Nakhon Phanom: The Domino That Did Not Fall (and my Thai hometown)
James I. Jouppi (Thailand 1971–73)
Liberty Hill Publishing, 2021
$30.99 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle), $8.66 (hardcover)
Review by D.W. Jefferson
If you want to learn about the Peace Corps in Thailand and in particular about the period of the early 1970s this is an extensively researched memoir you will find useful. An engineer, the author, has an engineer’s eye for detail. Myself, I was surprised to find that Peace Corps remained in Thailand throughout the Vietnam War period. Mr. Jouppi’s book is 411 pages, 79 chapters, maps, a glossary of terms, a list of acronyms, an appendix, a bibliography and 128 endnotes. To fully appreciate how well researched the book is, I recommend reading the endnotes!
This is the fourth book this author has written and the third memoir of his experiences in Thailand. His first was A Journey to Nakorn Panome, which was never published. He did send a copy of it to a Hollywood screen writer. A copy of the book now resides in the Peace Corps archive at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. He then wrote The Original Unauthorized Upcountry Without a Paddle Peace Corps Survival Manual that received a nice review in the February, 1992 issue of Whole Earth Review. The third book, a memoir like the current volume, was War of Hearts and Minds: An American Memoir, published by iUniverse in 2011.
Jouppi writes about his Peace Corps tour as a civil engineer assigned to the Community Development Corporation Thailand, and what happened to his life as a result. For those unfamiliar with Thailand and/or Peace Corps, Jouppi has provided maps and identifies key sites mentioned in the book. Jouppi intersperses an historic timeline of public events throughout his narrative.
The Country Director in Thailand during Jouppi’s service was former astronaut Donn Eisele. Eisele had, evidently, no discernible experience with Thailand or economic development in the Third World or anywhere else.
Jouppi describes his Peace Corps work, or at times, his lack of work. This recounting is historically most important because of the descriptions of the subculture of Volunteers, American airmen based in Thailand, bargirls and the many faceted US aid missions in country. He gives a good account of “new directions” as Peace Corps Volunteers attempted to work within the bureaucratic structure of Community Development Corporation Thailand. I was struck by the apparent lack of support from Peace Corps/Thailand.
Mid-tour or so, Jouppi falls in love with a Thai woman, Noy. He extends for a year, but frustrated with his inability to secure meaningful work, terminates early. Jouppi returns to the States to find a job with the intent of bringing his fiancé, Noy, to the United States. This never works out, though Jouppi did finally marry a Thai woman named Phoorita.
He includes a plan for a post-pandemic Peace Corps with enhanced language training and other pre-training. I highly recommend this memoir to anyone with an interest in Peace Corps, Thailand, or the era of the Vietnam War.
D.W. Jefferson was a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer in El Salvador (1974-76) and Costa Rica (1976-77). A blog about his Peace Corps years is here. He is currently retired from a career in computer software engineering.