The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Max Boot. NY, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2018.
Numerous authors have sought to answer one of the most vexing questions of modern American history: Why did the United States lose the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War shows no signs of receding from America’s consciousness. The flurry of introspective articles about the fifty-year anniversary of the 1968 Tet offensive and the release of Ken Burns’ outstanding 12-part documentary, The Vietnam War, underscores this point. Although the wounds of the Vietnam War may have begun to heal, the war remains a contentious topic, even forty years after the fall of Saigon. The academic debate mirrors America’s prickly public discourse over Vietnam. Numerous authors have sought to answer one of the most vexing questions of modern American history: Why did the United States lose the Vietnam War?
The answers to this question are diverse. Historians such as Andrew Krepinevich and Lewis Sorley point the finger at General William Westmoreland’s war of attrition that didn’t adequately resource counterinsurgency. Conversely, Harry Summers leverages Clausewitz to argue the United States did not sufficiently address the North Vietnamese Army and spent far too much time on counterinsurgency. General H.R. McMaster put the blame squarely on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Lyndon Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for hiding inconvenient truths about the deteriorating security in Saigon. Recently, Greg Daddis argued the United States was never going to win, because American power cannot transform a newly born country in the midst of both an industrial strength insurgency and a conventional war.
Into this vortex steps Max Boot with his 600-page tome, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Boot, a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, a writer for Commentary and Foreign Policy, and now a columnist for The Washington Post, is as close as a defense intellectual gets to becoming a rock-star. His previous books Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present and The Savage Wars of Peace were trumpeted during the rise of population-centric counterinsurgency. Unsurprisingly, Boot uses his biography of former CIA operative and Air Force General Edward Lansdale to make the case that Lansdale’s light footprint, counterinsurgency approach could have saved the United States in Vietnam.
In short, the small footprint approach to counterinsurgency has its advantages, but the nation hosting the military action will ultimately have the final say in the type of government they accept.
Boot’s thesis, however, does not hold up to scrutiny. Would the United States have been better off listening to Lansdale during his various stints in Vietnam? Possibly. However, as Boot explains, that Lansdale was not heeded was partly his own fault. Lansdale was a colorful figure, who reveled in his maverick status and his disdain for the sprawling national security apparatus. If Lansdale had been a bit more of an adept bureaucratic knife fighter, perhaps he would have been more successful. Yet, if he had, it is likely that he would never have been the agile advisor who helped Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay defeat the Hukbalahap rebellion. Further, Lansdale was not the only canary in the coal mine. There were many other professionals within the U.S. national security apparatus advocating for a smaller footprint in Vietnam: Army Colonel John Paul Vann, Under Secretary of State George Ball, Marine Corps General Victor Krulak, and legendary Air Commando Brigadier General Heinie Aderholt, to name just a few. None of them succeeded either.
If Lansdale had succeeded, would the United States have really been successful in propping up South Vietnam? Boot never proves his counterfactual thesis. He simply states that a smaller footprint approach worked in the Philippines and thus might have worked in Vietnam. However, Boot is also honest enough to show the limitations of the small footprint approach to counterinsurgency. Lansdale was wildly successful in helping Magsaysay defeat a communist insurgency. Nevertheless, Magsaysay’s democratic tenure could not forestall the 1972 coup d’état of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his subsequent twenty years in power. In short, the small footprint approach to counterinsurgency has its advantages, but the nation hosting the military action will ultimately have the final say in the type of government they accept.
Boot also asserts that President Diem’s coup d’état was the proverbial turning point in the Vietnam saga, as it robbed the country of capable yet flawed leader. He is not alone in this contention. Others historians, such as Mark Moyars and Geoffrey Shaw, have argued that, for all of Diem’s flaws, he was the best option available. This leads one to ask a number of questions. Is this really the turning point? What of America’s decision to not support Ho Chi Minh’s bid for independence after World War II? What should one make of the misapplication of George Kennan’s containment doctrine that pressed for halting the spread of communism in only geopolitically important locations like Europe? While ousting Diem further enmeshed immersed the United States in Vietnam, so did President Eisenhower’s decision to replace the French in Vietnam after their defeat in Dien Bien Phu.
