How America’s longtime man in Southeast Asia, Jim Thompson, fought to stop the CIA’s progression from a small spy ring to a large paramilitary agency — and was never seen again.
BY JOSHUA KURLANTZICK | NOVEMBER 3, 2011
By the time Jim Thompson reached his cramped corner of thetemporary U.S. legation in Thailand each morning in 1946, a small crowd hadalready formed waiting to see him. In the soupy, humid air, they squatted ontheir haunches, chewing sour mango slices and dried pork skins, waiting fortheir savior, the best-connected intelligence man in Indochina, a man unawarethat he would soon be among the last of a dying breed — a lone idealist in anincreasingly power-hungry, militarized CIA that would never be the same again.
Thompson pushed through the waiting crowd and grabbed hisseat. There were Thais in the crowd, but mostly Laotians, Cambodians, andVietnamese from resistance groups fighting the French colonists. Mostafternoons, these nationalist fighters would come to see Thompson, but onweekends Thompson often tried to catch a flight to the Thai northeast, wheretens of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lived and where HoChi Minh’s forces had built a sizable operation.
Thompson made little effort to conceal his sympathies forthese militants. He quietly met regularly with the prime minister of the FreeLaos movement, who was living secretly in Bangkok; brought the leaders of theFree Cambodian groups to meet with other U.S. officials; and even got aclandestine rendezvous with Prince Souphanouvong, a leftist member of the Laoroyal family who, during the Vietnam War, allied himself with the communistsand would become known as the Red Prince.
When Lao militants launched a brief border war with Frenchforces in Laos, Thompson traveled to the Lao border to negotiate a truce. Hehad been winning their trust on foot, walking day after day through Vietnameserefugee camps, Lao villages, and Cambodian towns just inside Thailand’s borders,where these refugees had set up replicas of home, complete with stalls servingsteaming bowls of pho,sticky rice, and charred pieces of gamy grilled chicken. Arriving at the Thaiborder after reports that fighting was breaking out along the frontier and thatmen, women, and children were fleeing with their possessions into Thailand,Thompson was a calming presence.
In Thailand’s northeast, where Thompson traveled with TiangSirikhanth, a populist sympathetic to the anti-French insurgents, he assuredthe Indochinese insurgent leaders that they would eventually get theirindependence, with America’s backing. “The sooner the European suckups ofthe State Department realize that the days of colonies are over, the better,”hewrote in one letter back to the United States. “Isee a great deal of the Laos, the Vietnamese, and the Indonesians here and theyare a very intelligent bunch and not ones to be fooled.”
Working first in the Office of Strategic Services and then for the CIA,which at the time was trying to broker some kind of exit for France from Asia, Thompsonhad contacts among the Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese militants that no one elsehad. But despite his enormous knowledge of the Southeast Asians, Thompsonseemed to understand little about his own agency; he knew the people he wasworking with needed help and assumed that the United States would come to theiraid.
The Laotians brought together all of Thompson’s beliefs all at once: hisidealistic anti-imperialism, his desire to help the most alienated and hopelessof people, his need to have a mission that was his alone. Because no one elsein the U.S. mission focused on the Laotians — even though, one day soon, Laoswould become vital to American interests — Thompson basically ran theoperation himself.
Thompson did not only have a unique affection for Laotians; he trulybelieved that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised during World WarII, the United States would help free countries from colonial masters and setthem on the road to democracy. Neighbors on all sides of Thailand — Indochina,Burma, India, and Indonesia — were deep in it. “Jim was an idealist, aromantic, an anti-imperialist, and there was no more idealistic time than justafter the war,” rememberedRolland Bushner, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. “We hadstood with the anti-colonialists, the democrats, in the war, and we expectedthat would continue.”
Thompson was in manyways unique, but by the 1950s and early 1960s he would become part of a larger,growing, and much less idealistic machine, one that would expose his naivete –and punish him for it. As the Cold War grew hot, the United States no longerwould back any of these nationalist fighters; America would support France, andthen local dictators, in an attempt to fend off communism, infuriating olderliberals like Thompson. In Laos, the CIA would make the biggest bet in itshistory — not to push democracy, as Thompson wanted, but itself. The agency’ssecret war in Laos would alter Asia forever, transforming the lives of Americanoperatives and the local hill tribes they worked with. But it would also transformthe CIA.
