The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

In chronicling the adventurous life of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken definitively reframes our understanding of the Vietnam War.In this epic biography of Edward Lansdale (1908– 1987), the man said to be the fictional model for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, best-selling historian Max Boot demonstrates how Lansdale pioneered a “hearts and...

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Title:The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
Author:Max Boot
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Edition Language:English

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam Reviews

  • Steven Z.

    The popularity of the new film, “The Post” has refocused the attention of many people on the PENTAGON PAPERS and the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the history of the war commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the New York Times created a crisis atmosphere that was settled by the Supreme Court. In his latest book, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM, Max Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations

    The popularity of the new film, “The Post” has refocused the attention of many people on the PENTAGON PAPERS and the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the history of the war commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the New York Times created a crisis atmosphere that was settled by the Supreme Court. In his latest book, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM, Max Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, revisits the war and the life of one of the most interesting figures associated with it. Lansdale, a former advertising executive who strongly believed in capitalism and American democracy. He would join the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, become an advisor and intelligence officer in the Philippines and South Vietnam, and possessed a vision of how to deal with communist advances during the Cold War. His realpolitik rested on winning the loyalty of indigenous people through honesty, respect, and a willingness to work with and treat people with humanity. Boot has written a superb biography of Lansdale who hoped to win the “hearts and minds” of people as opposed to acting as a typical colonial oppressor.

    Lansdale first made his reputation in the Philippines as he advised the Philippine army in defeating the Hukbalahap (Huk) Rebellion against then President Elpidio Quirino. Lansdale’s work in the Philippines was a petri dish for his strategies, reputation, concept of nation-building, and counter-insurgency. Working with the Secretary of National Defense, Ramon Magsaysay he was able to achieve one of the few American successes in nation-building after World War II as he orchestrated his rise to the presidency in 1953. The problem for Lansdale was that he was unable to transfer the strategy and techniques that worked in the Philippines to Vietnam.

    Boot begins his narrative with a discussion of Lansdale’s life and career before he was dispatched to the Philippines. After spending roughly a quarter of the monograph on Lansdale’s counter-insurgency education in the Philippines, Boot moves on to his initial exposure to Vietnam and his early relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem. As Boot proceeds he provides a detailed discussion of French colonialism until their disaster at Dienbienphu, and a short biography of Ho Chi Minh and his rise to leadership in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

    Boot’s overriding theme is that had American policy makers, including presidents, cabinet members, bureaucrats, and other policy makers listened to Lansdale’s advice the course of the Vietnam War might have been different. He does not say that North Vietnam would have been defeated, however the way the United States conducted the war would have been different and at least civilian deaths and American casualties would have been lessened a great deal, and perhaps the United States’ ignominious departure would not have taken place as it did. For Boot the key was the removal and assassination of Diem from power in 1963 as there was no one who could take his place and what resulted was a series of coups by generals who had no political support outside of the military. Diem may not have been the best of leaders, but at least he kept the Saigon government somewhat unified for almost a decade. Boot’s thesis is sound and it is well supported through analysis and his access to materials that previous biographers did not have available.

    Lansdale’s view of nation-building can best be summed up in the advice he offered Diem in June, 1954 when he stressed the need to bring the nationalist political parties in an anti-communist coalition, create public forums around the countryside where government representatives could hear from people, and immediately adopt a Philippine style constitution among many suggestions. For Lansdale psy-ops, methods of mental and emotional manipulation and soft propaganda were the key to success, not bombing people back to the Stone Age. Lansdale would take the time to learn about the countries he was assigned to and prepare in depth original analysis that were incomparable. He argued that insurgencies arose from chaotic, impoverished conditions, and any success would only result from meeting the needs of the people by creating functioning state institutions. Washington’s decision to withdraw Lansdale from Saigon in late 1956 and failing to replace him with someone who could have at least a benign influence on Diem was a major error.

