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

  • Dоcтоr

    Splendid!

  • 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)

  • Steve

    A very interesting book. Someone I never heard of before and this book peaked my interest. I have read books on the Vietnam War and read such classics as Harold Moore's We Were Soldiers Once and Young. This book tells the story of a covert American operative named Edward Lansdale. Lansdale set up operations in South Vietnam for the South Vietnamese to fight against the North Vietnamese Army and was there when the South Vietnamese president Diem, who was a supporter of Lansdale was murdered. This

    A very interesting book. Someone I never heard of before and this book peaked my interest. I have read books on the Vietnam War and read such classics as Harold Moore's We Were Soldiers Once and Young. This book tells the story of a covert American operative named Edward Lansdale. Lansdale set up operations in South Vietnam for the South Vietnamese to fight against the North Vietnamese Army and was there when the South Vietnamese president Diem, who was a supporter of Lansdale was murdered. This book tells of the secret missions behind the lines during the Vietnam War.

  • Gavin

    I very much enjoyed this. Edward Lansdale's life is a tale of what might have been in Vietnam. The US off and on tries counter-insurgency or COIN, but Lansdale showed what was possible.

    It's too bad that the establishment has to go its own way and won't listen to those who have another way.

    Kudos to Max Boot for this. A lot of details and research here.

    The afterword where Max breaks down Lansdale's gift to us is "the three L's":

    1. Learn

    2. Like

    3. Listen

    Read the book and this gift will make sense, p

    I very much enjoyed this. Edward Lansdale's life is a tale of what might have been in Vietnam. The US off and on tries counter-insurgency or COIN, but Lansdale showed what was possible.

    It's too bad that the establishment has to go its own way and won't listen to those who have another way.

    Kudos to Max Boot for this. A lot of details and research here.

    The afterword where Max breaks down Lansdale's gift to us is "the three L's":

    1. Learn

    2. Like

    3. Listen

    Read the book and this gift will make sense, plus the L's will help anyone in life, anywhere they live or work.

  • Dean

    Just more confirmation of the tragedy of wasted blood and treasure in Vietnam. Lansdale another dissenting voice ignored about how to fight and win a counter insurgency. Think we still would have lost in Vietnam even if Lansdale had been listened and followed but lost a lot less blood and treasure. Note to present and futute practitioners from Lansdale can't bomb an idea into oblivion. Need a better competitive idea.

  • Hadrian

    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

    .

    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.

    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. One of the more infamous tactics would be to take a man in the rear of a column, and stab two holes in his neck, exploiting the local fear of vampirism. Aside from these examples, he had an ability to build connections with local leadership and gain a better understanding of the local political situaiton.

    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 already difficult by 1960. By 1963, after the assassination of the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, finding any political situation looked further out of reach. 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.

    In this sense, the volume recasts Lansdale's life like the biography

    . It documents the war's futility and utter waste. One wishes for a coda about how Lansdale's methods are discussed today.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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