The Long Arm of Vingroup, Including Education

IMG_4832
Click on this panoramic photo for a better view. From left to right:  Vinhomes condos, shops, Vinschool & Vinmec International Hospital in Times City, Hanoi.

vingroup

Vingroup is a $13.87 billion Vietnamese conglomerate whose businesses cover some of the most important aspects of human existence, including healthcare (Vinmec International Hospital), housing (Vinhomes houses, condos, and serviced apartments), education (Vinschool, VinUniversity), food (VinMart convenience stores, supermarkets), animal feed (related to food), pharmaceuticals and health food/supplements, recreation (Vinpearl, Vinpearl Land), shopping (Vincom Retail) and, most recently, transportation (VinFast). 

In other words, Vingroup has a lot of bases covered in a country whose economy is on fire with a rapidly growing middle class.  Some joke that the only item missing in this nearly cradle-to-grave approach to doing business and meeting the needs of Vietnamese consumers is a chain of funeral homes.

A 1 May 2018 article that appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review entitled Vietnam’s Vingroup drives industrialization with diversification provides an excellent overview of this strategy. 

vinhomes cau giay
This complex, in the Cau Giay District of Hanoi, is called D’Capitale.  A 110 m2 three-bedroom, two-bath condo can cost $267,544.

While some, including Vietnamese and expats, have complained about the quality of some of its businesses, including the design of its homes, for example, or the emphasis on profit maximization at the cost of green space and aesthetics in its housing and shopping complexes, the fact remains that Vingroup as a whole is extraordinarily successful and that most Vietnamese heart Vingroup. (Its stock value, which increased 83% last year, is one indication of just much investors like Vingroup.  It is because of that torrid growth that Mr. Vượng, its chairman, is now worth twice as much as Donald Trump.)

Introducing VinUniversity

logo-newerVinUniversity, in partnership with Cornell University, an Ivy League school ranked 14th among national universities, is the latest addition to the Vingroup empire.  Follow this link to read a 3 April 2018 PIE News article by Matthew Camara for which I was interviewed.  (Vingroup is also working with the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League institution.)

Here is an unabridged version of his questions and my answers.

1. What was your general reaction to the news that Cornell will be working with VinGroup to build a new university in Hanoi?

I was not surprised in the least. This has been in the works ever since Vingroup hired a consultant a couple of years ago to explore the possibility of cooperating with a top 50 US college or university.

2. What is Vingroup trying to accomplish here?  What does Cornell get from this (beyond the financial relationship)? How does this initiative fit with Vingroup’s other education projects?

I believe that Mr. Phạm Nhật Vượng, the chairman of Vingroup, is trying to create a world-class university and he happens to have the means with which to make that happen. I don’t think it’s about making more money. My guess is it’s more about legacy, including making a significant and lasting contribution to Vietnamese society. And, yes, a fringe benefit is that it will further strengthen Vingroup’s position as one of Viet Nam premier corporations and provide yet another highly visible means of branding Vingroup not only in Viet Nam but internationally.

What does Cornell get? In addition to the obvious financial benefit, the VinUniversity project will enable selected Cornell faculty and staff to gain valuable experience in Viet Nam in an exciting period of unprecedented growth and development. Finally, this partnership, ideally culminating in the establishment of an international standard university, will be yet another feather in Cornell’s global service cap.

How does this initiative fit with Vingroup’s other education projects? It dovetails very nicely with the nationwide network of current and future Vinschools whose high school graduates may wish to attend an in country institution of higher education such as VinUniversity.

3. How might the new “VinUniversity” impact the domestic education market and the study abroad market? Are parents looking for options to keep their kids closer to home?

If it materializes as planned, it will give Vietnamese students yet another opportunity to pursue higher education at home at modest cost, in addition to other students from the region. From the perspective of Vietnamese parents, this will have the win-win benefit of saving money (for those for whom that is important) and keeping their children closer to home during their still formative undergraduate years.

