A Tragic Tale of Nation Building

Few Americans today have heard of Edward Lansdale, one of the founders of modern counterinsurgency theory who was something of a cause célèbre in the 1950s and 1960s for his involvement in championing the rise to power of Filipino leader Ramon Magsaysay and the doomed South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. align=”right” Review of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot (Liveright, 768 pgs., $21)

Lansdale was made famous by the public’s association of him (in the first case undeserved) with the main characters in two contemporary novels and subsequent movies, The Quiet American (1955) and The Ugly American (1958).

In his latest book, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, noted author and historian Max Boot explores the life and times of this enigmatic figure, bringing his unique journey to life for a new generation of readers. Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, came to the idea of updating Lansdale’s story during the writing of Invisible Armies, Boot’s work on the history of guerrilla warfare. The result is an exceptionally well-written, captivating tale of one of the most distinctive characters in American Cold War history.

Lansdale grew up in a middle-class family in Michigan and southern California and became an advertising executive after attending college at UCLA. He served as an intelligence officer with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. Lansdale remained in the Philippines when the war ended, in no small measure due to his amorous relationship with Pat Kelly, an attractive Filipina widow who would become a lifelong friend and eventually, after the death of his first spouse Helen, his second wife. Boot is the first historian to gain access to Lansdale’s numerous letters to Kelly, providing a window into his innermost thoughts on any number of issues, both personal and professional. Boot has also leveraged recently declassified documents to provide a more complete picture of Lansdale’s more controversial assignments, such as his leadership of Operation Mongoose, a U.S. government operation to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.

Lansdale grew to love the Philippines and its people. A chance meeting with Ramon Magsaysay in Washington, D.C., led to Lansdale’s return to the Philippines as his personal advisor. Magsaysay lived with Lansdale, now seconded to the CIA, for a time and became his close compatriot and friend. Magsaysay turned out to be exactly the sort of incorruptible, courageous, honest nationalist that counterinsurgency advisors dream of to turn around a country in the throes of rebellion. Lansdale advised Magsaysay in his role as Secretary of National Defense. Their campaign against the communist Huks emphasized psychological warfare and civic action. Lansdale and Magsaysay worked to minimize civilian casualties and gain the trust of the people. Magsaysay used his administrative authority over the army officer corps to get rid of corrupt officials and promote competent leaders. It took only eighteen months for Magsaysay and Landsdale to turn around a failing war effort.

Lansdale then promoted Magsaysay as a candidate for president of the Philippines—a position the latter attained in 1953 with the help of Lansdale, who acted as a quasi-campaign manager and who worked to ensure a free and fair vote. Magsaysay’s election all but ended the Huk rebellion as a political force. Harassed and on the run, their platform for reform co-opted by Magsaysay, the Huks were a spent force. Landsdale had helped to defeat a communist insurgency in the third world—and without a massive infusion of American aid or troops. It was a singular achievement for U.S. intelligence in the early period of the Cold War.

Could Lansdale duplicate his success in America’s next battleground, Vietnam? Lansdale believed that insurgencies could only be defeated by creating effective state institutions; in other words, by nation-building. But the larger lesson is counterinsurgency works when you find a Magsaysay to implement it; it does not when you are stuck with less charismatic, less honest, and less effective leaders. Lansdale developed a close relationship with South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, but the latter lacked Magsaysay’s ability to relate to the common people and thereby gain legitimacy for his administration. The authoritarian Diem built a one-party state that lacked popular backing among large segments of the South Vietnamese populace.

In 1961 Lansdale came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who offered him the position of ambassador to South Vietnam or failing that, commander of the military advisory group. Lansdale declined both positions, but the president’s favor stirred jealousy in the ranks of Washington bureaucracy. After helping to draft an interagency task force report on Vietnam, Lansdale was all but excluded from implementing it. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had little use for someone who couldn’t provide a path to victory using quantitative inputs and systems analysis. Lansdale’s influence on the Vietnam War waned and his later tours in Saigon were overshadowed by the massive ground war that followed the infusion of U.S. ground troops into the conflict—a step he had counseled against but could do nothing to prevent.

