Bangkok Editor Review

Steve Rosse Reviews Bangkok Editor by Alexander MacDonald

The book begins:

“There are few men who, at some time in their life, have not dreamed of living in a palace.  With most, the dream takes shape upon hearing their first fairy tale.  Their dream palace becomes for a time quite a real place, with spires of pure gold and long cool halls of marble.  All manner of fine and exciting things take place around their palace.  They go there on snow-white chargers, and usually there is a dragon or two to dispose of before reaching the princess in her silver tower.  Of course they marry the princess and live happily ever after.

“The only trouble is that men grow up.  Things don’t just go on happily ever after.  With the passing years the dream gradually dissipates, and most men before long are willing to agree that princesses and palaces were never meant for them.  Most men, indeed, never see a palace, much less live in one.

“I was lucky.  I saw my palace.  I saw it and lived in it.  I saw princesses – not one but dozens, and got to know some lovely ones.  My dream became so real a thing that there was some danger I might begin to think I was to the manner (sic) born.  It took only that cable, arriving one day from Washington, to shatter such a pretty delusion.”

The time is March, 1946.  Alexander MacDonald is in his late thirties, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, a Connecticut Yankee living in a palace called Suan Kularb, or the Rose Garden, doing “intelligence work” for the OSS.  Throughout the book MacDonald remains cagey about the kind of intelligence work he’s doing.  He says he’s a “bureaucrat” and then says he was “OSS Chief.”  He mentions a British general “under whom I had worked as an OSS man,” and also that the son of a minor Thai official “had been on my infiltration team during the war.  The boy had been flown secretly out of Siam for training at the OSS camp in Ceylon, and had joined my team as radio operator.”  The impression that a reader gets from this is that MacDonald was a bit of a James Bond character, but that since he was still living this adventure when he wrote the book in 1949, he couldn’t be too specific.

In fact, what MacDonald focuses on in this book is not espionage but journalism.  It is the story of how he came to launch the Bangkok Post, still the most popular English language newspaper in Thailand and still among the strongest companies on the Thai stock exchange.  Reading Bangkok Editor we get the feeling that MacDonald, whatever his role in the American military intelligence community, always thought of himself first and foremost as a journalist.

Certainly his writing style bears this out.  With few exceptions his prose is unadorned reportage, strictly adherent to the five W’s: Who, What, Where, When and Why.  When he does indulge the artist in himself, the results are wonderful, like this neat bit of description:  “A giant tiger rug straddled the polished floor, as though the animal had slipped and fallen like that, limbs outspread, on the mirror-like surface.  Its yellow eyes were full of surprise.”

And MacDonald is not above telling a joke now and then, as in this introduction of a foreign clergyman in Bangkok:  “His head was shaven.  His faded red robes were grimy at the cuffs and collar and emitted an odor that for some reason suggested camels, although I could not remember ever having smelled a camel.”  But ultimately this book is a journalist’s journal, laid out with slavish attention to the calendar, beginning in late 1946 and proceeding in a straight line to late 1949. 

Happily for the reader the story he tells is a fascinating one.  We meet him in his palace, where he has lived for six months with a dozen servants and seven bathrooms all to himself.  He has just been released from the Navy and is preparing to move out of Suan Kularb to make way for Herbert Hoover, who was scheduled to visit Siam.  “In the only presidential vote I ever cast, I helped to put Herbert Hoover out of the White House,” he says.  “Keeping him out of Suan Kularb would be rubbing it in.”

MacDonald spends a few pages agonizing over what he will do with his life, but very few.  He announces his intention to stay in Bangkok at a fancy dress dinner party at the home of Nai Khuang Aphaiwong, who was at that time the Prime Minister.  “All the cabinet ministers and their wives and a group of foreign representatives, mostly military, were there.”  MacDonald is seated only four chairs away from the Prime Minister at this affair.  It is MR Seni Pramoj, Foreign Minister, former ambassador to Washington during the war, who asks him about his plans to start a newspaper.  The conversation is contributed to by Premier Khuang, the Minister of Interior, Minister of Communications, the British Charge d’Affairs, and an unnamed Thai general.  The reader will soon become accustomed to MacDonald’s effortless name dropping.

