Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

A Series of Defeats

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, by Max Boot (Liveright, 768 pp., $35)

In this fine portrait of Edward Lansdale, Max Boot adds to his well-deserved reputation as being among the most insightful and productive of contemporary historians.

This is a superb book. Diligently researched and gracefully written, it builds on a comprehensive analysis of Lansdale’s triumphs in the post–World War II Philippines to provide much new material, and expose old myths, about one of the most fascinating, and in many ways ultimately saddest, members of the supporting cast in the later war in Vietnam.

Lansdale began his career of public service as an Army officer, switched to the Air Force when that separate service was established, served for a number of years in the CIA, and was uncomfortably lodged in various other bureaucratic niches over the years, eventually retiring as a major general, but none of that really mattered. What he was, and wanted to be, was what Boot calls him: “a counterinsurgent par excellence.”

Boot writes that it was in the Philippines after World War II that the “relentlessly entrepreneurial” Lansdale developed and implemented what came to be known as the “Lansdale method”: He helped to identify, promote, and mentor a highly successful new leader and new government to counter the long-running Huk Rebellion. That new leader was Senator Ramon Magsaysay, who fortunately turned out to be brave, energetic, and honest. The essence of Lansdale’s approach was to develop a close personal relationship with Magsaysay — at one point they even shared living quarters for several months — and keep a low profile himself while emphasizing the importance of responsive and accountable governance, as opposed to repressive military action, as a counter to insurgency.

Boot is deeply informed about an extramarital affair Lansdale carried on with one Pat Kelly, a widowed Filipina, both when Lansdale’s wife, Helen, and two sons remained in the U.S. and, more flagrantly, even after they joined him in Manila. His account of that illicit relationship forms a revealing subtext of the larger account. Boot had access to a multitude of letters Lansdale wrote to Kelly when they were apart and quotes them extensively to document not only the long-lasting affair (followed by eventual marriage, after the death of Lansdale’s wife) but also Lansdale’s private views on matters he represented otherwise in public statements.

There are obvious limits to the replicability of what Lansdale accomplished, or helped Magsaysay accomplish, in the Philippines. For one thing, there are not many Lansdales. (Also, perhaps, not many Magsaysays.) Those limits became painfully obvious a decade later in Vietnam. Lansdale and his supporters nevertheless entertained high hopes that he might, in Vietnam, be able to work some of the same magic he had produced in the Philippines.

Lansdale did in fact build a friendship there with Ngo Dinh Diem, but he had had no role in Diem’s ascent to the presidency and could never develop a comparably close relationship, not least because of the established and overwhelming influence of Ngo’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Nhu’s wife. Dependent for success as such relationships were on the chemistry developed between the parties, the Lansdale method was hard to replicate, even with Lansdale himself in the mix.

After the Americans colluded in Diem’s overthrow in 1963, no one — perhaps least of all the low-key and soft-spoken Lansdale — could much influence the dizzying succession of short-lived “governments.” By the time Nguyen Van Thieu established a regime with some staying power, Lansdale’s influence within his own government had so declined as to render him irrelevant to its actions in Vietnam.

Boot describes in some wonder how Lansdale, so often adept at gaining the trust and confidence of foreign leaders, showed little of that ability in dealing with his own countrymen. Lansdale’s several abortive runs at influencing U.S. policy and conduct in Vietnam were in every instance fatally undercut by unworkable administrative arrangements that gave him responsibilities (most notably for coordinating all U.S. pacification efforts) without the authority needed to carry them out.

Difficulties with his superiors, especially J. Lawton Collins, a general turned ambassador, also hampered Lansdale’s effectiveness. Boot (appropriately) assigns most of the blame for that particular unsatisfactory relationship to Collins, who, “like a long line of American generals culminating in William Westmoreland, . . . would turn out to be unsuited for the complexities and difficulties of Vietnam.” The relationship reached its nadir when Collins had Lansdale brief him as he lay down for an after-lunch nap, then promptly fell asleep.

Lansdale nevertheless tried valiantly to influence the course of events in whatever ways he could devise. In one instance, he hired a soothsayer to produce an almanac that predicted a good future for the South and calamity for the North. In another, he persuaded a South Vietnamese commander to issue his troops pocket cards spelling out a code of conduct. The theme: “Every soldier a civic-action agent.”

Like many visionaries, Boot observes, Lansdale was better at generating ideas than at implementing them. His lack of skill at manipulating large bureaucracies was even more debilitating during his later service back in Washington than it had been in Manila or even Saigon, where he had operated in a more freewheeling and chaotic culture.

As a by-product of cataloguing Lansdale’s multiple disappointments in Vietnam, Boot provides a devastating critique of General Westmoreland’s war of attrition, its unavailing reliance on body count and search-and-destroy tactics, and especially the spillover destruction it inflicted on South Vietnamese civilians. Later, when General Creighton Abrams became the top U.S. commander, bringing to the post an entirely different understanding of the nature of the war and how it ought to be conducted, the U.S. was able to wage a better war, one much more in keeping with what Lansdale advocated. Population security, not body count, became the measure of merit, clear-and-hold replaced search-and-destroy, and the enemy’s covert infrastructure in South Vietnam’s rural hamlets and villages became the key target.

As early as January 1961, Lansdale had submitted a report to the Kennedy administration about a recent trip he had made to Vietnam. Its findings were ominous. The Viet Cong had the initiative in most of the country, he wrote. It was essential to back Ngo Dinh Diem, “still the only Vietnamese with the executive ability and the required determination to be an effective President.” A new and more supportive U.S. ambassador should be sent to Saigon, someone “who [could] influence Asians through understanding them sympathetically.”

This led to Lansdale’s being invited to a White House meeting with President Kennedy and others. From that meeting emerged a decision to act on Lansdale’s recommendation that a new ambassador be named. The choice was Frederick Nolting Jr., a career Foreign Service officer. Boot’s comment: “Only Lansdale, of all the Americans who might have been sent to Saigon, had any chance, however remote, of persuading Diem to peacefully reform and thus to avert his own overthrow two and a half years later.”

Lansdale retired from military service at the end of October 1963, “battered by too many bureaucratic beatings to count.” But, like a phoenix, he returned to Vietnam in the summer of 1965, theoretically to coordinate the pacification program, but in fact to experience “the most frustrating and difficult period of his life.” That “nightmare” would last until he left for good in June 1968, “returning home a beaten man.” A final indignity was the 1972 publication of his memoir, to “savage reviews.”

Near the end of his narrative, Boot asks, “Would the course of the conflict have been different if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded?” His answer: “There is, of course, no way to know.” Then, this reasonable conclusion:

South Vietnam might not have survived even if Lansdale had enjoyed more success in implementing his agenda; North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had. But at the very least the war’s loss would have been less painful all around if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded. He had never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietnam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.

I can’t conclude this review without noting that, surprisingly, the book’s jacket shows a column of heavy-laden infantry trudging across some field, hardly representative of Lansdale’s approach to war as primarily a struggle between competing ideas and ideals.

Boot begins this volume with an epigraph from George Orwell that is full of foreboding: “Any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” An apt quotation for this splendid book.

– Mr. Sorley is a former soldier and the author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.

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