Second, it is not clear how Diem would have been able to rally the South to his cause considering the gains the National Liberation Front made during his tenure. Boot contends Lansdale’s wise counsel would have been enough to temper the authoritarian influence of Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, on Diem. In essence, Boot argues Lansdale could have made Diem into Magsaysay. As Boot readily admits, however, the Philippines and South Vietnam are two different countries. The Philippines had a long history of working with the United States, and they were not artificially created by the international community as was South Vietnam via the 1955 Geneva Conference. Magsaysay was a charismatic figure who connected with his rural population. Diem was anything but charismatic and repeatedly struggled to build a political base.
Boot does a magnificent job of shining the light on one of the Cold War’s most colorful figures, who has been inexplicably lost to history.
Boot also leverages some questionable examples to show that Diem could have been a viable bulwark against the North. For example, he contends that because the North Vietnamese viewed the Strategic Hamlet Program (1962-64) as a threat, it was more successful than originally thought. Boot also argues this program shows Diem was amenable to sensible solutions regarding the Viet Cong. While Boot is correct that the North Vietnamese sensed the program as a threat and attacked it accordingly, he is incorrect in stating the program did not forcibly relocate families into new villages. In fact, the plan was unpopular precisely because it relocated families and placed them in harm’s way with inadequate security. Thus, Diem failed to build a connection with the peasantry, who remained susceptible to communist propaganda.
Despite these issues, the book is outstanding, and Boot weaves a powerful story. Although he is a polemicist at heart and his arguments are often a bit biased, Boot is an excellent writer, and this book is exceptionally researched. Boot’s access to Lansdale’s personal correspondence to both his wife and mistress-turned-second-wife provide the context necessary for a successful biography. Boot does a magnificent job of shining the light on one of the Cold War’s most colorful figures, who has been inexplicably lost to history. He traces the story of how a former advertising wunderkind joined the Office of Strategic Services after Pearl Harbor and eventually commissioned in the United States Army, before switching to the Air Force in 1947. Although he retired as a Major General, Lansdale also worked as a CIA officer and was involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Lansdale was an empathetic man who could see the world through his interlocutor’s eyes. This rare trait highlights why good advisors are not only exceedingly rare, but also powerful weapons when given room to operate.
Lansdale’s story is astonishing, and it is more than ironic that one of America’s leading counterinsurgency pioneers was an Air Force intelligence officer. Although the Air Force puts a premium on intelligence prowess, it is not exactly known as a bastion for counterinsurgency or psychological operations theory and practice. It is also astounding that Lansdale was able to rise so far in the Air Force despite his healthy distaste for authority. Serving military officers may find it discouraging--or heartening--that someone with Lansdale’s capabilities would have to forge a difficult path to become a general officer in any of the services, as Lansdale never commanded and created a unique career trajectory for himself. Lansdale’s story also underscores the important role that advisors can have on American foreign policy. Lansdale was an empathetic man who could see the world through his interlocutor’s eyes. This rare trait highlights why good advisors are not only exceedingly rare, but also powerful weapons when given room to operate.
Whether or not one agrees with Boot’s thesis that Lansdale is a Cassandra, Lansdale is critically important to understanding American Cold War history. He is rightly credited with helping Magsaysay and for Diem’s victory in the 1955 Battle of Saigon. Boot’s book, while flawed, is still a worthwhile biography that elevates a long-forgotten spymaster to a wider audience.
Will Selber is an Air Force Foreign Area Officer and a former Afghan Hand. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Preparing night defensive positions along the demilitarized zone. Men of 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry, dig foxholes but vehicles are left in the open to allow maneuver. - Vietnam 1968 (Wikimedia)
 Gregory Daddis, No Sure Victory: Measuring Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War, Oxford University Press, 2011, pg. 58.