TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: "The Ideal Man" by Joshua Kurlantzick

The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War

Jim Thompson earned the title of "The Silk King" in Thailand, back in the 1950's.  One of the first Westerners to appreciate Thai Silk, he had a vision to transform the life of poor weavers, giving them ownership over their production and exporting their silks to the United States and Europe.

He was also a spy.  In fact, he ended up in Thailand as one of the CIA's first batch of suave James Bond types, fell in love with the country and stayed.  He had studied architecture and design and truly loved the old Thai way of life.

Then he disappeared.  The story had intrigued me for years, but I had never really gone beyond the surface details.  His name came up again as I wrote a post for TAFA's blog , "S is for Silk".  I had seen a novel about him in a bookstore, a mystery written with a possible scenario of how he vanished, so I decided to see if my local library had it.  Instead, I found this one, "The Ideal Man", and am glad I did.

As the subtitle states, Jim Thompson's tragedy is tightly linked with how the United States developed its presence in Asia.  The tragedy goes beyond the disappearance.  Thompson's whole life became tragic as he fell in love with this country, created a voice for the common people, and increasingly lost faith in the American role in Asia.  When he arrived in Thailand, there was a vibrant democratic movement happening in the region.  Within a few years, both the Royals and the United States helped ensure that these anti-colonial voices were squashed.  Instead, the usual corrupt dictatorship was endorsed and led to power.  We all know what the consequences were for Vietnam.  Much less is told about Laos and the devastation we left there.  Thompson's political position was in favor of working with the rebels in all three countries.  He met with them, knew them as friends and had a vision for self-government that was way ahead of his time.  He watched his friends become imprisoned, then shot, and he himself lost favor with both the Thai Royals and the U.S. government.  The ideal man had ideals.  They were trampled on, breaking his spirit and his vision for the region.

The book mostly covers the political intrigue that happened around Jim Thompson over a period of twenty years.  It names the characters that played the main roles in deciding Thailand's future.  It also describes Thompson's life, how he collected and preserved thousands of artifacts, keeping them in his home until he would one day make them available to the Thai people in a museum.  

Jim Thompson's house.

Even his house was one of these artifacts.  He had two traditional peasant homes dismantled and reassembled in Bangkok, starting a fad among the elite to copy him and preserve traditional Thai architectural elements in an environment that was quickly modernizing into Western influences.  At the same time, he built the Thai silk industry into the giant that it is today.  He entertained the most famous people of the day in his peasant houses: presidents, film stars, political leaders, and wealthy tourists who had begun to explore Asia.  Towards the end, the book describes Thompson as worn out, a man with a broken heart and no hope for the future.  Ironically, his disappearance ensured the preservation of his life work.  The house is now a museum and the silk business continues as a profitable venture.

Jim Thompson goes on a trip, a vacation, in Malaysia to visit some friends on an estate.  This was March 27th, 1967.  He goes for a walk and never comes back.  There are woods on the estate and several searches funded by different parties look for any little clue that might lead to an explanation of what happened.  Detectives are hired.  For years, various groups grasp at possible leads.  Nothing is ever found. Nobody knows what happened to him.  Could he have walked out into a new life?  Unlikely.  Did anyone want him dead?  Yes.  It would have been a relief to the CIA, to the Thai Royals and to his silk competitors to have him gone.  His political positions were embarrassing to the US and the Thai elite despised him.  A tragedy, indeed.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, where Jim Thompson disappeared.

This story is so familiar to me.  I grew up in Brazil during a time when there was great civil unrest (1970's).  Students were disappearing by the thousands.  Dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and killed.  As a teenager, an American abroad, I was told, in whispers, to always say that Brazil was a democracy.  Later, in college, I learned about the CIA's role there, about the School of the Americas, of how Latin American dictators were puppets, held in place by the US government.  Of course, none of these stories are simple, black and white moments.  They evolved out of many legitimate fears coupled with greed and the desire for power.

Now, both South America and Asia have become strong economic powers on their own terms.  We see an economic decline in the United States that rocks our way of life, our sense of entitlement.  Brazilians flock Disneyworld and fly up to Miami to shop.  Thailand is party land, a center for easy drugs and prostitutes.  The lesson for me is that what we do is important.

My portal to many countries is usually through their textiles and crafts.  Jim Thompson's story resonates with me because of this connection and because of his understanding of how economic development can happen through handicraft production and through the arts.  He was about fair trade before the term was even coined.  And, his story rings a bell because of the expat connection.  When I was a kid, almost every house in Brazil had a picture of JFK hanging next to Jesus with his bleeding heart.  Being an American back then was like being nobility.  I learned early on that some kids wanted to be my friend because I was an American.  Some were curious, some wanted "stuff".  Now, being an American is considered cancerous and downright dangerous in many countries.  This has not happened overnight.  It's decades and even centuries of abuse on our end.  This is truly the great American tragedy.  With our way of war, we have lost our friends.

Everything we do has political and economic consequences.  What we buy, what we eat, where we walk, drive or fly.  And, this is what drives my passion behind my love for all things handmade:  We can be simple so that we can simply live.  In peace, with one another.

Jim Thompson with weavers.


Jim Thompson Website
The Jim Thompson House

TAFA Members Working in Thailand:

TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles
Unique Batik Fair Trade
Luxury Lanna Crafts
Siamese Dream Design



  1. There are so many facets about this man that make the book seem irresistable to me--always love a good read, Rachel...and I must say you yourself are as intrieging, especially how much care and devotion and energy you put into this site.

  2. Oh, good! I'm glad I perked your interest in him. It really does fascinate me!

    As for myself, I think my life is actually pretty boring. Simple, as I said in the post, but most of the action happens in my mind these days. The first half (Brazil) really was a big adventure, but this second half has been quieter... :)

  3. Thanks, Rachel, I enjoyed reading about this... now I have to get back to work!

  4. This looks like a great book for my list. A fascinating piece of lost history. Reminds me of Lederer and The Ugly American.

  5. You know, The Ugly American popped into my head when I was reading this and I can't remember if I ever actually read it. I'll add that on to my list! Thanks, Linda!


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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