    Lansdale was a complex individual who may have been the model for characters in two Graham Greene novels, THE UGLY AMERICAN and THE QUIET AMERICAN. Boot examines Lansdale’s character and private life in detail as he had access to recently opened government files, letters, and diaries from Lansdale’s children, in addition to the correspondence with Patrocinio Yapeinco Kelly (Pat Kelly), who was his mistress in the Philippines, and years later became his second wife. Boot describes his relationship with many of the important historical figures of the period. An important aspect is how Lansdale’s personality was an asset to his work throughout the 1950s, but once the Kennedy administration came to power his influence waned, especially since he and Robert McNamara did not see eye to eye. Lansdale may have had the ability to get foreign leaders on his side, but he was not very effective in dealing with the bureaucracies in Washington who ignored his advice and pursued their own agendas. It seems that only Lansdale had the skill and relationship with Diem to get him to reform. Instead of appointing Lansdale as ambassador to South Vietnam, President Kennedy made him assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

    Boot carries his analysis further as he explains how Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 did not go as well as he had hoped. During the Johnson administration he would once again be marginalized and would leave Saigon as a “beaten man.” Once again resentment from his many critics and his inability to work with people outside of his circle did him in.

    Boot does an effective job introducing the major characters Lansdale had to deal with. Each character from Alan Dulles, Ngueyen Cao Key, Ramon Magsaysay, Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to numerous others is presented through a short biography that is integrated into the narrative for the reader. Boot is an excellent writer and has uncovered a great deal of new information. Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book entitled “Waiting for the Second Coming,” explores Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam and how Lansdale became irrelevant. It is a shame because by 1966 “Lansdale was generally far more realistic in his assessment of the situation than Westmoreland, Lodge, and other senior officials. And less prone to trumpeting illusionary progress.” (500) There are many other important chapters in the book including one dealing with Operation Mongoose, headed by Lansdale designed to eliminate Fidel Castro once he came to power in Cuba; material that highlighted Lansdale’s testimony in the Senate hearings into the CIA in the mid-1970s; in addition to a discussion of Lansdale’s relationship with Daniel Ellsberg.

    What makes Boot’s contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War important is his examination of events, personalities, and strategies through the world view of someone, who with hindsight, turned out to be quite accurate in his predictions. Lansdale lived a fascinating life and his impact can still be seen in American counter-insurgency doctrine as applied in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lansdale was a believer in “soft power,” not the “Westmoreland approach” as Philip Caputo puts in his memoir, A RUMOR OF WAR, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible. Stack ‘em like cordwood.” (475)

  • Chad Manske

    An exceptional and fresh look at Vietnam (and the Philippine) wars through the prism of Maj Gen (ret) Ed Landsdale’s life. I served at CFR with Max Boot while a military fellow, and though I am not always a fan of his commentary, he is undeniably a thorough, compelling and extremely credible researcher and book author. Readers are treated to recently released and declassified documents, letters and other source material into a compelling historical narrative with a surprising love story wrapped

    An exceptional and fresh look at Vietnam (and the Philippine) wars through the prism of Maj Gen (ret) Ed Landsdale’s life. I served at CFR with Max Boot while a military fellow, and though I am not always a fan of his commentary, he is undeniably a thorough, compelling and extremely credible researcher and book author. Readers are treated to recently released and declassified documents, letters and other source material into a compelling historical narrative with a surprising love story wrapped in the middle—uncommon for Boot. As always, Boot leaves the reader to examine the arguments and logic to personally decide and debate the issues herein. A fantastic piece of scholarship!

  • David C Ward

    Quite good. A biography of the legendary counter insurgent Lansdale that is also a history and critique of American foreign policy. Could the war in Vietnam have ended differently if Lansdale had had a more central role, and hearts and minds emphasized over big unit military ops? Maybe but Lansdale was defeated not just by being a lone voice in the bureaucracy (which stifled him) but also by the forces on the ground. The political instability after the coup against Diem (the key turning point),

    Quite good. A biography of the legendary counter insurgent Lansdale that is also a history and critique of American foreign policy. Could the war in Vietnam have ended differently if Lansdale had had a more central role, and hearts and minds emphasized over big unit military ops? Maybe but Lansdale was defeated not just by being a lone voice in the bureaucracy (which stifled him) but also by the forces on the ground. The political instability after the coup against Diem (the key turning point), the corruption of ARVN leadership, the morale and fighting power of the north are all structural problems that even one man could not overcome - however appealing the thought is. Boot's title is from the Frost poem whose sense is that it is up to us to make a choice when roads diverge. It's our commitment that makes all the difference. That the US made its choice without listening to people like Lansdale, whose basic humanity and decency in an indecent time shines through, is a deafness that continues to this day.

