Us Mistakes Made In Vietnam Were Repeated In Afghanistan

A new book explores a legendary advisor who may have sầu had the secret khổng lồ success in Vietphái nam — and in winning today’s forever war.

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Max Boot’s newest book chronicles the life và impact of Edward Lansdale, the famous American advisor & CIA officer sometimes hailed as the “Lawrence of Asia.” A near-legover alternately seen as a kingmaker or an oddball, Lansdale helped trailbLaser one American approach to fighting communist insurgents during the early days of the Cold War — an approach that was soon scorned by policymakers at the top. Deeply researched & evenhanded, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale và the American Tragedy in Vietnam is a superb scholarly achievement.

Boot, a historian and columnist for Foreign Policy, comes at Lansdale having already written two major books on small wars và counterinsurgency, a solid foundation that he takes to lớn a new màn chơi here with rigorous research and dogged investigation into little-known corners of Lansdale’s life. He taps the most up-to-date scholarly sources, such as Lien-Hang Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War & Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War, and his own primary research is most impressive sầu. He conducted more than đôi mươi interviews with people who knew Lansdale & visited more than 30 archives, including in the Philippines and Vietphái nam. He makes use of the most recently declassified material. And Boot is the first author to lớn gain access to lớn the letters Lansdale wrote khổng lồ his wife and his Filipina lover (and future second wife), which reveal copious details about his thinking & motivation.

The thrust of Boot’s argument is that the United States missed an opportunity for a less traumatic outcome in Vietnam, và again in today’s long wars, by neglecting Lansdale’s example. Eschewing Lansdale’s deep local knowledge, trust with leaders, and skepticism of the value of large numbers of troops on the ground is, for Boot, the “road not taken.”


Max Boot’s newest book chronicles the life and impact of Edward Lansdale, the famous American advisor và CIA officer sometimes hailed as the “Lawrence of Asia.” A near-legover alternately seen as a kingmaker or an oddball, Lansdale helped trailbLaser one American approach to fighting communist insurgents during the early days of the Cold War — an approach that was soon scorned by policymakers at the top. Deeply researched & evenhanded, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale và the American Tragedy in Vietnam is a superb scholarly achievement.

Boot, a historian and columnist for Foreign Policy, comes at Lansdale having already written two major books on small wars and counterinsurgency, a solid foundation that he takes khổng lồ a new level here with rigorous retìm kiếm và dogged investigation inlớn little-known corners of Lansdale’s life. He taps the most up-to-date scholarly sources, such as Lien-Hang Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War & Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War, and his own primary retìm kiếm is most impressive sầu. He conducted more than 20 interviews with people who knew Lansdale và visited more than 30 archives, including in the Philippines và Vietphái nam. He makes use of the most recently declassified material. And Boot is the first author to gain access to lớn the letters Lansdale wrote to lớn his wife & his Filipina lover (& future second wife), which reveal copious details about his thinking and motivation.

The thrust of Boot’s argument is that the United States missed an opportunity for a less traumatic outcome in Vietphái mạnh, và again in today’s long wars, by neglecting Lansdale’s example. Eschewing Lansdale’s deep local knowledge, trust with leaders, and skepticism of the value of large numbers of troops on the ground is, for Boot, the “road not taken.”

The argument is relevant both for America’s revisiting of Vietnam & for how it handles strategy today. Boot’s takeaway is that skilled advisors with a bias toward democratic reforms could have yielded better results not only in Vietphái nam but also in America’s more recent wars.

Edward Lansdale was a California advertising man who joined the fledgling Office of Strategic Services during the World War II, later going on lớn become a CIA officer & U.S. Air Force major general. He played a pivotal role on the Cold War battlefields of the Philippines và Vietnam giới, skillfully advising Philippine and South Vietnamese leaders wrestling with communist insurgencies. In his Vietnam giới masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie, reporter Neil Sheehan called Lansdale a “legendary clandestine operative.” (For years, Lansdale was also rumored to be the Model for Grasay mê Greene’s The Quiet American, though Greene denied it, having written the book before Lansdale arrived in Vietphái nam.)

Lansdale’s greathử nghiệm achievements — and the ones that point most clearly lớn the path that Boot thinks should have sầu been taken — were helping then-Philippine Defense Minister Ratháng Magsaysay defeat the Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines & then engineering Magsaysay’s 1953 presidential election. Lansdale then moved to lớn Vietnam and deftly outmaneuvered the 1955 attempt lớn overthrow the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinch Diem. While critical of his many failings — detractors for years have sầu suggested Lansdale was naive & morally corrupt — Boot makes clear that Lansdale had a chất lượng gift for working with Filipinos & the South Vietnamese. He was the advisor par excellence.