Even as talented a figure as Lansdale could not change the arc of history already heavily slanted against Diem’s regime. American diplomatic and military officials subsequently made matters much worse by failing to embrace the psychological warfare and civic action components of counterinsurgency warfare, by attempting to fight guerrillas with conventional military forces backed by massive firepower, and eventually by Americanizing the conflict. Even had U.S. leaders followed his advice, it is unlikely that Lansdale’s presence could have changed the ultimate outcome in Vietnam. Diem’s unwillingness to bolster his government by engaging the people of South Vietnam and bringing them into the political process undercut his legitimacy and ultimately doomed his regime. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that American backing of a coup against Diem in 1963 eliminated what little chance South Vietnam had of stabilizing politically.

When Lansdale returned to Vietnam in 1965, ostensibly to lead the pacification effort, he was marginalized by other U.S. players in Saigon, more intent on protecting their bureaucratic turf than on cooperating to conduct the kind of “hearts and minds” campaign with which they fundamentally disagreed. Lansdale ended his final tour in Vietnam in the summer of 1968, a Cassandra doomed to understand the realities of the war in Vietnam but incapable of making anyone in power in Washington understand.

During his career, Lansdale fought as many battles with the U.S. government bureaucracy as he did with communist guerrillas. He operated best when given broad authority and a small but capable team while stationed far away from Washington, D.C. His more conventional supervisors resented his independence and reluctance to follow orders. Lansdale was as unconventional as the wars he was trying to wage and win; a maverick hailed by some as the “Lawrence of Asia” and by others as a reckless operative who needed to be reined in. His inability to find a way to ingratiate himself with senior leaders at Defense and State eventually sealed his fate.

Even Lansdale’s work in the Philippines was overturned by the tragic death of Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash in 1957. The Philippine government quickly returned to its previous dysfunctional state of corruption and incompetence.

The true tragedy in this period was the failure of democracy to take root in the Third World in Asia, an outcome that Lansdale had done his best to forestall but which in the end he was powerless to avert. In a 1964 Foreign Affairs article Lansdale wrote, “The great lesson was that there must be a heartfelt cause to which the legitimate government is pledged.” The unstated truth was that such causes and governments rarely have need for U.S. assistance in combating insurgencies in the first place.

The Road Not Taken is highly recommended reading for historians of the Cold War and military leaders, Foreign Service officers, and intelligence personnel wrestling with America’s current challenges in the small wars of the 21st century, as well as general readers looking for an exhilarating story of a fascinating character in American history.

About Peter Mansoor

Colonel Peter R. Mansoor, U.S. Army (Retired), is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History and a frequent commentator in the media on national security matters. He assumed this position in September 2008 after a 26-year career in the U.S. Army that culminated in his service in Iraq as the executive officer to General David Petraeus, the Commanding General of Multi-National Force-Iraq, during the period of the surge in 2007-2008. He has authored a history of this experience, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and The Remaking of the Iraq War, which was a finalist for the inaugural Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History in 2013.

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6 responses to “A Tragic Tale of Nation Building”

  1. This article, and this book, are far too flattering. American covert interference around the world has generally led to disaster – for everyone. The implication that a better leader in Viet Nam, other the Diem, might have resulted in different outcome is spurious. The Vietnamese wanted colonials out – no matter who and no matter how They were always going to win. American involvement in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Viet Nam, Cuba, etc etc has ALL been disastrous, especially to this indigenous people. Lets face it, the Vietnamese kicked our ass; so did the Cubans. We got a draw in Korea. We will lose in Afghanistan, and have already lost in Iraq. We haven’t won anything since 1945. America should stay home. We are incompetent at nation building and no one wants us anyway.

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    • What a well-considered, astute, and totally constructive analysis, Mister BC, that you so kindly just provided to us misguided yahoos who think our country might possibly have a contribution to make. I salute you!

      • Yu would be incorrect. In foreign policy America is a train reck. We let foreign policy be dictated by business – ie Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and on and on; OR stupidity because Americans are too insular and ideological to understand the forces at work in the rest of the world. We should stay home; shut up; and worry about our own divided, violent, unhealthy society. If one looks at the troubled places in the world, America caused or contributed to most of them.

  2. What a well-considered, astute, and totally constructive analysis, Mister BC, that you so kindly just provided to us misguided yahoos who think our country might possibly have a contribution to make. I salute you!

  3. Yeah, always gotta watch out for those train recks, especially when the reckage ends up on the Interstate highway down below; as in two or three Amtrak recks ago. Also, any clue as to why my previous posting was duplicated here under David Freeman’s name?