Fresh Eye on the US Failure in Vietnam
Fifty years on from the 1968 Tet Offensive that marked a decisive turning point in America’s Vietnam tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in understanding the roots of the US failure in Indochina. Max Boot’s magisterial and massive new biography of Edward Lansdale — a former advertising executive turned CIA field operative who played a critical role in US Cold War nation-building initiatives in the Philippines and South Vietnam — offers a fresh and compelling reassessment of what went wrong as well as new insights into an arguably much misjudged and maligned historical figure. Not only was Lansdale not the model for Graham Greene’s manipulative and disingenuous Quiet American in the novel of that name, he was also a far more nuanced and empathetic individual than the figure in the standard historical accounts. His achievements in counter-insurgency and nationbuilding initiatives in Southeast Asia were far less a function of traditional intelligence activities or the use of military force (which Lansdale felt was of limited utility), and much more of his capacity to understand local cultures and develop a genuine rapport with a wide cross-section of individuals, including leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines. This more reliable picture of Lansdale offers valuable insights into how US involvement in Vietnam might have played out very differently had circumstances been different; it also provides lessons for how the US might better approach the challenge of nationbuilding today.
The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam By Max Boot US: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018, 768 pages, $21 (Hardcover)