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 and his Filipino mistress, who became the second Mrs. Lansdale in the last years of his life. The Road Not Taken is an admiring but also critical biography; it invites many quibbles but rewards the reader with an engrossing portrait of a unique figure who defied the bureaucratic values of the institutions in which he served.
Edward Lansdale was present at the creation of the Vietnam War, which really began in 1954 with the invention of a new country, South Vietnam. In the course of ten months beginning that June, Lansdale enjoyed his greatest successes. He made Ngo Dinh Diem the functioning leader of a state devised on the fly to try to impede the spread of communism. He orchestrated clandestine psychological warfare and organized an ambitious US Navy flotilla that brought 900,000 Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, from North Vietnam to the south, a propaganda coup. In April 1955, when many American officials had concluded that Diem could never lead a successful nationalist movement, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles approved a cable announcing withdrawal of American support for him. But Lansdale intervened with both Diem and the Eisenhower administration, which reversed Dulles’s decision. That maneuver preserved American support for Diem and his creation, the country we came to know as South Vietnam. The zeal of subsequent American administrations to save that creation led us fatefully to war.
Absent Lansdale’s personal involvement, Diem’s rump state would likely have disappeared soon after the 1954 Geneva conference on peace in Indochina had provided the pretext for its creation. Had it been absorbed then into the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which Ho Chi Minh and his comrades ruled from Hanoi, the US would not have squandered 58,220 American and more than two million Vietnamese lives. We would have saved hundreds of billions of dollars and avoided one of the greatest disasters of American history.
Lansdale cannot be blamed for those catastrophes. In the two decades that followed his feats in the mid-1950s, American policymakers usually ignored his advice. He favored trying to win hearts and minds, not gunfights. He argued against many of the policy choices that made Vietnam so catastrophic, especially the decision to send a huge American expeditionary force to fight a conventional military campaign against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Lansdale believed that only a Vietnamese army that had the political support of the people, under the leadership of a popular national leader, could win the war.
But he was not an innocent bystander. His actions made the kind of big war he hoped we could avoid more likely. In 1961, Lansdale helped persuade his admirer John F. Kennedy to let the thousands of American military “advisers” in Vietnam fight in combat beside the South Vietnamese army units they were training. This led to the first American casualties and deepened the American commitment to what proved to be a hopeless cause.
And Lansdale eagerly engaged in intense meddling in South Vietnamese affairs, beginning as soon as he took up his post as a CIA operative in Saigon in June 1954. Meddling was a tactic he had learned in the Philippines several years earlier, when, as an agent of the new CIA’s secret Office of Policy Coordination based in Manila, he cultivated a personal friendship with Ramon Magsaysay, a Filipino congressman who became his country’s minister of defense and then, in 1953, its president.
Lansdale was Magsaysay’s intimate adviser. Together they guided a successful counterinsurgency against the Huks, a left-wing insurgency group whose soldiers had fought first against the Japanese occupation of their country and later against its postwar government. Magsaysay famously won the support of the peasants the Huks sought to organize against his government, and squelched the rebellion.
Lansdale learned from Magsaysay the importance of treating peasants and soldiers with dignity and respect, skills he retained. Magsaysay’s honest, nationalist regime and his personal popularity provided a model for coping with left-wing insurgencies that beguiled American officials. For years afterward, his experience with Magsaysay contributed to “a certain mystique,” in the words of a former colleague, that Lansdale avidly cultivated. “He was the leader of [a] cult,” said Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, years after he worked for Lansdale in Vietnam. “I was a member of that cult.”
“He became the go-to guru,” said Leslie H. Gelb, the former official and journalist who supervised the compilation of the Pentagon Papers between 1967 and 1968. “That was the source of his power.”
It was Lansdale’s experience in the Philippines that persuaded Allen Dulles, the CIA director, to send him to Vietnam in 1954. Dulles and his colleagues hoped that Lansdale could apply what he had learned to the newest Asian flashpoint and help block further Communist victories in a far-off land little understood by Americans, even the officials responsible for US policy.
That lack of understanding was crippling. The American officials who gave us the Vietnam War were, to a man, ignorant about Vietnam’s history, culture, and politics. Lansdale was no exception. He had made himself an expert on the Philippines, a former American possession where English was widely spoken and American ways were mimicked and admired. He spent three years as a military officer stationed there, traveling throughout the country, making local friends, and learning the lore and the folk music (some of which he liked to play on his ever-present harmonica) even before he became an intelligence operative secretly counseling Magsaysay.
“By contrast,” writes Boot, “when he arrived in Vietnam, [Lansdale] had previously spent only three weeks [Boot’s italics] in the country and had as of yet made no Vietnamese friends.” He spoke not a word of Vietnamese—like most of the Americans who served in Vietnam, he never learned the language—and just a smattering of French, which Diem and all members of the colonial-era Vietnamese elite spoke fluently. He knew almost nothing of Vietnam’s complex society or of its ancient history. Nevertheless, he was ready to conclude, twenty-four days after he landed in Saigon, that Ngo Dinh Diem was the best available candidate to be a Vietnamese Magsaysay—a leader capable of rallying Vietnamese who wanted to keep the south out of the grips of Ho Chi Minh.
