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

Max Boot is a journalist, historian, and unabashed imperialist. Not long after 9/11, but prior to the invasion of Iraq (which he enthusiastically promoted), Boot took to the pages of The Weekly Standard to make “The Case for American Empire.” The unvarnished title was aptly chosen. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” Boot wrote with trademark insouciance, “today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” The moment had arrived for self-confident Americans to heed the charge of Rudyard Kipling a century prior: to take up the “White Man’s Burden,” guiding “silent, sullen peoples” from darkness into light, from backwardness and oppression toward freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, events since that essay appeared in October 2001 have not persuaded Boot to revise his views. He remains today a staunch proponent of empire, even if the term itself has since fallen from favor. Whether this qualifies as evidence of principle or madness is a matter of taste, I suppose.

In that regard, Boot’s new book comes as something of a curiosity. In recent years, he has taken considerable flack for his stubborn bellicosity. One might think that he would take on his critics, rebutting those who judge Boot-supported post-9/11 misadventures, especially the Iraq war, as needless, costly, and counterproductive. Instead, in The Road Not Taken, Boot trains his sights on an earlier needless, costly, and counterproductive war: Vietnam.

Based on truly prodigious research and written with exemplary clarity, the resulting account is both long and generously padded with extraneous material. Yet the argument Boot makes is commendably straightforward: The United States need not have succumbed to defeat in Vietnam. Failure was self-imposed. From the very beginning, the recipe for victory was at hand, if only the big shots in Washington and Saigon had heeded the sage advice of Edward Lansdale, a once-legendary, then-controversial, and now largely-forgotten ad-man-turned-CIA-operative. Lansdale had the answer: winning hearts and minds.

Boot’s admiration for his hero is boundless. He describes Lansdale as “a shrewd observer and operator,” “canny strategist,” “virtuoso politico-military adviser,” “master of political warfare and propaganda,” “master of psychology,” “counterinsurgent par excellence,” and “singular visionary.” His record of accomplishment, writes Boot, was “rivaled only by that of T.E. Lawrence.”

The comparison with Lawrence is especially telling. Since bursting onto the world scene a century ago, the British archaeologist-turned-soldier has become an object of fascination for romantics swept up by the imagery of a single charismatic figure, unconstrained by orthodoxy, transforming entire societies, and redirecting the course of world history. The Road Not Taken is the legend of T.E. Lawrence transported to Southeast Asia.

That said, the resulting book bears as much resemblance to the reality of the Vietnam War as David Lean’s famous 1962 film does to the actual events that occurred on the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. Lean employed wide-angle lenses and a sweeping score to create his mythic Lawrence. Boot relies on analogous literary techniques to create a mythic Lansdale. Given a choice, I prefer the movie.

Like Lawrence, Lansdale was more than a little odd. A hail fellow well met who possessed a salesman’s store of self-confidence, he developed an absolute certainty that he could, as Boot puts it, “transform Pacific societies to live up to American ideals.” Although he spent years serving in Asia, Lansdale spoke no languages other than English. Able to charm Asians of whatever station in life, he exhibited a remarkable ability to annoy and alienate his American superiors. While nominally married to an older American woman whom he rarely saw, but wrote to regularly, he strung along a Filipina mistress who exhibited Job-like patience and was also the recipient of letters expressing Lansdale’s undying devotion.

“Overcome evil with good,” according to Boot, was Lansdale’s “unspoken mantra throughout his years on the front lines of the Cold War” (emphasis in the original). Boot wants to persuade readers that if senior policymakers had recognized Lansdale’s unique capacity to overcome evil with good, the United States might well have prevailed in Vietnam.

In all, The Road Not Taken consists of 37 chapters. Yet discard the filler and you’re left with four substantive episodes. Label them Success, Delusion, Fantasy, and Humiliation.

“Success” describes Lansdale’s mission to the Philippines from 1950 through 1953. He had served in the archipelago at the end of World War II, falling in love with the place and its people. Now as an employee of the recently-created CIA, his task was to prevent the newly independent nation, threatened by Huk insurgents, from falling to communism.

