Like Tony Poe, the American soldier who went native with the hill tribes in Laos, Jim Thompson was a larger-than-life military man who commanded the allegiance of the men who followed him. An intelligence analyst for the U.S. military, Thompson stayed on in Southeast Asia after World War II. He created the Thai Silk company, and dabbled in this and that.
Author Joshua Kurlantzick, a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, profiles Thompson in a new book, “The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War,” slated for release this month.
Everyone at the dinner table would know his basic life story, from all the press coverage and gossip he attracted. He had arrived in Bangkok at the end of World War II, working for the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Even after his official resignation from government employment, he kept on as a freelance intelligence operative, his antiques-filled home a hub of vital information and even arms trafficking, according to a U.S. government investigation, as America became entangled in Vietnam. His legitimate business, the Thai Silk Co., was in itself enough to make him an international figure. “The Silk King,” the newspapers called him—the man who had built Thai silk from a cottage industry into a global fashion powerhouse, displayed at fashion capitals in Europe and America, and brought glamour to the Thai capital.
Thompson belonged to a now practically vanished breed: the larger-than-life American expatriates, often connected to U.S. intelligence, who held sway in odd corners of the globe back in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and up until the end of the Cold War. For better or worse, many of them have become legends.
Thompson’s home in Bangkok is a popular museum, the Jim Thompson House, and his silk company still thrives. Thompson himself, much in character with his mythical life, disappeared in Malaysia in 1967 — “he simply walked out of the cottage where he was staying, and never came back.”