Revisiting Revisionism: Vietnam, Counterinsurgency, and the Lessons of Edward Lansdale
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Lost Opportunities in Vietnam,” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam (New York: Liveright, 2018).
Could the United States have won in Vietnam if only Americans had made different decisions about how to fight the war there? For the most part, academic historians have said no. The South Vietnamese state was so flawed and the reservoir of Soviet and Chinese support for the communist war effort so vast, runs the argument, that Washington had no meaningful chance of victory, no matter how adroitly it used its vast power.
However, a small handful of historians has long begged to differ. These “revisionists” argue that the United States could have achieved its goal — a secure, anti-communist South Vietnam capable of enduring into the indefinite future — if only it had chosen its methods more wisely. To be sure, proponents of this outlook vary widely in their assessments of precisely what went wrong and what could have been done better. Some focus on military decisions, others on the political or diplomatic realms. But the basic point is the same: American leaders stole defeat from the jaws of victory through bad choices.
The “lost-victory” argument first took root in the wartime years, when Lyndon Johnson’s critics excoriated him for failing to wage the war with sufficient boldness. It gained new traction in the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger and his supporters assailed Congress for reneging on U.S. obligations to defend South Vietnam following the 1973 ceasefire, sabotaging a peace deal that would otherwise have established a secure nation. Such views gained additional legitimacy a few years later when revisionism jumped from the realm of naked partisanship into the world of history writing. In America in Vietnam, the first comprehensive revisionist account of the war, political scientist Guenter Lewy contended that the war was winnable if the United States had only prioritized counterinsurgency operations. Lewy also blamed antiwar activists for creating the myth that the United States was inevitably doomed by the complexities of Vietnamese politics. Retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. followed in 1982 with On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, which took revisionism in a different direction by criticizing civilian leaders for doing too little to mobilize the American public and the U.S. military for failing to use its overwhelming conventional superiority to block the infiltration of supplies and troops from North to South Vietnam.
But the real heyday of Vietnam revisionism has been the last couple of decades, when a new group of authors has drawn on mountains of newly available source material to make the case in unprecedented detail. First came Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, which argues that U.S. forces fought effectively in the years after the Tet Offensive and commanded the battlefield to an extent unrecognized by the politicians who pulled the plug on the American military effort. A few years later, Mark Moyar published Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, which delves into the years before the arrival of U.S. combat forces. During that time, argues Moyar, American advisers working alongside South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem made steady progress toward bolstering a viable state. But craven political leaders, abetted by self-serving journalists, torpedoed the whole enterprise by conspiring in Diem’s overthrow, an event that exacerbated South Vietnam’s problems and opened the way to disaster.
Now comes Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, an engaging book that, like Moyar’s study, focuses on lost opportunities in the years before the major escalation of U.S. forces. But Boot makes the case in a fresh and distinctive way — through a biography of Edward G. Lansdale, one of the most fascinating and complex figures in the pantheon of American Cold Warriors.
Boot makes no effort to disguise his admiration for Lansdale. The Air-Force-officer-turned-CIA-operative possessed, in Boot’s view, a unique blend of creativity, cultural sensitivity, charisma, and doggedness that made him an exceptionally effective practitioner — indeed, a “maestro” — of counter-insurgency warfare and nation-building in far-off lands. The book focuses first on Lansdale’s work in the Philippines, where he played a key role in defeating the communist Huk insurgency and in rallying Filipinos behind the pro-Western liberal Ramon Magsaysay in the 1953 presidential election.
Boot then shifts to Vietnam, where Lansdale attempted to work similar magic in the mid-1950s. This mission started off well enough: Lansdale helped Diem survive innumerable threats to his rule and then lay the foundations of a secure Vietnamese state by winning over his population and suppressing communist opponents. But all this promise evaporated when U.S. leaders abandoned Diem and scrapped Lansdale’s counterinsurgency methods in favor of a conventional war that, in Boot’s view, had no chance of succeeding. Boot writes,
The course that the United States was now embarked on was not just a mistake; it was a catastrophe that would profoundly alter American foreign policy for decades to come, and it might conceivably have been avoided if only Washington policymakers had listened to the advice of a renowned counterinsurgency strategist who had been present at the creation of the state of South Vietnam.
Nor does Boot hold anything back in offering Lansdale up as a model for the 21st century. Over the years, other revisionists — mostly, like Boot, hawkish foreign policy pundits with positions at think tanks rather than academic institutions — have aimed to influence ongoing policy debates by encouraging confidence about the efficacy of U.S. power when properly applied. But Boot, who has championed counterinsurgency tactics in earlier books, takes this presentist agenda to a whole new level. In Lansdale’s story, Boot contends, lie valuable lessons about how to fight insurgencies and how to shape the behavior of unreliable allies. “His practices could be emulated by contemporary advisers in countries ranging from Mali to Mexico,” the book insists.
In the reviews that follow, three eminent scholars sink their teeth into Boot’s core claims about Lansdale’s accomplishments and his relevance for our own times. Each raises serious questions about Boot’s analysis, as one might expect at a time when, despite the resurgence of revisionism in some quarters, most academic specialists remain deeply skeptical at best. But these reviews offer far more than mere reassertion of long-standing conventional wisdom. Each delves into a different aspect of the book and raises important questions relevant not just to Boot’s study but to the larger proposition that the United States possesses the power and know-how to shape foreign societies through Lansdalean arts of persuasion.
The first review comes from Gregory A. Daddis of Chapman University and author, most recently, of Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017), which rebuts revisionist claims about the war in the early 1970s. Daddis criticizes Boot on various fronts but attaches particular importance to Boot’s thin attention to Vietnamese perspectives. The book, complains Daddis, takes an “American-centric” approach that unpersuasively casts Lansdale in the role of “enlightened imperialist” while depicting Diem as a passive and needy recipient of American advice. Daddis also contends that Boot fails to reckon with new evidence of Hanoi’s determination starting in the early 1960s to mount a major war in the South, making Lansdale’s insistence on counterinsurgency methods hopelessly ill-suited to the basic military situation.
The second reviewer is Walter C. Ladwig III of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and author of The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relations in Counterinsurgency (2017). While most reviewers of Boot’s book have understandably focused on the sections dealing with Vietnam, Ladwig offers fresh analysis by focusing on the parts concerning Lansdale’s time in the Philippines. Central to Boot’s argument is Lansdale’s alleged ability to promote constructive change in the Philippines through personal charm and gentle persuasion — a combination of traits that Boot suggests could also have worked in Vietnam if given a chance. Ladwig questions this whole chain of thinking by suggesting that, in fact, the United States got its way in the Philippines as much through coercion as through Lansdale’s friendly partnership with Magsaysay.
Heather M. Stur of the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (2011) provides the third review. Stur zeroes in on Boot’s extensive analysis of Landsale’s relationships with the two women in his life, his wife Helen and his mistress (and eventually second wife), a Filipina known as Pat Kelly. Boot attaches huge importance to this triangle, partly because he is the first author to use Lansdale’s extensive correspondence with both women but also because Lansdale’s conflicted affections map so neatly onto his role as intermediary between America and Asia. But Stur takes Boot to task for failing to give the women authentic agency and especially for buying into orientalist clichés about the mysterious sexual allure of Asia. Like Daddis, Stur wonders whether Lansdale was, on the whole, more an old-fashioned imperialist than the tolerant, enlightened man whom Boot describes.
Mark Atwood Lawrence is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of Graduate Studies at the Clements Center for National Security. He is author or editor of several books about the Vietnam War, including The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. He is now working on a book about U.S. policymaking toward the developing world in the Vietnam era.