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Max Boot’s Vietnam

A new biography of Edward Lansdale is a study in self-deception

The title of Max Boot’s new book is The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. Calling America’s involvement in the Vietnam War a tragedy is not new. It seems natural enough: we routinely call awful events tragic, even when strictly speaking they are not. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. meant something particular when he said Vietnam was a “tragedy without villains.” It’s an inapt phrase—tragedies don’t have villains; instead, they have fate. According to Hegel’s theory of tragedy, the genre is about irreconcilable conflicts of values, characters who hold single-mindedly to ethical principles that collide: Antigone follows what she believes is her duty to her family and its gods by demanding to bury her brother Polyneices, and this leads her into conflict with Creon, who follows his duty just as implacably by insisting upon the laws of the city and its gods, which forbid a traitor from being buried. No bad guys are necessary; insistence on duty is enough to generate tragic ruin.

This scheme could only apply awkwardly to the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese were driven to free their country from foreign invaders, and the Americans were driven to do . . . what exactly? No one has ever quite understood what principle we were single-mindedly following. Were we defending democracy or just our strategic interests? Was South Vietnam our partner or our colonial vassal? Is it possible, as some seem to have thought, that our interests and our principles could be identical: could the power and prestige of the United States really and uncomplicatedly be the same as the cause of democracy? Of course, there’s a brutal irony to the fact that in order to defend a nation’s right to live in peace and freedom, we killed approximately two million of its citizens and propped up a dictatorship. Whether that irony is tragic, or belongs to some less noble tradition, is not clear. For it to be truly tragic, it would have to have been unavoidable, part of a constitutive blindness in the American character.

Whether the Vietnam War is tragic, or belongs to some less noble tradition, is not clear.

The subject of Boot’s book, the CIA operative, “psychological warfare” pioneer, and counterinsurgency guru Edward Lansdale, was once the poster-child for American naiveté. Lansdale, or at least his type, is thought to have been the inspiration for the American agent Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American, which depicts the earliest days of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Greene, who had worked in French Indochina as a journalist, depicts Pyle as an ingénue who is no less destructive and dangerous for being of pure heart. Pyle, out of his sincere desire to help the Vietnamese people, gets involved in a series of savage terrorist bombings. “I never met a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,” reflects the protagonist, a seasoned and cynical British journalist named Fowler. Greene writes that the young Pyle lives in “a psychological world of great simplicity, where you talked of Democracy and Honor without the ‘u,’ as it’s spelt on old tombstones, and you meant what your father meant by the same words.” For a description of Landsdale, that’s pretty close to the mark, but Boot’s book illustrates he was a bit more complicated than that, and a less attractive character.

Lansdale has not gone unstudied. There are two other monographs, one from a critical perspective, Edward Lansdale’s Cold War, by Jonathan Nashel, published in 2005, and one from a more admiring standpoint, Cecil Currey’s 1988 Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American. The one resource Boot seems to have had at his disposal that the other scholars did not is a cache of Lansdale’s love letters to his Filipino mistress and second wife Pat Kelly, which are pretty conventional fare as far as romance goes. Currey’s book adopts Lansdale’s belief that if his ideas on counterinsurgency had been listened to by the brass, America could well have won the war. For his part, Boot doesn’t quite say Lansdale could’ve won the war singlehandedly, but he presents Lansdale’s approach as a viable alternative to bombing and search-and-destroy missions:

Victory may have been out of America’s grasp in any case. North Vietnam was a formidable foe and South Vietnam a weak ally. But it is no exaggeration to suggest that the whole conflict, the worst military defeat in American history, might have taken a potentially different course—one that was less costly and potentially more successful—if the counsel of this CIA operative and Air Force officer had been followed.

What Max Boot reveals about the substance of Lansdale’s ideas and actions makes that difficult to believe. But Boot is at the Council on Foreign Relations, and this book was produced under its auspices. It serves then, from a certain angle, as a 768-page policy memo. Boot means for present-day operatives to study and learn from Lansdale, and it’s hard not to worry about what lessons they will draw.

