Years ago, I ran into former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bill Colby at a conference in Washington, DC.
I was with an acquaintance who had participated in the agency’s secret air operations in Laos during the 1960s. After exchanging cards, my friend popped a question: Did Colby think that history could have been changed and over a million deaths averted if the US had accepted Ho Chi Minh’s offer of an alliance at the end of World War II?
Colby, who oversaw a CIA counter-insurgency program in Vietnamese villages that killed upwards of 40,000 civilians, thought for a moment. “Guys, we’ll never know the answer to that question,” he said with a haunting twinkle in his eye.
Forty-two years after the last American helicopter left Saigon, it still rankles some that history might have taken a different turn.
Max Boot, a military historian and foreign policy analyst, revisits that question in a well wrought and entertaining biography of Edward Lansdale, the legendary CIA operative whom he credits as the first to advocate a “hearts and minds” approach to winning wars in the Philippines and Vietnam.
Boot argues in The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam that the maverick advertising man turned covert-action specialist actually championed a policy that relied on winning popular support by focusing on the causes of insurgencies, rather than brute military strength.
Needless to say Lansdale’s prescriptions were ignored by an entrenched US military bureaucracy and ruling class that favored B-52 bomber strikes over winning popular trust.
“It is no exaggeration to suggest that the whole conflict, the worst military defeat in American history, might have taken a very 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,” Boot writes in his book.
All things considered, it’s unlikely that a single strategy, however visionary, could have salvaged the US war in Vietnam. But in the post-mortem that emerged from the conflict, Lansdale’s approach did become a template for future US military adventures, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as in all things, there’s a difference between theory and practice. The struggle for hearts and minds in the Middle East and elsewhere has proved maddeningly elusive and usually falls prey to expedience, ineptitude and corruption on the US side.
Lansdale, who died in 1987, has been a target of vilification for his involvement in clandestine CIA military activities in Laos and post-WWII efforts to preserve French rule in Vietnam.
He is also a favorite of conspiracy theorists who see his hand in everything from the Kennedy assassination to US efforts to recover a horde of gold stashed in the Philippines by Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita.
But Boot notes the “T E Lawrence of Asia” had another side — the one that bitterly opposed the US-approved assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and who forged close bonds with Cao Dai rebels and Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay.
“(Lansdale) argued that the American emphasis should be on building up legitimate, democratic, and accountable South Vietnamese institutions that could command the loyalty of the people, and he thought that sending large formations of American ground troops was a distraction from, indeed a hindrance to, achieving that all-important objective,” Boot contends in his book.
Nor was Lansdale a racist. In a time when even educated men like John F Kennedy routinely referred to Chinese as “chinks”, Lansdale avoided such epithets. As an itinerant man from ordinary roots who had been raised as a Christian Scientist, he was a religious and social outsider who identified with non-white underdogs.
“He saw people of other racial and ethnic background as individuals, and sought to appeal to them as equals. This made Lansdale an unusual, and unusually effective, agent of American power — if not always a successful one,” Boot wrote.
As a military intelligence officer in the Philippines in 1945, Lansdale was more interested in “tracking societal conditions to ensure that new enemies did not arise out of the rubble of old wars”, than reporting about enemies in the field.
Is there a present-day lesson for the US? Boot argues that Lansdale’s legacy “stands as a rebuke both to anti-interventionists who assume that fragile states should stand or fall on their own and to arch-hawks who believe that massive commitments of American military forces are necessary to win any war.”
Such contradictory policy strains have bedeviled American “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s equally true that a Lansdale-inspired struggle for hearts and minds in the Middle East and Afghanistan has disintegrated amid the bloody intricacies of Muslim sectarian strife and an over-stretched US military’s inability to provide security to friendly communities.
At the same time, Lansdale’s more nimble grasp of political warfare and propaganda in gaining popular support contrasts with ham-fisted US psy-war efforts against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that failed to contain the insurgency. This may be the most important lesson.
In final analysis, Boot’s musings about roads diverging in a historical wood sound all the more relevant in a Trumpian world that appears to be inching towards another abyss.