  • Randy

    Any Goodreads member knows something about Ed Lansdale as he is thought by many to be the model for Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” (not true), Colonel Hillandale in “The Ugly American” (probably true) and even the inspiration for General Y in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” This is a terrific biography which spends a lot of time connecting the dots and providing context for what has to be seen as an amazing life. In the same way that one can ask, “How might our country been different if Lincoln hadn’t b

    Any Goodreads member knows something about Ed Lansdale as he is thought by many to be the model for Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” (not true), Colonel Hillandale in “The Ugly American” (probably true) and even the inspiration for General Y in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” This is a terrific biography which spends a lot of time connecting the dots and providing context for what has to be seen as an amazing life. In the same way that one can ask, “How might our country been different if Lincoln hadn’t been shot? (just watched the old Spielberg film Lincoln last night), one could ask, “How might the Vietnam situation been different had Lansdale’s philosophy and methods been adopted rather than shunted aside?”

    Lansdale had this incredible talent. It was simple. He liked Asians, respected them and was able to establish friendships and trust. He made his reputation as friend and advisor to President Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines at the end of WWII. He guided Magsaysay to the Presidency and advised him successfully on how to defeat the HUK guerrillas. In the mid-fifties he was posted to Vietnam and, as with Magsaysay, became friend and advisor to President Diem who was later overthrown by the CIA which turned out to be a huge mistake.

    This is an objective but admiring look at a complex life of a man who is a legend in intelligence circles. He was an Air Force officer who role to the rank of major general, a significant feat in the Air Force by an officer without wings or an Academy degree. As a history it is a tour de force which covers geopolitics from the end of WWII through the Nixon administration with a vast list of familiar characters like Daniel Ellsberg who was on Lansdale’s team when Lansdale returned to Vietnam in 1965. Lansdale was the “hearts and minds” guy, a man who understood that people would not rebel against a government they believed in. He understood counter insurgency and the use of special forces. He argued against a military buildup.

    Unfortunately, his ideas could not gain traction in a system run by former WWII officers, number crunchers like Defense Secretary McNamara and idiot generals like Westmoreland who gravitated toward their comfort zone—firepower.

    This book proves that history is a series of accidents and it is the rare situation where the great man is in the right place at the right time to gain and keep the power to affect decision making. Lansdale had it early on but it slipped away.

    It's long, it's detailed, it's personal (much on his affair with the Filipina Pat Kelly who he married 26 years after the beginning of the relationship) and well-written. If you want to gain a new understanding of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call "The American War") this is the book. I came away liking Lansdale a lot and, personally, enjoyed the connections I shared with the General. Both Air Force officers. He was an instructor at the Joint Forces Air Intelligence School which I attended (post Lansdale), he lived at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for awhile as did I, and he arrived for his second tour in S. Vietnam a couple months before I showed up (as a 2nd Lt) in 1965. His was a name I was vaguely aware of. I probably learned of him originally at COIN (Counterinsurgency) school at Hulbert Field, FL.

    As good as Lansdale was in making friends and establishing relationship with Asian leaders he couldn't translate that talent into forging sound relationships with his own superiors in the defense establishment. He was considered an outlier, a guy who thought up goofy ideas and, sadly, his ideas where marginalized and discounted.

    It's ultimately a tragic but entertaining and extremely enlightening story of a unique American.

  • Marks54

    This is a clever and interesting book. I also understand what the author is trying to accomplish by structuring this biography around the “what if” questions around how the Vietnam war might have developed had Landsdale been granted more influence. The policy questions around Landsdale’s approach to what become COIN warfare make this biography of someone who passed away in 1987 important in a world of perpetual war in Afghanistan and Iraq and potentially other places.

    The central premise on which

    This is a clever and interesting book. I also understand what the author is trying to accomplish by structuring this biography around the “what if” questions around how the Vietnam war might have developed had Landsdale been granted more influence. The policy questions around Landsdale’s approach to what become COIN warfare make this biography of someone who passed away in 1987 important in a world of perpetual war in Afghanistan and Iraq and potentially other places.

