Lansdale was a proponent of the “hearts and minds” approach. He believed in the use of subterfuge and force, but he rejected “search and destroy” tactics—invading villages and hunting out the enemy, as American forces did repeatedly in South Vietnam. It was a search-and-destroy mission that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai, in 1968.
Tactics like this, Lansdale saw, only alienated the population, and he advocated what he called “civic action,” which he defined, in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1964, as “an extension of military courtesy, in which the soldier citizen becomes the brotherly protector of the civilian citizen.” In other words, soldiers are fighters, but they are also salesmen. They need to sell the benefits of the regime they are fighting for, and to do so by demonstrating, concretely, their commitment to the lives of the people. This is what Lansdale believed that the Vietcong were doing, and what the Philippine rebels, who called themselves the Hukbalahap, had done. They understood the Maoist notion that the people are the water, and the soldiers must live among them as the fish.
As Boot notes, Lansdale was by no means the only person who believed that the way to beat the Vietcong was to play their game by embedding anti-Communist forces, trained by American advisers, in the villages. This happened to be the theme of “The Ugly American,” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, which was published in 1958 and spent an astonishing seventy-eight weeks on the best-seller list. Lederer and Lansdale were friends, and Lansdale appears in the book as a character named Colonel Hillandale, who entertains locals with his harmonica (as Lansdale was known to do).
“The Ugly American” was intended—and was received by many—as a primer on counter-insurgency for battlegrounds like Vietnam. Although the title has come to refer to vulgar American tourists, that was not the intention. In the book, the “ugly American” is the hero, a man who works side by side with the locals to help improve rice production. He just happens to be ugly.
Boot, oddly, doesn’t mention it, but the United States was engaged in civic action in South Vietnam from the beginning of the Diem regime. Through the Agency for International Development, we had been providing agricultural, educational, infrastructural, and medical assistance. There was graft, but there were also results. Rice production doubled between 1954 and 1959, and production of livestock tripled. We gave far more in military aid, but that is because our policy was to enable South Vietnam to defend itself.
In the pursuit of civic action, though, there was always the practical question of just how South Vietnamese troops and their American advisers were supposed to insinuate themselves into villages in the countryside. It was universally understood, long before the marines arrived, that in the countryside the night belonged to the Vietcong. No one wanted to be out after sunset away from a fortified position. John Paul Vann was notorious for riding his jeep at night along country roads. People didn’t do that.
What was crucially missing for a counter-insurgency program to work, as Lansdale pointed out, was a government to which the population could feel loyalty. Despite all his exertions as the Wizard of Saigon, pulling Diem’s strings from behind the curtain, he could not make Diem into a nationalist hero like Ho. As many historians do, Boot believes that the Diem coup was the key event in the war, that it put the United States on a path of intervention from which there was no escape and no return. “How different history might have been,” he speculates, “if Lansdale or a Lansdale-like figure had remained close enough to Diem to exercise a benign influence and offset the paranoid counsel of his brother.” But Boot also recognizes that events may have been beyond Lansdale’s or Diem’s control. “Perhaps Lansdale’s achievements could not have lasted in any case,” he says.
Probably not. Lansdale was writing on water. The Vietnam he imagined was a Western fantasy. Although the best and the brightest in Washington shunned and ignored him, Lansdale shared their world view, the world view that defined the Cold War. He was a liberal internationalist. He believed that if you scratched a Vietnamese or a Filipino you found a James Madison under the skin.
Some Vietnam reporters who were contemporaries of Lansdale’s, like Stanley Karnow, who covered the war for a number of news organizations, and the Times correspondent A. J. Langguth, assumed that the artlessness and the harmonica playing were an act, that Lansdale was a deeply canny operative who hid his real nature from everyone. Boot’s book suggests the opposite. His Lansdale is a very simple man. Unquestioned faith in his own motives is what allowed him to manipulate others for what he knew would be their own ultimate good. He was not the first American to think that way, and he will not be the last.
The English writer James Fenton was in Saigon, working as a journalist, when Vietcong troops arrived there in 1975. He managed, more or less by accident, to be sitting in the first tank to enter the courtyard of the Presidential Palace. Fenton described the experience in a memorable article, “The Fall of Saigon,” published in Granta in 1985.
Like many Westerners of his education and generation, Fenton had hoped for a Vietcong victory, and he was impressed by the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army when they marched into the city. But he stayed around long enough to see the shape that the postwar era would take. The Vietnamese Communists did what totalitarian regimes do: they took over the schools and universities, they shut down the free press, they pursued programs of enforced relocation and reëducation. Many South Vietnamese disappeared.
Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Ho’s body, like Lenin’s, was installed in a mausoleum for public viewing. Agriculture was collectivized and a five-year plan of modernization was instituted. The results were calamitous. During the next ten years, many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country, most of them by launching boats into the South China Sea. Two hundred thousand more are estimated to have died trying. “We had been seduced by Ho,” Fenton concluded. What he and his friends had refused to realize, he wrote, was that “the victory of the Vietnamese was a victory for Stalinism.” By 1975, though, most Americans and Europeans had stopped caring what happened in Southeast Asia.
Then, around 1986, the screw of history took another turn. Like many other Communist states at the time, Vietnam introduced market reforms. The economy responded, and soon Western powers found a reason to be interested in Southeast Asia all over again: cheap labor. Vietnam is now a major exporter of finished goods. It is a safe bet that somewhere in your house you have a pair of sneakers or a piece of electronic equipment stamped with the words “Made in Vietnam.” ♦