The Landon Chronicles: Excerpts from a Lifetime of Adventures in Southeast Asia

Kenneth Landon’s graduation from Wheaton College, 1924

One of the richest artifacts in Special Collections is the 95 hours of oral history interviews with Kenneth and Margaret Landon, conducted over thirteen years by their youngest son, Kip (Kenneth). Gathered together as ‘The Landon Chronicles,’ the interviews provide rich detail and insight into the lives of these two amazing individuals.

Margaret Mortenson and Kenneth Landon met as undergraduate students at Wheaton College in the early 1920s. Kenneth graduated in 1924 and the two were engaged in September 1924 before his move to Princeton, where he pursued a Th.M. degree. Margaret graduated from Wheaton a year later in 1925 and taught school until their wedding in June 1926.

Listen to Kenneth’s story of his proposal to Margaret:

Margaret and Kenneth Landon, 1927

After marriage, Margaret and Kenneth prepared for the mission field with the Presbyterian Mission Board, traveling to southern Thailand in 1927. The Landons settled on a five to six acre compound in Trang, where their three eldest children, Margaret Schoeherr, Carol Pearson, and William, were born.

In Thailand, Margaret served as Headmistress of Anakul Satri Girl’s School, eventually taking charge of the school in 1930-31. During his time in Thailand, Kenneth traveled extensively as an evangelist, eventually planting six churches. Along with his church planting activities, Kenneth also pastored a local church in Trang.

Hear Margaret’s description of the couple’s move to Trang, Thailand:

While the family was on furlough from 1937 to 1938, Margaret and Kenneth decided that they would not return to Thailand, leaving nearly all of their household belongings and possessions in Thailand.

During this last furlough, Kenneth completed a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, finishing in one furious year his coursework, exams, and dissertation, which was later published as Siam in Transition: A Brief Survey of Cultural Trends in the Five Years since the Revolution of 1932. After his and Margaret’s resignation from missions and the completion of his degree, Kenneth began to look for work, preferably as a pastor. After much delay he was able to obtain a position teaching philosophy at Earlham College in Indiana in 1939.

Kenneth Landon at the State Department, ca. 1950s

It was during his time at Earlham, in the summer of 1941, that Kenneth received a call from Col. William Donovan. As the Second World War raged in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to know what the Japanese were doing in Indochina. Donovan, who was Roosevelt’s Coordinator of Information, and who was later to become head of the newly-founded OSS (which later became the CIA), sought the help of major universities in the quest for a Southeast Asia expert. Since at the time there was little cultural and scholarly interest in Southeast Asia, there were few options. In fact, everyone referenced one person: Kenneth Landon. Initially, Kenneth was not interested in becoming permanently involved because he enjoyed teaching at Earlham, but he eventually agreed to help, and by early September 1941, Landon was in Roosevelt’s office with his research.

Listen to Kenneth’s explanation of the early reports he prepared for Col. Donovan and President Roosevelt:

Kenneth Landon and Vietnam President Ngo Diem, 1960

Landon kept an office in the Library of Congress, where he enlisted the help of Shio Sakanishi, a Tokyo-born Japanese expert working in the Division of Orientalia, and Dr. Horace Poleman, head of the India section of the Library of Congress.

On the evening of the 6th of December, these three–Landon, Poleman, and Sakanishi–with a dozen or so others, including Margaret, met for a party at Sakanishi’s apartment near the Japanese embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in D.C. They noticed, as they had before, smoke curling up from the building. Papers were being destroyed.

Something was up. The party ended around midnight, and within hours, the Japanese began their attack on Pearl Harbor. Here were Landon and Margaret on the threshold of “a date which will live in infamy.”

Listen to Kenneth and Margaret tell the story of the memorable party:

In 1954, Kenneth left the State Department and moved to the White House staff of Dwight D. Eisenhower, working for the Operations Coordinating Board of the National Security Council on policy implementation. Over the next ten years, Kenneth made numerous trips to Southeast Asia, meeting with officials and ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. In 1961, as concerns over communism and insurgency movements around the world increased, President John F. Kennedy established a government seminar for training in counter-insurgency. Attended by ambassadors, generals, and other high officials, the seminar became informally known as the ‘Country Team Seminar,’ and with his knowledge of Southeast Asia, Kenneth was a regular lecturer.

Hear Kenneth Landon describe some of his work for the Operations Coordinating Board:

Listen to Kenneth’s description of a tour to Saigon, Vietnam in 1956:

In 1965, Kenneth retired from the State Department with its highest honor and became the director of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at American University. He continued to teach there until his retirement in 1974.

Explore more of Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections’ holdings on the Landons’ time as missionaries in Thailand, Kenneth Landon’s work, travel, and research with the State Department, and Margaret Landon’s writing and publication of Anna and the King of Siam through the finding aid for SC-038: Margaret and Kenneth P. Landon Papers.

The collection also includes Kenneth and Margaret Landon’s extensive library on the history, culture, art, and literature of Southeast Asia. Browse their book and journal collection on the Buswell Library catalog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s