    The central premise on which the book begins is far from persuasive, however. Could paying more serious attention to Landsdale in late 1963 or afterwards have really changed the course of the Vietnam War? Max Boot is a wonderful scholar and a critical thinker. His own extended story of Landsdale provides many reasons to wonder how serious his premise is. As a suggestive and stylistic tactic, it turns a long biography into a policy case study. Looking more carefully, it is not clear to me how far this “what if” history should be taken.

    To start with, it is easy to see the lure of an alternative future for the Vietnam War. It is difficult to see how the war could have turned out worse than it did, short of escalation into the nuclear realm. So given the lousy outcomes, it is reasonable to ask about what mistakes were made and how they could have been avoided and better results obtained. So far, so good.

    Now to the alternate futures ... It is relative easy for an individual to imagine the outlines of an alternate future for a given situation. Missed your plane at the airport? Leave earlier and it would not have happened, right? Everybody does this from time to time, but is it really helpful? The problem is that the past is past and the replay is not feasible. More to the heart of the problem, if the past could be changed, it is not logical to think that one’s contingency of interest would be all that would change while everything else stayed the same. Lots of details would change and it is unclear what the accurate replay would look like. There are time travel films about this (Butterfly Effect) and the psychologists even have a name - the simulation heuristic - around which some research has been developing.

    But to get into the details more, the are specific issues with Landsdale. To start with, most of his successes seemed to stem from his personal capabilities in working with and becoming friends with national leaders such as Magsaysay in the Philippines or Diem in Vietnam. Neither Landsdale nor the leaders he worked with seemed much interesting in building lasting institutions that transcended personal rule. Landsdale’s success in the Philippines did not last long beyond Magsaysay’s death and the succession of leaders eventually lead to Ferdinand Marcos. The prospect of one individual, even with all of the capabilities that Landsdale brought to his work, changing an endeavor as vast as the Vietnam War is a bit of a stretch.

    Just going with Boot’s story, there was an earlier trial of the 1963 coup in Diem’s war against the sects in 1955, with Landsdale advising him. Diem stayed in power and was not replaced by a more corrupt junta, as happened in 1963. But then what happened? The insurgency did not go away but was moderated by Diem’s repression and Vietnam experience a quiet stretch until the war heated up again after 1960. Going from prior history, this suggests that if Landsdale’s advice was taken in 1963 and the coup not promoted by the US, the war may have been drawn out a bit longer but it is not at all clear how the eventual outcome would have been different. The situation deteriorated more rapidly after the coup and the US directly intervened in 1965 rather than later, but I do not see what Boot provides a basis for the fundamental story turning out differently. Boot acknowledges this towards the end of the book in assessing Landsdale’s legacy.

    These limitations were also apparent in the applications of COIN in Iraq in the “surge” of 2006, which Boot notes had a limited positive effect on the outcome of the war. There is a fundamental problem in a COIN war that Boot does not discuss. Promoting a regime that gains the support of the people and that the people see as worth fighting for does not mean that the home government will support US policy or choose to maintain itself as a US ally. It is possible for a free and legitimate government to choose contrary to US policy interests. Given the way the Diem developed as a national leader over his nine years in power, it is not clear that his long term course would have been consonant with US policy interest under the best of conditions, making it unclear where “the road not taken” might have eventually led.

    Boot clearly likes the subject of his story and there is much to like about Landsdale. The book is valuable in clarifying what Landsdale was all about and how his legacy has been distorted. Having said that, there are some aspects to Landsdale that Boot appears to admire that might have impaired his effectiveness and his legacy. In particular, Boot sees Landsdale as a maverick of sorts and a confirmed anti-bureaucrat who fought against the military and political establishment and refused to compromise his values in trying to influence policy. Fair enough, but in Washington of the late 1950s and early 1960s, being a maverick seemed a foolproof way of guaranteeing that one would be ineffective and leave only a limited legacy. It that suits ones values so be it, but how effective can somebody be when they actively work to avoid getting their ideas adopted by the government actors who must actually implement anything. If one is looking at legacy and results, it is not clear to be how being an active foe of the bureaucracy is a valued capability.

