The Long ViewThe decent American
In the year 2000, J. Marsh Thomson took up his pen to write a tribute to his friend, the late Lewis E. Gleeck Jr., that acerbic and extremely productive chronicler of the American colonial era. His warm tribute to his friend included two insights into himself. The first, an explicit one: “My account of Lew,” Thomson wrote, “would not be complete without mention of our kindred political outlook” Lew is blatantly archconservative, as am I, and I know we both enjoyed exchanging supportive viewpoints, from extolling Reagan to berating Clinton.” The second insight, I believe, comes from his pointing out what he found admirable in Gleeck’s writings about the complicated relationship between America and the Philippines - his approbation being a validation of his own beliefs. Gleeck, Thomson wrote, “is a staunchly American patriot and at the same time deeply empathetic to his adopted Philippines, while not hesitating to castigate both: the US, for heavy-handed errors of colonialism (while praising its many positive contributions in areas such as education and governance), and the Philippines, for grievous squandering of assets, lack of discipline, corruption, at iba pa.” Thomson was many things to many people, and indeed, knew many people in many different ways because of the very many things he did. I knew only three facets of the man: as a father, member of the expatriate American community, and an entrepreneur, though the last two were only experienced by me as offshoots of the first. The Thomsons were - are - a fundamentally generous family, in the way it matters most, not just with their resources, but with their time. Whether the annual Christmas family picture with its accompanying letter chronicling their family’s ups and downs for the past year, “History of the Philippines” by Benitez (with Ferdinand E. Marcos- bookplate) that Thomson gave me many years ago and which reminds me of him every time I see it, or the watercolor in Japanese style of a bird on a bamboo his wife, Hiroko Nakamura, gave my father and which is one of the first things I see every morning; or the friendly and sustained interest in my ups and downs their family has shown me for two decades now, surely I am not alone in paying tribute to the warmth of a family who all looked with pride and admiration to their head: J. Marsh Thomson. All he accomplished, all he stood for, must be understood not from the undoubted material success that Thomson secured, but from something deeper: from the perspective of his political conservatism, his American patriotism, and his deep and abiding affection for the Philippines and the Filipino people. At least, this is how I came to understand and admire the man, not least because my own opinions seemed to differ so much from his own, and yet, he respected them – and I knew when he’d say so, it wasn’t the diplomat in him speaking; or to put it a better yet, he was so affable, so deserving of respect, because he understood how civility is a virtue that enhances all other virtues. And he was, to my mind, a virtuous man; not a saint but a committed Christian, a family man who nurtured and mentored not just his own children (and how he succeeded in doing that!), but mentoring a wholesome attitude that simply wouldn’t surrender to the fashions and fads of the day. Like Chesterton, he simply didn’t see why we should subscribe to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happened to be living in the present. Many of the things he did - and essentially, the trajectory of his life took him from being an officer, to becoming a diplomat, a stint in political work, heading the Peace Corps in the Philippines, lobbyist for US commercial interests, to becoming an entrepreneur, all the while demonstrating a passionate commitment to education, and civic and conservation work - involved his dealing with people from all walks of life and seeing the best and worst in human behavior. All these things are enough to embitter a man and leave him cynical and unhappy. That has been the sad and embarrassing fate of many an expatriate who once upon a time fell in love with the Philippines and Filipinos, only to have their spirit crushed. The only explanation I can find, since he was no Pollyana cheerily denying humanity’s reality flaws, is that his bedrock beliefs -rugged individualism, in the Teddy Roosevelt sense, combined with an appreciation for the wholesomeness of hearth and home – informed his every action. Surely there were times he was wrong, but even when he was wrong, he was motivated by a thirst for what is right; rectitude having, at its core, that profoundly American characteristic: a belief in responsibility and fair play being liberating and empowering things. Dashing, urbane, cosmopolitan, Thomson was viewed by some as just another “Ugly American” - a reflection of the ugliness, moral if not spiritual, of his critics. He belonged to a generation whose good intentions came to be regarded as a combination of cunning and self-delusion by skeptics throughout a world that loved and hated Americans and America. When he was embarking on a career as a diplomat the stereotype of the “Ugly American” was gaining not just literary, but political currency. But as for the rest, myself included, I believe his epitaph is a simple yet deserved one. There are few truly deserving of the title, “Friend of the Filipinos,” and J. Marsh Thomson was one of them. He lived long enough to help build the only truly lasting monument his people and their way of life can have, which is mutual respect and affection arising from Filipinos and Americans working together, as he did so well, and so conscientiously, and which his children will continue as living testimony to his idealism and ideals.