For a popular audience, the book’s release is well timed. Vietnam is back in the popular imagination because of Ken Burns’s documentary. There’s palpable Cold War nostalgia in the air. It’s not an accident that former CIA agent Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow novels (now a major motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence) are flying off the shelves. The Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian state seems straight out of the pages of Le Carré and the entire conspiracy is both terrifying and cozily reassuring in a way only a really good, Cold War thriller can be. There’s a longing for the clear verities of that era, which provided a guiding light amid moral complexity: sure, we did a lot of nasty stuff, but ultimately, we were the good guys then, and the Soviets were bad. We did what we had to for democracy to triumph.

The gap between image and reality is a central theme of Boot’s book, whether he knows it or not. Prior to the Second World War, Lansdale was an ad man in California. In the middle of the twentieth century, the arts of public relations and advertising were at the height of their social prestige and influence. The belief that human beings were limitlessly manipulable through mass media was not just an idea in totalitarian nations, the proposition was widely believed in democracies as well. The hard limits of that thesis were shown by the Vietnam War. After Pearl Harbor, Lansdale joined the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. A freewheeling place of misfits and eccentrics brought together to fight the Nazis, the OSS is an irresistible legend for American boys and Max Boot is no different: “[T]he OSS was, at heart, a New Deal agency with a progressive, idealistic ethos that would carry over to the CIA.”

It was in the OSS that Lansdale cultivated his penchant for unconventional and zany takes on covert operations. Boot relays a particularly absurd contrivance cooked up by a chemist at OSS:

Lovell also developed a chemical dubbed “Who? Me?” that replicated the “revolting odor of a very loose bowel movement.” His madcap idea was to distribute it to children in Japanese-occupied cities of China so that they could squirt “Who? Me?” on the trouser seats of Japanese officers who happened to walk by. The theory was that this would cost the Japanese, who values cleanliness, “a world ‘face.’”

This is important context to understanding Lansdale’s later ludicrous ideas for embarrassing Castro and frightening the Viet Cong.

Lansdale’s early interventions in Vietnam during the 1950s were instrumental in installing and supporting the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Lansdale helped rig a phony plebiscite against the emperor Bao Dai where Diem received 98.2 percent of the vote. Diem was, by most accounts, a weak leader who tolerated the repressive tactics of his brother Nhu and his sister-in-law Madame Nhu. Lansdale was put in close liaison with Diem, even living in the presidential palace for a time, and he developed a friendly rapport with the man, who was often perceived as cold. But after Lansdale helped Diem fend off his rivals for power with a combination of force and bribery with money provided by the U.S. government, Diem distanced himself from Lansdale, saying “Lansdale is too CIA and an encumbrance. In politics, there is no room for sentiment.” In trying to tease out the complexities of the relationship, Boot fails to state clearly the obvious conclusion: Diem used Lansdale and the U.S. government for his own ends, believing he could manipulate them both.

Diem pretty consistently ignored Lansdale’s advice to take the country in a more democratic direction, instead favoring the ideology of Personalism that his brother Nhu espoused. “I like the guy, but I won’t buy fascism,” Lansdale said. But he stayed supportive even when he realized that Diem’s regime was disappearing people accused of “political crimes.” Lansdale saved Diem from one coup the CIA considered backing in 1955, but was out of the country in 1963 when Diem’s time finally was up. Diem and brother Nhu were shot summarily by the coup’s plotters. Strangely, Boot concludes, “By saving Diem from his enemies in Saigon and Washington, Lansdale had made a powerful and on balance positive impact on the course of Vietnamese history.” It’s hard to see how propping up Diem, who ultimately could not unite the country or provide a democratic alternative to the Communists’ nationalism, really earns this sunny interpretation. The decision to support the militantly Catholic Diem in a country that was 70 percent Buddhist presaged the similar insensitivity the U.S. showed to the sectarian divisions in Iraq. And yet this was the work of the most culturally astute CIA operative.