    This is a solid biography that prompts thinking on the current situation and the prospects for COIN strategies in Asia and Africa. Max Boot has done a good job at telling the story of Edward Landsdale. Vietnam is not the same as Iraq, however, although Landsdale’s story is still valuable today.

  • Mike

    I’m not a fan of Max Boot the commentator but I shouldn’t let that affect my view on his book. Giving it

    , maybe a little generous but it is worth your time to learn more about Lansdale and his impact on the Philippines and Vietnam. I was going to write more of a review but I don’t really think Max Boot is worth time better spent reading something else.

  • Joyce

    More Vietnam War-related reading. This time, a sprawling biography of CIA operative Edward Lansdale, a "creative and unpredictable maverick" and "expert in counterinsurgency." His career started in WWII but he gained fame afterward for his work in the Philippines, where he developed the philosophy of winning the hearts and minds of the people, not overwhelming them with military power and troops. He advocated that policy in Vietnam but was ignored; Ho Chi Minh followed it with better results tha

    More Vietnam War-related reading. This time, a sprawling biography of CIA operative Edward Lansdale, a "creative and unpredictable maverick" and "expert in counterinsurgency." His career started in WWII but he gained fame afterward for his work in the Philippines, where he developed the philosophy of winning the hearts and minds of the people, not overwhelming them with military power and troops. He advocated that policy in Vietnam but was ignored; Ho Chi Minh followed it with better results than the US policy achieved. Though certainly not an ideal husband, Lansdale was a man of great charisma but also one often at odds with his superiors, a maverick who keep his covert work from his supervisors as often as from foreign governments. Lots and lots of details--biographical on Lansdale and other important figures of the time as well as historical details from mid-20th century on--mean that the book doesn't speed along, but the details are intriguing and the pace never lags. Well-researched based on interviews and "never before seen documents." Interesting reading, excellently narrated by Henry Strozier.

  • Jud Barry

    This is what might be called a situational biography of Edward Lansdale, an influential actor in American foreign policy -- primarily in the Philippines and Vietnam -- in the 1950's and the 1960's. "The road not taken" refers to Lansdale's favored policy path, which he referred to as "civic action," and which involved supporting efforts by native politicians to shore up democratic practices and infrastructure as the best hedges against insurrection and communism. The road taken was of course the

    This is what might be called a situational biography of Edward Lansdale, an influential actor in American foreign policy -- primarily in the Philippines and Vietnam -- in the 1950's and the 1960's. "The road not taken" refers to Lansdale's favored policy path, which he referred to as "civic action," and which involved supporting efforts by native politicians to shore up democratic practices and infrastructure as the best hedges against insurrection and communism. The road taken was of course the ultimately disastrous one of seeing a small foreign country in turmoil only as a battlefield to be won by force of arms.

    I say "actor" because Lansdale is difficult to pigeonhole in a meaningful way. Technically -- ultimately -- an Air Force major general, he was no pilot; the assignment to the Air Force appears to have been almost an act of Pentagon whimsy. Mustered into the World War II effort, he had experience as an advertising man that qualified him for the "psy-ops" of the OSS and for its successor, the CIA. But he was not a stereotypical spook either, even though the pages of the book are littered with cloak-and-dagger bombardier colleagues who were. Lansdale neither believed in nor practiced the standard practice of paying or blackmailing foreigners to spy on their own countries. He believed in forming bonds based on mutual trust and "the awakening of unselfish patriotism on ideals or principles we ourselves cherish." Nor was he a typical foreign service officer of the bureaucratic type, yet a more effective diplomat may never have existed in the annals of American foreign policy. His personal approach accomplished real successes in stabilizing Filipino democracy in the early 50's, but in the face of bureaucratic opposition among fellow Americans met with only limited, temporary success in Vietnam.

    Author Boot (a military historian with other books on guerrilla warfare and the technology of war) presents an even-handed account of Lansdale, who was something of a celebrity in his day as an advisor to Presidents, an influential author of think-pieces in such policy pubs as

    , and perhaps most characteristically as the model, at least in part, of the fictionally enshrined "ugly American" and "quiet American." There is plenty of contemporary criticism of Lansdale, mostly from the military and foreign service establishment, who saw his cultural-friendly activities and methods (Lansdale compiled a study of Vietnamese folk songs) as both bizarre and naive. Boot himself -- who excels at providing essential context for the book's large cast of characters that includes JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Daniel Ellsberg, not to mention numerous Filipino and Vietnamese leaders central to the story -- occasionally evaluates Lansdale's notions and does not pull punches, e.g. calling Lansdale "delusional" at one point.

