The Meddling American

Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center
Edward Lansdale (second row, hand on hat) standing behind Lieutenant General John W. ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel, commander of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (left), Ambassador G. Frederick Reinhardt (center), and Ngo Dinh Diem (right), Saigon, 1955

On the long list of people who played important parts in America’s calamitous war in Vietnam, few were more important than Edward Geary Lansdale. Born in 1908, Lansdale was a swashbuckling Air Force officer who (though he long hid the fact) worked in the Philippines from 1945 until 1954 for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its successor spy agency, the CIA. His exploits there won him a transfer to Vietnam, where his accomplishments in 1954 and 1955 “proved that one man and his vision can make a difference in history,” wrote Neil Sheehan in A Bright Shining Lie (1988), still the best book on the Vietnam War. Without Lansdale, “the American venture in Vietnam would have foundered at the outset…. South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was [his] creation.” An official CIA history of the war concluded that Lansdale was responsible for the agency’s “most substantial achievement” in the twenty years of the conflict.

And yet if you watched the recent Ken Burns–Lynn Novick documentary on Vietnam, you heard just one brief reference to Lansdale, never saw him, and never learned about his critical contributions in the mid-1950s. This lack of serious attention to Lansdale is not unusual—Sheehan’s book was an exception. One other exception was a hagiographic 1988 biography of him written with his cooperation by Cecil B. Currey, a professor at the University of South Florida. Today Lansdale is primarily remembered by aficionados of the war and by many of us for whom Vietnam was a personal experience. Most books about Vietnam include few references to him, or none at all.

One enduring source of his fame may be the oft-repeated tale that he was the model for Graham Greene’s Alden Pyle, the antihero of The Quiet American. The fictional Pyle was a romantic young CIA agent stationed in Saigon in the early 1950s who tried to promote a “third force,” neither pro-French nor Communist. He and Lansdale shared some attributes, particularly a naive confidence in their own capacity to shape Asian realities, but Greene didn’t need Lansdale as a model. He finished his novel more than a year before Lansdale arrived in Vietnam.*

Max Boot has now put Lansdale back where he belongs, at the center of the story of the war. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is an Op-Ed columnist for The Washington Post, Boot has the reputation of a “Never Trump” neoconservative, but his book is the product of serious scholarship, not ideology. Boot has scoured the archives and found intriguing new material, especially Lansdale’s revealing personal letters to his long-suffering wife…

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