Having made his decision MacDonald went about setting up the Bangkok Post Co., Ltd.  Already familiar with the Thai political scene, he was careful to gain backing from both major political camps in the immediate post-war period: His Board of Directors included two supporters of Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, and one supporter of Nai Pridi Phanomyong.  These two men were the architects of the bloodless coup in 1932 that ended the absolute power of the monarchy, and they traded the reins of government back and forth between them until 1949.  He also enlists as shareholder Jim Thompson, “a former OSS Army major” and one of the operators of the Oriental Hotel.  (Thompson would eventually disappear under mysterious circumstances while hiking in the Malaysian jungle in the early 1960s.  More intrigue.)

MacDonald’s views, and his book’s focus, are very much on the big picture.  We learn a lot from him about the world, but very little about the author, except his age and the fact that he wears a mustache.  He sees Thailand as a small piece of a wider mechanism, a single domino perhaps, and he writes eloquently enough within that focus:

“In early 1946, you will remember, Southeast Asia politically was one of the hot spots of the world.  In Europe and in other parts of the Far East spent nations were still climbing out of the war wreckage.  The one big thought in millions of minds was the job of putting things back together again.  A decades’ task of rebuilding and replanting was Priority Number One for other, war-exhausted countries in the world.

“But in Southeast Asia, a whole new struggle was beginning in 1946 – had begun, actually, the moment Japan laid down her arms in 1945.  Immediately the war was done, it was as though a powerful new stream had begun to flow through the whole region.  It was the people’s movement for independence, and it went coursing into every part of Southeast Asia.

“Neighbors on all sides of Siam – Indo-China, Burma, India, and Indonesia – were deep in it.  Siam, always wise or wily enough to retain her sovereignty from one monarch to the next, stood only in the shallows of the stream; but there was no doubt that this capricious kingdom would one day feel the full force of the movement.

“If there actually was going to be conflict, if nations on all sides were to move in again to beat one another up, what better place would there be to sit as observer than in a Bangkok editor’s chair?  (I didn’t try very hard, but I couldn’t think of any.)”

He goes on to tell us that the Thai economy was quick to recover after the war, thanks in part to the public’s desire for luxury items after years of austerity.  But even here, he does not look at Thailand alone, but only in comparison to the world at large.  “Moreover,” he says, “there was the great advantage that the situation was not complicated by the political upheavals which were taking place in the neighboring countries.”

MacDonald’s first task in setting up his newspaper was to find presses.  It turned out that the Japanese had left behind a whole printing plant, which was being held by the “custodian of enemy property.”  The custodian, MacDonald mentions, was “one of the key men in the Free Thai resistance group.  I had often heard of him during OSS days.”  Another veiled reference to espionage.

MacDonald beats the British Information Service out of the presses, and then must find pressmen to run them.  He finds them in a detention camp, waiting to be sent back to Japan.  One is from Hiroshima, is married to a Thai woman, and is delighted at the offer to stay on in Siam.  One of the first editors MacDonald hires is Karl Melcher, a German born in Shanghai, who ran the Bangkok office of a German news service during the war.  With the war just over, these four former enemies throw in together to make MacDonald’s dream newspaper a reality.

MacDonald spends a couple of chapters describing the rigors of launching a new business in Thailand and then, two months before the launch date of the Bangkok Post, His Majesty King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, was found shot to death in his bed in the Grand Palace.  Only the week before, MacDonald had signed a contract with the Associated Press to cover Siam for a fee.  Suddenly, he was feeding reports to the world on the biggest story to ever come out of the tiny kingdom.  The government had shut down all telegraph and telephone lines, but MacDonald happens to have a secret radio transmitter on the roof of his building and so for three days MacDonald is the only foreign journalist able to file his stories abroad, and thus the whole world learns of this tragedy from MacDonald (who makes a fairly large amount of money in the process).

Again, in telling this story, MacDonald is modest about his connections, but insistent about listing them.  “The boyish King Ananda with the shy smile, dead!”  he writes.  “Only a few nights before, I had had a private dinner with him and had been attracted by his eager young intelligence.”

A private dinner with His Majesty the King?  In what capacity?  As the publisher and editor of a newspaper yet to be launched?  Or as an officially retired OSS officer whose involvement in international intrigue has obviously not yet ended?  MacDonald doesn’t say here, but later he mentions that there had been previous private dinners, to which he was invited specifically because of his OSS station.

After the new King (this is the current king, His Majesty Bumipol Adunyadej, Rama IX) is sworn into office, the American Charge d’Affairs asks MacDonald to sit with him in his car and discuss the situation.  Again, in what capacity?  As the Associated Press stringer? MacDonald remains coy about it.