Before the Laossecret war, the agency was a small player in the policymaking apparatus. But byusing the war to demonstrate its new importance in policymaking circles, theCIA would make itself far more powerful — a paramilitary organization ratherthan a spy agency. Today, the CIA has retained and expanded that paramilitaryfocus, often leading the war on terror in Afghanistan and other parts of theglobe. “Laos made us,” one CIA operative told me. “Everythingabout the power of the CIA, the CIA’s global reach, the ability of the CIA [tomake war today], not just the Army, to make war — it came from Laos.”
From the Chom Sitemple overlooking the town of Luang Prabang, the historic seat of Laos’s royalfamily, the scene in early 1962 looked little different from what it might havedecades earlier. On the narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mekong and NamKhan rivers, women in long wraparound phasin dresses sold freshbaguettes each morning. At dusk, makeshift stalls in the market offered spicyraw papaya salad and fried Mekong River catfish. In the royal palace, set backfrom the three-wheeled rickshaws and bicycles of Luang Prabang’s mainstreets, the king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, still theoretically ruled the countryas head of state.
But by the early1960s, this idyllic little kingdom had become one of the hottest firefights ofthe Cold War. Strange as it would seem to a visitor to the sleepy countrytoday, for a period in the 1960s, Laos was where Washington would set thefuture of its foreign policy — and cement the CIA as a paramilitaryorganization, a role it would never give up afterward. With communists gainingground in Vietnam, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration saw the tinylandlocked country as a bulwark against communism spreading farther west. At aNational Security Council meeting, Eisenhower himself warned, “If Laoswere lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to Indiawould be opened [to communists].”
Under Eisenhower andthen John F. Kennedy, the United States would decisively opt for a covertbattle in Laos. The U.S. Embassy there began to expand into what would become,along with bases in northeastern and eastern Thailand, a vast complex ofintelligence operations. The United States had sent some small amounts of aidto Laos in the 1950s, but in August 1962 Kennedy authorized a new, and vastlylarger, secret U.S. military aid program. (When Kennedy did discuss thecountry, he deliberately mispronounced the country’s name as “LAY-os,”rather than the correct “louse” or “laaw,” fearing thataverage Americans would not take seriously a country whose name sounded like asmall bug.)
And in Laos, the CIAfound a different type of fighting partner, an archetype for the kind of proxyallies it would deploy around the globe in the 1970s, 1980s, and today. In themountains of northern and central Laos, the Hmong hill tribe — a rugged ethnicminority group — hated central authority and had spent nearly 4,000 yearsfighting outside forces from the Chinese to the Vietnamese. They disdained theLao communists, whom they feared would deprive them of their traditional way oflife and farming. Most Hmong had little interaction with or knowledge of thetechnological and commercial revolutions changing Southeast Asian cities likeBangkok. Still, they had built a reputation as the most fearsome fighters inAsia. The Hmong, whose name means “free,” fought like they hadnothing to lose, a trait they seemed to prefer: In the 18th century, during abattle with China, many Hmong fighters first killedtheir wives and children, so that they could enter the fight against China withnothing holding them back. By the early 1960s, the CIA had begun to buildmodern airstrips in Laos, and the agency shipped the Hmong army assault rifles,rocket launchers, howitzers, and food. U.S. officials assured the Hmong thatWashington would back them until the communists were defeated. After all, Laoswas then of the highest priority, and surely nothing short of victory would beacceptable. No word of this emerging, massive war effort was released toCongress or the American press.
Jim Thompson had a certain view of Laos and all of Southeast Asia. Sincehe had arrived there in 1945, he had come to love the region. He had startedcollecting local art and antiquities, and he launched a silk business in part to helpprovide income for poor people from Laos and northeastern Thailand who workedfor him as silk weavers. As the Indochina wars ramped up, he became convincedthat by standing on the side of locals against, initially, the Frenchcolonialists and then, later, their own dictators, the United States wouldretain the prestige it had gained in World War II and ultimately make the worldsafer for itself as well. Thompson saw in Indochina a chance to bringreal democracy to one of the remotest parts of the world — or at least forpeople in Laos and other countries to live their lives without the rule ofoutsiders.
But back at Langley, CIA leaderssaw a different objective in the battleground country. Since it was formed outof the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, the CIA had gained afoothold in the territorial world of the U.S. foreign-policy community. CIAoperatives had helped engineer coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. Buteven with the powerful Allen Dulles in charge, the agency remained a minorplayer in Washington compared with the U.S. military services or the enormousreach of the State Department. The CIA’s personnel numbered in the hundreds,and its budget was a mere rounding error compared with the Pentagon’s.
