The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam – by Max Boot, 2018


Anyone who investigates the behavior of Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia (what my friend Jim calls Ugly Americanity) in fiction or fact, will stumble upon Edward Lansdale. Every major work on the C.I.A. has had to deal with Lansdale’s personality, professionalism and impact on the intelligence organization; some praising him as a Good Guy in the idealistic Kennedy mold and a genius at anti-guerrilla tactics; others deriding him as a lightweight ad man, if not a madman, who loved to gab with Asians but did not grab the complexity of their cultures. President Kennedy teased Lansdale that he was America’s James Bond but Lansdale demurred. saying he was not the 007 type.

I’ve been hearing about this larger-than-life intelligence operative psy-war guru for 50 years and now, thanks to military historian Max Boot, I know a great deal about him, about 600 pages of novelistic non-fiction about him.

Followers of the Ugly American Book Club will recall that the real-life Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, who was U.S.A.F. and C.I.A., was the model for Air Force Col. Edwin Barnum Hillandale, a hero of The Ugly American. They both played the harmonica and ate in panciterias to make friends with Filipinos. William J. Lederer, author of The Ugly American, was a friend of Lansdale’s and an unabashed admirer of the undercover agent’s uncommon approach to patriotism and quashing Communism.

Lansdale also has a connection to The Quiet American. Both he and Graham Greene lived in Saigon in 1954. When the book came out in 1956, Lansdale told his wife that Greene’s undercover intelligence agent Alden Pyle was “supposedly based upon me.” For his part Greene denied it, saying Pyle was “younger and more innocent” than Lansdale and besides the book was written before Lansdale arrived in Saigon. When he finally read the book, Lansdale complained that Greene got the politics wrong as well as his description of plastic explosives.

In 1956, Lansdale invited the Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to his home in Saigon to discuss a film version of Greene’s best-seller. The Hollywood producer had acquired the film rights to prevent Europeans from making an “anti-U.S.” movie. The two witty conversationalists hit it off, and it was Lansdale who came up with a plot twist that made the movie anti-Communist and infuriated the English author. Boot describes the plot inversion as an example of Lansdale’s touch for psychological warfare.

In fact, Lansdale already had some experience in spinning yarns to paint the Vietnamese Communists as Evil Incarnate in the eyes of the American public. In 1954, a flotilla of U.S. Navy vessels transported tens of thousands of Catholics from North to South Vietnam in what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The most influential, hair-raising account of the exodus came in the form of Dr. Tom Dooley’s 1960 book, Deliver Us from Evil. The handsome young American doctor vividly describes accounts of Vietminh persecuting Catholics and using chopsticks as instruments of torture. A USIS official, who believed Vietnamese would never waste chopsticks, said he first heard the chopstick torture stories from none other than that wild and crazy psy-ops guy Lansdale.

Boot describes Lansdale as an early purveyor of fake news with a political purpose. Lansdale was very proud of “black psywar” leaflets he penned purporting to be Vietminh leadership preparing an attack on Hanoi, and instructions he distributed on how to inventory prospective war booty, and fake charts showing how U.S. atomic bombs would annihilate the North.

Though Lansdale was not present when the South Vietnamese President Ngo DInh Diem was ousted and assassinated (the turning point of Morris West’s The Ambassador), he served as an adviser to Diem during the Geneva Convention that split Vietnam in half.

Boot’s bountiful new book is a superbly researched biography of Lansdale that covers more than a century of American military intervention in Asia, beginning with the Filipino-American war. Through Lansdale’s letters and author interviews, the biographer lovingly recreates Lansdale’s family tree and the tricky relationship he had with his American wife and his Filipina mistress. But more tellingly, Boot traces Lansdale’s path from ad copywriter for Levi’s to psywar expert and nation-builder. We follow his secret exploits in the jungles of the Philippines, his friendship and mentorship of the Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, and the brilliant unorthodox strategies he employed to undermine and eventually disarm the Huk Rebellion of Filipino Communists.

Based on his success countering insurgency in the Philippines, and despite his lack of knowledge about Cuba, Lansdale was put in charge of America’s campaign to counter Fidel Castro. Though Lansdale was one of the few C.I.A. men who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion, he bore the brunt of blame for the Agency when the invasion failed. Before long, Lansdale was back in Vietnam.

