James C. Thomson, former Nieman Foundation curator, East-Asia historian, and key figure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died Aug. 11, at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, of cardiac arrest after a brief illness. He was 70.
As a member of the State Department under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Thomson was known for his early and unwavering opposition to the Vietnam War and his advocacy for U.S. reconciliation with Communist China at a time when such views were considered dangerously radical.
But it was his work with Nieman Fellows at Harvard from 1972 to 1984 that was “absolutely the high point of his working life,” said his stepdaughter, Anne Butler.
During his 12 years as curator of the Nieman Foundation, which awards yearlong fellowships at Harvard for midcareer journalists, Thomson broadened the program to include more minorities, women, and journalists from small news organizations and broadcasting.
Thomson held foreign policy roles in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff in the 1960s during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1968, after leaving government, his article “How Could Vietnam Happen?,” published in The Atlantic Monthly, was regarded as a searing insider’s indictment of policy-making gone awry.
In 1948, before his freshman year at Yale, Thomson spent a year in China (a country he knew from his childhood). The visit coincided with the climax of the Chinese civil war and the Communist victory. Thomson was convinced that America’s security interests required engaging the new regime.
Thomson was valedictorian of his class at the Lawrenceville School and received his B.A. from Yale, where he was chairman of the Yale Daily News. He also received degrees from Cambridge University.
His itch for political involvement caused Thomson to interrupt his graduate studies of modern Chinese history at Harvard to assist Adlai Stevenson in his second run for the presidency in 1956.
Thomson returned to Harvard to finish his doctoral studies and then joined the staff of Rep. Chester Bowles, who had become John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser for the 1960 presidential campaign and whom Thomson considered his greatest mentor. With Kennedy’s victory, Thomson moved to the State Department, where he was assigned to the Far Eastern Bureau.
Thomson taught at Harvard from 1967 to 1972, when he became curator of the Nieman Foundation. Thomson was given the assignment, he said, largely because of his prolific writings of op-ed and magazine pieces on public affairs and foreign policy.
His wife, Diana, whom he had married in 1959, was a critic and poet who taught writing at Harvard. Mrs. Thomson died in 2001.
Following his resignation as curator in 1984, Thomson returned to teaching, becoming a professor of international relations, history, and journalism at Boston University. He retired in 1997.
Thomson is the author of “While China Faced West: American Reformers in Nationalist China,” published in 1969, and co-author of “Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia” in 1981.
He is survived by two stepchildren, Anne Butler of Brookline and Lawrence D. Butler of Ashland, Mass.; two sisters, Nancy Waller of Cherry Valley, N.Y., and Sydney Thomson Brown of Palo Alto, Calif.; and four step-grandchildren.
A service at the Memorial Church is being planned for September.