Upon arriving in Manila, Lansdale quickly identified defense minister Ramon Magsaysay as the most formidable figure in the Philippine government. Playing “the role of a Boss Hague or Rasputin,” as Boot puts it, Lansdale worked assiduously to cultivate and befriend Magsaysay and help him formulate a sound counter-guerrilla strategy. The strategy worked, the Huk rebellion withered and, with Lansdale maneuvering Magsaysay into the presidency, the Philippines remained in the American orbit. This was no small achievement, even if the Cold War-era Philippines did not exactly qualify as a liberal democracy.

Exhibiting more than a tad of ethnocentrism, Boot allocates the lion’s share of credit for this accomplishment to his fellow countryman. “Magsaysay did pretty much everything that Lansdale wanted,” he writes. The creativity and insights were Lansdale’s, with the accommodating Magsaysay smart enough to defer to his American comrade. One imagines Filipino historians taking umbrage with that interpretation, as would Americans if some French historian credited Lafayette with securing American independence just because he befriended and advised General Washington.

Nonetheless, Lansdale’s triumph in the Philippines created expectations that he might repeat his magic elsewhere. In 1954, the CIA dispatched him to South Vietnam where, according to Boot, Lansdale was “charged with accomplishing an act of state creation armed with little more than his wits.”

The credibility of Boot’s entire argument, both in depicting Lansdale as an unappreciated genius and in insisting that the Vietnam War was winnable, rests here: on making a persuasive case that during his brief two-year stint in Saigon during the mid-1950s Lansdale succeeded in making the Republic of Vietnam a viable nation-state.

Unfortunately, where The Road Not Taken needs to be the strongest, it is weakest.

What makes a state viable? Among the essential qualities are these: legitimacy, that is, broad public acceptance of the existing political order; a constitution, whether written or unwritten, that prescribes basic political norms and responsibilities, while guaranteeing individual rights; a court system that enforces the rule of law; mechanisms to limit corruption; effective security forces; civilian control of the military; and processes to provide for the peaceful transfer of power.

In 1954, South Vietnam possessed none of these. Neither did it in 1956 when Lansdale departed. Indeed, Boot never suggests otherwise, even while blandly endorsing Lansdale’s own claim that “the secret mission he had been given by [CIA director] Allen Dulles—to build a viable South Vietnamese state as an anti-Communist bulwark in Southeast Asia—had been accomplished.” Yet this is on a par with President Trump claiming to have attracted the largest ever Inaugural Day crowd in U.S. history: the evidence says otherwise.

What Lansdale actually accomplished was to avert (temporarily) the overthrow of South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. Upon his arrival in Saigon, Lansdale had quickly identified Diem as the most formidable figure on the local political scene. As he had with Magsaysay, he immediately set out to cultivate and befriend the prime minister, while selling Diem on a strategy that he insisted would win him the support of the South Vietnamese people.

With his government dependent on U.S. funding to survive, Diem went through the motions of playing along, signing off on a Lansdale-drafted plan of “National Security Action (Pacification).” Yet the obstacles to the implementation of that plan were monumental, not least because the dour, stubbornly nationalistic Diem differed considerably from the honest and agreeably pliable Magsaysay.

In fact, as Boot’s own account demonstrates, Lansdale’s most noteworthy achievement was to help suppress the various sects and militias, both in Saigon and out in the countryside, whose leaders had no intention of taking their marching orders from Diem. This involved not winning hearts and minds but employing bribery, assassination, and large-scale violence to eliminate Diem’s political adversaries. In prosecuting this dirty internal war, Lansdale helped mightily. Yet the upshot was not to foster democracy, but to deepen Diem’s authoritarian tendencies.

“By saving Diem from his enemies in Saigon and Washington,” Boot writes, “Lansdale had made a powerful and on balance positive impact on the course of Vietnamese history.” Boot provides not a shred of evidence to sustain this extraordinary claim. Lansdale’s impact on the course of Vietnamese history during his mid-1950s tour of duty proved to be superficial and transitory, hardly more than a sneeze or a hiccup. To fancy otherwise, as apparently Lansdale himself did, is to succumb to a vast “Delusion.”

The third major episode in Lansdale’s career makes it even more difficult to buy Boot’s depiction of him as a politico-military genius. In 1961, after the humiliating defeat of U.S.-supported anti-Castro forces at the Bay of Pigs, Lansdale found himself assigned to serve as operations chief of Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy administration’s covert program of dirty tricks intended to get rid of Fidel Castro once and for all. Here was a “Fantasy” if there ever was one, and Lansdale was in the thick of it from the beginning.

