Robert Thompson

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Robert Thompson pictured in 1943 during his service against the Japanese in Burma.

Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson (12 April 1916 - 16 May 1992) was 'the British expert on guerrilla warfare who advised Richard Nixon' [1] and 'was military adviser to [Nguyen Van] Thieu in Vietnam' [2] (Nguyen Van Thieu -- Served as president of South Vietnam from 1967 to 1973, fleeing Saigon just before it fell April 30, 1975.) On his death his obituary noted he 'was one of the most renowned, and sometimes influential, advisers in [Counterinsurgency]. He had 27 years' almost uninterrupted military, political, and advisory service in southeast Asia'. [3]


Early life and education

Thompson was born on 12 April 1916 the son of a Surrey clergyman called Canon W. G. Thompson. He attended Marlborough College (a private school founded in 1843 for the education of the sons of Anglican clergymen) and then attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. [4]

In Malaya

In 1938, after leaving university, Thompson joined the Malayan Civil Service as a cadet. [5] He was recruited by the RAF during the Second World War, but then became a liaison officer with Wingate's Chindits, Allied soldiers trained to operate behind the Japanese lines. [6]

After the war Thompson returned in 1946 to the Malayan civil service and became assistant commissioner of labour in the state of Perak in 1946. In 1950 after a course at the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer, he joined the staff of the newly appointed director of operations, Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs. He continued in that appointment throughout the tour of the Malayan High Commissioner Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Templer. [7] Thompson was later appointed Deputy Secretary of Defence in Malaya in 1955 and then from 1959 to 1961 was Permanent Secretary of Defence. [8]

Throughout his time in Malaya, Thompson assisted the British administration, and later the Malayan government, in what is generally known as the ‘Malayan Emergency’. The 'emergency' was essentially a revolt against British rule by the poor and politically alienated Chinese population in Malaya who had previously been funded and armed by Britain in their fight against Japanese occupation. [9] The ‘counterinsurgency’ operation, of which Thompson was an integral part was, the Foreign Office conceded in a secret file, ‘very much a war in defence of [the] rubber industry’, which was an important source of wealth for Britain. [10]

Britain conducted 4,500 airstirkes in the first five years of the Malayan war, [11] and detained 34,000 people during the first eight years. These detainees were, according to the Foreign Office, people ‘who are a menace to public security but who cannot, because of insufficient evidence, be brought to trial’. [12]

An integral part of Britain's repressive operation was Harold Briggs’s ‘Brigg’s Plan’, which began in 1950 and targeted Malaya’s Chinese population through a ‘resettlement’ programme:

A community of squatters would be surrounded in their huts at dawn, when they were all asleep, forced into lorries and settle in a new village encircled by barbed wire with searchlights round the periphery to prevent movement at night. Before the ‘new villagers’ were let out in the mornings to go to work in the paddy fields, soldiers or police searched them for rice, clothes, weapons or messages. [13]

Thompson himself recalled one such village clearance as follows:

Just as an example of a ruthless measure, I quote the case of a village in Malaya (Jenderam) of about three thousand inhabitants. This was a very bad area and the village itself was a centre of support and supply for a large unit of communist terrorists when most of the other areas around it had been cleared. Having given the inhabitants a choice between the Government and the communists and having failed to make any headway by appealing to or persuading them to cooperate we moved in several battalions at dawn one morning and moved the whole village out. Everyone in it, men, women and children, went into detention for two years. All the houses were razed to the ground. Surprisingly, this did not cause a public outcry and the effectiveness of the result, by leading to the elimination of the communist terrorist unit concerned, silenced all criticism. [14]

In Vietnam

Thompson famously advocated the repressive tactics practised by the British in Malaya for the Americans in South Vietnam. In 1960 President Ngo Din Diem asked the Malayan prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to send a team of experts to advise him. [15]

Thompson was then Head of the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam from 1961 to 1965. [16] His appointment was recommended by his former superior in Malaya, Gerald Templer:

Gerald Templer was the intellectual and administrative father of the Vietnam war. While the French were going down to defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the Americans leading a UN crusade to stop Communism in South Korea, Gerald Templer was coining the phrase 'hearts and minds' to wage a successful counter-revolutionary war in Malaya. He combined a sophisticated propaganda campaign, social welfare programme, large - scale deportations, village re-location schemes, and jungle trained troops given helicopter mobility to contain, isolate, and then defeat the 5,000 or so Communist guerrillas.

