Historian Max Boot talks 20th century intelligence officer Edward Lansdale with MCoE students
Story by Bryan Gatchell, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Feb. 14, 2018) – Historian Max Boot delivered a presentation at Fort Benning to students of the Maneuver Center of Excellence Feb. 6 in Marshall Auditorium.
The subject of the presentation was Edward Lansdale, an Air Force officer who worked for the CIA during the 1950s and 1960s, about whom Boot had recently authored a book.
Maj. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning commander, introduced Boot to an audience primarily composed of MCoE students.
“It is one thing to have someone who is a noted academic or expert in their field,” said Wesley, “but it’s another to know they have sufficient commitment and relationships to apply and leverage what they know and their expertise on behalf of our institutions, and Max Boot is one of those.”
“One of the virtues of bringing someone in here to Fort Benning, who is not one of us, who doesn’t wear the uniform, who doesn’t speak the same tones and rhythms as us,” continued Wesley, “is that it forces you to get outside what might be your comfort zone or your academic framework.”
Boot introduced his subject Edward Lansdale as “one of the most unusual general officers in the U.S. Air Force – really any other U.S. military service” and “an extremely unconventional thinker who had absolutely no normal type of military background.”
Boot studied Lansdale for five years while writing his recently published book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.
Lansdale was the son of an automobile executive whose career fluctuated, causing the Lansdale home life to vacillate between being “flush” and being “nearly bankrupt,” according to Boot. Lansdale’s upbringing took place in Michigan, New York, and California. He had aspirations of being a writer and cartoonist but instead started his career as an advertising executive in San Francisco. When the U.S. joined World War II, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence agency preceding the CIA. As part of his wartime assignment, he stayed in the U.S. and interviewed travelers who visited foreign countries. He was commissioned into the U.S. Army in 1943, and after the war ended, the military assigned him to the Philippines, where he stayed until 1948.
Lansdale married an American, Helen Batcheller, in 1935. Lansdale’s correspondence with his wife and his concurrent correspondence with Patrocinio Kelly Yapcinco, the Filipina widow of an American, as well as recently declassified U.S. federal documents provided Boot primary source documents for his book.
Boot emphasized the role Kelly played in Lansdale’s immersion and strategic success in the Philippines.
“She served as an entrée into Filipino culture,” said Boot. “It allowed him to assimilate into the culture of the Philippines and understand Filipinos in a way that is not so easy to do as an outsider.”
Boot emphasized Lansdale’s time in the Philippines from 1945 to 1948 as laying the groundwork for Lansdale’s later success in the Philippines. The relationships he had formed while there also precipitated his return when the Philippines faced the threat of communist insurrection.
“There was a lot of concern at the time that this ‘red tide’ of communism was about to sweep over the entire world, especially over Asia,” said Boot.
On the request of Elpidio Quirino, the president of the Philippines, Lansdale was transferred to the Philippines, where he served as an American liaison to Ramón Magsaysay, secretary of national defense. A group of communist rebels, known as the Hukbalahap, were threatening the current administration. Within a small group of advisers, Magsaysay and Lansdale worked on strategies against the Hukbalahap.
“Together they developed a lot of the thinking that is known as population-centric counter-insurgency,” said Boot. “You’ll recognize some of the things they put into practice because it’s become part of the Army-Marine field manual, but I can assure you that in the early 1950s when they were developing these ideas, the wisdom was anything but conventional. And the essence of the Lansdale-Magsaysay approach was to use less force, not more.”
Lansdale employed a combination of political management on behalf of Magsaysay, of addressing the grievances at the heart of the Hukbalahap rebellion, and of psychological operations. Magsaysay became president of the Philippines in 1953. The Hukbalahap membership diminished. Lansdale and Magsaysay’s method proved successful.
“This was a communist insurgency that had been defeated without a single American Soldier being sent into combat,” said Boot.
When the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1954, and the worry was that other countries in Eastern Asia might turn to communism if Vietnam turned entirely, the CIA brought Lansdale in to cultivate a relationship with Ngô Đình Diệm, the prime minister of the State of Vietnam, so that Lansdale might succeed similarly to how he succeeded in the Philippines. Many Filipinos spoke English, so the language barrier had been less a difficulty for Lansdale there. In Vietnam, however, the languages of the French colonial era were Vietnamese and French. Despite the difficulty, Lansdale proved successful.
“Even working through translators, he was able to establish a very effective bond with Diệm,” said Boot. “And how did he do it? Very simple: He listened rather than lecture.”
Lansdale provided support to Diệm in South Vietnam similar to that to Magsaysay in the Philippines, and Diệm became president of First Republic of Vietnam. Lansdale brought to bear some of his personal relations in Washington to ensure that South Vietnam and Diệm retained U.S. backing. The result was a victory for Lansdale.
Lansdale’s next mission, leading the CIA’s Operation Mongoose to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, did not succeed. Both this lack of success in Cuba and what Boot called Lansdale’s “maverick” streak in dealing with U.S. military and governmental leaders ultimately lost him favor with Washington leadership.
Trouble resurfaced in Vietnam, and Lansdale was then unable to muster the U.S. support against a military coup d’état. After Diệm’s assassination in 1963, military coup succeeded military coup, destabilizing South Vietnam.
Lansdale retired from military service in 1963 as a major general in the U.S. Air Force.
“This is not just a story of historic or biographic interest – although it is that – I think it is a story with some resonance for the present day,” said Boot, summing his talk up on Lansdale. “We are engaged in another great counter-insurgency, not against communist insurgents as was the case in Lansdale’s day, but against jihadist insurgents. And the question is how we’re to defeat these Islamist insurgents.”
Boot believes the way forward is through the use of advisers, with Lansdale as a prototype. Boot praised Lansdale’s ability to be an effective listener but criticized his inability to win over superiors and his inability to speak anything but English.
“If you think about advisers, you have to think about Ed Lansdale, because he was one of the most storied advisers of the 20th century,” said Boot. “He has a lot of lessons to teach, both good and bad.”
Wesley recommended the MCoE students take advantage of Boot’s perspective, and they asked Boot questions about current global affairs and more. One point Boot touched upon during his answers was the efficacy of history as a tool for learning.
“Are we able to truly learn the lessons of history, and, having learned them, are we able to internalize them and operationalize them,” said Boot. “And that remains very difficult.”
To read the story as it appears on the Army News Service, visit www.army.mil/article/200609.
To see more photos from the event, visit www.fortbenningphotos.com/Maneuver-Center/Departments/Public-Affairs-Office/VIP-Group-Visits/2018-VIP-and-Group-Visit/2018-02-06-Max-Boot.