In Laos, however, the CIA hadconnections, dating to the early 1950s, that the Army lacked, and it had itsown private, covert airline that had helped the Nationalists in the Chinese CivilWar and continued to aid them once they wound up in Taiwan. In Laos, Langleysaw an opportunity to step up to equal status with the big boys at the Pentagonand Foggy Bottom. And because the United States had formally signed anagreement with the Soviet Union committing both powers not to interfere insupposedly neutral Laos, the CIA’s ability to operate secretly, with proxyfighters, made it even more essential to the U.S. war effort.
At CIA headquarters, only a fewmidlevel men saw, early on, the potential of the secret war to transform theCIA itself, but they proved critical. William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador toLaos from 1964 to 1969, who worked closely with the agency, saw how the secretwar could work for the United States. Quizzed by congressional investigators in the latter days of the secret war about whether the United States hadany commitment to help the Hmong over the long run, Sullivan simply answered: “No.”
The CIA, the advocates of the secret war argued, could showthat a proxy war, fought by local men with American bombers and operativessupporting them, could be as successful as a full-on U.S. military operation,with far fewer casualties — and in near-total secrecy.
This message eventually caught on,not only at Langley but also within the broader U.S. government. After all,Washington did not want to expose any more of its Southeast Asian operations toscrutiny than it had to, especially as American casualties mounted in Vietnam.From a handful of old planes purchased from an airline in 1950, Air America,the U.S. covert airline in Laos, had by the mid-1960s more than 300 pilots andco-pilots. It was dropping millions of pounds of food, ammunition, and weaponsto the Hmong fighters each month. Ubon air base in northeast Thailand, one ofthe main bases for flights into Laos, employed more than 2,300 people. By the mid-1970s, Laos had becomethe most heavily bombed place on Earth: Unexploded ordnance dotted nearly everyvillage road, and rural people struggling to survive built their stilt homesusing bomb casings to hold up the dwellings.
Undersecretary of State U. AlexisJohnson told peers in 1971 that theHmong operation was “very cost-effective.” In other words, as onehistorian later wrote, Hmong lives were cheap: The United States did not haveto spend money buying the Hmong rations of beef, eggs, and ice cream, as it didAmerican troops, because the Hmong subsisted on rice and foraging; Hmongsoldiers got about $3 per month in pay, compared with as much as $339 per monthfor U.S. Army privates serving in Vietnam. Hmong fighters were more than 10 timesmore likely to die as U.S. Army soldiers serving in Vietnam. Washingtonprovided the Hmong with minimal medical assistance. Although precise figures areimpossible to obtain, by the end of the secret war, the Hmong had lost nearlyhalf their fighting-age men.
The CIA’s plan would work — in a fashion — layingthe groundwork for Iran-Contra, the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, and other U.S.proxy armies up to the present day. By running the Laos secret war, the CIAmade itself into a central foreign-policy actor for the first time, acentrality it would never give up, even when it faced reforms imposed byCongress in the 1970s, after the Church Committee report, such as the removalof CIA director William Colby and the creation of a Foreign IntelligenceSurveillance Court. The agency had developed a cadre of paramilitary expertsand demonstrated its own kind of warfare, which held down Vietnamese forces inLaos for more than 10 years, at minimal cost to America, even though the UnitedStates ultimately pulled out of Indochina. By the late 1960s, Laos had put the CIA director at thepolicy table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military leaders,and it had made, for the foreseeable future, a proxy war a viable alternativeto an Army-led war.
Laos, longtime operatives said, showed that the CIAcould run its own kind of war, and the graduates of that operation would go onto mastermind other proxy battles. Among the major operatives in Laos in the later years ofthe secret war were Richard Second, Thomas Clines, and Ted Shackley — threemen who would reunite in the early and mid-1980s to manage the Iran-Contraoperation and work with and funnel weaponsto the mujahideen in Afghanistan, a CIA proxy war not unlike the secret warin Laos.
But for Thompson, aswell as many Laotians, the war would not turn out so well. As the war inIndochina expanded, Thompson focused on his silk business, but he continued toprovide advice and assistance to CIA men working in Southeast Asia. Increasingly,though, he was so embittered by America’s Cold War policy in the region thatthe dinner and cocktail parties he often threw at his grand house along a Bangkokcanal led to open questioning of what the CIA and the Army were doing.