This was a doubtful proposition. As Sheehan wrote, when Diem returned to Vietnam from four years of exile in the US and Belgium—as a new premier appointed by the emperor Bao Dai, a French quisling so close to the old colonial power that he actually lived in France—he was “almost as ignorant as Lansdale was of the political and social realities of his country.” Diem’s ignorance, Sheehan noted, “was willful. He was a mystic. He lived in a mental cocoon spun out of a nostalgic reverie for Vietnam’s imperial past.” Diem had none of Magsaysay’s personal charisma; he “fit no one’s image of a dynamic leader,” as Boot puts it. “Best available” he may have been, but as subsequent events made clear, he was not good enough.
Diem landed in Saigon on June 25, barely three weeks after Lansdale’s arrival. That first day Lansdale mingled with citizens of Saigon who were waiting to see their newly appointed leader on his motorcade from Ton Son Nhut Airport into the city. Landsale was impressed by the level of public curiosity, and by Diem’s political clumsiness. He rode into town in a sedan with closed windows, invisible to the crowd on the street, never stopping to greet any of his new countrymen.
This did not deter Lansdale from spending the rest of that day and the entire night writing an unsolicited memo to Diem offering detailed suggestions on how to run a new country. He offered extensive, specific advice: bring several existing militia groups into a new South Vietnamese army; organize a coalition of anti-Communist political parties; organize forums in towns and villages where citizens could share their concerns with government officials; immediately adopt a constitution like the one Lansdale helped Magsaysay write for the Philippines; and more.
This was extraordinarily presumptuous: a newcomer who knew almost no national history and spoke no Vietnamese presuming to tell a recently appointed leader just back from four years of exile—a man with no apparent political skills—how to run a brand-new country that the newcomer had known for just twenty-five days. Boot is less troubled by this temerity than seems warranted, and more impressed that Diem decided he liked Lansdale—an opening Lansdale used to cultivate a friendship with this strange man. But Boot does acknowledge that Diem ignored the recommendations in that first Lansdale memo, just as he ignored much more advice in the years that followed.
Winning the friendship of Asians may have been Lansdale’s greatest talent. Boot writes about his skill as a listener who knew how to show respect for people who were used to colonial white men bossing them around like children. Lansdale himself, writes Boot, was “utterly devoid of condescension and racism.” The sympathetic friendship he offered to Magsaysay made Lansdale, over time, a surrogate member of the Magsaysay family. Soon after his arrival in Vietnam he achieved a similar status in Diem’s.
Lansdale favored an aggressive American presence in post-Geneva Vietnam. “In order to construct a Free Vietnam which can be an effective bulwark against further Communist aggression in Southeast Asia,” he cabled his CIA superiors in July 1954, “the United States must accept a dominant and direct role in aiding the country.” The best that can be said about that cable is that it fit the mood of the times in Washington, where the Dulles brothers still dreamed of “rolling back” communism. A harsher but more accurate appraisal would be that in a single sentence, Lansdale encapsulated the vainglorious American attitude that produced the war in Vietnam.
The productive phase of Lansdale’s involvement in Vietnam essentially ended with the completion of his first tour of duty as a CIA operative in Saigon in December 1956. The CIA had no next assignment for him (he was never popular inside the agency) so Lansdale resumed his military career as an Air Force colonel.
Always good at self-promotion, he began to make a name for himself inside the Pentagon as an expert on the newly fashionable field of unconventional and guerrilla warfare. Soon he had a job directing the Office of Special Operations, which advised the secretary of defense on all types of unconventional war. Vietnam became one of the office’s preoccupations. In 1959 and again in 1960 Lansdale visited Vietnam to evaluate the guerrilla war that by then posed an ongoing threat to Diem.
By 1960 the South Vietnamese Communists were widening their influence, especially in the populous Mekong Delta. Bickering politicians in Saigon bedeviled Diem. In April 1960, he formally asked the US to send Lansdale back to Saigon to help him. The idea was controversial inside the Eisenhower administration; many officials thought Lansdale was a loose cannon beyond the control of the normal chain of command. Finally a deal was struck to allow him to visit Diem, but on a short leash.
The visit finally took place in January 1961 and lasted just twelve days. On the way home Lansdale wrote an alarming report on his findings. “1961 promises to be a fateful year for Vietnam,” it began; he found the Communists poised to make substantial advances. He defended Diem but lambasted the stiff American ambassador in Saigon, a blueblood named Elbridge Durbrow whom Diem disliked. He outlined what Boot calls an “overly ambitious” program to reconstitute the US mission with new people and a new sense of purpose. He warned that Diem’s grip on power was uncertain at best.
