The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, by Max Boot, Head of Zeus, 715 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1788542678
In 1966, Graham Greene wrote to The Sunday Telegraph to correct a journalist who had asserted that Alden Pyle, the eponymous hero of his novel The Quiet American, set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, had been modelled on the real American intelligence agent Colonel Edward G Lansdale. “Pyle was a younger, more innocent and more idealistic member of the CIA,” Greene wrote. “I would never have chosen Colonel Lansdale, as he then was, to represent the danger of innocence.” There are a number of sly acknowledgments implicit in Greene’s weary rebuttal of a by then common assumption of his source of inspiration for his archetypal American meddler. One was that he had known (or at least known of) Lansdale when he visited Saigon and Hanoi as a journalist in the early 1950s when the French were increasingly reliant on the United States to sustain their faltering campaign against the Viet Minh guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh. There is even a suggestion that he may have considered and rejected Lansdale as a template for Alden Pyle.
When Greene’s letter was published Lansdale was enjoying a last burst of fame. Although a man who worked in the shadows, he had never been an elusive figure. His public profile as an architect of Cold War stability in distant US protectorates matched the reputation that had once bedazzled Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy; in the 1950s the resentful French took to referring to him sarcastically as “Lawrence of Asia”. In 1965 Colonel Lansdale had returned to Saigon for the first time in nearly a decade to serve as a special assistant to the US ambassador on “pacification” and was hailed on his arrival by The New York Times as a “Man of Legend” and a “kingmaker”. Although contemptuous of Greene’s portrayal of Pyle, Lansdale was flattered to be regarded as the inspiration for The Quiet American and the novel had contributed hugely to his notoriety. Even his self-deprecation revealed his lack of doubt about his own capabilities. “In case you hear rumours about my rushing out to save a country again,” he wrote of his last mission to his Filipina mistress, “they’ll probably be true this time.” Ironically, for those in charge of America’s rapidly industrialising war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, Lansdale was an innocent, a kind of eccentric jester who still believed in political manipulation instead of carpet-bombing North Vietnam, a devotee of nation-building tactics that may have worked in the 1950s but were now considered obsolete. He was frozen out by the men running the war in Saigon. He consoled himself that he remained the “living conscience” of the whole doomed enterprise.
Lansdale’s reputation as a genius in the art of covert warfare was made by his role in putting down a Marxist-led peasant guerrilla army known as the Huk Resistance in the Philippines. He had spent three years there after the Second World War as an intelligence officer, travelling the country, getting to know all the important people. When he returned to tackle the Huks in 1950 he was working for the Office of Policy Co-Ordination, a secret unit of the CIA funded by the Marshall Plan, dedicated to subversion and imbued with the idea that America was entitled to reshape the internal politics of individual countries in pursuit of its wider geopolitical aims. In Manila, Lansdale identified the defence minister, Ramon Magsaysay, as the man capable of beating the Huks and became his personal adviser, Colonel Tom Parker to his Elvis Presley. Magsaysay moved into Lansdale’s house and the American counselled him day and night. Lansdale invented the term “civic action” to denote how the Philippine army should comport itself in its campaign against the guerrillas, distributing chewing gum and food and making sure that troops treated the peasants with courtesy not contempt. He devised the slogan “All Out Force or All-Out Friendship”. But he also formed commando units to ambush patrols behind guerrilla lines and, working with a little team of Americans (self-described as “ingenious, adaptable, rather unscrupulous bastards”), he sold the Huks booby-trapped ammunition and grenades. Lansdale’s biggest success was manipulating the 1953 presidential election so that Magsaysay swept to victory. He squared the opposition parties, had Magsaysay portrayed as “My Guy”, distributed his hit campaign song on discs pressed by the CIA and burned warehouses where the opposition had stored bogus ballots. Lansdale compared himself to Rasputin and won the confidence of the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, and his brother, secretary of state John F Dulles.