During this section of the book, with every paragraph, it becomes harder and harder for MacDonald to disguise his importance beyond being the editor of the yet-to-publish-a-single-issue Bangkok Post.  He reminisces about a trip he took with Pridi Panomyong and King Ananda to visit an OSS training camp for Free Thai guerillas in Sri Racha.  MacDonald spent the day with Pridi and the King, the two most powerful public figures in the country.  According to MacDonald, King Ananda said, “He had never shot a gun before…”  And yet, when describing how the King was shot in bed, he had said, “Everyone knew that the young King recently had become fond of shooting and kept a number of guns in his bedroom.”  A page later, he says, “King Ananda customarily kept at least three guns in his bedroom, the safety catches off, and it was one of these that had been found at his side.”

Then, with remarkable, almost suspicious understatement, MacDonald closes his fourth chapter with these words:  “When we were leaving the guerilla camp the naval officer came over to Pridi and me.”  Again the proximity of this relatively young American to the Thai power elite is notable.  Later, he mentions that during his OSS days he saw Pridi “almost daily.”  The officer came over to “Pridi and me.”  He goes on, “He (the naval officer) had an idea, he said.  His Majesty had been so delighted by the thrill of shooting that he thought we might present him with one of the guns.  It would be a souvenir of his day at Sri Racha.  We presented the King with a .45 Colt automatic.  That was why I was reminded of Sri Racha.  It was this gun, they said, that was lying by his side when they found Ananda dead.”

Now, let’s look at this.  Let’s really consider this.  MacDonald, the American espionage agent, teaches the young King how to shoot, gives him a gun, and has dinner alone with him just a week before he is found shot to death with that very gun.  Then for three days MacDonald is the only person telling the entire world exactly what happened. In any mystery novel, MacDonald would be a primary suspect in the crime.  Yet here he is simply a reporter.  But, of course, MacDonald was not just simply a reporter.  Just any reporter could never have written a memoir of the affair just three years later, while still living in Thailand, and while three of the King’s servants were on trial for the murder.  (It is still a crime in 1999 punishable under lèse majesté laws to write about these events in the Kingdom’s newspapers.)

Late in the book MacDonald makes it clear that it was actually a Thai Navy admiral who arranged the trip to Sri Racha and who physically handed the gun to the young King.  This when recounting that when the new King, Phumpol, was asked at the inquest into his brother’s death, “Was this the gun that Commander MacDonald gave to his late Majesty?” the new King answered “I do not believe I know Commander MacDonald.”

“I was convinced that a couple of American hotel detectives, if given a free hand, could have cleaned up the case in a week; but I was equally convinced that either Siam’s Police Department did not know as much about crime detection as a second-rate private detective, or it did not have that free hand.” (189)

But the truly shocking thing about Bangkok Editor is that MacDonald insinuates that perhaps His Majesty King Phumipol accidentally shot his older brother while the two boys were playing with their guns.  It is almost impossible to believe that anybody could publish such a book in 1949 and still be allowed to live unmolested in Thailand, and in fact to launch a newspaper and make a considerable amount of money with that newspaper.  Another book, The Devil’s Discus by South African journalist Raine Kruger, is banned in Thailand for suggesting such a thing.  Bangkok Editor is also banned, but an arrest warrant was at one time issued in Bangkok for Mr. Kruger.  No such arrest warrant was ever issued for MacDonald.

MacDonald himself writes: “No matter how sophisticated a Siamese was, no matter how hard-boiled a newspaperman he might be, there was that deep inborn respect, almost reverence, for the throne.  The King of Siam was for them the earthly symbol of their religion, the living personification of their State.”  In a phone interview conducted for this study, I asked MacDonald if there had been any reaction to his speculations about the death of King Ananda when his book was published.  “I had a few royal friends and they dropped me after the book came out.  It didn’t make any difference in my social life otherwise,” he said.

MacDonald does comment, at length, about political involvement in the Thai press:

“Of the thirty-five newspapers fewer than half a dozen were published to give the public the straight news and make a profit while doing it.  The rest had axes – and daggers – to grind.  The three or four political groups each financed one or two papers.  Members of the royal family secretly backed others which espoused the monarchical cause.  Businessmen and politicians supported some for personal motives.  An intensely nationalistic group, largely military, backed one. (This is the Krathing Daeng, or Red Bulls, from which the popular energy drink takes its name. – S.R.)  Funds from the Kuomintang and Communist party treasuries were behind others in both the Chinese and the Siamese language.”

