Max Boot, a highly regarded military historian and foreign-policy analyst who is also a fierce critic of President Trump, is out with a new book: “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Lansdale (whose name is mentioned as Daniel Ellsberg’s boss in the opening scene of “The Post”) was a Vietnam analyst who correctly saw that our strategy was going in the wrong direction. As Boot said in a recent interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Lansdale tried to make [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara and the other policymakers in the Kennedy administration realize the true nature of the war and to understand that we were not going to win just through superior firepower. And unfortunately, that message would be vindicated in the years ahead. But it was not something that McNamara was willing to believe in the beginning.”
I interviewed Boot via email. Our conversation, slightly edited for space and clarity, follows:
Did you have President Trump or any external event in mind when you decided to do the book?
Certainly not Trump–I started this book in 2013 when he was still a reality TV host, and this book is a Trump Free Zone. I had actually written a bit about Edward Lansdale, the legendary CIA agent, in my previous book, “Invisible Armies,” a history of guerrilla warfare. My editor at Norton, Bob Weil, suggested I write more deeply about Lansdale. I was initially skeptical but he was dead right, because I found out so much new information about Lansdale. My new sources of information included the letters that Lansdale wrote both to his wife and his long-time mistress, Pat Kelly, a Filipina who became his second wife after his first wife’s death. These letters gave a vantage point onto Lansdale’s inner-most thinking that no one has ever had before. In addition I had access to many declassified documents seen by no previous historian–for example Lansdale’s top-secret report to CIA Director Allen Dulles on how he got Ramon Magsaysay elected president of the Philippines in 1953. Together this new documentary record allowed me to provide the fullest and most complete portrait yet available of Lansdale, a famous figure who has too often been caricatured in books such as “The Quiet American” and “The Ugly American.”
By eliminating South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem in ’63, you make the case we then had to Americanize the war with disastrous results. But had we left him there, would we have inevitably done the same?
Diem has been vilified both by journalists and historians–see, for example, the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick “The Vietnam War” series on PBS which calls him a “losing horse.” But there is paradox hidden in the conventional wisdom about Diem: If he was so bad, why did the situation in South Vietnam deteriorate, rather than improve, after his removal? Diem was succeeded by one general after another, with military coups becoming as much a part of life in Saigon as the oppressive humidity and the smell of fish sauce. The Strategic Hamlets program that had been promoted by Diem to defend villages from Communist infiltration fell apart, and the entire leadership of South Vietnam’s army and of its provinces and districts turned over repeatedly. “Our enemy has been seriously weakened from all points of view,” crowed a Communist leader, calling Diem’s downfall “a gift from Heaven for us.” North Vietnam responded by stepping up its slow-motion invasion of the South. By 1965 the situation was so dire that Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to commit American combat troops to avert a total collapse. Perhaps the situation would have been as bad even if Diem had remained in power, but there was at least a chance for a different road–one that maintained South Vietnam as a more stable and independent state and avoided the Americanization of the war. This is what Lansdale urged at the time in opposing a Diem coup, and if there was one thing that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon agreed on in hindsight it is that it was a mistake to topple Diem.
In your own mind, did we misconceive what the war was about or did we not understand how to fight it? In other words, did we incorrectly superimpose a Cold War model that didn’t exactly fit the situation?
American policymakers were deluded on both counts–but primarily on the latter. They understood the war to be one against Communist aggression. That was true as far as it went, but it meant they underemphasized the nationalist appeal of Ho Chi Minh, who was both a Marxist and a nationalist. What U.S. policymakers really got wrong was their conviction that the war could be won through conventional means. Gen. William Westmoreland thought he could kill the Vietcong faster than they could be replaced. Edward Lansdale warned against this delusion but he was ignored. He tried to tell the Powers that Be that the only way to win was to champion competing ideas and ideals that would be more appealing to Vietnamese peasants than the nostrums offered by Vietcong cadres. He emphasized the need to build up a stable, legitimate government in Saigon–and warned that overthrowing Diem would make that nearly impossible to do. His advice would be vindicated by the tragedy that subsequently unfolded.
You have to think of the Iraq War and Bush’s decision to pursue the surge. Was that, whether consciously or not, a legacy of Lansdale’s views?
I don’t think that President Bush was familiar with Lansdale but certainly General Petraeus and other architects of the surge were, even if Lansdale was not cited in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (due, no doubt, to the fact that, unlike other COIN theorists, he did not set out his views in a compelling book or article). Just last night Gen. Petraeus and I had a conversation about the book at the New York Historical Society, where Petraeus said he was a great fan of Lansdale’s and tried to bring his emphasis on governance to the fight in Iraq. He added, incidentally, that “The Road Not Taken” will help to make Lansdale more influential in the future by laying out his life and ideas.
Nation-building is reviled by so many on the right. What are they misunderstanding?
What they’re missing is that unless we help our allies to build up their own nations, their territory will remain a breeding ground for terrorism, extremism, disease, transnational crime and other ills that will affect us. Nation-building is the only way to secure a long-term victory. We didn’t do nation building after World War I, and look what happened. We did do nation-building after World War II, and the results were a lot more positive. We will seldom, however, do nation-building on the World War II model with hundreds of thousands of troops. More common will be the kind of nation building that Lansdale did, which involved dispatching a small number of advisers to work with foreign governments and militaries. That is, in fact, how we will win the war on terror–not with American combat troops but with American advisers.
Look through a Lansdale lens: How do we win or can we win in Afghanistan?
Focus on governance, and focus on supporting and advising Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, rather than imagine that we can win by simply killing the Taliban. That won’t work even if we’re dropping the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB). The key is to reduce corruption and increase government effectiveness, rather than backing warlords whose predations draw fresh recruits to the Taliban camp.
We have such an imbalance in the administration in favor of military men, but we have some pretty great military figures. Does that worry you? Should we do it again?
I’m not overly worried about the presence of military men such as John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis in the senior ranks of the administration; they are all sophisticated thinkers with far clearer ideas about the world than the president they serve. But it does set a troubling precedent to have so many generals in positions of authority. It would have been nice if Trump had not alienated most of the normal foreign-policy pros who would be expected to staff an administration.
Vietnam is also remembered for the lack of transparency and for successive presidents misleading the public. What’s the challenge in a 24/7 news environment to inform and lead the public? Have we failed to level fully with voters about what long wars entail?
There is always a tendency, whether in Vietnam or today, for senior leaders to try to tell fairy tales to the public–telling them that our deployment is only temporary and will soon end in victory, even if it’s obvious that we are undertaking a generational commitment. What’s even more troubling is that policymakers delude not just the public but themselves–a point not emphasized enough in discussion of the Pentagon Papers. This was certainly true of Lyndon Johnson and his team, and it’s been true in more recent years as well. Imagine how differently we might have acted in Afghanistan in 2002 if we had realized we would still be there in 16 years rather than telling ourselves that we would be gone in six months. The U.S. public actually has shown greater willingness to tolerate long-term missions than policymakers and military officers give the public credit for. But those in positions of authority too often aren’t being honest with themselves about the need to focus on long-term political results, rather than settling for short-term tactical military success.