BECAUSE the Vietnam war was the first that the United States unequivocally lost, American treatments of it are often couched as might-have-beens. Liberals look for moments when America might have avoided the war; conservatives search for ways that it could have been won. The latter temptation grew after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, when America again became mired in guerrilla conflicts. In the late 2000s, neo-conservative authors began arguing that America could have triumphed in Vietnam (and, by extension, could win in Afghanistan and Iraq) by committing to so-called “counter-insurgency” strategies, which involve political nation-building rather than relying solely on firepower. Practitioners of counter-insurgency (including H.R. McMaster, who later became Donald Trump’s national-security adviser) rose to the top of America’s security hierarchy.
Max Boot, a journalist turned foreign-policy scholar, supported winning both Iraq and Afghanistan with counter-insurgency strategies. (In 2001 he wrote that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands” needed “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”.) His new book is a biography of Edward Lansdale, a legendary CIA officer and pioneer of counter-insurgency thinking. As its title suggests, it is another entry in the Vietnam what-if genre. Yet Mr Boot’s views have evolved. Once a staunch conservative, his attitudes on social issues of race and gender have moved in a liberal direction. One question hanging over his book is whether his attitude towards military intervention has mellowed, too.
Lansdale was an advertising executive from California who joined the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) during the second world war. In the Philippines in the early 1950s he helped defeat a communist insurgency by arranging for an honest Filipino congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, to become defence secretary, and successfully managing his campaign for president. He acquired a deep understanding of local society by convening a team of creative military officers and politicians (and by launching a long-term extramarital affair with a Filipino widow, Pat Kelly, whom he would eventually marry). Lansdale persuaded the army to stop alienating peasants with bloody, heavy-handed tactics, and paired military offensives with political campaigns to divide the communists and buck up trust in the government.
In 1954, Lansdale shifted his attention to Vietnam, where France was losing its war against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas. As a CIA liaison officer in Saigon, he developed a close relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem (pictured), the nationalist Catholic chosen to lead South Vietnam once the French left and the communists took over the north. Lansdale and his dozen-odd advisers played a crucial role in stabilising the rickety new state. They arranged for American ships to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the north to the south, and helped Diem win the support of sectarian militias and crush a heavily armed mafia, the Binh Xuyen. By now Lansdale was seen by the American public as a wizard of democratic nation-building, lionised in “The Ugly American”, a political novel about American diplomacy that came out in 1958. (Contrary to rumour, he was not the model for Graham Greene’s “Quiet American”.)
Mr Boot argues that things soured in Vietnam after Lansdale returned to America in late 1956. He understood that fighting insurgencies was fundamentally a political task, one of building a coherent government that commands popular assent. Yet as communist insurgents returned to South Vietnam in the early 1960s (aided by Diem’s increasing authoritarianism), American advisers grew frustrated, and President John Kennedy approved a coup in November 1963. The coup leaders unexpectedly killed Diem; Lansdale was aghast (as was Kennedy). The government rapidly disintegrated in a series of coups by squabbling generals, and in 1965 America had to send in combat troops. Lansdale returned for an ineffectual stint as an adviser from 1965-68, but for Mr Boot, overthrowing Diem was the critical mistake that ended any chance of a viable South Vietnam—one Lansdale would not have made.
Here, Mr Boot is wrong. Diem was a genuine Vietnamese leader, but he was also rigid and vindictive, relying on a narrow Catholic power base. By 1963 he was pointlessly cracking down on Buddhists, whose monks set themselves on fire in protest. His own pilots tried to kill him by bombing the presidential palace. Few historians think he could have saved the south. As for Lansdale, while he grasped the centrality of politics in fighting insurgencies, he was prone to wacky secret-agent schemes. A congressional investigation into CIA misconduct in 1975, after his retirement, uncovered a proposal he once made to undermine Fidel Castro by having navy ships fire special shells to make Cubans think that Christ had returned. It also accused him of condoning assassination.
Mr Boot seems to have grown less gung-ho since 2001, and he acknowledges that South Vietnam might have fallen no matter what America did. But his claim that Lansdale’s strategies represent a “road not taken” is unconvincing. Counter-insurgency was tried, by Lansdale and others in Vietnam—including figures such as John Paul Vann and Creighton Abrams, who have featured in their own what-if books. It was tried again, in Afghanistan and Iraq, by officers like General McMaster and David Petraeus. The road has been taken. It is tortuous and exhausting, and it is not clear that it leads anywhere.