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The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam Hardcover – January 9, 2018
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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An Amazon Best Book of January 2018: How’s this for a thought*: America loves war. We know we shouldn’t, but it’s a compulsion. We manage the dissonance through the words we use to justify it. Sometimes we “stumble” into conflict, other times we’re “lured.” Once we’re there, the “quagmire” traps us, sucking at our boots along with millions, billions, and trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives. We’ve seen versions of this is Afghanistan and Iraq, but the template is Vietnam. Max Boot’s biography of CIA operative Edward Lansdale shows us that it didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way. Lansdale, AKA “the T.E. Lawrence of Asia,” had favored a “hearts and minds” approach in adversarial political landscapes, eschewing pure militarism as a panacea in global policy by introducing social and economic strategies to the mix. He’d experienced success with his philosophy in the Philippines, but in Vietnam, the deck—in the form of powerful generals and diplomats—was stacked against him; America doubled down on bombs and napalm, shoving Lansdale and his ideas to the margins. The Road Not Taken recalibrates the argument, and its strengths are (at least) three-fold: Boot’s research is deep and seemingly impeccable; the material is complex and dense, but it reads like a novel; and maybe most importantly, Boot—no liberal himself--refuses to bind himself with ideological constraints, opening nuanced pathways for reassessing this difficult history, especially in the context of current and looming conflcts. The only question: Is anybody listening? * h/t @adamjohnsonNYC --Jon Foro, Amazon Book Review
“Judicious and absorbing…Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise…Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal…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.”
- Fredrik Logevall, The New York Times Book Review
- Mark Bowden, New York Times
“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.... 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. ... 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.”
- Robert D. Kaplan, The Wall Street Journal
“'The Road Not Taken'… is expansive and detailed, it is well written, and it sheds light on a good deal about U.S. covert activities in postwar Southeast Asia….. [Boot] believes that Lansdale's approach was the wiser one, but he is cautious in his analysis of what went wrong… A lot of his book is committed to restoring a sense of proportion to his subject's image as a political Svengali, or "Lawrence of Asia."”
- Louis Menand, The New Yorker
“A brilliant, extremely well-written book about a forgotten figure who was one of the most extraordinary and utterly unorthodox espionage agents in history.”
- Steve Forbes, Forbes
“Edward Lansdale is probably the greatest cold warrior that most Americans have never heard of. Max Boot has written a fascinating account of how this California college humorist, frat boy and advertising executive evolved into a counterinsurgency expert before the term was even coined…. Max Boot has become one of the master chroniclers of American counterinsurgency efforts, and his biography of Mr. Lansdale is a tribute to a guy who recognized the threat of insurgency in a post-World War II environment where most American leaders saw only brute force as a solution to any political-military problem…. This book should be read in Baghdad and Kabul, not only by Americans, but by local leaders.”
- Gary Anderson, Washington Times
“Max Boot capably and readably tracks the fascinating but ultimately depressing trajectory of this shadowy figure, who, as a murky undercover operative and a literary and cinematic avatar, looms over or lurks behind some of the crucial moments in U.S. foreign policy in the decades following World War II, culminating in its greatest disaster.”
- James G. Hershberg, Washington Post
“Deeply researched and evenhanded, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam is a superb scholarly achievement. . . . [Boot] comes at Lansdale having already written two major books on small wars and counterinsurgency, a solid foundation that he takes to a new level here with rigorous research and dogged investigation into little-known corners of Lansdale’s life.”
- Carter Malkasian, Foreign Policy
“In this fine portrait of Edward Lansdale, Max Boot adds to his well-deserved reputation as being among the most insightful and productive of contemporary historians. This is a superb book. Diligently researched and gracefully written, it builds on a comprehensive analysis of Lansdale’s triumphs in the post–World War II Philippines to provide much new material, and expose old myths, about one of the most fascinating, and in many ways ultimately saddest, members of the supporting cast in the later war in Vietnam.”
- Lewis Sorley, National Review
“Comprehensively researched and insightfully written―Boot is, as always, an extremely talented writer.”
- Christian Science Monitor
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Edward Lansdale is a figure of mythic proportions. A habitual "non-conformist" from youth, Lansdale found his way from a brief career in advertising into a branch of the OSS, a pre-CIA intelligence and "dirty tricks" shop. Lansdale had an engaging personality, coupled with a friendly and sincere character. That resulted in astute observations and important insights, all based on good common sense.
Though speaking no foreign languages, Lansdale insinuated himself into the fabric of post-WW2 Philippine society and contributed to the formation of a reasonably representative government. His interventions were important contributors to the successful squashing of the Huk Rebellion. Boot gives credit where due: Lansdale, the man, was a decisive factor, but so was geography. In specific, the insurgency failed as it occurred in an island nation lacking supportive governments in physical proximity so arms, refuge and other interventions couldn't help. Perhaps due to the presence in the US government of similar "rogue" figures and when higher-ups factored in their recent military and diplomatic triumphs, Lansdale developed powerful and sympathetic allies to attend to and sustain his efforts.
Faced with the recent "loss of China", Stalin's acquisition of atomic weapons, the "Iron Curtain" and the Korean War debacle, the US was justifiably anxious about a "domino effect". These and other considerations prompted diplomat George Kennan to develop a policy for "containment" of the rising tide of Communist threat, as clearly outright military defeat of America's opponents was not an option. The French colonial war in Indochina was going badly despite US assistance. Based on Lansdale's successes vs. the Huks and given some similarities of that conflict to Vietnam, off he went.