Just what made Lansdale such a storied advisor lies at the heart of Boot’s book — & of the idea that his playbook could be applicable today. Lansdale had an intimate knowledge of the society, culture, politics, & history of the countries in which he worked.

He learned by leaving the bubble and taking the time và trouble to lớn meet with as many people from diverse backgrounds as possible, in barrtiện ích ios, villages, and the countryside. In his first stint in the Philippines, for instance, Lansdale would head out nearly every weekover and crisscross the countryside, learning what locals cared about. In South Vietphái mạnh, he set out inkhổng lồ the rural strongholds of the paramilitary religious sects, gaining a firsthand knowledge of leaders who would later try lớn overthrow the regime. That contrasts with the all-too-cloistered existence U.S. officials & officers often find themselves in while on assignment. And he put in the time: two deployments khổng lồ the Philippines totaling almost seven years, and two deployments to South Vietphái nam for a total of more than five sầu years. The total outstrips most Americans’ time on the ground in the recent wars.

Lansdale also had a unique ability to lớn build trust, which underpinned the willingness of Philippine and South Vietnamese leaders to lớn listen to his advice. Boot doesn’t shy away from the fact that Lansdale passed cash lớn his partners, such as during Magsaysay’s 1953 campaign for president. But money is not the whole story. Shared experience, patience, and genuine care for the well-being of his local partners mattered just as much. Lansdale & Magsaysay sometimes lived together & often traveled together, occasionally bouncing or flying recklessly through combat zones side by side.

“Comrades are listened to lớn, when they giới thiệu risk,” Lansdale later advised. With Diem, a much less charismatic partner, Lansdale had another weapon: the patience to simply listen to lớn the long-winded leader & his ideas for hours on kết thúc. (Other Americans loathed Diem’s diatribes.) Probably as important, at a time when the French & other Americans were trying to undercut Diem, Lansdale had no intention khổng lồ harm or remove hlặng. There is no trust if a partner thinks an advisor is out to get hyên ổn.

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Remarkably, Lansdale spoke no foreign languages. It takes effort, but language itself builds trust. I cannot count the number of times an Afghan has told me how happy he was that I came khổng lồ a meeting alone so that he could talk freely. America’s advisors & diplomats should seek to lớn outdo Lansdale in that regard.

Boot argues that Lansdale’s talents as an advisor gave sầu a better understanding of how to lớn achieve progress in Vietnam giới than U.S. commanders in the field or senior leaders in Washington did. By ignoring Lansdale’s advice, Boot maintains, the United States lost opportunities khổng lồ set the war on a less painful course: The decisions to lớn build a conventional-style South Vietnamese army, to lớn deploy large numbers of U.S. forces, và to lớn forgo democracy all ran contrary to his counsel. Most egregiously, in 1963, Washington decided khổng lồ overthrow Diem, a nationadanh mục if flawed leader. Lansdale had warned that years of political chaos would follow, as indeed they did.

Lansdale was onkhổng lồ something. For all his flaws, Diem probably would have sầu led a more stable, tougher government than the ones that followed his. In this environment, the United States may have sầu been less compelled to deploy hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines. “At the very least the war’s loss would have been less painful all around if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded,” Boot writes. “He had never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietphái nam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane và less costly.”

Boot’s broader message is that skilled, locally savvy advisors could have yielded better results not just in Vietnam giới — but also in America’s more recent wars. A major shortcoming in Iraq & Afghanistan was the lachồng of on-the-ground leaders with Lansdale’s level of local knowledge và people skills, Boot contends. In his view, there was no Lansdale-lượt thích rapport with national leaders. In sharp contrast khổng lồ Lansdale’s privileged ties khổng lồ Magsaysay và Diem, the United States had poor relationships with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki & Afghan President Hamid Karzai, & it could not dissuade them from bad decisions that ended up fueling support for insurgents và terrorists.

Based on my experiences as a civilian advisor in Afghanisrã, I am inclined to lớn agree that America did not always have sầu the right people in place, with the best knowledge of the country and rapport, and those gifted with those characteristics — Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad & Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for example — were around all too briefly. As in Vietphái nam, most leaders came and went on one-year tours. Those who learned aý muốn the people, as Lansdale had, were usually deemed too junior or unconventional to play a high-level role.

