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?