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."