This is not to say Boot has written a hagiography of Lansdale; on the contrary, he takes pains to show the man’s flaws and tries to adopt a tone of moral seriousness appropriate to the subject matter. Describing an episode Lansdale was particularly proud of during the campaign against the Huk guerrillas in the Philippines, where he arranged for an insurgent’s corpse to be drained of blood and hung upside down to give a scare to a population superstitious about vampires, Boot reminds the reader that this “operation constituted, even in the early 1950s, a war crime because the Philippine soldiers deliberately killed rather than captured an enemy fighter and then mutilated his corpse.” Later, Boot quotes a glib comment from Lansdale about his first trip to Vietnam: “Aside from forts and barbed wire, this is beautiful place.” This is hardly the time for touristic diversions, Boot feels. “It was rather a more serious matter for ordinary Vietnamese, who had no way out,” he hectors. “They were trapped in a war that would continue, on and off, for more than twenty years and that would claim millions of casualties.”

Fair enough, but these frank nods to Lansdale’s shortcomings make Boot’s omissions from the record all the stranger. Boot looks favorably on Diem’s Strategic Hamlet Program, an initiative under which peasants in the South would be put in fortified villages in order to isolate Viet Cong guerrillas. Until recently, this effort was widely considered a failure that further alienated the peasantry. Boot cites recent Vietnamese scholarship that shows it was actually more effective than previously believed at controlling the countryside. It was not without human cost, however; it often meant forcibly removing farmers from their homes while their old villages burned behind them. As Jonathan Nashel points out in his book, Lansdale’s suggestion, intended to lessen the sting of being forced from your ancestral home at bayonet point and packed into a fortified camp, was feeble: “he worked with State Department officials to create a ‘sister city’ relationship between Vietnamese villages in the Strategic Hamlet Program and cities in the United States that were to adopt them.”

Boot writes that, “[Lansdale] never was contaminated by the bacillus of racism” and goes on to say, “Far from harboring anti-Asian prejudice, he was imbued ‘with the romance of the South Seas, the Orient.’” It should go without saying that romanticizing “the Orient” is not the opposite of prejudice, it’s a prejudice of its own kind, perhaps less ugly on the face of it, but often no less condescending and distorting. To hammer home the point that Lansdale was not a racist, Boot points out that “at his college fraternity house, he even wore a sarong.” That’s really neither here nor there. Lansdale was not a raving bigot, and he was clearly able to form sympathetic and understanding bonds with people who were not white, but it’s sorely overstating the case that not a single “bacillus” of racism sullied his character. To have this be true, Boot is required to make another omission, this time from Lansdale’s report on his mission to the Philippines, “It was a privilege to work with my fellow Kugowners and to give the lie to the current adage that the white man is through in Asia. Hellsfire, we’re just starting.”

Lansdale’s belief in the power of vast overgeneralizations brought him into iffy territory when assessing other cultures, sympathy for which was supposed to be his special métier as counter-guerrilla. While writing suggestions for propaganda in WWII, Lansdale opined, “The Japanese like all Orientals, love proverbs . . . and a surprising number of these sayings—clothed with credibility by centuries of usage—can be made applicable to modern events and can be . . . used effectively against the Japanese.” It does not occur to Boot to pause to consider the plausibility or usefulness of this theory, or to wonder if this revealed a fundamental defect in Lansdale’s way of thinking, he just chalks it up as “an early sign of the interest in folklore that became the hallmark of his later assignments in the Philippines and Vietnam.” (Note that Lansdale never bothered to learn the languages of the countries he was working in, believing that a smile and a wink were all he needed.)

Lansdale’s belief in the power of vast overgeneralizations brought him into iffy territory when assessing other cultures, sympathy for which was supposed to be his special métier as counter-guerrilla.

Lansdale’s uses of folklore are some of the most madcap, and ultimately some of the most pathetic, stories in the whole sad Lansdale saga. In Vietnam during the 1950s, Lansdale hired some astrologers to create an almanac that predicted bad fortune for the Communist North. When the harmonica-toting Lansdale returned to Vietnam in the mid-Sixties to try to help the deteriorating situation, his last initiative was trying to use the power of folk music to improve morale, convincing General Westmoreland to take a troupe of musicians around to entertain the troops and Vietnamese villagers. Neil Sheehan’s abrupt judgment of Lansdale’s final efforts in A Bright Shining Lie, seems on the mark: “The principal if unannounced purpose for which Lansdale had returned—to reform the Saigon regime from the top through persuasion and the magnetic ideals of the American revolution—had been silly.”

