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.
“The Road Not Taken” is an impressive work, an epic and elegant biography based on voluminous archival sources. It belongs to a genre of books that takes a seemingly obscure hero and uses his story as a vehicle to capture a whole era…. Mr. Boot’s full-bodied biography does not ignore Lansdale’s failures and shortcomings—not least his difficult relations with his family—but it properly concentrates on his ideas and his attempts to apply them in Southeast Asia. … “The Road Not Taken” gives a vivid portrait of a remarkable man and intelligently challenges the lazy assumption that failed wars are destined to fail or that failure, if it comes, cannot be saved from the worst possible outcome.
–Robert D. Kaplan, The Wall Street Journal
“In this fine portrait of Edward Lansdale, Max Boot adds to his well-deserved reputation as being among the most insightful and productive of contemporary historians. This is a superb book. Diligently researched and gracefully written, it builds on a comprehensive analysis of Lansdale’s triumphs in the post–World War II Philippines to provide much new material, and expose old myths, about one of the most fascinating, and in many ways ultimately saddest, members of the supporting cast in the later war in Vietnam.”
–Lewis Sorley, National Review
“The Road Not Taken… is expansive and detailed, it is well written, and it sheds light on a good deal about U.S. covert activities in postwar Southeast Asia.”
–Louis Menand, The New Yorker
An Amazon Best Book of January 2018: “Boot’s research is deep and seemingly impeccable; the material is complex and dense, but it reads like a novel; and maybe most importantly, Boot—no liberal himself–refuses to bind himself with ideological constraints, opening nuanced pathways for reassessing this difficult history, especially in the context of current and looming conflicts.”
“Judicious and absorbing…Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal…What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare.”
–Fredrik Logevall, The New York Times Book Review
“In “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam,” Max Boot capably and readably tracks the fascinating but ultimately depressing trajectory of this shadowy figure, who, as a murky undercover operative and a literary and cinematic avatar, looms over or lurks behind some of the crucial moments in U.S. foreign policy in the decades following World War II, culminating in its greatest disaster…. Boot clearly admires Lansdale, both his idealism and his strategy, and believes, not unreasonably, that the United States and Vietnam might have been better off and that the death tolls from the war — than more than 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese — would have been far lower had Washington chosen his approach over McNamara’s, which relied on heavy firepower and advanced weaponry to produce the highest possible body count and kill ratio statistics. However, Boot judiciously refrains from contending that Lansdale’s route would have yielded a materially different outcome.
–James G. Hershberg, The Washington Post
“Deeply researched and evenhanded, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and 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 to a new level here with rigorous research and dogged investigation into little-known corners of Lansdale’s life…. The thrust of Boot’s argument is that the United States missed an opportunity for a less traumatic outcome in Vietnam, and 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 and for how it handles strategy today.”
–Carter Malkasian, Foreign Policy
“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
“Edward Lansdale is probably the greatest cold warrior that most Americans have never heard of. Max Boot has written a fascinating account of how this California college humorist, frat boy and advertising executive evolved into a counterinsurgency expert before the term was even coined…. Max Boot has become one of the master chroniclers of American counterinsurgency efforts, and his biography of Mr. Lansdale is a tribute to a guy who recognized the threat of insurgency in a post-World War II environment where most American leaders saw only brute force as a solution to any political-military problem…. This book should be read in Baghdad and Kabul, not only by Americans, but by local leaders.”
–Gary Anderson, Washington Times
“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.
A capacious biography…. The book is chock-full of operational information on Lansdale’s deeds, both quiet and ugly…. This book might work as a star vehicle for Tom Hanks or Matt Damon…. A useful addition to the literature on US foreign policy during the half century bracketed by the US occupation of the Philippines and the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq.
–John Reed, Financial Times
“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)
“An exceptionally well-written, captivating tale of one of the most distinctive characters in American Cold War history…. The Road Not Taken is highly recommended reading for historians of the Cold War and military leaders, Foreign Service officers, and intelligence personnel wrestling with America’s current challenges in the small wars of the 21st century, as well as general readers looking for an exhilarating story of a fascinating character in American history.”
–Peter Mansoor, Journal of American Greatness
“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
“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.”
“Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries. He also honestly situates Lansdale amid the racial prejudice of his colleagues, who close the Manila embassy coffee shop to Filipinos and cause his lover to fear for her acceptance in the United States. And this work is unlike any piece of military history I know in cataloging its protagonists’ sexual misdeeds…. The stories this volume tells about voluntary isolation and lack of knowledge, vision, or respect for anything outside U.S. security culture, in all its violent, self-reinforcing whiteness and maleness, have a terrible timelessness to them…. We are in his debt for writing a book about another time that challenges us to raise those questions in ours.”
–Heather Hurlburt, Washington Monthly
“[A] mammoth, landmark biography… that outshines by far anything ever written about the man Boot calls ‘a visionary,’ a ‘renowned counterinsurgency strategist,’ and an ‘idealist and realist both’…. Max Boot sheds new light on … the American war in Vietnam in The Road Not Taken.”
–Marc Leepson, Vietnam Veterans of America magazine
“‘The Road Not Taken’ is comprehensively researched and insightfully written – Boot is, as always, an extremely talented writer.”
–Christian Science Monitor
“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
“Preeminent military historian Max Boot’s forthcoming biography of counterinsurgency expert Edward Lansdale — a true forgotten man — is a compelling life story well told and one with a great impact on U.S. military strategy lasting to this day.”