The Dulles brothers were convinced that the Lansdale blueprint could work anywhere and he was regarded as a miracle worker. In the nascent world of counter-insurgency his eccentricities became assets. Lansdale had worked mainly in advertising on the west coast with clients including Levi Strauss. He disdained neckties and was insolent towards authority. Los Angeles, where he lived in the 1930s, had the second highest non-white population in the US and Lansdale was, unusually for a man of his era, not prejudiced towards Asians or Chinese. He told his brother that he was not going to the Philippines “to shoot at people or to try to make them change their minds by force, but rather to understand them and to help guide them into a type of democracy that would live”, and he cited Mao: “All military actions are meant to achieve political objectives while military action itself is a manifested form of politics.” Winning the Cold War in countries emerging from old-style colonialism, he believed, was about convincing people that their futures would be “more rewarding under our system than under Communism”. His task was to cultivate enduring belief in “old-fashioned Americanism, representative government, an armed force which protects the people as brothers, all men created equal”. And although he was no longer religious he still clung to one dictum of the Christian Science religion in which he was brought up: “At all times and under all circumstances overcome evil with good.”
Well before he wrote The Quiet American, Graham Greene had developed an aversion to the Lansdale type of American. In The Lawless Roads, his book about his travels in Mexico in 1938, Greene observed that beneath “that pinkness and that goodness” the Americans he met were “very innocent” of the world. It was his first experience of the cultural power of the United States that up to then he had encountered vicariously as a film reviewer. In The Lawless Roads he was contemptuous of the “sinless graceless chromium world” that he believed the Americans were creating. Even earlier, in Liberia in 1935, he noted that American commerce had supplanted old-style imperialism. “The last loan and the last concession to the Firestone Company of Ohio all but surrendered their sovereignty to a commercial company with no interests in Liberia but rubber and dividends.” So Alden Pyle was a new iteration of a personality that provoked Greene’s misanthropy, the Cold War version of the travelling Americans he had come across in the 1930s. Out of place in the tropics, he “belonged to the skyscraper and the express elevator, the ice cream and the dry Martinis, milk at lunch …”
Lansdale could sound like he was ventriloquoising Pyle and not the other way around. When he stayed at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi (where Greene had worked on the novel) the only cold drink on offer was champagne. “Between a glass of champagne or a cold coke on a hot day,” Lansdale wrote in one of his letters, “I’ll take the latter any time.” In Pyle, the kind of shiny earnestness which Greene had found merely irritating had now been converted into a quest. He was determined “to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world”. Far from being a sneer, this was genuine perception on Greene’s part, for members of the American mission had imbibed a similar sense of righteousness. A secret policy paper presented to the National Security Council in Washington in 1949, NSC 51, set out American options in South East Asia in words that matched Pyle’s thoughts, concluding that “we are for all our shortcomings not only great but good, and therefore a dynamic force in the mind of the world”.
It was in pursuit of this vision that Lansdale was ordered to Vietnam by Allen Dulles in June 1954. A month before, the Viet Minh had defeated French imperial will at the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu; a month later a peace conference in Geneva temporarily partitioned Vietnam. The French clung on in the South while the Viet Minh controlled the North; a general election in 1956 was supposed to inaugurate a unified, independent nation. The Americans, who were not party to the agreement, wanted to make sure this election would never happen because they knew Ho Chi Minh would win. As in the Philippines, Lansdale gathered around himself a team of “unscrupulous bastards” to conduct covert paramilitary operations and psychological warfare. His team distributed fake leaflets in Hanoi detailing Viet Minh plans to confiscate property and suggesting that the US might drop an atom bomb on the city to encourage the swelling migration of Catholics from the North. US Navy ships and an airline owned by the CIA delivered nine hundred thousand refugees to Saigon. Lansdale’s men infiltrated Hanoi and attempted to sabotage railways and buses, though their plans to blow up oil tanks were countermanded.
Lansdale himself formed a close relationship with the new prime minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem, whose father had been keeper of the eunuchs at the emperor’s court, had built up a following among conservative US Catholics and liberal anti-communists when he lived in New York in the early 1950s; a Supreme Court justice had described him as “the kind of Asian we can live with”. Under Lansdale’s tutelage, Diem became America’s unreliable puppet. While Lansdale lectured him on the virtues of the American Revolution, Diem rigged elections and created a police state, incarcerating thousands of political prisoners. When the American ambassador lost confidence in him and convinced Washington that he should be replaced, it was Lansdale’s cable to the CIA insisting that “failure to support Diem would damage American prestige” which won him a reprieve. As he left Saigon in 1956 Lansdale believed Diem was popular and accountable and that the “show was on the road”. A show it certainly was: in 1957 Diem was given a ticker tape parade in New York and was hailed in the press as “The Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam”. Six years later he was overthrown in an American-backed coup.