From receivingalmost nothing in the mid-1950s, Laos had become the United States’largest recipient of aid per capita in the 1960s, but the money was flowing notonly to the Hmong but also to other, more corrupt Laotians, who had no realinterest in fighting. Meanwhile, as the war dragged on, the United Statesabandoned aid projects — education, health care, and other efforts — that hadaccompanied the secret war (as the country would in Nicaragua in the early andmid-1980s and as appears to be happening in Afghanistan today). Instead, moneywas increasingly spent on bombing runs over Laos, with the agency paying lessand less attention to just who was on the receiving end. Bombing runs andtonnage of shells dropped could be easily counted, marked off on a piece ofpaper back at agency headquarters.
Meanwhile, the proxyfighters also took the kind of casualties U.S. troops and politicians would neverhave countenanced. In the early 1960s, there were roughly 400,000 Hmong livingin Laos; by the end of the secret war, as many as 300,000 of them had beenkilled or forced to flee the country. Those who remained saw their liveschanged dramatically: While once the Hmong farmed their land and hunted intheir jungles, totally self-sufficient, the alliance with the United States hadmade this hardiest of people totally reliant on aid.
Later, after theUnited States pulled out of Laos in 1975 (in a harbinger of how the agencywould abandon allies in Afghanistan during the 1980s and later Iraq, wherelocals who had worked in conjunction with U.S. forces were left to fend forthemselves or flee from death squads), the Hmong would have to flee to Thailanden masse, where they lived in squalid refugee camps until they were grudgingly admittedto the United States. They staggered, emaciated, into Thai refugee camps, wherethey were promptly robbed and raped by Thai soldiers. The world eventuallyforgot about the Hmong, though 35 years later, several Western journalistsfound a group of Hmong fighters still hidden deep in the Laos jungle, fightingagainst the communists who now controlled the country. Dressed in raggeduniforms given to them four decades ago, some believed that if they held outlong enough, the United States would notice them once again and send in newbombers and helicopter gunships to help them finally win their war.
The changed focus on running the war from the United Statesattracted a new breed of military contractors, too, men who saw dollar signs inthe secret war — a young industry of contractors that would grow to be the CIA’sessential paramilitary partners. Longtimeoperatives on the ground in Southeast Asia like Thompson were simply a thing ofthe past — no one listened to them anymore. The secret war had grown so big noone at the CIA was going to let local operatives actually manage it. Langleyhad built up the Thai bases supporting the secret war into giant operations,complete with officers’ clubs and movie theaters where only Americans wereallowed in, with brothels right outside the bases where Thai cooks whipped uphamburgers alongside plates of wide noodles stir-fried with hot basil.
By the mid-1960s,watching how Laos was turning into a massive war, with little control byLaotians themselves, Thompson became more and more dispirited. “Laosmakes me feel sick,” Thompsonwrote to his sister in late 1960, as he convalesced in the hospital aftercoming down with pneumonia yet again — illnesses, many friends believed,accentuated by seeing how his little slice of paradise was being destroyed. “Iam afraid this is the beginning of a long struggle for that poor littlecountry,” he wrote.
But rather than simply keeping his worry and anger tohimself, Thompson took a very impolitic step. The best-known American in Asia,he began to openly criticize the United States, its war effort, and the CIA, aswell as the Thai leaders who were working with the United States to foment thewar in Laos — a dangerous move when he was still, after all these years, avisitor living in Thailand.
In the early 1960s, the CIA issued a “burn notice”on Thompson, warning all its operatives to avoid any contact with him. Butstill, Thompson persisted. In early 1967, he gave a much-viewed televisioninterview in which he lashed into U.S. policy in Indochina, infuriating manyagency men. “Jim basically cut any ties he still had with that,” saidhis old friend and longtime agent Campbell James.
Thompson’s anger atU.S. policy carried over into his private life; he had grown so agitated thatfriends encouraged him to take a much-needed vacation. He traveled to Malaysiain the spring of 1967. On Easter Sunday, while taking a short hike on vacationin the highlands, Thompson suddenly vanished. When his relatives tried to findout where he might have disappeared to, the U.S. embassies in the region, andthe CIA, stonewalled them. Despite a massive manhunt that was the largest inthe region for its time, no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.