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?

 

 

The Ugly American – by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, 1958

Mass-market paperback, 1962

The Ugly American is paramount in my pantheon of novels about Americans bungling about in Southeast Asia. As literature, The Ugly American is not a great novel or even a good novel. A New York Times book reviewer opined that it was “neither subtle as art nor altogether convincing as fiction.” But it touched a nerve, and half a century after its publication, the book’s title remains a catch-phrase for incompetent and insensitive U.S. diplomats, arrogant entrepreneurs, and even travelers and tourists from the States who act badly abroad.

The novel is clumsily episodic, consisting of loosely intertwined sketches. On the plus side, the authors serve up engaging descriptions of what it’s like to live and work as an American in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, some of the sketches read like a CV.

What stands out most about the American miscreants Lederer and Burdick found mucking about in Southeast Asia is their ineptitude — but that’s the whole point of the exercise.

The authors set their story in Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country “out toward Burma and Thailand.” The trouble brewing in Sarkhan serves as a snapshot of the mid-1950s when America was wading into the quagmire the French left behind in Indochina.

Perhaps the ugliest American in the book is “Lucky” Lou Sears, a three-term U.S. Senator. When Lucky Lou loses his bid for re-election, he appeals to the White House for a post-Senate sinecure. Alas there are no federal judgeships available so they offer him an ambassadorship in Sarkhan. “Where the hell’s Sarkhan?” the future envoy asks. When Lucky Lou learns that the ambassador’s mansion comes rent-free with an entertainment allowance, and diplomats can buy alcohol tax-free, he agrees to represent the United States in Sarkhan.

In stark contrast to Lucky Lou Sears, we meet another Lucky Lou, the Soviet ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitsyn. Unlike his American opposite number, Lucky Lou 2 can read and write Sarkhanese. Moscow’s man in Sarkhan spent months preparing for the assignment with conscious efforts to appeal to the local people; he lost 40 pounds; he took ballet and nose-flute lessons to better appreciate Sarkhanese music and dance; he read Sarkhanese literature and attended lessons on Buddhism. Upon his arrival in the country, he humbly presents himself, bowing low, to the Prime Minister and the Chief Abbot of Sarkhanese Buddhism. While the American ambassador gleans information from lavish cocktail parties where Asians are not invited, the Soviet ambassador gets his information from Sarkhanese drivers and translators working for the Americans.

Nearly halfway through the book, Lou Sears gets his judgeship. He is succeeded in Sarkhan by Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite, a professional Foreign Service officer. MacWhite has taken the trouble to learn a lot about the country and learn a little of the language. MacWhite considers his appointment a capstone to his career, and readily accepts the mantle of crusader against creeping Communism. He travels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Burma to learn about Communist atrocities and counter-insurgency tactics to quell the tide. Though well intentioned MacWhite makes mistakes that will cost him dearly. Meanwhile the chapters of his fact-finding tour provide entrée for the authors to fictionalize a several Americans who were well-known in Southeast Asia, among them a Cold War warrior who closely resembles the C.I.A. operative Edward Lansdale, a pioneer in psychological warfare and counter-terrorism.

A few of the heroes are unselfish technical specialists who chose to live among the people they’re there to help. In Cambodia, we meet Tom Knox, a poultry expert from Iowa, who strives to improve food security among impoverished farmers. Knox suggests to the U.S. aid mission that for very little money, he could import hens and roosters from America to strengthen the local breeding stock, and increase Cambodian annual egg production from 30 eggs per hen to 200. But enamored of big military-industrial type development projects, Uncle Sam turns him down.

In Vietnam, we meet Homer Atkins, the Ugly American of the title. The irony is that Atkins, who describes himself as ugly, is the antipathy of the ugly actors who give Americans a bad name. Atkins prefers to live outside the capital without the creature comforts so crucial to top American officials. Atkins is a doer. He’s not comfortable taking meetings with misguided U.S. officials. Rather than look them in the eye, he looks down at his thick-veined, liver spot-freckled, grease-stained hands. His hands remind him he’s an ugly man but Atkins takes courage knowing he can always earn a good living with his ugly hands.

Atkins is a self-made millionaire who felt a calling to help people in developing Asia. He travels around Vietnam, talking to all kinds of people, and assessing the need for the dams and military roads the Americans are advocating. In his final report, Atkins tells the American aid apparatus that the Vietnamese people don’t need roads designed for tanks; they need the building blocks of development, like quarries and brick factories. Scorned in Saigon, the Ugly American is invited to Sarkhan, where Ambassador MacWhite challenges him to build sustainable water systems in the boonies, an assignment Atkins relishes. (Atkins plays a major role as a highway engineer in the movie version of “The Ugly American” as discussed below.)

The Ugly American (film) – directed by George Englund

 

The Ugly American directed by George Englund

Universal International, 1963

Seen on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRC2E46fFs0

Moviegoers who flocked to the screen adaptation of The Ugly American in 1963 were familiar with the best-selling novel’s celebrated cause, calling out American diplomats and aid workers for their ineffectiveness in the face of Communist aggression. If they’d read the book, they were probably as pleasantly surprised as I was to find that screenwriter Stewart Stern had turned clunky journalistic chapters into an action movie that still had a bit of whistleblower’s outrage. Rather than overload filmgoers with background as Lederer and Burdick had done to armchair readers, director Arthur Hill skimped on details, leaving critics and many viewers in the dark about the politics behind the action.

Variety put it this way: “Some of the ambiguities, hypocrisies and perplexities of Cold War politics are observed, dramatized and, to a degree, analyzed in The Ugly American. It is a thought-provoking but uneven screen translation taken from, but not in a literal sense based upon, the popular novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.”

After seeing the movie, Burdick wrote a newspaper column noting that the movie possessed “only the most passing resemblance” to his bestseller. But the professor conceded the movie was in many ways better than the book, crediting the filmmakers with doing a fine job of fleshing out the characters and creating drama without diluting the book’s political impact.

In his first post-“Mutiny on the Bounty” role, Marlon Brando stars as Ambassador Harrison MacWhite (rebranded from the original Gilbert MacWhite). Brando arrives in Sarkhan with a pencil-thin mustache, looking every bit as macho as Clark Gable. He’s no bumbling Lou Sears. He’s a savvy scholar who’s got wise-ass answers for everything, and in the movie version, he’s no newcomer to Sarkhan. Highjacking the backstory of another character in the source material, MacWhite was an O.S.S. officer who parachuted into Sarkhan during a secret mission in 1943. Back then he teamed up with a Sarkhanese named Deong to help liberate the country from Japanese occupation. Now as the new ambassador MacWhite wants to brush up on his Sarkhanese language skills and rekindle his friendship with Deong after a ten-year absence. As in the book, Deong has changed a lot since the Old Days. He is critical of American imperialism and spouts Communist ideology.

MacWhite is perceptive and well-meaning but blinded by naivete and stymied by pig-headedness. This keeps him from seeing and understanding what the Sarkhanese people really want and need. Homer Atkins is back, played by Pat Hingle, who later played the Commissioner in “Batman” movies. Living as he does in the boondocks, Atkins understands that the military highway MacWhite insists on completing is the wrong project at the wrong time.

When tensions explode in ugly, violent and realistically frightening riots, MacWhite begins to comprehend that America’s goals are not Sarkhan’s goals. He observes: “We can’t hope to win the Cold War unless we remember what we’re for, as well as what we’re against.”