4. Having worked with many Vietnamese students and parents, what do you think their reaction will be to VinUniversity? Is the idea of going to a school named after a conglomerate going to be a turn off for them? What sort of nuances or details will VinGroup need to work out to appeal to parents/students?

Again, assuming the university is able to deliver what it promises, I think that most Vietnamese parents and students will welcome VinUniversity. The entity behind it is one of the most well-known corporations in Viet Nam, including in the education sphere, e.g., Vinschool.  The partnership with Cornell University, an Ivy League institution that ranks 14th among national US universities, according to the latest US News & World Report ranking, is unique, and will certainly make VinUniversity even more attractive.

5. RMIT has been in Vietnam for 17+ years, Fulbright University plans to open soon, the Vietnamese-German University is here now, Broward College operates a partnership program.  How many international (or, in this case, semi-international) universities can Vietnam sustain?  Is the market set to become congested now that RMIT’s non-compete agreement has expired?  

As the ability to afford international standard higher education continues to grow and with large numbers of Vietnamese students studying overseas, about 150,000 in the top five host countries alone, I think that it will be a while before supply meets demand.

6. An education industry source of mine told me that study abroad will remain a must-have for wealthy families until an accessible, regional option becomes available (i.e., not NUS because it’s too selective) that families perceive as having the same quality as an overseas school. He speculated that Fulbright University might be able to do that. Do you agree with his premise and, if you do, could VinUniversity fill that niche?

I agree and believe that VinUniversity could very well fill that niche, perhaps even better and faster than Fulbright University Vietnam, especially in view of the partnership with Cornell and the amount of money Vingroup is willing to invest in the short-term. From what I’ve seen, Vingroup is fully prepared to its money where its vision is.

Peace, MAA

Advertisements

The Importance of Quality Digital Marketing Content: Some Negative Role Models

digital marketingI have the opportunity to look at a lot of digital marketing produced by educational institutions and am sorry to say that most of it is of subpar quality.  Sometimes, I’ll even take a screenshot of an unimpressive example and send it to the colleague from the offending institution with a diplomatic suggestion or two for improvement. 

Here are a few examples of how not to use digital marketing, which result in a waste of precious time and marketing money.

Facebook Ad in English:  Since this is Viet Nam, it makes sense to have your ad in Vietnamese, if you want Vietnamese netizens to click on it.  If you are using the same ad in many countries, you might want to consider a country-specific approach.  One size does not fit all in marketing, as in many other areas involving different target audiences.

In addition, parents are the key decision makers and very few are proficient in English.  Most decide where their children will study and, in the case of higher education, what they will study.  In a discussion about hard copy promotional materials, I once had a US colleague tell me her institution expected a certain level of English proficiency, e.g., 79/80 TOEFL iBT score.  My (obvious) response was it’s more for the parents, who control the purse strings. 

It’s also a good idea to make it easy for young people to understand the information – easily and quickly.  They’ll have plenty of time to perfect their English, if they complete the long path from application, to admission, to visa issuance, to arrival in the host country, and your school.

Unspiring Text and Photo:  The quality and appeal of both the text and photo are key determinants of whether or not someone will click on it to obtain more information.  I’ve seen barren photos that are unlikely to motivate a Vietnamese student or parent to click for more.

Landing Page in English:  Even if you have excellent text in Vietnamese and an exciting photo, the process may end abruptly, if the link takes them to an English language landing page.  It’s best to have that information in Vietnamese or both languages.

For all of the above, you should solicit in country feedback from members of your target audience using a focus group.  At worst, it’s back to the drawing board,  Or perhaps only a few minor edits are required.  This could very well mean the difference between effective digital marketing and so much virtual pissing in the wind, to coin a phrase.  