Boot makes the unconvincing argument that things would have turned out differently if Diem had stayed in power with Lansdale as his puppet master. But what if Lansdale had chosen Ho Chi Minh as his protégé for nation building? Like many anti-colonialists since the days of Woodrow Wilson, Ho clung to the hope that the US would make good on its promises of self-determination. At the end of the Second World War American intelligence agents who enlisted Ho in their fight against Japan (they sent him some weapons and medicine and treated him for malaria) were impressed by his patriotic charisma and compared him to Abraham Lincoln. “Forget the Communist bogy [sic],” one of them reported. “The Viet Minh League is not Communist. Stands for freedom and reforms against French harshness.” For a brief moment, US policymakers at the highest level recognised that anti-colonialism was as big a feature of the postwar world as Soviet expansion. As NSC 51 concluded: “The satisfaction of militant nationalism is the first essential requirement for resistance to Stalinism.” But the deepening of the Cold War ended Washington’s interest in local nationalisms. From 1951 onwards the US bankrolled the French war in Vietnam; China and the Soviet Union backed Ho. In Iran, the CIA helped to overthrow Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953. The following year in Guatemala, the CIA engineered a coup against Jacobo Arbenz, another popular leader with a nationalist agenda mildly challenging to US interests.
Psychological warfare of the type practised by Colonel Edward Lansdale – weaponised advertising – was often central to these successful coups. Lansdale’s boss in the 1950s, Frank Wisner, referred to the CIA’s propaganda network as a “Mighty Wurlitzer”, an organ capable of playing a vast array of propaganda tunes. Radio broadcasts from Miami purporting to be the voice of a powerful resistance movement in the Guatemalan jungle undermined Arbenz, while newspapers carried fake stories to sow fear and confusion. It helped that the American press was so eager to co-operate. In the Philippines, Lansdale engineered sycophantic profiles of his man Magsaysay in Time and Life magazines, which served both an American and a local audience. Reporters he met in Manila who moved on to Saigon were also useful sources when he arrived in Vietnam; rather than regarding him with suspicion, journalists from Time and The New York Times advised him what he should do to win the war. Lansdale could be sure they were “part of the team” and would work with him “to get the truth of things out in the world”. This attitude of collusion was, of course, to change dramatically within a decade. But the scale of complicity between the culture industry and American foreign policy was shown by Lansdale’s success in turning the film version of The Quiet American upside down, so that the villain becomes the English journalist Fowler and not Pyle. Lansdale had met the director, Joseph L Mankiewicz, when he came to Saigon in 1956 to research the script and claimed that the plot twist was his idea. He even arranged, through his influence with Diem, for Mankiewicz to make the film in Vietnam and when it was ready for release a year later, Lansdale wrote to President Diem that the film was “an excellent change from Mr Greene’s novel of despair” and would help him win friends in many places in the world. The premiere in Washington was sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam.
Greene, understandably, was furious that his work had been suborned, but he consoled himself that the novel would outlast the film. His battle with Lansdale would continue vicariously as he became the best known anti-American writer on the planet. His work in Vietnam was a pivotal moment. Initially sympathetic to the French, he began to recognise the challenge of nationalism to the Western powers but especially to the United States. VS Naipaul caught it best in an interview with Greene in the Sunday Telegraph magazine in 1967: “He has always been a political writer, interested in the larger movement of events. Before the war the frontiers were European. Now these lines of anxiety run everywhere.” President Eisenhower asked his advisers if it was possible “to get some of the people in these down-trodden countries to like us instead of hating us”. This was Lansdale’s job. It was Greene, who discovered a rich vein of novelistic material in the entanglement of the Cold War and anti-colonialism, who provided the explanation for his failure.
Maurice Walsh is the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-23 (Faber) and is working on a book about Graham Greene and the 20th century. He teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London