And so the astute reader, knowing MacDonald’s connections and background, and the nature of the press in Siam, cannot help but wonder at the headline of Volume I, Issue 1, of the Bangkok Post: “U.S. Correspondent Bares Border Truth.”  You don’t have to be a psychologist to read: “U.S. Bares Truth.”  The Post was launched on August 1, 1946, just five days before national elections.  Pridi, the incumbent prime minister, was under attack, charged with complicity in the death of King Ananda.  (Yet MacDonald was not!)  MacDonald was a “Pridi Man,” having worked with Pridi in his OSS days.  Pridi was also America’s choice, since his opposition was led by Phibun Songkhram, the war-time prime minister who had signed Thailand’s declaration of war against the U.S.

And MacDonald is blunt in his evaluation of democracy in Siam: “Earlier Prapon had told me how one of Thamrong’s ministers, who wanted himself to become premier, was buying up support in Parliament.  From deals which had already gone through Prapon estimated that five million baht (then about $250,000) would have swung a majority of the membership.  It was a chilling commentary on the progress of democracy in the kingdom.”   It would be hard for a man of MacDonald’s beliefs, and the editor in chief of a major metropolitan newspaper, not to use his position to advance certain political agendas.  Harder yet for a man who was still in the employ of the American intelligence community.

“I was not thinking of a democratic Siam because of any relationship with the larger problem of Western Democracy versus Communism or East versus West.  It was nothing like that.  It was much more personal.  Without being asked, I had hitched my wagon to those starry promises of the 1932 revolution.”  This rings untrue to me.  Throughout Bangkok Editor MacDonald’s focus is on the larger problems, and his voice is very impersonal.  I can’t imagine this hard-nosed Yankee war veteran hitching his wagon to any starry promises.

His description of the military coup of November 8, 1947, is straightforward and reportorial, and fills a chapter.  It is interesting to note that within a few hours of awakening to the news, MacDonald has visited the home of Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, who fled in the night missing execution by mere moments, and talked to Pridi’s wife; he has cabled news of the events to the AP, again beating out UPI and Reuters to be the outside world’s only source of information on an important story; and he’s visited the Defense Ministry and spoken to Luang Kach, the man who led the coup.  This is absolutely astounding access, at least it would be for somebody who was just a journalist.

And on the Monday after the coup the Post came out against it, including an editorial by MacDonald that included this paragraph: “Tanks rolled on Saturday night.  They came down Rajadamnoern Avenue about one a.m., rattling coarsely on the paving.  It was an ominous noise.  It told of forced political change, the sound of those metal treads at that untimely hour.  One o’clock n the morning is a time for peaceful sleep and for dancing and romancing.  It is not an hour people would choose, if they had a choice, for change in the authority governing their everyday lives.  But the tanks rolled on Saturday night, and Siam awoke on Sunday to find the old order changed.”  I absolutely love that line, “One o’clock n the morning is a time for peaceful sleep and for dancing and romancing.”  In few countries would such references be included in a political screed.  But how fitting they are in Thailand, where sleep, dance and romance are so important.

A week after the coup MacDonald, along with two reporters from Reuters and a British paper, are given an interview with Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram.  It happens that Phibun, who has become the Supreme Commander of Siam’s armed forces not two years after facing charges of war crimes, has his new headquarters in Suan Kularb, the palace that was MacDonald’s headquarters in his OSS days.  Finally, in April, 1948 Phibun resumes his former post as Premier. 

“The diplomatic representatives waited for word from their respective capitals.  Eventually, Phibun won.  He won because he had a good hand for diplomatic poker and he knew how to play it.  He knew that the British wanted Siam’s official friendship because the kingdom was a fine outlet for her all important export trade.  He knew that Britain was worried about Communist terrorism in Malaya – and wasn’t he known as an ardent anti-Communist crusader?  He knew that America was anxious over the Communist advance in China.  Someday, and possibly very soon, little Siam might be a strategic holding point against further Communist advances.  He knew that the kingdom mattered little by itself, but that it fitted snugly into the overall picture, so far as Anglo-American policy and strategy were concerned.” 