Peace, MAA

Laura W. Bush, Plenary Speaker at NAFSA 2018. Say What?!?

ac18_header_700x125

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief, wondering why NAFSA:  Association of International Educators chose Laura Bush as a plenary speaker for its 2018 annual conference in Philadelphia, PA, USA.  What does she have to offer international educators who attend these speeches to learn something, gain a new insight or two, be inspired?  Here’s her bio on NAFSA’s website:

Laura W. Bush, former first lady of the United States, is an advocate for literacy, education, and human rights.

laura_bush_150x200As first lady, Mrs. Bush advocated the importance of literacy and education to advance opportunity for America’s young people and foster healthy families and communities. She highlighted the need for preparing children to become lifelong learners, convening a White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development in 2001 and creating the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

What’s not to like about supporting “literacy and education to advance opportunity for America’s young people and foster healthy families and communities”?  What, pray tell, does that have to do with the work of international educators?  

What’s not to like about human rights, which her husband and his administration trampled on, both in the US and in other countries, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq, during their disastrous eight-year rule?  While I don’t hold Ms. Bush responsible for the sins of her husband and that cabal of neocons, there is a certain distasteful dishonor by association and hypocrisy at work here.

It’s not Laura Bush’s fault that she’s speaking at this international education conference.  It is NAFSA, after all, that invited her.  Let’s assign blame where blame is due.  What were the powers that be at NAFSA thinking?  Wasn’t there anyone else (and better) from whom the audience could actually learn something new, gain a new insight, or be inspired?

Here’s a spot-on analysis from one colleague who shares my disgust and disappointment at this choice and the organization that is behind it: 

I think the aspect I most dislike is how these niceties normalize war and US led-violence. There will be thousands of attendees sitting in respectful attention, listening to tired platitudes, and leaving with a saccharine feeling about what a genteel lady Laura Bush is.  I remember when a NAFSA attendee confronted Colin Powell during his plenary speech about his role in BSing the US into the Iraq invasion. It was great stuff.  But too confrontational for NAFSA.  So fast forward to today and, if I’m not mistaken, NO live questions will be allowed of Laura B.  Gotta keep it sanitized!

IMG_5161

I wonder how much it will cost to have Ms. Bush tell thousands of international educators what a great job they’re doing and how important their work is? The Washington Speakers Bureau, which represents Laura Bush,  describes her as one of the most popular first ladies in history and a compelling advocate for issues of national and global concern.  Seriously?

While I’m not going to hold my breath that this will actually happen, here’s something for NAFSA to think about for future conferences.  Since this is a professional association that relies on membership dues and conference fees for its fiscal survival, why doesn’t it put these speakers to a vote rather than making these decision behind closed doors, or at least make a concerted effort to seek member input?

A colleague asked me if I was planning to attend this plenary session or if could meet with her during that time.  You can guess what my response was.  My hope is that 50 people show up.  A guy can dream, can’t he? 

Postscript: One of my sources told me that the “conversation” was about the Bush family.  My neck is getting tired.  Still shaking my head in disbelief.

Who’s next for NAFSA 2019, First Lady Melania Trump, Betsy “Amway” DeVos, Secretary of Education, or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary? 

Peace, MAA

Bonus:  Here’s a radio commentary I did in 2004 in response to a speech at that year’s NAFSA annual conference in which the speaker, a Bush/Cheney political appointee, said that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country.”  In other words, government and country are one in the eyes of a US nationalist aka neocon.  For some reason this went over most colleagues’ heads.  Can you guess who the speaker was?  Hint:  He used to work for IIE.  Yes.  Really.

Study in the USA: A Service Sector Export That No Longer Sells Itself

This matter-of-fact assertion does not (and should not) come as a surprise to US colleagues who recruit internationally.  Here’s a recent story that inspired this post, so to speak, plus a heartfelt appeal. 


study in the usa2
Photo courtesy of EducationUSA

I noticed that a number of students had applied to, been admitted by, and received visas to attend a particular school in the US.  This interest was the result of a couple of public events and, of course, what the school has to offer, including solid academics and attractive scholarships for qualified and deserving students. 

Amazingly, there would have been one more student but she withdrew her application because of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on 14 February 2018 in Parkland, Florida.  Her parents decided not to send her to study in the US.  (Maybe the USA’s loss is Canada’s gain, in this case?)  So, yes, safety, as an essential element of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is a primary concern among parents, as it is for all of us.  The writing is on the recruitment wall and those of us who help international students study in the US ignore it at our collective peril.

