Edward Lansdale (1908-87) was one of America’s most important military thinkers and practitioners, and yet he is barely known to the wider world. In “The Road Not Taken,” Max Boot aptly calls him “the American T.E. Lawrence ”: eccentric, rebellious and charismatic, a man who had an uncanny way of bonding with Third World leaders and who believed that the art of war was, as Mr. Boot puts it, “to attract the support of the uncommitted.”
He changed the course of history in the Philippines by leading a fight against Marxist guerrillas there in the 1950s and played a key role in the early stages of the Vietnam War—though with tragically less success. Had Lansdale’s advice been taken, Mr. Boot argues, South Vietnam might still have fallen to the communists, but far fewer than 58,000 Americans would have died there. “The Road Not Taken” is an impressive work, an epic and elegant biography based on voluminous archival sources. It belongs to a genre of books that takes a seemingly obscure hero and uses his story as a vehicle to capture a whole era.
Lansdale grew up in Detroit, the son of a businessman who worked in the auto industry. As the father’s fortunes rose, Mr. Boot tells us, the family moved from a working-class neighborhood to the suburbs. Lansdale attended UCLA, where he earned a degree in English and participated in ROTC, receiving a reserve commission in the Army. During World War II, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, though not as an overseas operative. Stateside, he gathered intelligence and recruited agents. “Not much in the way of heroics,” he later said, “but it was truly fascinating work for me.” About a year later he was accepted back into the Army and, near the war’s end, shipped out to the Philippines, where he remained for a few years after the war, returning there again in 1950 as an adviser to the government (and reporting to the CIA).
Like Lawrence of Arabia and Kit Carson among the Indians, Lansdale immediately grasped that wars can be about cultural expertise as much as battle formations. “I have always felt,” he said, “that if you are going to report on something, don’t take the word of other people, go out and eyeball it.” His technique, natural to his larger-than-life personality yet unusual for American officialdom at the time, was to get to know the indigenous people and to treat them as equals. He believed that the answers to Washington policy questions emanate upward from the foreign terrain itself. As one Filipino remarked: “Ed had a way, he could make a friend of everybody except Satan.”
In the Philippines, where guerrillas were attempting to overthrow the government, it did not take long for Lansdale to realize that the “blunderbuss” approach of the Filipino security forces was making enemies of the very rural population that needed to be won over. He not only befriended Ramon Magsaysay, the Philippine defense minister, but literally moved in with him. They spent days at a time together out in the mountainous jungles until they both thought as one.
It was in the Philippines, while fighting the Marxist Huks, that Lansdale coined the phrase “civic action,” a reference to the need for giving the rural population a stake in the outcome of an insurgency war so that it is motivated to join your side. “Lansdale was one of the few Americans of this period who had read Mao Zedong’s works,” Mr. Boot notes. Quoting Mao, Lansdale said that one must “keep the closest possible relations with the common people.” On a small scale, that meant being “courteous and polite.” In a larger and more lethal dimension, it meant avoiding indiscriminate violence. Lansdale hated airborne strikes because they killed civilians. He gave Filipino soldiers cheap cameras to photograph the enemy they had just killed: This simple plan made casualty figures more accurate and encouraged the troops not to shoot women and children. By the early 1950s he had come to hate the mentality of body counts and other statistical reductions of war that would later defeat the United States in Vietnam.
On the heels of victory in the Philippines, Lansdale headed for South Vietnam, where his worst enemies would be not the Vietnamese but American officials. The French would soon leave the country, and the U.S. would step into their imperial-like role. In 1954, following the French defeat, Vietnam was divided into two parts, with the northern part governed by a lethally aggressive regime that combined nationalism and communism and was soon fomenting guerrilla attacks in the pro-Western south.
First, Lansdale alienated the U.S. Ambassador, J. Lawton Collins, one of the few generals who had seen action in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II and who, partly because of that experience, inhabited a military mind-set that was, Mr. Boot says, “unsuited to the complexities and difficulties of Vietnam.” Collins wanted to cut the South Vietnamese army in half, partly because, in his view, it was costing U.S. taxpayers too much money. Lansdale, by contrast, wanted it to take control of rural areas being vacated by the anti-French, communist Vietminh and then to integrate local militias into the national army so as to provide a Vietnamese solution—and not a foreign one—to communist aggression.