Silly schemes could have serious consequences, like when Lansdale was put in charge of Operation Mongoose, the efforts to assassinate Castro and overthrow the Cuban government. Some of the ideas are truly comical, like slipping Castro cigars to make him act out in public or giving him an agent that would make his beard fall out. Boot writes, “It was almost as if the Marx brothers had been put in charge of America’s premier intelligence agency.” But the attempts on Castro’s life were a big factor in the Soviet Union’s decision to introduce nuclear weapons to Cuba.

The other unrealized plans Lansdale oversaw for Mongoose are extremely disturbing and in dealing with them Max Boot has made a serious mistake. In early 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted a plan to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called Operation Northwoods, which proposed a false flag operation of terrorist attacks against the United States to justify an invasion of Cuba. This truly must be one of the most horrifying ideas ever contemplated by the U.S. government. Boot writes, “That the Joint Chiefs would seriously offer these suggestions shows that Lansdale was neither the only one to fall victim to the fevered atmosphere of the day nor even the worst sufferer.” Well, not so fast. The Joint Chief’s memo says the plan was “requested by Chief of Operations, Cuba Project,” who asked for “brief but precise descriptions of pretexts which the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider would provide justifications for military intervention in Cuba.” It wasn’t just the crazy atmosphere of the time that was to blame: that most sinister document was produced specifically at Lansdale’s behest.

Boot has a single moment of clear-sightedness about Lansdale in the book, offering a brief, astute characterization that’s striking amid 768 pages of hemming and hawing and qualifications and provisos:

Lansdale was enough of a realist to provide the necessary cash to achieve his objectives, even if it required a murder for hire, but he was so eager to protect his image as an idealist that he was deeply reluctant to admit what he was up to, not least to himself. He was not as naïve and unworldly as he pretended to be, even if he had a powerful ability, which might be traced back to his upbringing in Christian Science, to repress unseemly aspects of reality he preferred not to acknowledge.

That paragraph is pretty much the whole ballgame. As Charles Braden wrote, the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, “pushed the postulates of positive thinking to their absolute limit.” She “proposed not merely that the spiritual overshadows the material, but that the material world does not exist. The world of our senses is but an illusion of our minds. If the material world causes us pain, grief, danger, and even death, that can be changed by changing our thoughts.” This truly is the most American of faiths.

Hannah Arendt, in her essay on the Pentagon Papers, “Lying in Politics,” describes America’s path in Vietnam as a process comprised of “deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing, and defactualization.” She analyzes these forms of deception and self-deception in turn, from the Madison Avenue–spawned belief that the key to winning the war was essentially through the use of public relations techniques, to the Pentagon “problem solvers” who dissolved the concrete facts of the war en masse with the use of statistical models and ad hoc theories. While Lansdale was undoubtedly right when he told McNamara “you’re going to fool yourself” with a reliance on quantitative analysis, Lansdale’s belief in the power of “Americanism,” his invocation of the Founding Fathers as shining icons from the past that could light the way in the present, without much thought for the specifics of political institutions or history, was almost as abstract and no less a self-deception. Lansdale does not represent the “Road not Taken” in Vietnam, he is the crystallized essence of the willful blindness that led us there. We almost destroyed two nations in the process: Vietnam and our own.  

The belief that American values are unproblematic and straightforward, requiring no serious reflection for their application here, and everywhere around the world, is one of the central dogmas of Max Boot’s neoconservative creed. Those values have a feel; they are less concepts than a whole portable aesthetic and sensibility, a Rockwellian picture of American life: a doubleheader at the old Dodger stadium, a lazy fourth of July parade in a New England town, the fireside chats of Roosevelt, and the incantation of the Four Freedoms. Of course, it is in war that this aesthetic gets its most clear and sublime expression, when the nation feels whole and healthy and sure of itself in the face of peril. See for example, David Frum’s attempt to rescue Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, books “built on adamantine patriotism without doubt or apology” from the damning judgments of oversophisticated critics. The brutality of war is something to be bravely ignored. For proof, one need only revisit William Kristol’s essay for the Weekly Standard on WWI poet Wilfred Owen, asking us to take our bearings not from Owen’s “bitter despair” but from Francis Scott Key’s “bold hope.”