Templer's success was hailed on the front covers of Time and Look magazine, promoted him to Chief of Staff and Field Marshal, and took him in 1960 to the palace of Prime Minister Diem of Vietnam, where he gave the Americans' first strong man in Saigon an intensive tutorial in how to apply the lessons of Malaya to the war against the Vietcong.

Back in London, Templer recommended a more permanent British involvement in the war, which led to the dispatch of Sir Robert Thompson's British Advisory Mission to Saigon from 1961 to 65. [17]

After writing Defeating Communist Insurgency in 1966, Thompson went into semi retirement. However, he was then engaged by the RAND Corporation as a consultant, and paid annual visits to Vietnam. After one of these, in 1968, he wrote a new book, No Exit from Vietnam, [18] which criticised the use of heavy firepower as ineffective - advocating political propaganda as well as military reprssion. Thompson continued to advise the Vietnamese and later the Americans right up until the American withdrawal in 1975. [19]

According to TIME magazine, Thompson 'was never influential with either John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson,' but Nixon 'embraced his views wholeheartedly—most likely because they coincide with his own.' [20] He visited Vietnam in 1969 and told TIME magazine that September: "The thing that surprised me more than anything else was the extent to which the government has regained control in the countryside. The V.C.'s population base has been eroded. The population is gradually losing confidence in the ability of the Viet Cong to win. It is coming in toward the government. The war isn't won, but we're in the kind of position from which we could win." [21]

Counterinsurgency Expert

An advert in The Times for Thompson's 1966 book Defeating Communist Insurgency , with a recommendation from Leonard Beaton [22]

Drawing on his experience in and reputation from Malaya and Vietnam, Thompson became a prominent counterinsurgency expert. According to The Times, Thompson 'was constantly embarrassed by being credited with a major share in winning [the Malayan Emergency]. He was always at pains to point out that he was at the time a very junior member of the staff of the men who did win it Briggs and Templer and under whom, he said, he learned the arts of counter-insurgency.' [23]

In 1966 Thompson published Defeating Communist Insurgency, a book which is considered one of the classic works of counterinsurgency literature. In the book Thompson outlined his five 'Basic Principles of Counter-Insurgency'. These are:

(1) the government must have a clear political aim
(2) the government must function according with law
(3) the government must have an overall plan
(4) the government must give priority to defeating political subversion
(5) and the government must secure its base areas first.

In 1970, shortly after completing his second book No Exit from Vietnam, Thompson became a founder member of the Institute for the Study of Conflict (ISC); a London based right-wing think-tank with links to the CIA and British intelligence. Thompson was reportedly involved in the group from the offset, and along with Fergus Ling became the group's chief fundraiser. [24]

Martin Walker reviewed Thompsons 1981 book on Vietnam as follows:

A RESURGENT conservatism in Britain and the US, fresh from monetarist triumphs in the economy, is turning its confident attention to foreign affairs. Its new theory about the Vietnam War, adopting a previously fashionable model for the French defeat in Algeria, states that the Vietcong were militarily defeated after the Tet offensive and that the check to the North Vietnamese invasion of 1972 showed that the war was still "winnable" with US air support... This book has all the competence and clarity of articles in a weekly news magazine yet remains as glib. The authors are drawn, over-whelmingly, from the teaching staff at Sandhurst and from that highly controversial body, the Institute for the Study of Conflict. [25]