The second half of the book sets out on the road to war in Vietnam before it steers us toward an analysis of the road not taken. Some Monday Morning armchair generals say American presidents should have authorized the use of even greater force against North Vietnam, sooner and spread wider, to nip the Communist insurgency in the bud. But what if Uncle Sam had used less force? It should have been obvious to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as it apparently was to Lansdale, that Vietnam was not a conventional battlefield that could be won by artillery and air power. What if Washington had focused its massive economic and political power on how to best serve the Vietnamese people and make them prosper? Could a lighter military hand guided by a more enlightened nation-building brain have succeeded where tons of bombs and Napalm failed?

 

 

Saint Jack – by Paul Theroux, 1973

Penguin paperback, 1976

Rereading Saint Jack after 40 years, I wondered what Jack Flowers would think about today’s Singapore. Clearly, he would despise the single-party island state for its strict Confucian / hyper-Catholic moralism and repressive regulations, although he might dig it for the innumerable opportunities to make oodles of money.

Flowers was a colorful character out of Boston who washed up in Singapore, much like Paul Theroux, who lectured at a university there in 1968. The author first introduces Flowers as an untrustworthy narrator of his own tawdry Conradian tale. At 53, after years at sea and 14 years in Singapore, Flowers is no longer a Devil-may-care American college dropout. He’s as dispassionate about his day job as an odd-jobber in a Chinese ship chandlery, as he is about his sideline, conscientiously providing Chinese and Malay girls for sailors and married men. Despite a well-earned reputation for provisioning ships and hotels with local women, he doesn’t think of himself as a pimp, merely as A Useful Man, with a reputation for having “a finger in every tart.”

Flowers fawns over his johns like a sycophant, unable to speak his own mind. Dining with one of his customers, he reluctantly passes up the seafood he craves because the customer suggests the food isn’t up to par. Flowers is wilting but not without hope, composing over and over in his mind letters congratulating him on winning a fortune in a hoped-for future.

Into his dispirited life comes a cool-eyed English auditor named William Leigh, who casts shadows like a funeral shroud over Flowers’ purposeful life as a part-time ponce. When Leigh’s heart gives out, Flowers mourns him and thus embarks on his own canonization. A second archangel appears in the form of a U.S. Army employee named Edwin Shuck, who ensures Flowers’ financial success, at least for a while.

Flowers arrived in Singapore just as it was emerging from the cloak of colonialism. Even so, barflies leftover from the Empire populate the bars, exchanging enough British witticisms to make an American reader want to dump a crate of tea in Singapore Harbour.

Having left home for good reason, Flowers didn’t really want to be seen as an American, lampooning his countrymen as “the glad-hander, the ham with the loud jokes and big feet and flashy shirts.” But his Americanness had advantages when it came to pimping. “Being American was part of my uniqueness,” he says. Against his will, Flowers purposefully exaggerates his accent and becomes known as The Yank, making his rounds on a well-upholstered trishaw, making friends with Chinese bargirls and foreign sailors in order to twain East and West.

Remaining at his day job to keep his visa, the streetwise pimp and porn-pusher opens his own brothel, poetically named the Dunroamin. The brothel is a big hit in the demimonde of expats but not the underworld of Chinese secret society gangsters, who kidnap and torture him, tattoo him with Chinese expletives and torch his bordello.

With money from the U.S. Army, the burnt-out brothel owner survives purgatory to become the glad-handing proprietor of the Paradise Gardens, which succors G.I.s on R & R from Vietnam for five days at a time. Happy in his Eden, catering to sexually starved G.I.s, Flowers begins to see himself as a saint awaiting annunciation. “I was the kind of angel I expected to visit me,” he explains. “I was a noisy cheerful creature. But the mutters in my mind told me I was Saint Jack.”

On this Earth, Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. When a change in Pentagon policy shutters Saint Jack’s profitable Paradise, Flowers seeks out Shuck, the Government man who once told him, “We’re all whores one way or another.” Funny that it’s Shuck, a decidedly Ugly American, who gives Saint Jack a shot at salvation.