While the number of young Vietnamese studying in the US is still healthy, these cases give one pause. You might say that this one student is insignificant because there were 31,613 Vietnamese students in the US, as of March 2018, but there are signs that others are following suit.  For example, there are about 15,000 Vietnamese students in Canada, nearly half as many as there are in the US, a country with nine times the population and thousands more educational institutions. 

Remarkably, Vietnamese students had the highest percentage increase in 2017 at 89%, making Viet Nam the fastest growing market in the country.  Canada is now a top five host country for Vietnamese students, after Japan, the USA, and Australia, followed by China. 

While US education, both secondary and postsecondary, is still a brand, it no longer sells itself.  Current news, e.g., the mass shooting du jour, a relatively high student visa denial rate, the latest policy announcement to require social media information from all visa applicants for the past five (5) years, the latest missile strike, and a roiling cauldron of perceptions (and misperceptions) can have a decisive impact on where a young person studies.

Do You Have Any I HEART Vietnamese Students Stories? 

I’ve heard stories from many colleagues about how much they value and appreciate Vietnamese students, not only for the financial contributions they make to their host institution and the communities in which they are located, but their academic performance, their integration into the campus community, their leadership qualities, and their positive attitude.

I would like ask those of you who have worked with Vietnamese students and have such a story share it with me in a 750-word essay, including photos and quotes, if possible.  I will take some of these essays and incorporate material into an article about Vietnamese students.  I would also like to translate some into Vietnamese and share them widely. By doing this, you will be helping to promote study in the USA in Viet Nam and, indirectly, promoting your institution.  Now more than ever is the time to show them (more) love.

Please contact me at markashwill[AT]capstonevietnam.com, if you’re interested in contributing an essay.

Peace, MAA

“Air quality: Vietnamese professor calls for power price increase over unsustainable GDP growth”

The United States, with its love of big cars, big houses and blasting air-conditioners, has contributed more than any other country to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is scorching the planet.  Source:  The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal, 1 June 2017, New York Times

The title of this post was the ominous title of a recent article in the Vietnamese media.  Below is the photo that accompanied the article.  Much of the air pollution Viet Nam in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is caused by motorbikes.  Why not require that all motorbikes sold in Viet Nam be hybrid instead of using a traditional combustion engine?  What about hybrid cars, which are non-existent?

pollution-1526202286
Traffic in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

40% of Viet Nam’s power is generated by hydropower plants.  While coal is projected to cover over half of all electricity production by 2030, the government is also targeting renewables such as solar and wind as a high priority.  Fortunately, it made the decision to move away from nuclear power.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

Aside from these obvious points, I was struck by the broader political context of the comments made by this US-educated Vietnamese professor from Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV), essentially a US university.  His recommendation is precious, a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Which country is the biggest carbon polluter in history?  You know who.  Which country walked away from the Paris (Climate) Agreement?  You know who.  Which country is among the biggest polluters in the world?  Ditto.   

The United States of America currently ranks 2nd with about 5,414 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.  China is #1 but the difference between the two countries is that China is actually trying to do something about it and its contribution to global air pollution is recent, coinciding with its rapid economic development.  The US can’t seem to break the fossil fuel habit and its leadership is in denial about climate change. 

Anytime the US government is involved, or any government, for that matter, there has to be an agenda.  What’s the agenda here?  A colleague suggested the following tongue-in-cheek panel topic at a Vietnamese university: “What should the international community’s response be to a rogue nation that’s disproportionately responsible for the world’s pollution and has just pulled out of the Paris Agreement?”  Now THAT would make for one hell of a discussion.  (I wonder if FUV would consider hosting it, “he asks in a fleeting moment of fantasy.”)

Consider the source.  Always.  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  Or perhaps this is yet another case of “do as we say not as we do”? 