Publications, links and Notes


  • Robert Thompson and Brigadier P. W. Mead Judgement on Major General O C Wingate, DSO, written on behalf of the Chindits Old Comrades Association in collaboration with (Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives) - Date unknown
  • Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist insurgency; the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York: F.A. Praeger, 1966)
  • Robert Thompson 'America fights the wrong war', The Spectator, 12 August 1966
  • Robert Thompson, 'Squaring the Error' in Foreign Affairs April 1968. (An issue with 4 articles on Vietnam the other three authors were by Roger Hilsman, Chester L. Cooper and Hamilton Fish Armstrong).
  • Robert Thompson and LT Gen Sir Brian Horrocks Famous Regiments: Royal Flying Corps, Hamish Hamilton; First Edition edition (1 Jan 1968)
  • Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, 1969
  • Interviewed by Frank Reynolds on ABC-TV December 17 1969
  • Robert Thompson, Revolutionary War in World Strategy, 1945–1969, Taplinger Publishing Co., 1970.
  • Robert Thompson, Sir Richard Catling, W.L.R. Carbonell, J.H. Hindmarsh, D.S. Palmer and Miss D.A. Keigwin (Secretary)Report on the National Police Republic of Vietnam, March 1971. Terms of Reference: 'We were invited by the Government of Vietnam, supported by the United States government... to exaine the problems of the National Police force... and to make recommendations' (p. 1)
  • Robert Thompson, Peace Is Not At Hand New York: David McKay, London: Chatto and Windus, 1974, ISBN 0-7011-2057-6
  • Robert Thompson 'Read Bases and Sanctuaries' in Lessons of Vietnam, editors Thompson, W. Scott and Donaldson D. Frizzell, Pub Taylor & Francis, Incorporated, 1977.
  • Robert Thompson (ed), War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare Since 1945,(consultant editor) 1981, ISBN 0-85613-341-8 by Sir Robert Thompson et al (Orbis, £9.95). Octopus Publishing Limited, London.[26]
  • Robert Thompson, Make for the Hills, an autobiography, London, Pen & Sword Books/Leo Cooper, 1989, ISBN 0-85052-761-9



  1. James Fellows, 'In Defense of an Offensive War', New York Times, 28 March 1982
  2. United Press International April 28, 1985, Sunday, BC cycle, SECTION: Domestic News
  3. John Ells, 'In the cockpit of people's war', Manchester Guardian Weekly, 31 May 1992
  4. ‘THOMPSON, Sir Robert Grainger Ker’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
  5. 'Sir Robert Thompson' The Times, 20 May 1992
  6. John Ellis, 'In the cockput of the people's war', Guardian, 21 May 1992
  7. 'Sir Robert Thompson' The Times, 20 May 1992
  8. ‘THOMPSON, Sir Robert Grainger Ker’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
  9. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) p.337
  10. Foreign Office to Washington, 26 October 1950, PRO, CO 717/203/52911, quoted in Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) p.336
  11. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) p.338
  12. Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) p.342
  13. p.223 cited in Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003) pp.340-431
  14. cited in Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses (London: Vintage, 2004). See also online extract'
  15. 'Sir Robert Thompson' The Times, 20 May 1992
  16. ‘THOMPSON, Sir Robert Grainger Ker’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
  17. Martin Walker, 'Books: A Brit who kidded the Americans they could win in Vietnam / Review of 'Templer, Tiger of Malaya' by John Cloake', Guardian, 15 August 1985
  18. 'Sir Robert Thompson' The Times, 20 May 1992
  19. John Ellis, 'In the cockpit of people's war', Guardian, 21 May 1992
  20. 'The President's Guerrilla Expert', TIME, 26 December 1969
  21. 'The President's Guerrilla Expert', TIME, 26 December 1969
  22. The Times Thursday, Apr 28, 1966; pg. 17; Issue 56617; col F
  23. 'Sir Robert Thompson' The Times, 20 May 1992
  24. The Times, Saturday, Dec 12, 1970; pg. 10; Issue 58046; col E
  25. Martin Walker, 'BOOKS: Vietnam victory; WAR IN PEACE, by Sir Robert Thompson et al (Orbis, £9.95)', Manchester Guardian Weekly, 18 October 1981; p.20
  26. Manchester Guardian Weekly, October 18, 1981 'Vietnam victory; WAR IN PEACE, by Sir Robert Thompson et al (Orbis, £9.95) by Martin Walker, SECTION: BOOKS; Pg. 20