The Still-Ugly American

Could a legendary Cold War spy’s “hearts and minds” strategy, which failed in Vietnam, have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s a tough sell.

Max Boot, the military historian and Never-Trumper, has a lot on his mind: the fate of counterinsurgency warfare; whether American intervention is a force for good abroad; and the role of racism, xenophobia, and even misogyny in U.S. national security policy.

The Road Not Taken:
Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
by Max Boot
Liveright, 768 pp.

The Road Not Taken uses 600 pages to weave these threads into the complex life of Major General Edward Lansdale, a now-obscure figure who was as well known in his day as General David Petraeus was in the late 2000s or General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf was during the first Gulf War. Though Lansdale never commanded a war effort or even fired a gun in battle, he was a pivotal figure in the Vietnam era, influential enough to have been the inspiration for both the naive villain of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and the hero of William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American. Boot is less interested in moralizing, which will frustrate some consumers of Vietnam literature but intrigue others. Rather, his thesis is that the “hearts and minds” approach that Lansdale championed—what Boot calls “Lansdalism”—could have rescued not just South Vietnam but also America’s twenty-first-century forays into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.

His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio “Pat” Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)

The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his “whole of government approach” to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms an obscure congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, as the country’s savior and promotes his candidacy in what is ultimately a free and fair—though OSS-funded—campaign.

Magsaysay’s slogan—“All-Out Force or All-Out Friendship”—exactly encapsulates Lansdale’s approach. Lansdale had no problem with military force—though he preferred advisers, infiltration, and subversion to large-scale ground troops—or with bribery and intense outside engagement in a nation’s affairs. He twinned this with insistence on developing broad-based political support for partner governments and urged attention to effective government, apparently clean elections, and stringent avoidance of civilian casualties. Washington could achieve those goals, he repeatedly proposed, by going outside its military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies to send a “small team of winners,” backed at the highest levels, to identify, promote, and support new leaders in the country under threat.

In the Philippines, this plan works splendidly. Magsaysay is popular, the Huks are defeated, Manila institutions seem to grow stronger. Soon Lansdale is off to Vietnam, where he arrives just as the country has been partitioned, an independent government replaces French rule in the South, Ho Chi Minh’s communists do the same in the North, and massive refugee flows are commencing. For the next two years, Lansdale builds his intimacy with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh and uses every trick of nation building and skullduggery to advance him at the expense of Viet Cong fighters, warlords, criminal gangs, the French, and, finally, even his own American colleagues. In 1955, when Eisenhower is on the brink of approving a counter-Diem coup, Lansdale successfully reverses these orders.

But the 1955 success is Lansdale’s high-water mark. Vietnam’s Diem doesn’t give Lansdale’s theories of popular legitimacy the same enthusiasm he gives to recruiting warlords. At home, Lansdale gains promotions and extraordinary access to a string of presidents and cabinet officials but suffers a reputation for insubordination and even nuttiness. His career detours into CIA scheming to assassinate Castro, and his later efforts to resuscitate support for Diem fail, with one of his old team members engineering the 1964 coup and Diem’s brutal killing.

When Lansdale finally returns to Vietnam in 1965, he cannot win support for his “hearts and minds” programming either from his American colleagues or the swift succession of military rulers in Saigon. As Marine Philip Caputo explains, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”

Ultimately, Lansdale leaves Vietnam in near disgrace and lives half-forgotten in suburban Washington. He resurfaces occasionally—as the target of opprobrium during the Church Committee hearings into CIA misdeeds (including the planned Castro assassination) and as an adviser to Oliver North in the early Reagan years. When Lansdale died, the Nation magazine was one of many to offer intense but mixed eulogies, calling him “the Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh.”

Boot argues that heeding Lansdale’s ideas on counterinsurgency, both in specific instances and more broadly in U.S. policy, would have led to better outcomes. Lansdale himself reportedly could not sum up his approach, but Boot’s summary produces three rather simple instructions: Learn (about the society). Like (“identif[y] and cultivat[e] influential individuals sympathetic to American interests”). Listen (instead of lecturing your developing-country counterparts).

Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries. He also honestly situates Lansdale amid the racial prejudice of his colleagues, who close the Manila embassy coffee shop to Filipinos and cause his lover to fear for her acceptance in the United States. And this work is unlike any piece of military history I know in cataloging its protagonists’ sexual misdeeds. Nearly every other significant figure in U.S. security policy history seems to be a “womanizer” or a “serial womanizer,” or “boasted of ‘having’ a woman every day.” At first, this information feels like sensationalization. Does it matter that Allen Dulles “tortured” his wife with stories of the beautiful women he met (and slept with) overseas? That Pentagon Papers author Daniel Ellsberg “passed around the RAND office nude photos of the women he had slept with”?

Boot never editorializes directly, but his narrative makes a strong case that it does matter. Every generation produces soldiers and diplomats who, like Lansdale, evangelize on the importance of understanding and respecting the local cultures of nations America is trying to “protect,” “save,” or “build.” But the stories this volume tells about voluntary isolation and lack of knowledge, vision, or respect for anything outside U.S. security culture, in all its violent, self-reinforcing whiteness and maleness, have a terrible timelessness to them. It would be wonderful to report that the general progress in race and gender relations and cultural sensitivity since Lansdale’s day has produced a generation of American soldiers and diplomats who are reliably culturally appropriate and well informed. But it hasn’t.

This is one of several ways that the weight of the history Boot recounts undermines the hopes he brings to the telling. Lansdale’s career arc is, in some ways, the inverse of the growth of U.S. Cold War bureaucracy. His Philippine success came in a country where America had forty years of experience as the colonial power, separated by an ocean from communist foes, and at a time when nascent intelligence institutions allowed a lone operator lots of leeway. None of those conditions applied in Vietnam; still less do they apply in Iraq or Afghanistan—nor, with the advent of 24/7 connectivity with an ever-larger security bureaucracy in Washington, will they ever again.

Lansdale himself perfectly exemplifies the core contradictions of the American nation-building project. He sees everything he does as pointed toward democratic institutions and the superiority of representative government—yet his achievements come by hand-selecting personalities and installing them by subverting the rules of democratic governance. While his bureaucratic opponents tend to be skeptical of even the outer forms of representative government in the midst of insurgency, neither he nor they appear to have the plans or the patience to let real local institutions flourish. He castigates his opponents for their failure to perceive the role played by nationalism—but the essence of his successful operations is to reshape governments toward serving American aspirations.

One is left, then, to ponder a set of questions Boot does not raise. Why does the American system make it so difficult for the Lansdales to be heard? Why do Americans of various political persuasions charge abroad on values and ideology and wind up betting the house on personalities, from Diem to Hamid Karzai? What are the realistic limits of partnership between a people trying to gain its freedom and a powerful state? I would have liked to read a book that began with those questions and confronted Lansdale—or, for that matter, David Petraeus or the current national security adviser, H. R. McMaster—through them. Perhaps one day Boot will write that book. For now, we are in his debt for writing a book about another time that challenges us to raise those questions in ours.

Heather Hurlburt

Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America’s Political Reform Program.