Lansdale’s timing was excellent. His report made it to Walt W. Rostow, an MIT professor then working on the transition team preparing for John F. Kennedy to take power a few days later. Rostow was so impressed that he put Lansdale’s report at the top of a pile of important reading for JFK. Thus began one of the most interesting periods of Lansdale’s career. He was soon being touted, even by Kennedy, as a possible new American ambassador to Saigon or commander of the military assistance group there. Both were jobs Lansdale knew did not suit his talents or interests. But he was fully prepared to lead a new Presidential Task Force for Vietnam and to oversee the implementation of that task force’s plan in Washington and Saigon.
The posturing and bureaucratic maneuvering that followed ended badly for Lansdale, apparently because of his talent—on display repeatedly throughout his career—for alienating colleagues, especially superiors. Boot shows that Kennedy’s secretaries of state and defense, Dean Rusk and Robert S. McNamara, both lost confidence in Lansdale and blocked him from further participation in policymaking. This is the only episode Boot recounts that he cannot really explain. “Lansdale had tried but failed to take control of the Kennedy administration’s policy toward Vietnam,” he writes. Boot quotes Lansdale’s own explanation that Kennedy “severely damaged” his influence by suggesting he might be the American ambassador or military commander in Vietnam. That just inflamed jealous colleagues who disliked him, Lansdale thought.
Kennedy’s admiration for Lansdale survived, however, and got him an influential new job as chief of operations of the super-secret Operation Mongoose, an idea promoted by the president and his brother Robert, the attorney general, to try to repay Fidel Castro for the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961 with a covert campaign of harassment and perhaps assassination, none of which got anywhere. Boot devotes twenty pages to this sad tale, recounting the “nutty schemes” (the phrase is CIA director Richard Helms’s) that remained hidden from public view until the 1975 hearings of the Church Committee investigation of CIA dirty tricks. Those hearings did “irrevocable damage to Lansdale’s reputation,” Boot writes.
Boot was born in 1969. He has no personal memories of Vietnam, but he has been interested in the war for years. In his earlier writings he embraced the view that “the Vietnam War was winnable if we had fought differently,” as he put it in a 2011 essay. This idea may still have been in his mind when he chose the title of this book. The Road Not Taken implies that there was a road available that might have led to a better outcome in Vietnam. Boot almost says this in the prologue to this book.
Vietnam was “a catastrophe,” he writes, but “it might conceivably have been avoided if only Washington policymakers had listened to the advice of a renowned counterinsurgency strategist,” Lansdale:
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the whole conflict, the worst military defeat in American history, might have taken a very different course—one that was less costly and potentially more successful—if the counsel of this CIA operative and Air Force officer had been followed.
The word “might” is crucial here. If we are told that it is “no exaggeration” to say that something “might” have happened, what have we learned? Not much.
To his credit, near the end of this long book Boot acknowledges that, in fact, all the possible roads that the US might have traveled in Vietnam led to the same destination. His thorough research produced a formidable list of reasons why the American effort was doomed—not least the failure of the South Vietnamese to organize an effective, popular, and honest government. “In fairness,” he writes near the end, “South Vietnam might not have survived even if Lansdale had enjoyed more success” in selling his ideas about counterinsurgency. Lansdale
may have been overly idealistic in imagining that democracy could blossom in the tropical soil of South Vietnam even as a war raged…. North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had.
Boot skims over what I consider the most important reason for the outcome in Vietnam—the fact that South Vietnam never was a real nation. Vietnamese in every region seemed to understand that they lived in one country. South Vietnam’s leaders during the twenty years it existed could never match the nationalist credentials of Ho and his comrades. The North Vietnamese were Communists, which made them unpopular with some Vietnamese—especially the Catholics, who included Diem—but they were the ones who had begun fighting a war for Vietnamese independence back in 1941. In 1954, Ho and his great general, Vo Nguyen Giap, heroically humiliated the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu. They won their country’s independence.
Lansdale was mindful of this reality. On his second tour in Vietnam (1965–1968), which proved much more frustrating than productive, he tried to promote free and fair elections in the south, hoping they might legitimize the politicians who won them. But by then he knew the truth. In a 1967 memo to Henry Cabot Lodge, then the US ambassador in Saigon, Lansdale lamented the fact that “there is no potential candidate for the Presidency in South Viet Nam who has an image to compare favorably with Ho’s in the minds of the electorate.”
Lansdale was particularly critical of the idea of running a South Vietnamese general for president. Those generals, he wrote to Lodge, “are viewed for what they were before 1954 by most Vietnamese…corporals or sargeants in the French forces fighting against the Vietnamese nationalists.” Lodge’s candidate for president at the time was Nguyen Van Thieu, a general who, as a young man, did indeed fight with the French against Ho’s Vietminh. Thieu won a rigged election with just 35 percent of the vote, and went on to serve as president for eight years. In 1975, he presided over the collapse of South Vietnam.