Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
By Max Boot
In chronicling the adventurous life of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken definitively reframes our understanding of the Vietnam War
In this epic biography of Edward Lansdale (1908-1987), the man said to be the fictional model for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, bestselling historian Max Boot demonstrates how Lansdale pioneered a “hearts and mind” diplomacy, first in the Philippines, then in Vietnam. It was a visionary policy that, as Boot reveals, was ultimately crushed by America’s giant military bureaucracy, steered by elitist generals and blue-blood diplomats who favored troop build-ups and napalm bombs over winning the trust of the people. Through dozens of interviews and access to never-before-seen documents – including long-hidden love letters – Boot recasts this cautionary American story, tracing the bold rise and the crashing fall of the roguish “T.E. Lawrence of Asia”—from the battle of Dien Bien Phu to the humiliating American evacuation in 1975. Bringing a tragic complexity to this so-called “Ugly American,” Boot rescues Lansdale from historical ignominy and suggests that Vietnam could have been different had we only listened. With reverberations that continue to resonate in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Road Not Taken is a biography of profound historical consequence.
A Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a renowned military historian, Max Boot is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. The author of The Savage Wars of Peace and Invisible Armies, he lives in New York.
“A brilliant biography of the life – and a riveting description of the times – of Edward Lansdale, one of the most significant figures in post-WWII Philippines and then Vietnam. Just as Neil Sheehan did in “A Bright Shining Lie,” and David Halberstam did in “The Best and the Brightest,” Max Boot uses superb storytelling skills to cast new light on America’s agonizing involvement in Vietnam. “The Road Not Taken” not only tells Edward Lansdale’s story with novelistic verve but also situates it wonderfully in the context of his tumultuous experiences – and offers important lessons for the present day.”
–General David Petraeus (US Army, Ret.), former Director of the CIA and commander of the Surge in Iraq
“I couldn’t stop reading this engrossing biography of Edward Lansdale, a man who loved his country’s ideals and who secretly fought for them in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Washington, DC. Lansdale’s story is relevant today, because he was a key figure in the debate over how and how not to use military force to achieve American foreign policy aims. Through Lansdale’s efforts we got it right in the Philippines, but no one listened to him in Vietnam. He was forgotten by the time we moved into Afghanistan and Iraq. I fervently hope our policy makers read this book.”
–Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.
There are several outstanding books combined into one here. Boot, the author of Invisible Armies (2013) and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has provided the first thorough biography of Edward Lansdale (thought by some to be the model for the CIA agent in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American ). Secondarily, this is a superb history of the Vietnam conflict and includes fascinating military detail and a firm grasp of both American and Vietnamese politics. It also has a personal dimension, as Boot attempts to counter the accepted view of Lansdale as the first in a long line of American imperialists who pulled the U.S. into “the disorienting vortex of a grisly and seemingly interminable guerrilla war.” Boot argues, on the other hand, that if the military had paid more attention to Lansdale’s “hearts and minds” approach to Vietnam—a position he developed in the Philippines and before—we might well have escaped the quagmire long before we did. Boot’s expertise in counterinsurgency makes his arguments compelling, and his rich portrait of Lansdale as a creative if unpredictable maverick adds a new level of understanding not only to Lansdale himself, but also to the entire Vietnam era. This important book—substantially enhanced by excerpts from Lansdale’s own writing and augmented by outstanding maps—deserves to be read alongside Neil Sheehan’s award-winning A Bright Shining Lie (1988).
–Booklist (starred review)
“Max Boot, one of the premier military historians writing today, has created a fascinating portrait of Edward Lansdale, a maverick in the mold of T.E. Lawrence. But The Road Not Taken is much more than a biography, begging comparison with monumental narratives like Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. With superb clarity, Boot gives us a compelling look back on the Vietnam tragedy, showing that it was by no means the inevitable result of forces beyond the control of our political and military leaders. Reading this book, I was reminded of Edward Gibbons’ comment that history is little more than “the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind,” emphasis on follies.”
–Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War
“As one of the last few links to Lansdale, who was also one of his closest on-the-ground collaborators, I can attest that this biography of him is the best, most accurate, revealing and complete portrait yet produced. Even with all I knew, I learned a great deal more that was new which broadened my understanding of this extraordinary man. The very human way he helped the Filipino and Vietnamese people defend their inalienable rights is a shining model to be followed by current and future generations of Americans assigned abroad to assist fragile nations.”
–Rufus Phillips, author of Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned
“A remarkable piece of work, superbly researched and documented. In an ideal world, it would be required reading for all senior American diplomats being posted to underdeveloped nations. Having worked with Lansdale during an important period in his career, I particularly noted how Max Boot skillfully dissected his modus operandi.”
–Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Samuel V. Wilson, former director, Defense Intelligence Agency
“A probing, timely study of wrong turns in the American conduct of the Vietnam War…. Controversial in some of its conclusions, perhaps, as Lansdale’s arguments were in their day, and essential reading for students of military policy and the Vietnam conflict.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Boot outshines everything ever written about the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale (1908-1987), in this exhaustive, fact-filled and analytical biography….This is a detailed, warts-and-all examination of Lansdale’s complex professional and personal lives.”