The mistakes U.S. leaders made, especially early on, were glaring. In Iraq, the United States de-Baathified the government, dissolved the army, and allowed sectarian strife to lớn smother democracy. In Afghanisrã, the United States rejected negotiations with the Taliban, built an army too slowly, permitted excesses by warlords, & caused too many civilian casualties. Washington misunderstood the Afghan people, the deep roots the Taliban had planted in society, và the likelihood they would sprout again.

The United States seemed deaf at times to lớn local concerns, especially when it came lớn Karzai. Few Americans were willing to lớn sympathize with Karzai or look out from his point of view. Critics seemed oblivious khổng lồ popular tư vấn for Karzai & how much he hewed khổng lồ traditional Afghan themes of independence and sovereignty. Over time, Karzai became increasingly resentful of Americans and resistant khổng lồ sound advice. U.S. leaders did not listen to lớn hyên ổn, so he did not listen khổng lồ them. It recalls Lansdale’s advice lớn President John F. Kennedy about Diem: “If the next American official khổng lồ talk lớn President Diem would have sầu the good sense lớn see hyên ổn as a human being who has been through a lot of hell for years — và not as an opponent to be beaten to lớn his knees — we would start regaining our influence with hlặng in a healthy way.”

To his credit, Boot does not argue that Lansdale could have sầu definitively turned around Vietnam, nor that following his Mã Sản Phẩm could have done the same in Iraq or Afghanistung. He acknowledges that larger factors were and are at play. In all three countries, the governments were bephối by a degree of corruption & strong-arm tactics that even a good leader was unlikely to lớn overcome. To take one example: In Iraq, more was going on than simply inaction by Maliki or the United States. Sectarian fears and friction inexorably drove sầu Sunnis & Shiites apart — và drove sầu Shiite politicians like Maliki to lớn ill-advised lengths. Even Lansdale would have been hard-pressed khổng lồ get Maliki to swim against that tide for long. Nor could good advisors much affect the cross-border safe havens of North Vietphái mạnh & Pakistung that endowed insurgents in South Vietnam và Afghanistung with an enduring strength & resilience.

Finally, I would underscore how in all three countries the adversaries were determined khổng lồ fight foreign occupation. The United States should be mindful of how nationalism can inspire men và women to resist occupation & how an American presence — even if necessary — can discredit the very governments it’s trying lớn help. “Nationalism,” Samuel Huntington wrote, “is the cement of the revolutionary alliance & the engine of the revolutionary movement.”

Lansdale himself would probably argue that the Philippines và Magsaysay prove that decisive sầu turnarounds are in fact possible. Yet the Philippines was a special case. Unlike Vietphái nam or Afghanistung, it was an archipelago physically isolated from communist supply and safe havens. And Lansdale got lucky with Magsaysay, a tireless former elected official, defense minister, & anti-Japanese guerrilla leader with a strong sympathy for the average Filipino and Philippine soldier. On top of everything else, we should rethành viên that the U.S. military stayed in the Philippines for decades.

Lansdale’s love of the Philippines and Vietnam giới clouded his objectivity. He understandably wanted lớn save his Vietnamese friends from abandonment and death — a feeling familiar lớn many who have served in Iraq & Afghanischảy. Perhaps he should have sầu recognized his bias & held baông chồng from claiming the Vietphái nam War could be won. His road not taken was a better option. But withdrawal may have sầu been the best.

An advisor cannot change the world. Lansdale’s tragedy is partly that he thought he could. Advisors can make a big difference. A well-placed one can prsự kiện devastating failures & seize opportunities. They can help boost military effectiveness. But creating a state that can stvà on its own và provide long-term stability without U.S. presence is something entirely different. One of Boot’s most telling passages is this:

The post-1953 tribulations of the Philippines showed how difficult it was lớn fundamentally transform a country, any country, whose social & political contours had been shaped by myriad factors over the course of a long history, like rocks formed by the accumulation of sediment over the millennia. Lansdale could accelerate and guide political change in the short term. Making that change last was a much more difficult proposition.

Lasting solutions khổng lồ the intractable problems of failed states are, in my view, outside the power of an advisor và usually outside the power of the United States itself. The best U.S. leaders và policymakers should expect is that if they stay, they can manage problems và prsự kiện outright failure or collapse. What advisors, even ones as gifted as Lansdale, are unlikely to provide is decisive success or a clear path out.