The Road Not Taken
Max Boot (Liveright, $35)
THIS BRILLIANT, extremely wellwritten book about a forgotten figure who was one of the most extraordinary and utterly unorthodox espionage agents in history contains a telling scene that encapsulates what went tragically wrong with the Vietnam War. The operative, Edward Lansdale, was visiting President John F. Kennedy’s defense chief, Robert McNamara.
The former president of Ford Motor, McNamara profoundly believed that everything could be managed by numbers (or what we today call “metrics”). McNamara had an IQ that could boil water, a personality that could freeze the tropics and a deep disdain for anyone he considered his intellectual inferior, which was almost everybody. Lansdale was given ten minutes—no more!—to advise McNamara on how the U.S. should deal with the growing communist insurgency in South Vietnam. The allotted time was a harbinger of how the meeting would go.
Lansdale was a man well worth listening to. In the 1930s he’d been an advertising man in California, where he had demonstrated a real knack for writing and a firm grasp of the psychology involved in the art of persuasion. In WWII Lansdale ended up in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor of the CIA, which was run by the legendary William “Wild Bill” Donovan. This fish had found his water. After the war he moved into the newest branch of the military, the Air Force, which served as cover for his overseas activities. (Even late in life, he was loath to acknowledge he had been in the CIA.) Lansdale soon found himself posted in the Philippines, which was facing an increasingly powerful communist uprising called the Huk Rebellion.
The Filipino government and military were responding in ways that were fueling the insurgency, especially by killing numerous civilians in the fight against the rebels. Lansdale quickly grasped that these kinds of responses to a skillful guerrilla enemy, one that also employed effective propaganda, was a formula for a bloody defeat.
Lansdale befriended and then won the total confidence of an incorruptible politician—a true rarity in that country—Ramon Magsaysay. The two became inseparable, and Magsaysay, who with Lansdale’s help became defense minister and then won election as president (Lansdale was his behind-the-scenes manager), adopted Lansdale’s strategy of finding ways to win what came to be termed the “hearts and minds of the people,” combined with fundamental changes in military operations. Civilian casualties were sharply reduced. Lansdale also showed he was a master of propaganda and psychological warfare. What had looked like an inevitable communist victory withered into a total rout.
Then, in the aftermath of the French defeat by Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces, Lansdale played the indispensable, key role in the miraculous creation of the state of South Vietnam. In this he worked with a man named Ngo Dinh Diem, a monkish figure given to rambling, hourslong monologues. Lansdale won his confidence, as had no one else except Diem’s paranoid brother. Against all odds—and with Lansdale’s considerable help—Diem routed the warlords and powerful sect leaders, and a real country was created from the post-French rubble.
In 1959, against Ho Chi Minh’s wishes, hard-liners in North Vietnam decided to make an all-out assault on the South, which was what eventually led to Lansdale’s meeting with McNamara. On the defense chief’s 9-foot-long, immaculate mahogany desk (it was polished every evening), Lansdale dumped a bunch of “dirty weapons, caked with mud and blood,” including “handmade pistols and knives, old French rifles, and bamboo punji sticks.” Lansdale told the startled secretary, “The enemy uses these weapons. Many of them are barefoot or wear sandals. They wear black pajamas, usually, with tatters or holes in them . . . yet, the enemy is licking our [well-armed] side.” Lansdale warned that if we didn’t grasp the nature of this new style of war, where ideas and ideals were critical, tragedy would result.
But while Lansdale had a unique ability to work with foreign figures, his hatred of bureaucracy had made him a pariah in Washington. Reflecting these attitudes, McNamara ignored his advice. Even though Lansdale returned to Vietnam, his time there was mostly an exercise in frustration. He was given no real authority, and the U.S. made the same blunders the French had, along with a few others of its own.