Could it have turned out differently? Even before the guns fell silent in Vietnam, Americans began debating whether an alternate strategy might have brought success in the war. For some revisionist analysts, the path to victory would have involved more firepower from an earlier point on more parts of enemy territory. In this interpretation, overcautious civilians compelled the United States military to fight “with one arm tied behind its back.”
Never mind that this ostensibly “limited” war saw eight million tons of bombs dropped by American and allied aircraft on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1962 and 1973, killing many hundreds of thousands of civilians, or that the United States sprayed some 19 million gallons of defoliants on South Vietnam in an attempt to deny enemy forces jungle cover and food. Never mind that the American troop commitment at its height reached more than half a million men, or that more than 58,000 of them never made it back alive.
The more interesting and at first glance attractive argument is the opposite one: that the answer in Vietnam was to deploy less military force, not more. Washington planners, this perspective holds, erred in seeing the struggle principally as a conventional military conflict when what really mattered was the human dimension. They forgot that in a war of this kind it was not enough to be against Communism; one had to be for something. The key to victory lay in meeting the needs of people where they lived, in responding to their aspirations, in winning, as the saying went, their “hearts and minds.”
One man personified this outlook more than perhaps anyone else: Edward Lansdale, the larger-than-life intelligence operative of America’s Cold War who is the subject of Max Boot’s judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing, new book, “The Road Not Taken.” A dashing champion of counterinsurgency who helped thwart a rebellion in the Philippines and plotted to oust Fidel Castro, Lansdale was present at the creation of South Vietnam in 1954 as an important adviser to Prime Minister (and later President) Ngo Dinh Diem. His influence would fade, but not his belief that the struggle for Vietnam had to be won — and could be, provided American strategists employed the right combination of political and military measures.
Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal, including a stash of love letters between Lansdale and his Filipino mistress. The narrative dispenses briskly and effectively with the details of Lansdale’s early life, including his college years at U.C.L.A. and his successful entry into the advertising industry, where he learned strategies of psychological manipulation that he later applied as a covert warrior in Southeast Asia. A stint as an intelligence officer under “Wild Bill” Donovan in the wartime Office of Strategic Services convinced him that this work should be his life’s career.
What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare. All these qualities were on display in Lansdale’s first major postwar posting, in the newly independent Philippines, where on behalf of the C.I.A. he helped suppress the left-wing Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s.
But it was in Vietnam that Lansdale would achieve his greatest renown — and frustration. Neil Sheehan’s assertion, in “A Bright Shining Lie,” that “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” is surely an exaggeration, but it speaks to Lansdale’s fundamental importance. Beginning in mid-1954 he ran a covert intelligence operation that sent sabotage teams to North Vietnam and helped facilitate the flow of refugees from north to south.
More consequentially, Lansdale was from the start the closest American adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, his car often parked outside the Saigon leader’s residence deep into the night. When in early 1955 the regime faced violent challenges to its rule from sects within South Vietnam, Lansdale persuaded the Eisenhower administration to stand firm with Diem, a critical move that in all likelihood preserved Diem’s hold on power.
This proved to be the high point of Lansdale’s influence in Saigon — and, for that matter, Washington. Diem grew tired of the American upbraiding him for undemocratic moves like closing opposition newspapers. “Do you think that’s the right thing for ‘the father of his country’ to do?” Lansdale asked, to which Diem replied, “Stop calling me papa!”
Even as his clout diminished and his worries grew over the regime’s coercive actions, Lansdale extolled Diem’s achievements and urged continued American support. No other plausible leader existed who could take the fight to the Vietcong. For Lansdale, as for Boot, Diem’s ouster and murder in a coup d’état in late 1963 backed by the United States was a watershed moment, a calamitous development from which the war effort never fully recovered.
There’s something to this argument — it required about four years for the politics in South Vietnam to settle, and the Communists took advantage of the turmoil — but it misses how bleak and unsustainable the situation was with Diem. Communist forces were already gaining momentum in the countryside after 1962, which is partly why the South Vietnamese military had grown so disgruntled and why the Kennedy administration wanted a change. With his shallow conception of leadership and easy resort to repression, Diem, a Roman Catholic, had long since alienated powerful segments of South Vietnamese society, including the leaders of the Buddhist majority, and his regime enjoyed scant support among the peasantry. The coup against him was enormously popular. It’s hard to see Diem surviving in power for long regardless of what John F. Kennedy did in the fall of 1963.
To his credit, Lansdale always emphasized the need to focus on developments within South Vietnam. More than many American officials, he understood that even if one somehow stopped the flow of men and matériel from the North, the southern insurgency would remain a formidable threat to the Saigon regime. Bombing North Vietnam was therefore no solution. Unshakable in his conviction that the American way was right for everyone, Lansdale nevertheless insisted on the need to show empathy for local values and practices, to spend time with villagers, and he perceived — to a degree at least — the dilemma at the heart of American strategy: What do you do when the destruction deemed necessary to defeat an insurgency alienates the very population you seek to bring over to the government’s side?
Many of Lansdale’s ideas, however, were kooky: He advocated distributing counterfeit official documents in North Vietnam to sow confusion and fear, providing the Vietcong with booby-trapped ammunition intended to blow up in their faces and having Saigon leaders give “fireside chats” à la Franklin D. Roosevelt — and he understood Vietnamese society and politics less well than this admiring book suggests. His well-founded concern about the problems posed by pervasive South Vietnamese official corruption (grasped, contrary to Boot’s claim, by virtually every American intelligence analyst after 1965) did not keep him from championing the unscrupulous, impetuous and flamboyant Nguyen Cao Ky for Saigon’s leadership — he of the aviator sunglasses, purple silk scarf and pearl-handled revolver. Ky’s embrace of American largess made him the very symbol of corruption in the eyes of a great many Vietnamese (and he once told stunned journalists that his only hero was Adolf Hitler).
There is power in Boot’s conclusion that Lansdale “never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietnam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.” In this sense, the Lansdale way was indeed “the road not taken.” Whether that road would have led to the destination he so wanted to reach, however, is doubtful. As much as this irrepressible Cold Warrior might have thought otherwise, Vietnam for the United States was destined to be what it had always been: a riddle beyond American solution.