Peace, MAA

Lansdale’s Ghost

Below is a review of Max Boot’s book about Edward Lansdale by Thomas A. Bass that appeared in the May 2018 issue the Mekong Review.  In case you don’t know who Max Boot, check out this Wikipedia entry.  He is one of the resident US nationalists at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).  Bass describes the CFR and Boot as follows:  The CFR provides the nabobs who appear nightly on the evening news to discourse on how the Empire is faring in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere among the 177 countries where the United States currently has military forces in operation. The CFR might quibble over tactics or parse strategies in the Hindu Kush, but US wars are invariably good wars. When it comes to counterinsurgencies, wars among the people and winning the hearts and minds of restive natives in far-off lands, Boot is CFR’s cheerleader in residence.
Here is the original Gore Vidal quote in its entirety:  After 1976, I predict (being an optimist) that the word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished and that we will now try to create that society the world has been waiting two hundred years to see: an American civilization.  It appeared in A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam published in the 12 June 1975 issue of The New York Review of Books.  As much as I admire Gore Vidal and as much as I, too, am an optimist, I believe that history makes it crystal clear that the “era of American bullshit” continues unabated with too many people, both in the US and beyond, all too happy and willing to swallow it.
Subsequent administrations should have listened to President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about war, and said 1) “No military victory is possible in this theatre.”; and 2) President Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the popular vote had a national election been permitted to take place in 1956 under the terms of the Geneva Accords of 1954.  The US decided otherwise, making the 2nd Indochina War an inevitability.   
Peace, MAA

lansdale
Edward Lansdale in 1963. Photo: WikiCommons

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
Max Boot
Liveright: 2018
.
The Vietnam War was a dog from day one. This was the scandal revealed by the Pentagon Papers, the forty-seven volumes documenting the lies and fakery that year after year racked up bodies like cordwood. More than 3 million Vietnamese were bombed, shelled, gassed, tortured and otherwise killed in a war that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford should have ended the day it began, by acknowledging that the Vietnamese beat the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and that colonialism in Asia was dead.

“The word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished,” said Gore Vidal.

Unfortunately, Vidal was wrong. Not even their defeat in Vietnam could keep the US military-industrial pundit class from longing for “a better war”, a winning war, a triumphal return to world dominance. The Vietnam War has produced the best of books and the worst of books, but, as time goes on, the latter are crowding out the former, and only the latter are read at West Point and other US military academies. “The vast majority of senior American military officers … are still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue,” wrote US Army Major Danny Sjursen in a 2018 posting to TomDispatch.com.

The revisionists refighting the war are divided into two camps, says Sjursen. The Clausewitzians — followers of the Prussian military theorist — believe that the United States should have invaded North Vietnam. The “hearts-and-minders” believe that the war should have been fought at the village level as a counterinsurgency. Leading Clausewitzians include Harry Summers, whose 1982 book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War “became an instant classic within the military”, says Sjursen. Summers argues that a namby-pamby emphasis on civil affairs prevented a knockout invasion of North Vietnam. The war was lost, he says, by “draft dodgers and war evaders who still struggle with their consciences”.

Opposing the Clausewitzians are the hearts-and-minders, who argue that the US lost the Vietnam War by failing to adopt a small-unit pacification strategy, with soldiers following Mao’s advice “to move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”. The leading advocate for this strategy is Lewis Sorley, who claimed in his book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam that the United States had already won the war by the spring of 1970, before this victory was squandered by generals and civilians clamouring for a big-war strategy. Other proponents of counterinsurgency include generals David Petraeus and James Mattis, who co-authored the 2006 US Army field manual on counterinsurgency, before going on to command US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Caught sending mash notes to his mistress, Petraeus was later cashiered as CIA director, while Mattis currently serves as US Secretary of Defense.) The list of those arguing that the US should have emphasised counterinsurgency over conventional warfare includes Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam), John Nagl (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam) and Petraeus and Mattis, whose field manual, FM 3-24, became a bestseller after receiving a laudatory review in the New York Times.

“The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century,” says Sjursen. “Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington. The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now.”

