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<p> Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. </p>
By the time Jim Thompson reached his cramped corner of the temporary U.S. legation in Thailand each morning in 1946, a small crowd had already formed waiting to see him. In the soupy, humid air, they squatted on their haunches, chewing sour mango slices and dried pork skins, waiting for their savior, the best-connected intelligence man in Indochina, a man unaware that he would soon be among the last of a dying breed — a lone idealist in an increasingly power-hungry, militarized CIA that would never be the same again.
Thompson pushed through the waiting crowd and grabbed his seat. There were Thais in the crowd, but mostly Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese from resistance groups fighting the French colonists. Most afternoons, these nationalist fighters would come to see Thompson, but on weekends Thompson often tried to catch a flight to the Thai northeast, where tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lived and where Ho Chi Minh’s forces had built a sizable operation.
Thompson made little effort to conceal his sympathies for these militants. He quietly met regularly with the prime minister of the Free Laos movement, who was living secretly in Bangkok; brought the leaders of the Free Cambodian groups to meet with other U.S. officials; and even got a clandestine rendezvous with Prince Souphanouvong, a leftist member of the Lao royal family who, during the Vietnam War, allied himself with the communists and would become known as the Red Prince.
When Lao militants launched a brief border war with French forces in Laos, Thompson traveled to the Lao border to negotiate a truce. He had been winning their trust on foot, walking day after day through Vietnamese refugee camps, Lao villages, and Cambodian towns just inside Thailand’s borders, where these refugees had set up replicas of home, complete with stalls serving steaming bowls of pho, sticky rice, and charred pieces of gamy grilled chicken. Arriving at the Thai border after reports that fighting was breaking out along the frontier and that men, women, and children were fleeing with their possessions into Thailand, Thompson was a calming presence.
In Thailand’s northeast, where Thompson traveled with Tiang Sirikhanth, a populist sympathetic to the anti-French insurgents, he assured the Indochinese insurgent leaders that they would eventually get their independence, with America’s backing. "The sooner the European suckups of the State Department realize that the days of colonies are over, the better," he wrote in one letter back to the United States. "I see a great deal of the Laos, the Vietnamese, and the Indonesians here and they are 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, Thompson had contacts among the Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese militants that no one else had. But despite his enormous knowledge of the Southeast Asians, Thompson seemed to understand little about his own agency; he knew the people he was working with needed help and assumed that the United States would come to their aid.
The Laotians brought together all of Thompson’s beliefs all at once: his idealistic anti-imperialism, his desire to help the most alienated and hopeless of people, his need to have a mission that was his alone. Because no one else in the U.S. mission focused on the Laotians — even though, one day soon, Laos would become vital to American interests — Thompson basically ran the operation himself.
Thompson did not only have a unique affection for Laotians; he truly believed that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised during World War II, the United States would help free countries from colonial masters and set them on the road to democracy. Neighbors on all sides of Thailand — Indochina, Burma, India, and Indonesia — were deep in it. "Jim was an idealist, a romantic, an anti-imperialist, and there was no more idealistic time than just after the war," remembered Rolland Bushner, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. "We had stood with the anti-colonialists, the democrats, in the war, and we expected that would continue."
Thompson was in many ways 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 longer would back any of these nationalist fighters; America would support France, and then local dictators, in an attempt to fend off communism, infuriating older liberals like Thompson. In Laos, the CIA would make the biggest bet in its history — not to push democracy, as Thompson wanted, but itself. The agency’s secret war in Laos would alter Asia forever, transforming the lives of American operatives and the local hill tribes they worked with. But it would also transform the CIA.
Before the Laos secret war, the agency was a small player in the policymaking apparatus. But by using the war to demonstrate its new importance in policymaking circles, the CIA would make itself far more powerful — a paramilitary organization rather than a spy agency. Today, the CIA has retained and expanded that paramilitary focus, often leading the war on terror in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe. "Laos made us," one CIA operative told me. "Everything about the power of the CIA, the CIA’s global reach, the ability of the CIA [to make war today], not just the Army, to make war — it came from Laos."
From the Chom Si temple overlooking the town of Luang Prabang, the historic seat of Laos’s royal family, the scene in early 1962 looked little different from what it might have decades earlier. On the narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, women in long wraparound phasin dresses sold fresh baguettes each morning. At dusk, makeshift stalls in the market offered spicy raw papaya salad and fried Mekong River catfish. In the royal palace, set back from the three-wheeled rickshaws and bicycles of Luang Prabang’s main streets, the king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, still theoretically ruled the country as head of state.
But by the early 1960s, this idyllic little kingdom had become one of the hottest firefights of the Cold War. Strange as it would seem to a visitor to the sleepy country today, for a period in the 1960s, Laos was where Washington would set the future of its foreign policy — and cement the CIA as a paramilitary organization, a role it would never give up afterward. With communists gaining ground in Vietnam, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration saw the tiny landlocked country as a bulwark against communism spreading farther west. At a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower himself warned, "If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened [to communists]."
Under Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy, the United States would decisively opt for a covert battle 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 of intelligence operations. The United States had sent some small amounts of aid to Laos in the 1950s, but in August 1962 Kennedy authorized a new, and vastly larger, secret U.S. military aid program. (When Kennedy did discuss the country, he deliberately mispronounced the country’s name as "LAY-os," rather than the correct "louse" or "laaw," fearing that average Americans would not take seriously a country whose name sounded like a small bug.)
And in Laos, the CIA found a different type of fighting partner, an archetype for the kind of proxy allies it would deploy around the globe in the 1970s, 1980s, and today. In the mountains of northern and central Laos, the Hmong hill tribe — a rugged ethnic minority group — hated central authority and had spent nearly 4,000 years fighting outside forces from the Chinese to the Vietnamese. They disdained the Lao communists, whom they feared would deprive them of their traditional way of life and farming. Most Hmong had little interaction with or knowledge of the technological and commercial revolutions changing Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok. Still, they had built a reputation as the most fearsome fighters in Asia. The Hmong, whose name means "free," fought like they had nothing to lose, a trait they seemed to prefer: In the 18th century, during a battle with China, many Hmong fighters first killed their wives and children, so that they could enter the fight against China with nothing holding them back. By the early 1960s, the CIA had begun to build modern airstrips in Laos, and the agency shipped the Hmong army assault rifles, rocket launchers, howitzers, and food. U.S. officials assured the Hmong that Washington would back them until the communists were defeated. After all, Laos was then of the highest priority, and surely nothing short of victory would be acceptable. No word of this emerging, massive war effort was released to Congress or the American press.
Jim Thompson had a certain view of Laos and all of Southeast Asia. Since he had arrived there in 1945, he had come to love the region. He had started collecting local art and antiquities, and he launched a silk business in part to help provide income for poor people from Laos and northeastern Thailand who worked for him as silk weavers. As the Indochina wars ramped up, he became convinced that by standing on the side of locals against, initially, the French colonialists and then, later, their own dictators, the United States would retain the prestige it had gained in World War II and ultimately make the world safer for itself as well. Thompson saw in Indochina a chance to bring real democracy to one of the remotest parts of the world — or at least for people in Laos and other countries to live their lives without the rule of outsiders.
But back at Langley, CIA leaders saw a different objective in the battleground country. Since it was formed out of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, the CIA had gained a foothold in the territorial world of the U.S. foreign-policy community. CIA operatives had helped engineer coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. But even with the powerful Allen Dulles in charge, the agency remained a minor player in Washington compared with the U.S. military services or the enormous reach 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 had connections, dating to the early 1950s, that the Army lacked, and it had its own private, covert airline that had helped the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and continued to aid them once they wound up in Taiwan. In Laos, Langley saw an opportunity to step up to equal status with the big boys at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. And because the United States had formally signed an agreement with the Soviet Union committing both powers not to interfere in supposedly neutral Laos, the CIA’s ability to operate secretly, with proxy fighters, made it even more essential to the U.S. war effort.
At CIA headquarters, only a few midlevel men saw, early on, the potential of the secret war to transform the CIA itself, but they proved critical. William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969, who worked closely with the agency, saw how the secret war could work for the United States. Quizzed by congressional investigators in the latter days of the secret war about whether the United States had any commitment to help the Hmong over the long run, Sullivan simply answered: "No."
The CIA, the advocates of the secret war argued, could show that a proxy war, fought by local men with American bombers and operatives supporting 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 to scrutiny 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 and co-pilots. It was dropping millions of pounds of food, ammunition, and weapons to the Hmong fighters each month. Ubon air base in northeast Thailand, one of the main bases for flights into Laos, employed more than 2,300 people. By the mid-1970s, Laos had become the most heavily bombed place on Earth: Unexploded ordnance dotted nearly every village road, and rural people struggling to survive built their stilt homes using bomb casings to hold up the dwellings.
Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson told peers in 1971 that the Hmong operation was "very cost-effective." In other words, as one historian later wrote, Hmong lives were cheap: The United States did not have to spend money buying the Hmong rations of beef, eggs, and ice cream, as it did American troops, because the Hmong subsisted on rice and foraging; Hmong soldiers got about $3 per month in pay, compared with as much as $339 per month for U.S. Army privates serving in Vietnam. Hmong fighters were more than 10 times more likely to die as U.S. Army soldiers serving in Vietnam. Washington provided the Hmong with minimal medical assistance. Although precise figures are impossible to obtain, by the end of the secret war, the Hmong had lost nearly half their fighting-age men.
The CIA’s plan would work — in a fashion — laying the 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 CIA made itself into a central foreign-policy actor for the first time, a centrality it would never give up, even when it faced reforms imposed by Congress in the 1970s, after the Church Committee report, such as the removal of CIA director William Colby and the creation of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The agency had developed a cadre of paramilitary experts and demonstrated its own kind of warfare, which held down Vietnamese forces in Laos for more than 10 years, at minimal cost to America, even though the United States ultimately pulled out of Indochina. By the late 1960s, Laos had put the CIA director at the policy 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 alternative to an Army-led war.
Laos, longtime operatives said, showed that the CIA could run its own kind of war, and the graduates of that operation would go on to mastermind other proxy battles. Among the major operatives in Laos in the later years of the secret war were Richard Second, Thomas Clines, and Ted Shackley — three men who would reunite in the early and mid-1980s to manage the Iran-Contra operation and work with and funnel weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, a CIA proxy war not unlike the secret war in Laos.
But for Thompson, as well as many Laotians, the war would not turn out so well. As the war in Indochina expanded, Thompson focused on his silk business, but he continued to provide 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 that the dinner and cocktail parties he often threw at his grand house along a Bangkok canal led to open questioning of what the CIA and the Army were doing.
From receiving almost 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 not only to the Hmong but also to other, more corrupt Laotians, who had no real interest in fighting. Meanwhile, as the war dragged on, the United States abandoned aid projects — education, health care, and other efforts — that had accompanied the secret war (as the country would in Nicaragua in the early and mid-1980s and as appears to be happening in Afghanistan today). Instead, money was increasingly spent on bombing runs over Laos, with the agency paying less and less attention to just who was on the receiving end. Bombing runs and tonnage of shells dropped could be easily counted, marked off on a piece of paper back at agency headquarters.
Meanwhile, the proxy fighters also took the kind of casualties U.S. troops and politicians would never have countenanced. In the early 1960s, there were roughly 400,000 Hmong living in Laos; by the end of the secret war, as many as 300,000 of them had been killed or forced to flee the country. Those who remained saw their lives changed dramatically: While once the Hmong farmed their land and hunted in their jungles, totally self-sufficient, the alliance with the United States had made this hardiest of people totally reliant on aid.
Later, after the United States pulled out of Laos in 1975 (in a harbinger of how the agency would abandon allies in Afghanistan during the 1980s and later Iraq, where locals who had worked in conjunction with U.S. forces were left to fend for themselves or flee from death squads), the Hmong would have to flee to Thailand en masse, where they lived in squalid refugee camps until they were grudgingly admitted to the United States. They staggered, emaciated, into Thai refugee camps, where they were promptly robbed and raped by Thai soldiers. The world eventually forgot about the Hmong, though 35 years later, several Western journalists found a group of Hmong fighters still hidden deep in the Laos jungle, fighting against the communists who now controlled the country. Dressed in ragged uniforms given to them four decades ago, some believed that if they held out long enough, the United States would notice them once again and send in new bombers and helicopter gunships to help them finally win their war.
The changed focus on running the war from the United States attracted a new breed of military contractors, too, men who saw dollar signs in the secret war — a young industry of contractors that would grow to be the CIA’s essential paramilitary partners. Longtime operatives on the ground in Southeast Asia like Thompson were simply a thing of the past — no one listened to them anymore. The secret war had grown so big no one at the CIA was going to let local operatives actually manage it. Langley had built up the Thai bases supporting the secret war into giant operations, complete with officers’ clubs and movie theaters where only Americans were allowed in, with brothels right outside the bases where Thai cooks whipped up hamburgers 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 by Laotians themselves, Thompson became more and more dispirited. "Laos makes me feel sick," Thompson wrote to his sister in late 1960, as he convalesced in the hospital after coming down with pneumonia yet again — illnesses, many friends believed, accentuated by seeing how his little slice of paradise was being destroyed. "I am afraid this is the beginning of a long struggle for that poor little country," he wrote.
But rather than simply keeping his worry and anger to himself, 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, as well as the Thai leaders who were working with the United States to foment the war in Laos — a dangerous move when he was still, after all these years, a visitor 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. But still, Thompson persisted. In early 1967, he gave a much-viewed television interview in which he lashed into U.S. policy in Indochina, infuriating many agency men. "Jim basically cut any ties he still had with that," said his old friend and longtime agent Campbell James.
Thompson’s anger at U.S. policy carried over into his private life; he had grown so agitated that friends encouraged him to take a much-needed vacation. He traveled to Malaysia in the spring of 1967. On Easter Sunday, while taking a short hike on vacation in the highlands, Thompson suddenly vanished. When his relatives tried to find out where he might have disappeared to, the U.S. embassies in the region, and the CIA, stonewalled them. Despite a massive manhunt that was the largest in the region for its time, no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.