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Thompson Agonistes: The Dissent and Subsequent Disappearance of A CIA Officer

War in Laos

COMMENT: Younger readers/listeners might be puzzled by discussion of a “liberal” CIA officer. Before the transformation of the CIA into a huge paramilitary force, Jim Thompson worked for the Agency and its World War II predecessor the Office of Strategic Services. Imbued with the ideals of the Roosevelt administrations and the war against fascism, Thompson became an operative on behalf of CIA-sponsored combatants in Laos because of his anti-imperialist views and genuine respect and affection for its people.

As the war operation in Laos grew bigger and paramilitary operatives eclipsed long-time agents on the ground, Thompson grew increasingly, visibly and vocally critical of the Agency’s presence in Laos and the changes in that organization.

Voicing his distaste at social functions while in government employ and even more after his departure into civilian life, Thompson eventually disappeared while on a walk.

He was never seen again. No body has every been found.

“The End of the Innocents” by Joshua Kurlantzic; Foreign Policy; 11/3/2011.

EXCERPT: . . . 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.” . . .

. . . 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. . . . [Italics are mine–D.E.]

. . . 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. [Italics are mine–D.E.]

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