The latest addition to this bookshelf is a tome by Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. The author is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York’s major think tank for the military-industrial complex, where he writes popular military histories. What distinguishes this and Boot’s three previous books is that he has never met a US war he didn’t like. He beat the drums for invading Afghanistan. He beat the drums for invading Iraq and Syria. And now he’s beating the drums for refighting the Vietnam War, this time with a winning strategy. His nostalgia is telegraphed in the title of his book, where the “road” to avoiding military defeat in Vietnam, according to Boot, would have been more civil affairs, psychological operations (psy-ops), PR, pacification teams and other strategies developed by former advertising man and master CIA spook Edward Lansdale.

This approach to fighting wars was already being skewered by Harold Pinter in the speech he gave on winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005. The United States “has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’,” said Pinter. “Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued — or beaten to death — the same thing — and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed.”

The communists in Vietnam were promising to break the stranglehold of the Chinese merchants who controlled the rice markets, the Catholic mandarins who controlled the government and the landlords who controlled the land. The US was promising democracy and freedom, while engineering stolen elections, herding peasants into concentration camps, defoliating the countryside and killing everything that moved in free-fire zones. Boot takes 700 pages to explain how a harmonica-playing adman from San Francisco could have flipped this equation into a winning war. His argument is no more convincing now than it was fifty years ago, when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers and exposed Lansdale as a CIA operative whose black ops and terror teams had suffered one failure after another.

Employed as a copywriter for Wells Fargo bank, Italian Swiss Colony wines and Levi Strauss blue jeans, Lansdale, at the age of thirty-five, in a fit of patriotic fervour following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, joined the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. After World War II, he began working undercover on agency assignments in Asia. Here he did an excellent job of defending landlords and other reactionary forces that had sided with the Japanese during the war. He helped suppress the Hukbalahap movement in the Philippines, which was fighting for land reform, by labelling them “communists” and financing the military forces that tracked them into the countryside and killed them. The peasant farmers who had fought the Japanese now had to fight the Americans.

It was here in the Philippines that Lansdale perfected his tradecraft. By skimming 5 per cent of the funds allotted for the post-World War II Marshall Plan, the CIA had given itself US$200 million a year for black ops (about US$2.5 billion in today’s money). Dipping liberally into these funds (one estimate says his initial budget was US$5 million), Lansdale financed paramilitary operations, bought elections, published newspapers, mounted propaganda campaigns and engaged in psy-ops that skated into war crimes. In one notorious instance, his men kidnapped a Huk guerrilla, pierced his neck with what looked like the bite marks of a vampire and hung him upside down in a tree to bleed to death. Both Lansdale and his biographer believe that this was an effective method for spooking Huks into throwing down their arms and returning to toil on the estates of their landlords.

It was also in the Philippines that Lansdale acquired the long-suffering mistress, Patrocinio Yapcinco Kelly, who had to wait twenty-seven years — until the death of the first Mrs Lansdale and the end of anti-miscegenation statutes in Virginia (invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1967) — before she could become the second Mrs Lansdale. Boot quotes at length from their love letters, which reveal “Pat” to be the kind of native informant that every anthropologist — not to mention PR pitchman — hopes to find when operating in a foreign culture.

Lansdale was given another Asian assignment when the CIA sent him to Vietnam, beginning with an exploratory mission in 1953 and then for another two-year stretch, starting in 1954. Again, he rallied the right into a neocolonial medley of landlords, Japanese collaborators, Legionnaires, Catholic mandarins and Chinese rice merchants, although even President Eisenhower admitted that communist leader Ho Chi Minh would easily have won election as president over a unified Vietnam, if such an election — as called for in the Geneva Accords — had been held. “No military victory is possible in this theatre,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary.

After the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954, Lansdale began creating a country called the Republic of Vietnam. He took Cochinchina, France’s former colony in the south, and installed Catholic mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem, first as prime minister and then as president. He bribed Diem’s opponents, financed his military, sabotaged Ho’s government in the north, encouraged close to a million Catholics to resettle in the south, drafted South Vietnam’s constitution and then sealed the deal with a “democratic” election that Diem stole with 98.2 per cent of the vote.

