If one wanted to dissect the malignancy of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia in the 1950's and 60's, this book about the mysterious Edward Lansdale would be a good place to start. Lansdale was the former CIA/U.S. Air Force officer who was, some say, the model for both the Quiet American and Ugly American in novels by, respectively, Graham Green and Eugene Burdick/William Lederer.
But Lansdale was hardly an Ugly American (he was by nature a quiet man) and, in any event, identifying Lansdale with a fictional stereotype hardly does him justice. But Lansdale does get his share of justice from Cecil B. Currey, the author of EDWARD LANSDALE: the UNQUIET AMERICAN.
Currey depicts Lansdale as a sophisticated intelligence agent who developed unconventional theories about how to fight communism. Alas, while Lansdale was successful in both the Philippines and Vietnam, his theories never did receive the proper attention, or respect, from the mainstream foreign policy establishment in Washington under the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all of whom effectively ignored his advice on how to deal with the insurgency in Vietnam.
Early in his career, Lansdale was an advertising man who had a sophisticated understanding of how and why people reacted to any given product. One of his successful advertising accounts was with Levi Strauss who has seeking to go national with their blue jeans. The advertising skills Lansdale learned in the 1930's served as a good basis for the psy-war operations he developed later in his intelligence career.
When World War II broke out, and Lansdale managed to get an Army commission that gave him entrée into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. Details of Lansdale's OSS service were murky, but it involved work on both China and the Philippines. After the war, Lansdale had the chance to switch his Army commission to that of the fledgling U.S. Air Force, and that was to be his cover for the rest of his career as a behind the scenes political agent working for both the CIA and the U.S. State Department.
That career focused on two key nations in Southeast Asia: the Philippines and Vietnam. In the 1950's Lansdale developed counter-insurgency tactics that successfully put down the HUK rebellion in the Philippines. Afterwards, Lansdale was a key player in the rise of Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay.
After Magsaysay was elected President, Lansdale was sent to Vietnam by then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to replicate his success in the Philippines. Lansdale worked closely with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem as he secured his power in the aftermath of the 1954 Geneva Convention accord on Vietnam. But Diem was a difficult leader who was not completely receptive to Lansdale's advice to win the hearts of his people (as Magsaysay did in the Philippines). As pressures from North Vietnam increased, and John F. Kennedy ascended to the Presidency, the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating, in part due to Diem's intransigence to Lansdale's recommendations.
Lansdale's efforts in Vietnam were focused on pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside, but Diem never did wholeheartedly endorse that strategy. While Lansdale remained a key adviser to Diem, he began to lose his grip on the situation in Saigon, especially with the rambunctious foreign policy establishment in Washington. The result was that Diem was assassinated, with the encouragement of JFK's advisors, and South Vietnam began to travel down a rocky road that ultimately led to its defeat in 1975. It didn't help matters that JFK himself was assassinated only weeks after Diem was murdered.
Once Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, the American policy in Southeast Asia went off the rails. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (never a fan of Lansdale) began the massive build-up of American troops as the U.S. took control of the war. The South Vietnamese not only lost interest in defending their nation, corruption took hold as dishonest South Vietnamese officers developed phantom troops rolls and pocketed their salaries. The black market in American goods that were sent to support U.S. troops flourished. In that sort of an environment, North Vietnam strengthened its grip on the population in South Vietnam.
Lansdale recognized this and reported it to his superiors (by this time he had formally cut his ties with the CIA and was acting as a special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Saigon), and he never did give up his efforts towards pacification. But as the situation deteriorated, Lansdale lost touch with the key policy makers in Washington and after the 1968 Tet Offensive, Lansdale's career was for all intents and purposes was over. He ultimately returned to Washington and lived a quiet life until his death in 1987.
Currey's saga of Lansdale's frustration represents a reasonably accurate description of the collapse of the American effort in Southeast Asia. In his remaining years, Lansdale lectured frequently and stayed in occasional contact with leading figures. In 1984, Richard Nixon asked him to write down thoughts on modern warfare. Lansdale responded:
"Conventional operations are more apt to widen the problem or to be more cosmetic than a cure," Lansdale wrote to Nixon. "...Essentially, in a revolutionary `people's' war, the people of the country actually constitute the true battleground of the war. Whoever wins them wins the war. Unless a government is made up `of the people, by the people and for the people,' it is vulnerable...Native leaders have to win the war. We can't do it for them. We can advise on the selection of the best native leaders for the fight and help make their leadership effective while behaving as helpful friends."
Currey then goes on to boil down all of Lansdale's writings and speeches to eight points of essential warfare. They are too lengthy too enumerate here, but they are a very valuable summary of Lansdale's principals of unconventional warfare, and should be studied at the Army and Navy war colleges.
In the final analysis, one has to consider Lansdale a bit of an odd, even flawed personality. He had an enormously successful career as a counterinsurgency expert. But he never completely fulfilled himself, partly because he was inept at American politics. Part of his problem was that he was way out of the mainstream of the defense and foreign policy establishment at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, and as such, no one took him seriously. He had hoped that he would be named ambassador to the Philippines or Vietnam, but he never stood a chance at such a high ranking appointment, because the movers and shakers in Washington considered him a bit of a counterinsurgency freak in an Air Force uniform. But his clients in the Philippines and Vietnam didn't view him in that light, and the sorry conclusion has to be made that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made a grievous mistake in not elevating Lansdale to a much higher,policy making position in the inner sanctums of the Washington power establishment. If they had, the outcome of the Vietnam War might have been far different than the ignominious American evacuation of both Phnom Penh and Saigon in 1975 when the war in Indochina ended in a North Vietnamese victory.