The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
by Max Boot
Liveright, 768 pp.
Max Boot, the military historian and Never-Trumper, has a lot on his mind: the fate of counterinsurgency warfare; whether American intervention is a force for good abroad; and the role of racism, xenophobia, and even misogyny in U.S. national security policy.
The Road Not Taken uses 600 pages to weave these threads into the complex life of Major General Edward Lansdale, a now-obscure figure who was as well known in his day as General David Petraeus was in the late 2000s or General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf was during the first Gulf War. Though Lansdale never commanded a war effort or even fired a gun in battle, he was a pivotal figure in the Vietnam era, influential enough to have been the inspiration for both the naive villain of Graham Greene's The Quiet American and the hero of William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American. Boot is less interested in moralizing, which will frustrate some consumers of Vietnam literature but intrigue others. Rather, his thesis is that the "hearts and minds" approach that Lansdale championed--what Boot calls "Lansdalism"--could have rescued not just South Vietnam but also America's twenty-first-century forays into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.
His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio "Pat" Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)
The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his "whole of government approach" to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms...