestic politics was beginning to exert a strong influence on the way the country handled its international affairs.

Thompson also wanted to support democratic elements within Thailand. Global realpolitik meant, however, that the US materially supported conservative strongmen in the kingdom, men who would unflinchingly support its own efforts to use Thailand as an immoveable aircraft carrier; the US wanted to establish forward bases in northern Thailand to support its ghost war in Laos against the Viet Minh. Thompson became disenchanted with these changes and drifted away from intelligence work, establishing a silk production and marketing company - the Thai Silk Company - that exists to this day. This was his third career, as a textile designer and businessman. The final chapter of his life took place in 1967 when he visited Malaysia for a bushwalking holiday, and he disappeared. His body was never found. Seven years later he was legally declared dead.

Kurlantzick's thorough reporting of the story of Jim Thompson is really impressive. In a sense this book can serve to fill in the gaps in our regular understanding of the Cold War. Those crucial years from the end of hostilities against fascism in 1945 to the start of the Korean War in 1950 will always, I think, require more discussion and research than other periods of the 20th Century because to learn about them is to see how good intentions can turn bad. On the global stage, such changes are of particular importance, and voters in developed countries - the countries that often get involved in a sort of global police effort - should be aware of how those changes take place in the real world. A rich historical understanding might prevent later mistakes. Possibly. But I think that a better understanding of the life of Jim Thompson can help to inform discussions such as those that took place in the public sphere in many countries in the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kurlantzick has also written a useful history of Thailand in the years after WWII. Insights about Thailand are valuable even now, such as this:
At that time - and, to some extent, still today - the skyscrapers, banks, and late-model European and Japanese sedans of Bangkok concealed a developing city with weak institutions and even weaker laws, a kind of hollow edifice in which the structures of the industrialized world had been implanted over a political culture that remained personalized, familial, and almost tribal.
And such insights, which can in a book like this be delineated in great detail so that you can actually feel how things work on the ground, are also useful in understanding other developing countries around the world. As such, Kurlantzick has written a multi-layered and nuanced work that can have great interest for a wide range of people. You don't just need to want to know about the Vietnam War and southeast Asia to profit from reading this book. Its insights into the way the US conducts its foreign policy are applicable to a wide range of cases. And it also works, too, as a kind of guidebook to the beginning of the Cold War, which was a seminal chapter in our recent history.

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