Lansdale was a master at surrounding himself with a fog of PR. He even managed to rewrite the script for the original Hollywood version of The Quiet American, turning Graham Greene’s bumbling CIA operative into a celluloid crusader. Our first glimpse into the real nature of Lansdale’s activities came in 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg released forty-three of the forty-seven volumes of the top-secret History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, commonly known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was actually a former member of Lansdale’s team. Between stints at the RAND Corporation, a military think tank in California, Ellsberg had served as Lansdale’s assistant in Vietnam for a year and a half, beginning in the summer of 1965. (This was during Lansdale’s second tour of duty in Vietnam, from 1965 to 1967 — an unsuccessful mission that followed another failed assignment, to kill Fidel Castro.)

The Pentagon Papers include a document entitled “Lansdale Team’s Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955”, which presents itself as “the condensed account of one year in the operation of a ‘cold war’ combat team”. Lansdale’s team “was to enter into Vietnam quietly and assist the Vietnamese, rather than the French, in unconventional warfare. The French were to be kept as friendly allies in the process, as far as possible. The broad mission for the team was to undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare.”

The report goes on to describe the covert acts of sabotage and terror that Lansdale launched against North Vietnam before his agents were evacuated from Hanoi in April 1954. The team “spent the last days of Hanoi in contaminating the oil supply of the bus company for a gradual wreckage of engines in the buses, in taking actions for delayed sabotage of the railroad (which required teamwork with a CIA special technical team in Japan who performed their part brilliantly), and in writing detailed notes of potential targets for future paramilitary operations”. These operations began the following year, when mercenaries trained in the Philippines were landed on the shores of North Vietnam. After most of these saboteurs had been arrested and put on trial in Hanoi, Lansdale turned to training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the force that the United States put up against the communists, before engaging 500,000 troops of its own.

Lansdale created a country, began funnelling millions and then billions of dollars into defending it, and laid the blueprint for pacification, psy-ops, black ops and all the other military campaigns that would kill Vietnamese by the millions and still not prevail. “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” Neil Sheehan wrote in A Bright Shining Lie. For Sheehan this proved a tragic mistake, while for Boot it was a heroic struggle for truth, justice and the American way. Boot actually writes prose like this, without irony. When it comes to rounding up peasants and throwing them into concentration camps, we learn from him that “strategic hamlets” are a “tried-and-true pacification technique”. Sometimes his prose is so purple that it’s hard to understand. We learn, for example, that soon after Lansdale’s birth, in Detroit in 1908, the “child of the nascent American Century … would have imbibed, along with his Cream of Wheat and Grapenuts, a sense that American power was spreading to every corner of the globe like milk filling up a bowl of cereal”. Is Boot saying that US power is the mother’s milk of the world? Are other countries nothing more than flakes of cereal floating in this bowl of US benevolence?

While describing Lansdale as an expert in the “cutthroat business” of counterinsurgency, Boot also wants us to believe that the man “would preach ideals of brotherly love”. He calls Lansdale a master “of the art of propaganda that he would later practice in both its civilian guise of ‘advertising’ and its military version, ‘psychological war.’” Here Boot is actually skating close to the truth by describing psy-war as the military version of PR. He admires the realpolitik involved in black ops. For him and other members of the war party, the end justifies the means. It is not with distaste that he says the OSS, “like all intelligence agencies, existed to lie, cheat, and steal for its country”.

Lansdale had a “ruthless streak”, Boot admits, “even if it required murder for hire, but he was so eager to protect his image as an idealist that he was deeply reluctant to admit what he was up to, not least to himself”. The same might be said of Lansdale’s biographer, who has produced a schizophrenic narrative that tries to recommend black ops as a useful tool for winning hearts and minds. After claiming him as the “godfather of counterinsurgency”, Boot also credits Lansdale with the growth of US special forces, the philosophy of “soft power” and the rise of military contractors. One might add to this list the use of mercenary forces, secret armies, terror teams, assassination squads and other ways of waging war while pretending to be at peace.