    But Lansdale emerges as a hugely sympathetic character. One aspect of Lansdale's positive image is his practical belief in democracy, which formed the foundation for his signature "civic action" policy. This is tellingly contrasted with the shocking cynicism among Americans at the highest reaches of political power and influence. Working to engineer honest, clean elections at the national level for Vietnam (and, against the odds, largely succeeding), Lansdale triggered a "lengthy diatribe" by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge -- a Republican who had been Nixon's running mate in the 1960 presidential election, yet who had been appointed ambassador by Democrat JFK -- "about how he and Lyndon Johnson had spent most of their lives rigging elections." According to Lodge's aides, he wanted only the "appearance of a democracy," Lansdale wanted the real thing.

    Mostly though the positive image of Lansdale that emerges from this book has to do with his advocacy of "humanity" as the basis for policy and personal behavior. He sympathized with and related well to the peasants in the countryside of the Philippines and Vietnam. His lack of language skills was no barrier; body and sign language were apparently enough to convey a bond knotted in common humanity (although the invaluable assistance of linguists is also part of the story). His core principles, as outlined by Boot, were "learn, like, and listen;" the book is a chronicle of his indefatigable efforts to acquire the best kind of "intelligence" and of his application of loyal friendship to every level of personal contact. His advice, late in his career in Vietnam, to incoming US war leader Creighton Abrams about how best to work with the Vietnamese leaders is an example: "Be a human being. … It's about time we got this thing on the basis of humans talking to each other."

    The wisdom of Lansdale's approach is sharply contrasted with the fleshless, numbers-driven approach that ruled the American military-diplomatic roost in Vietnam, best represented by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Called into McNamara's office in 1962 and presented with a list of "factors" that could help "computerize" (Lansdale's word) the war, Lansdale told McNamara he had left out the most important one: the "X" factor, which was "what the people out on the battlefield really feel." McNamara didn't get it; after Lansdale persisted in suggesting ways to gather that information, he told Lansdale not to bother him anymore.

    [I was re-acquainted with a favorite anecdote of mine about McNamara: trying to speak in support of a short-lived Vietnamese president suspected of being a US puppet, McNamara used Vietnamese words meaning "Vietnam 10,000 years," but his garbled pronunciation rendered it, "Ruptured duck wants to lie down."]

    The final, positive judgment of Lansdale is that his ideals made him in some sense a prophet. (The word "Cassandra" had already sprung to my mind by the time Boot uses it.) In 1957 he knew that the US military was too dependent on "mechanical means of warfare," even when it was engaged in unconventional war. His advice at the time was for military personnel to "make friends among the people." While his advice had some effect in the development of training for special forces, it was more generally ignored. In 1958 he said, "We don't want to be like the French," who had millions of dollars worth of modern weaponry, ample bravery, and numbers, but who were "licked by a local army wearing tennis shoes and pajamas." He argued against building up a huge American military presence and against bombing North Vietnam. He argued in favor of rules of engagement by the South Vietnamese military -- who would be doing the fighting rather than Americans -- that would protect non-combatants. Boot comments ruefully, "The US military would not recognize the utility of such restrictive rules of engagement, designed to avoid alienating the populace, until decades later in Afghanistan and Iraq." And one suspects that drone warfare has enabled them to forget it once again. Lansdale's 1964 article in

    warned in no uncertain terms that ignoring such basic rules only helps "defeat the cause of freedom."

    Unfortunately for the US and for Vietnam, Lansdale was pissing into the wind. "How long do you guys want to see the shit kicked out of the US to serve the career ambitions of a handful of Americans?" he asked one visiting diplomat. "You don't seem to understand that, if the US bureaucracies had done their work, we wouldn't have over 2,000 American kids killed in combat so far." That was in 1966; most of the deaths were yet to come. In his frustration at being ignored, he spent one July 4th party at Lodge's embassy in Saigon "trying to teach 'some four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, ending in 'Cabot,' to the ambassador's red-feathered parrots."