If Lansdale believed in overcoming evil with good, as Boot contends, Mongoose found him suspending that conviction. Whatever one’s judgment of the Cuban revolution, Mongoose entailed a campaign of sabotage, terrorism, and attempted assassination. It was illegal, immoral, and profoundly stupid. Not so incidentally, it contributed to Castro’s willingness to station Soviet nuclear forces on Cuban soil.

As principal orchestrator of this bizarre enterprise, Lansdale designed a package of nefarious activities projected to culminate in October 1962 with Castro being gone for good. The project, which even Boot describes as “delusional,” came nowhere close to succeeding. When Lansdale’s self-imposed deadline arrived, Castro remained firmly in power, and Kennedy was grappling with a missile crisis that his own folly had helped instigate.

Boot explains Lansdale’s participation in this bizarre enterprise—which among other things envisioned using biological and chemical agents to sicken Cuban farm workers and thereby “induce failure in food crops”—by lamely suggesting that Lansdale had “succumbed to the temptation to tell his superiors what they wanted to hear.” Here is an alternative explanation: Lansdale willingly embraced the reckless zealotry then running rampant through the higher precincts of the Kennedy administration. Boot also insists, “It was unfair to blame Edward Lansdale for not toppling Castro.” Maybe so, but his role in Mongoose makes it impossible to accept Boot’s description of Lansdale as wise or well-intentioned or even minimally competent.

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Undaunted by the failure of Mongoose, Lansdale moved on. In 1965, he returned to South Vietnam for a second tour, the last major episode of his career. By now Diem had been overthrown and murdered. U.S. combat troops were arriving in large numbers. Although commanders like General William Westmoreland paid lip-service to winning hearts and minds, the name of the game was now body count.

Lansdale’s assignment was to serve as “chairman of the U.S. Mission Liaison Group to the Secretary General of the Central Rural Reconstruction Council,” the length of his title inversely proportional to the authority he wielded. In his Saigon villa, he hosted a salon of sorts, complete with plenty of booze and musical entertainment. No one gave better parties. Yet neither U.S. officials nor their Vietnamese counterparts took Lansdale’s ideas seriously. Hearts and minds had fallen from favor. The high point of his tour came after the 1968 Tet Offensive when he proposed a PR campaign built around the battle cry “Remember Hue!” There were no takers.

In truth, Lansdale’s job was akin to running the EPA during the administration of Donald Trump. He accomplished nothing. Nor, it seems likely, was he expected to. For “a ‘king-maker’ who had previously molded entire countries”—the words are Boot’s, but they accurately summarize Lansdale’s self-image—the result can only be described as “Humiliation.” In June 1968, with the war now all but lost, Lansdale left South Vietnam for good. Few took notice.

How had things gone so disastrously wrong? Boot endorses Lansdale’s conviction that in assenting to Diem’s removal, the United States had committed an irretrievable error. He also agrees with Lansdale’s critique of Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” strategy as radically ill-advised. Yet these do not qualify as novel judgments, to put it mildly.

What neither Lansdale then nor Boot today offers is an alternative course of action that amounts to more than reciting platitudes. Given actually existing conditions in mid-1960s South Vietnam, with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces gaining strength and the South Vietnamese government and army flailing about ineffectually, we may doubt that even T.E. Lawrence could have salvaged the situation.

At any rate, Lansdale was now finished. Back in Washington and retired from government service, he penned a dishonest memoir, which was savagely reviewed and sold poorly. When his wife passed away, he finally made an honest woman of his longtime lover. From time to time, he wrote articles or floated proposals to U.S. officials in hopes of getting back in the game. No one paid him any attention. He died in 1987.

As a postscript to his account, Boot appends a call for “Lansdalism in the Twenty-First Century.” If the ranks of the United States government today were to include people with Lansdale’s qualities—“soldiers who would interact on a sympathetic basis with embattled societies and spread the gospel of freedom”—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he believes, might well have come out differently. With jodhpurs and pith helmets back in fashion, the empire could revive, bigger and better than before.

Well, as Jake Barnes says to Lady Brett at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.