Unlike the situation in the Philippines, the war in Vietnam could not be won by military means. Lansdale recognized quickly realized that fact. Unsurprisingly, he suggested continuation of "hearts and minds" methods. Without belaboring the point, his advice was - for the most part - ignored. Readers know the outcome.
Boot gives a credible, comprehensive, but somewhat pedestrian accounting of Lansdale's life in "Road". The intimate details of his extra-marital dalliance became interminable and there's probably little point in recounting much of the mundane circumstances of his daily routine. However, it did serve to illustrate that - unlike the Lansdale modern Machiavelli myth - the man was not a cynical, jaded practitioner of realpolitik: what Lansdale did instead was exercise good common sense. He listened, learned, studied and sympathized. He made friends with government officials and others. He attempted to treat all fairly. He was more Ward Cleaver than Niccolo Machiavelli.
Could the Vietnam War been settled in "our" favor had the government adopted Lansdale's methods? It's doubtful, but it wouldn't have hurt. Has the US government learned anything from Lansdale's insights? Boot hints the answer is likely "Not much", as evidenced by our bungled interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Given the relevance of Lansdale's insights and the skewed legacy he left, Boot's study should be on the Pentagon's "required reading" list for policy developers and in-field commanders.
The first part of the 600-page book is about Lansdale's success in the Philippine insurrection and how he influenced the favorable outcome via close friendships with Ramon Magsaysay and Carlos Romulo. Although my focus is primarily on the Vietnam episodes, I have family members who lived in Manila from the early moments of US occupation in 1911 through the Japanese occupation. One is buried at the US cemetery at Fort Bonifacio.
Based on his successful record of success in the Philippines, Lansdale was invited to practice his magic in Vietnam during the period preceding French withdrawal. This experience was captured in the Michael Caine's film version of Graham Greene's 1952 novel The Quiet American, as updated in the 2002 film version. According to Boot, Lansdale was an uncredited consultant to the movie, providing an opportunity for him to explain how Vietnam went off-track and why. Lansdale's service with the Central Intelligence Agency may explain why he preferred the indirect approach to warfare, whenever possible. As we know now, the Regular Warfare establishment overwhelmed those in favor of a lower profile.
Lansdale was basically eased out of Vietnam's policy team in 1961, not because he was wrong but because others found him abrasive. When assigned to head the team to overthrow Castro in 1962, he found he couldn't work well with others, and lost institutional status after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Kennedys cut him loose, as Boot reports on page 399:
Having failed to achieve the Kennedys' most cherished desire, Lansdale lost their favor. He was left naked before his bureaucratic enemies, including his own boss, Robert McNamara. It was probably no coincidence that his military career in the long run was ended less than a year after Mongoose did. "I think the thing that hurt me most in the long run was the task that Kennedy gave me on Cuba," he reflected decades later. "I'm sorry i ever got mixed up in those Cuban things."
His Cuban failure proved historically significant, not just for the future of that island nation but also for Indochina, because it ensured that he was cut out of American policymaking toward Vietnam even as relations between the Kennedy administration and the Diem government were reaching their sordid denouement.
Later in1963 there was some discussion of sending Lansdale back to Vietnam, but this became impossible after he told President Kennedy that he could not participate in any assassination scheme directed against his friend. My view is that Diem's departure signaled the collapse of South Vietnam because (1) it took too long to find an effective replacement and (2) the Americanization of the war was unsupportable.
Lansdale finally returned to Vietnam, coinciding with the buildup of American forces. His devotion to pacification, however, put him at those who favored victory through firepower. Further, his relationship with Daniel Ellsberg was ill-fated for many reasons.
One sub-theme of the book is Lansdale's relationship with his wife and Philippine mistress whom he married upon his wife's death. This was part of his life but not terribly interesting, compared to his daylight activities.
Lansdale did predict that Hanoi would launch an 1968 offensive with ambition to recreate another Dien Bien Phu-like victory. I know a bit about the Tet '68 Offensive and can confirm it took us by surprise and signaled the end of public support for the war. One of best treatments of this phenomena is found in Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The unexamined victories and final tragedy of America's last years in Vietnam. I'm confident that Lansdale would share Sorley's assessment. Boot does (see page 525).
I'll close with a little humor for the thick-skinned, from a letter to his wife, Helen, posted after he arrived in-country.
A popular brand of local cigarettes in a blue package is called 'Blue Job.' 'Blue is pronounced 'blow.' How in the heck can I go up and ask the girl store counter for a pack of those?
Among other things, Lansdale was not a prude. And this book is a rich read of a life well-lived.
Charles A. Krohn
Author, The Lost Battalion of Tet
But I also learned more from Boot quickly about the Philippines and Vietnam—as well as about the stultifying bureaucracy-over-insight culture that Lansdale faced—than I have in a dozen other books. I found it hard not to keep turning the next page. His writing draws you in, holds you, and stays with you long after putting the book down.
This is a must read for anyone interested in national security—especially current and aspiring leaders in government agencies and departments—to learn the lessons that many in Lansdale’s generation failed to heed.
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Focusing on US involvement in events in the Far East from 1945 to 1987, particularly the Philippines and...Read more