Kenneth and Margaret Landon were an extraordinary couple. They were college sweethearts who married in 1926 and set off for Siam in 1927 as Presbyterian missionaries. After a year in Bangkok learning Thai, they moved to the southern province of Trang where they ran a Christian school for a decade before returning to the United States. Kenneth Landon studied for a PhD at the University of Chicago, and in 1939 published a book on Thailand: Siam in Transition: A Brief Survey of Cultural Trends in the Five Years since the Revolution of 1932.
In 1941, with the threat of war with Japan looming, Kenneth Landon was hired by Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan as a Southeast Asia expert for a new U.S. intelligence agency, the Office of Co-ordinator of Information, later to become the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and later still the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1943 he joined the State Department as political desk officer for Thailand, later becoming assistant chief of the Southeast Asia Division.
During their years in Siam, Margaret Landon had become fascinated by the life of Anna Leonowens, a woman of British and Indian descent who had been a tutor to the many wives and children of Mongkut, King Rama IV, in the 1860s. She published a semi-fictionalized account of Leonowens’ time in Bangkok, Anna and the King of Siam, in 1944. It was to become a sensation, selling more than a million copies around the world, and was adapted into a famous musical, The King and I, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. A 1956 film of the musical also became a global hit.
When World War II ended, Kenneth Landon was sent to Southeast Asia to join tense negotiations with the Thais and British over the postwar status of Siam. He spent months in the region, from late 1945 until mid-1946, and met most of Thailand’s key political leaders, plus the 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, recently returned from Switzerland. With excellent contacts and fluency in the language, Landon was to remain the primary State Department point-man for Thailand for years, working from his desk in Washington and making several trips to Southeast Asia. As Daniel Fineman observes in his book A Special Relationship: The United States and Military Government in Thailand, Landon “remained the department’s premier Thai specialist into the early 1950s”. Professor Clark Neher has described Landon as “the fulcrum figure in Thai-American relations in the late 1940s”.
In 1976, Kenneth and Margaret’s 50th wedding anniversary, their fourth child Kenneth “Kip” Landon Jr proposed recording an oral family history dictated by his parents. The marriage was a fractious one, and the project dragged on in fits and starts for 13 years until 1989, with long gaps due to family rows, according to Kip. Ninety hours of reminiscences by Kenneth and Margaret were recorded, and the recordings have been digitized and made available online by Wheaton College in Illinois, as “The Landon Chronicles”. They are a fascinating — and so far, highly underutilized — resource for anyone interested in Thailand’s history in the 1940s and 1950s.
The most remarkable piece of testimony comes in hour 70 of the Landon Chronicles in a clip with the innocuous title “Kenneth on partying in Bangkok”. Landon describes the Bangkok social scene in 1945/46, recounts a meeting (and dance) with a young Sirikit Kitiyakara, and discusses the circumstances of how King Bhumibol Adulyadej met and married Sirikit, much to the chagrin of Prince Dhani who was hoping his own daughter would become queen. Most importantly, Landon discusses the fatal shooting of King Ananda Mahidol in June 1946 and shares the identity of his killer: he was “killed by his brother, either intentionally or accidentally, by the gun the OSS guy had given them to play with.”
In another intriguing clip in hour 69, Landon describes meeting King Ananda, and recounts how Rama VIII “stumbled and stumbled like a schoolboy” trying to read a speech in Thai. Landon also describes how Alexander MacDonald — an OSS agent who later founded the Bangkok Post — gave Ananda the Colt .45 Automatic pistol that he was later killed with.
Here is Kenneth in hour 76 on his first meeting with General Sarit Thanarat, in Bangkok in 1950.
In hour 80, Kenneth and Margaret describe Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat coming to dinner at their house in Washington in 1958 and gorging on turkey with wild rice stuffing. Sarit, apparently, was amazed to see an opossum and some chipmunks:
This clip from hour 63 records Margaret and Kenneth talking about Prince Damrong and the 1932 revolution:
In hour 78, Margaret and Kenneth discuss the immediate success of Anna and the King of Siam after its publication in 1944 — and complain that the Thai publishers never paid for the book rights: