As king, Bhumipol played a critical role in shaping modern Thailand, earning an early reputation as a supporter of U.S. and Western Cold War policies in the region. Although his powers were largely ceremonial, the king nonetheless wielded considerable political influence during the Cold War. Profound reverence for the king combined with the Buddhist faith unified Thailand and insulated it from the convulsive nationalism and revolutions that engulfed other Southeast Asian nations. The Thai Army portrayed itself as the defender of traditional Thai culture, protecting it from communist expansion in the region. This rationale helped justify Thai military authoritarianism and a close relationship with the United States, which used Thailand as a major base for operations during the Vietnam War.
King Bhumipol in many ways symbolized the durability of U.S.-Thai relations. He had lived and traveled extensively in the United States and was even an accomplished jazz musician, playing saxophone with many famous American artists. Moreover, he supported the American efforts in Indochina, which endeared him to U.S. policymakers.
Yet Bhumipol was no puppet. The staged American withdrawal from Southeast Asia that began in 1973 precipitated revolution in Thailand. In October 1973 Thai demands for an end to military rule exploded in violence. When the army and the police began using brutal force against demonstrators, the king publicly intervened to stop them. Top military officials were forced to flee the country, and a civilian government came to power. The military returned to govern, however, following another revolution in 1976 and remained behind the scenes of nominally civilian governments throughout the 1980s. When army generals seized power for themselves in the spring of 1992, King Bhumipol again intervened, putting an end to the power struggle and heartily endorsing civilian rule.
Over the course of the Cold War Bhumipol also demonstrated a genuine commitment to improving the welfare of his people by introducing reforms dealing with agriculture, the environment, health care, and education. He still commands the genuine love and respect of the Thai people and remains the symbol of Thai national unity.
Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.