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