Boot likes to compare his book to Sheehan’s master work, but the claim is bogus, particularly when one looks at their coverage of the same events. When writing about the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, for example, instead of relying on Sheehan’s first-hand observations and meticulous research, Boot quotes from a couple of neocon lightweights intent on burnishing the image of Ngo Dinh Diem. On the next page, he displays the same bad judgement by attacking journalists for their “sensationalistic media coverage” of the Buddhist crisis (as if monks burning themselves alive on the streets of Saigon was not “sensationalistic”). Boot invariably relies on second-rate sources, dubious interpretations and crowd-pleasing attacks on the press, which he holds responsible for losing the Vietnam War. He is a tub-thumper for the neocon trope that reporting the truth about US brutality and incompetence aids the enemy.

Lansdale was smart enough to know that his attempts at nation-building had run off the rails by the time Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were assassinated in 1963. (Diem was “cut down in a blaze of bullets”, writes Boot, incorrectly. He was actually stabbed to death on the floor of an armoured personnel carrier with his hands tied behind his back.) Lansdale knew for sure that the game was up in 1968, after the Tet Offensive. The war would last for another seven years, but by this time the US had begun brutalising the Vietnamese population with large-scale operations and committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre, when more than 500 women, children and other non-combatants were killed in a day-long blood-letting. “We lost the war at the Tet Offensive,” said Lansdale, because US soldiers, thinking every Vietnamese a potential terrorist, could no longer discriminate between friend and foe. “I don’t believe this is a government that can win the hearts and minds of the people,” he added, before leaving Vietnam in June 1968.

This is a Council on Foreign Relations book,” Boot writes in the opening line of his acknowledgments. He is referring to the outfit that pays him as a “senior fellow in national security studies”, but also to the kind of book this is. The CFR provides the nabobs who appear nightly on the evening news to discourse on how the Empire is faring in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere among the 177 countries where the United States currently has military forces in operation. The CFR might quibble over tactics or parse strategies in the Hindu Kush, but US wars are invariably good wars. When it comes to counterinsurgencies, wars among the people and winning the hearts and minds of restive natives in far-off lands, Boot is CFR’s cheerleader in residence.

Boot is a Russian Jew born in Moscow, whose parents immigrated to the US when he was seven. He grew up in sunny Los Angeles, where he teethed on the freedom-loving poppycock of Ronald Reagan.

“I am white. I am Jewish. I am an immigrant. I am a Russian American. But until recently I haven’t focused so much on those parts of my identity. I’ve always thought of myself simply as a normal, unhyphenated American,” Boot wrote in an article published in the Washington Post in September 2017, entitled “I came to this country forty-one years ago. Now I feel like I don’t belong here.”

“Not even Trump and his nativist attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have yet figured out a way to strip naturalized American citizens of their legal status,” Boot wrote in his article, before asking — like a lot of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees currently facing deportation — “What would I do now, at age forty-eight, if I were deported to a country that I have not seen in more than forty years and whose language I no longer speak?”

After his recent wake-up call, one wonders if Boot might start writing different kinds of books, less full of patriotic gore. In the meantime, his Lansdale tome is a battle cry from the past. It is a history of neither the Vietnam war nor Lansdale’s role in that debacle. It is a love letter from the happier days when flag-draped patriots and scoundrels ruled the roost, and no one had to worry about the chickens coming home.

Thomas A. Bass is the author of Vietnamerica, The Spy Who Loved Us and Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (reviewed here).

Viet Nam Ranks 5th in International Enrollment in 3 Countries

…including Australia, Canada, and the USA!  Those countries also happen to be the world’s leading hosts of international students, albeit in this order:  1)  USA; 2) Australia; and 3) Canada, followed by the UK and Germany.  

intl students australia 3-18

Of the estimated 200,000 Vietnamese students studying overseas, 23,000 are in Australia (PDF download), about 15,000 are in Canada, and 31,613 are in the US.   Japan is the world’s leading host of Vietnamese students with 61,671 in 2017.  This means 131,284, or two-thirds, of all Vietnamese studying overseas are in the top four (4) host countries. 

Peace, MAA