The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: ‘The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson’ by Joshua Kurlantzick

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 06•13

Here at WoWasis, we believe that there are at least two schools of thought on how best to live the expatriate experience in Asia. One we call “ping-ponging,” bouncing back and forth between one’s mother country and Asia. Regarding Thailand, one advocate who lives part-time in the U.S. states, “I go to Thailand, and after 30 days, the Thais drive me nuts, so I return to the U.S. After 30 days, the Yanks drive me nuts, so I return to Thailand.” The other expat school stays in Asia, and rarely or never returns to his or her home country. That was Jim Thompson.

Author Joshua Kurlantzick is the latest writer to tackle Thompson, the legendary “silk king,” who disappeared in 1967 and has never been found. And the feeling, among people who knew him, that Thompson had lost perspective and “gone native,” is a theme that resonates throughout Kurlantzick’s The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War (2011, ISBN 978-0-470-08621-6. The author has done a fine job of interviewing people who knew Thompson (as Kurlantzick states, they’re passing away relatively quickly now), and has investigated U.S. government documents as well.

Thompson was an OSS operative who unsuccessfully fought his superiors on the subject of getting involved in the quagmire that was Vietnam. He was a friend of Ho Chi Minh, and argued that Ho’s relationship with Communism was based more on expediency than on philosophical values. Thompson’s decency as a human being is a big part of the story of this book, involving how he treated his silk workers, his advocacy for backing democratic politicians in Thailand (he lost this battle as well), and his anti-imperial perspective on the fortunes of Asian nations.

The 219 page book is a quick read, and the elements regarding his dinners, his silk factory, and his involvement with clandestine American operatives are fascinating.So is the ongoing sub-plot of Thai politics and political figures. The author has done his homework.

What is never resolved is what happened to Thompson on that fateful last day in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. It’s all conjecture, but based on the people to whom we’ve spoken, some of whom are quoted in this book, Kurlantzick has nailed it on the culprits, but not on the reason Thompson was probably liquidated. That story will have to wait for another book, which we don’t think with be written for at least a decade, and maybe longer.

Until then, you have this, and several other books and short stories revolving around Thompson. The tales of the scenes behind the U.S. involvement in Thailand and Southeast Asia are among the elements of this book that make it worth reading. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

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