By 1955, Lansdale and his small team were writing a counterinsurgency blueprint for South Vietnam. The core of it was, as one might expect, an approach centered on protecting the local population and winning its support, not winning large “battles” and claiming conquered acreage. The strategy could only succeed, Lansdale believed, with credible civilian governance. And so he befriended the leaders of various South Vietnamese sects—political and tribal—as well as the prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, just as he had befriended Magsaysay in the Philippines. He was accused of bribing the sect leaders, but as a British officer once said about Lawrence, he “could certainly not have done what he did without the gold, but no one else could have done it with ten times the amount.”
It was Lansdale’s genius to intuit in the 1950s that, despite the great set-piece victories just a few years before—at El Alamein and Stalingrad, for example—the future would be less one of conventional warfare than of guerrilla fighting. He advised the Kennedy administration that it needed a new ambassador in South Vietnam who could “influence Asians through understanding them sympathetically” and who would be alert to the guerrilla tactics being employed to topple South Vietnam. His advice was ignored. Writing much later from hindsight, after tens of thousands of body bags had come home, Walt Rostow, Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, would say that Lansdale’s counsel represented “a kind of last chance” to avoid the ensuing tragedy.
From the beginning, Diem had been a difficult ally for the U.S. In the 1950s, Lansdale argued that Diem, for all his faults, represented the best available option for a non-communist government in Saigon. He was, however, increasingly concerned about Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, a paranoid, Mussolini-esque figure, and about his wife, the scheming Madame Nhu. Even so, he advised President John F. Kennedy to keep Diem in power.
The administration ignored Lansdale’s advice and toppled Diem in November 1963, after which came infighting, more coups, and the collapse of the strategic-hamlet program, a strategy that had worked to pacify the countryside by reducing communist infiltration through protected communities. Indeed, Diem’s assassination led to a situation in South Vietnam that went from bad to worse, with massive U.S. escalation, high body counts, and a terror-stricken population. The war continued in such a way through 1968, when Gen. Creighton Abrams would turn the strategy in a direction vaguely akin to Lansdale’s intentions.
The most iconic moment of Mr. Boot’s biography comes in 1961, when Lansdale, just back from Vietnam, briefs the new defense secretary, Robert McNamara. Lansdale “unceremoniously dumped his cargo of dirty weapons caked with mud and blood, on the secretary’s immaculate desk.” He told McNamara that these very weapons had been used “just a little bit ago before I got them.” Lansdale then talked about how and why an enemy with tattered pajamas and sandals was “licking” South Vietnamese soldiers who had been generously supplied with equipment by the United States. “Always keep in mind,” Lansdale told McNamara, that the struggle was not about weapons and the material things of life but about “ideas and ideals,” which the communists had in abundance. McNamara listened stone-faced, uncomprehending. After all, Lansdale’s ideas could not be reduced to the logic of mathematics by which the defense secretary lived and breathed.
Lansdale was also alienated by President Johnson’s military commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, another hero of World War II, who oversaw the build-up of conventional U.S. forces in Vietnam. In the mid-1960s, Lansdale wrote in a letter: “Are paddy farmers in a combat zone to be shot just because they inadvertently are standing in the way of Vietcong targets or are they to be protected and helped?” Westmoreland would choose the former option. For his part, Lansdale ended his involvement with Vietnam in 1968. He brought out “In the Midst of Wars” in 1972—Mr. Boot calls it a “deliberately opaque” memoir—and died of a heart ailment 15 years later, at the age of 79.
Mr. Boot’s full-bodied biography does not ignore Lansdale’s failures and shortcomings—not least his difficult relations with his family—but it properly concentrates on his ideas and his attempts to apply them in Southeast Asia. In Mr. Boot’s judgment, the American war there “would have been more humane and less costly” if McNamara, Westmoreland and other American officials had taken his advice. “The Road Not Taken” gives a vivid portrait of a remarkable man and intelligently challenges the lazy assumption that failed wars are destined to fail or that failure, if it comes, cannot be saved from the worst possible outcome.