    When Nixon and Kissinger sought later to wind down the war and exit with honor, according to Boot "in their haste to disengage, they would set in place the conditions for the very bloodbath -- and the mass exodus of refugees -- that Lansdale had predicted. But just as Lansdale had been ignored when he warned about the consequences of toppling Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, so a decade later he was ignored when he warned about the consequences of a peace treaty that would render meaningless the sacrifice of fifty-eight thousand American lives."

    Boot's final analysis: "Lansdale had a good point in arguing that the American authorities, from Eisenhower to NIxon, had erred in disregarding his advice to strengthen the accountability and reduce the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime. He may have been overly idealistic in imagining that democracy could blossom in the tropical soil of South Vietnam even as a war raged all around, but his critics were overly cynical in imagining that the unpopularity and the corruption of the regime did not matter or that there was absolutely nothing the United States could do to constructively influence a regime so dependent on American aid. Unfortunately, Lansdale's attempts to use his patented methods of friendly persuasion were effectively stillborn after 1956 in large part because he was persistently undercut by bureaucratic rivals -- and after 1965, all other considerations were subordinated to the military imperatives of the American war machine." Of course Lansdale's approach was not guaranteed to succeed either -- "North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had. … But his approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly."

  • Hadrian

    For a reasonable negative review, read here:

    Only a man could climb a ladder, and yet I couldn't think of it as a man like myself—it was as though an animal were moving in to kill, very quietly and certainly with the remorselessness of another kind of creation. The ladder shook and shook and I imagined I saw its eyes glaring upwards.

    -Graham Greene, "The Quiet American"

    Edward Lansdale's reputation is largely the production of fiction. By this, I mean such

    For a reasonable negative review, read here:

    Only a man could climb a ladder, and yet I couldn't think of it as a man like myself—it was as though an animal were moving in to kill, very quietly and certainly with the remorselessness of another kind of creation. The ladder shook and shook and I imagined I saw its eyes glaring upwards.

    -Graham Greene, "The Quiet American"

    Edward Lansdale's reputation is largely the production of fiction. By this, I mean such novels as Graham Greene's

    , or William Lederer's

    . The most extreme example would be Oliver Stone's conspiratorial movie about the Kennedy assassination, where a chimera of CIA spooks is responsible.

    There is more to it than the novels. In Max Boot's telling, Edward Lansdale was a major figure in the development of modern counterinsurgency tactics - the two-pronged method of combating guerrillas in the field and attempting to win the "hearts and minds" of the civilian population. Ideally this would be a middle path between doing nothing or deploying a larger military force. It's also an attempt to suggest that the Vietnam War was salvageable.

    The biography starts with Lansdale's early life, his work in advertising. The narrative picks up after his deployment to the Pacific - first the Ryukyu island chain, then to the Philippines. There, his first target was the

    , a Communist militia. His tactics involved aligning with more energetic and responsible members of the Filipino government, such as Ramon Magsaysay, but also the use of deception and armed militias to encircle and destroy the opposition. Magsaysay was honest, popular, and receptive to American suggestions. After this, he's assigned to a ridiculous plan to infiltrate Cuba, which soon falters.

    After this apparent success, he was soon caught up in the long descent into Vietnam. While Boot knows better than to suggest that Lansdale alone might have scraped together a convincing "victory", he understands the potential strengths of his approach. Even so, the situation was difficult, almost certainly unsalvageable by 1960. By 1963, after the assassination of the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, finding any political situation looked further out of reach, and the South Vietnamese government was unable to survive without massive American support. Lansdale was distrusted by both intelligence agents who did not want to get involved with "nation building", and career military officers who thought appealing to the civilian population was unnecessary. He dies in 1987, ignored, perhaps an unwelcome reminder of a lost cause.

    In this sense, the volume attempts to recast Lansdale's life like the biography

    . Boot attempts to suggest Lansdale had a better approach, and perhaps it might have, if he was there 10 or 20 years earlier. But by 1955, or 1960, to say nothing of 1963, the war was a utter waste. Boot expended considerable effort in telling the man's story, but it's just papering over loss.

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