The Kingdom mattered little by itself, but mattered a lot if fitted snugly into the overall picture of Anglo-American policy.  Here again is MacDonald’s view-from-orbit journalist’s objectivity, combined with the cool calculations of the spy.

At this stage of the book MacDonald almost abandons his narrative and lets loose with page after page of political theorizing.

“Largely by historical and geographical accident, Siam always had been in a position to bestow economic and political favors far in excess of what might be expected from a country her size.  Strategically placed, she was used to being courted by foreign interests.” 

“What would happen with Communists taking over China?  Certainly the threat for Siam then would be political as well as economic.  A Communist China would be bound to look hungrily southward toward the Golden Peninsula, embracing all of Siam, Malaya and Burma.  Siam knew thousands of active Chinese Communists already were at work in the kingdom.  She knew that the majority of her three million Chinese would be ready to go along with any overt invasion from China, no matter by what party or ideology it was inspired, so long as it was Chinese.”

“In few other countries of the world was the ground so barren for the seeds of Marxist doctrine.  Devout Buddhists, the Siamese were repelled when they heard that Communism regarded religion opium for the people.  Also, the 85 percent of the population who were farmers were well fed and blissfully unaware of their labor as a force in social organization.  Siam, one of the few nations of the world to do it, even had outlawed Communism in 1933.  The thirteen-year-old Anti-Communist Act was repealed in 1946, but only as a sop to Soviet Russia when Siam made her bid for membership in the United Nations.”

“If the Communists swarmed over China, were the western democracies ready to fight, with the front at the border of this flippant kingdom where I lived?  Or would a truce-like dividing line between the two great opposing worlds be drawn here, while some attempt at permanent peace was made?” 

He then makes the point that this situation put Siam back in the driver’s seat as a valuable buffer state, comparing America’s acceptance of Phibun to that of Peron and Franco.

He describes the behavior of the new Soviet legation in Bangkok in 1948 in very unflattering terms, although, knowing what we now know of the Stalinist regime, he was probably being generously impartial.  He mentions that he published some of the bulletins from the Russian legation in the Post, “Innocuous” items “like the history of the Russian ballet,” and that these always provoked outraged letters to the editor.  “A man who dared not read the arguments of his enemy gave evidence of his own moral weakness or proof that there might be something, after all, to the other side, and I had no patience with anti-Communists who had read nothing of Marx, and who regarded anyone caught with a copy of Das Kapital as a traitor to the democratic state.”   Very liberal thinking, for an East Coast Yankee and CIA spook in 1949.

And as Thailand’s strategic importance grew in the region, the importance of the Bangkok Post grew in Thailand, or at least within Bangkok.  “The Post now (1948 – S.R.) was wooed every day by the Bangkok information offices of twelve different countries.  More than anything else, this flood of propaganda told how international the community had become, and how strategic an area Siam was becoming in the line-up of power in the Far East – like a key piece in an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.”  As I read these chapters, it is all I can do to stop myself from shouting, “Say ‘domino!’  Come on, say it!”

And then, in 1949, without any warning, the book simply ends.  There is a little preamble in the last chapter, with some sentimental stuff that sounds odd coming from MacDonald’s mouth, such as, “That was another rich product of the three years.  I had found good friends in Bangkok, an understanding circle of them, and the warmth of their friendship had thawed much of the stiffness out of my burdensome, protective self-sufficiency.”  But, evidently, such friendships had thawed none of the stiffness out of his prose.

Finally, the book ends with these sentences: “In Siam there was so much that might happen.  There was so much in Bangkok for me to learn, so much more yet to do.  I would stay on for a while.”

That’s it.  It is a discomfiting ending to the document, sort of a teasing, dangling unfinished thought, and it makes me wonder what MacDonald’ motives were for writing the book when he did.  When I spoke to him, fifty years after the publication of Bangkok Editor, he told me that he stayed in the kingdom until “about 1955,” but I never did ask him his motives for writing the book when he did. 

Maybe this cucumber-cool espionage agent, trained to jump out of airplanes and keep his secrets under torture, who nevertheless is burdened by his “protective self-sufficiency,” simply needed somebody to talk to, and the person he felt most comfortable sharing his thoughts with was that faceless, nameless reader every author has in mind when he sits down at a typewriter.

Editor’s Note on Bangkok Editor Review:

This review of Bangkok Editor is not the first piece of work by Steve Rosse that Eastlit has published. Apart form Bangkok Editor Review, the following have been featured:


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