The Road Not Taken

Forbes - - FACT & COMMENT -

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.

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