Jim Thompson ’28: Princeton’s Man Who Knew Too Much

jimthompson_1The CIA’s on campus this week searching for new recruits.  While I won’t be signing up for an interview (OR WILL I?  ESPIONAGE!), their arrival did make me think of my favorite Princeton spook, Jim Thompson, whose life – and death – reads like something straight out of a spy novel.

Born to a wealthy family in Delaware, then educated at St. Paul’s School and Princeton (Class of ‘28), Thompson left a career as a high-society architect in New York to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today’s CIA.

His first job after World War II was to set up the OSS’s bureau in Bangkok, Thailand.  By day Thompson made contacts with Southeast Asia’s radical leftists, hoping to sway them to the American side; by night, he established himself as a fixture of Bangkok’s reemerging expat scene.  After retiring from the OSS in the late ‘40s, Thompson set his sights on a new venture: silkmaking.

Working closely with artisans from the country’s impoverished northeast, Thompson set about reviving the dying art of traditional Thai silk weaving. The venture made him millions and earned him worldwide fame as the “Silk King”.  Thompson used his earnings to build a huge, antiquities-filled mansion in the heart of Bangkok (which you can still visit today; it’s a must-see for any Princetonian in Thailand).

Then, on Easter Sunday 1967, Thompson vanished while walking alone in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.  He was never heard from again.

What happened to Jim Thompson, one of Southeast Asia’s richest men?  No one can say for sure. But as related in two separate Princeton Alumni Weekly articles, sinister theories abound:

  • He was eaten by a tiger.  Or fell into a trap set by pygmies.  Or was accidentally hit by a truck and buried in a shallow grave.

  • He was kidnapped by communists.  Some say Thompson never fully retired from the CIA.  His repeated business trips to Thailand’s Northeastern border region would have provided the perfect opportunity for covert activity in restive Laos and Cambodia.  Mark Jenkins’s 1987 PAW Article: “The Asian edition of Life magazine speculated that he might have been captured by communists wanting to make him publicly denounce U.S. policy in Vietnam. Time Magazine quoted OSS colleagues of Thompson arguing that he must have been abducted for ‘political purposes.'”
  • He defected to the communists.  Letters to friends revealed that Thompson had become increasingly disillusioned with US foreign policy in the leadup to the Vietnam War.  Jenkins: “It was known that he opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and sympathized with the Indochinese nationalists… During his trips to northern Thailand on business or in search of rare antiquities, he regularly met with Indochinese communists, and he would neither confirm or deny allegations that he knew Ho Chi Minh personally.”
  • He was taken out by the Thais. At the time of his disappearance, Thompson was locked in a nasty dispute with the Thai government over his collection of antiquities.  Thailand wanted them to be returned to their people after Thompson’s death, and threatened to seize his collection. Francine Mathews ’85, writing in PAW in 2002, speculates: “Obstinate and enraged, Thompson attempted to negotiate in the Thai style: he threatened to reveal” state secrets collected during his OSS days.  Then:  “Six months after Thompson’s death, his sister was murdered in her home… during a bungled burglary. According to Chase McQuade, Thompson’s great-nephew, the family believes she died during a botched attempt to locate Thompson’s last will, which bequeathed his estate to his extended family. In the end, however, the Thai government seized his art collection.”

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