Boot has long militated against learning the common-sense lessons of Vietnam.

And so, Boot has long militated against learning the common-sense lessons of Vietnam. In 2009, he wrote an exasperated essay about America’s squeamishness about drawn out military interventions called “The Incurable Vietnam Syndrome,” where he demands we “not become enthralled by lazy reasoning along the lines of ‘Vietnam was an American war; X is an American war; therefore, X will be another Vietnam’ and that ‘By and large, however, we would all be well advised to handle Vietnam analogies with great care and to focus on the specifics of current conflicts rather than making them fit a template that’s more than three decades old’.” Okay, sure, but then what are we to make of Boot’s statement about one of Lansdale’s analyses that we should “substitute ‘Iraqis’ or ‘Afghans’ for ‘Vietnamese,’ and this would be a valid description of the massive commitments in those counties long after Lansdale’s death”?

Boot’s writing has often been a complaint about America’s reluctance to shed blood and to take up its role as imperial power. “[T]here’s a price to be paid for taking up what Kipling called the ‘white man’s burden’: You have to be prepared to fight ‘the savage wars of peace,’” he wrote in a 1999 review of the book Black Hawk Down. Boot concludes:

Mark Bowden writes that “It speaks well of America that our threshold for death and injury to our soldiers has been so significantly lowered.” I wonder if it doesn’t instead betray the moral myopia of a self-satisfied nation that risks forgetting that certain things are worth fighting and dying for.

Today, from his foxhole at the Washington Post’s opinion pages, Boot is more likely to write about white privilege than the white man’s burden, but he carried his Kipling with him into the War on Terror, demanding that America embrace its role as an imperial power. In his article “The Case for American Empire,” just a month past 9/11, Boot was calling for action against Saddam Hussein: “The debate about whether Saddam Hussein was implicated in the September 11 attacks misses the point. Who cares if Saddam was involved in this particular barbarity?” A great many people did and believed he was.

Boot’s bloodthirstiness is united with a peculiar naïveté about America; it must be said that in this respect he is not unlike Lansdale. Could it really have been, as Boot wrote in 2017, that only Trump opened his eyes to the fact that it’s a bit easier to be a white guy in America, that “I benefitted from my skin color and my gender—and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it”? Good for Max if he’s had a change of heart and seen the world through more empathetic eyes; one only wishes he could’ve had those moments of reflection, which seem so modest and so reasonable, circa 2001. But that might not have changed anything. He wrote as recently as 2013 that he feels “No Need to Repent for Support of the Iraq War.” He declares, “I feel no shame being part of the 75 percent of Americans who believed at the beginning that this was a war worth waging.” This move is not quite honest: Boot wants to submerge himself into the center of a crowd, one of the democratic mass, when in fact he was at its vanguard, pushing for the Iraq War early and often.

Boot’s apparently insatiable need to find ways to keep America involved in some war or another creeps out in the conclusion to the book, as he makes his recommendations to today’s policy makers:

The American Public will not often support massive military interventions abroad. But few will notice if Washington sends to a distant and embattled land a skilled political operative—someone well versed in the country, able to establish an intimate connection with its leaders, and cognizant of the all-important X Factor, the feelings of the local populace—to subtly influence the course of an important, if obscure, conflict.

Few will notice? Wait one moment please. Forgive me if this is naïve on my part now, but I happen to think that hoping people won’t notice isn’t really the way we should make policy in a democracy. The real lesson of Vietnam is not that we didn’t get away with it; it’s that if we make policy in secret and pay lip service to democratic ideals, those notions become bereft of meaning, just another slogan in the PR toolkit. Here we come to the real “Vietnam Syndrome,” which is the will to limitlessly deceive both yourself and others. One has to conclude that lies of this sort can never really be tragic, but are simply wrong.